Three's a charm: Catalyst's discovery programme shows how funders can help charities with digital

Published on
January 26, 2021
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Updates
Joe Roberson
Tom Keyte
A discovery programme could help your trust or foundation get started with funding digital - and the benefits for participating organisations can be transformative.

In October 2020 we ran a big digital learning programme for charities. Teaching them how to do user research and user-centred design. 

This was the Discovery Learning Programme (DLP). It helped 100 charities learn how to start a digital project. Nine digital agencies provided them with support. 

Replicable by any funder

The National Lottery funded the DLP. Last summer Comic Relief funded Explore, a similar programme. These types of programme are very replicable. They aren’t complicated to run. They are an easy way for more funders to start funding digital. Ask us to talk you through it

The DLP generated other benefits too. A triple helix of outcomes. 

Three big outcomes

Catalyst’s learning partner, InFocus, spent a lot of time talking to charities and agencies that took part. InFocus found the programme created three types of impact.

  • Educational: improving digital skills and understanding of problems to be solved
  • Strategic: improving charities' approach to ‘doing digital’
  • Non-digital: improving charities’ approach to non-digital work

This impact fits with one of Catalyst’s ambitions: to mobilise charities to redesign their services to better meet their users’ needs. In this case the user needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. Better design skills for charities

Charities need to learn digital service design skills. These skills help them make the right decisions about digital. They help them avoid investing in the wrong solutions or approaches. In the past this has happened too often. 

DLP participants learnt how to carry out user research. Then they learnt how to take an user-centred service design approach. This helped them explore problems from their users’ perspectives. It made them check they were addressing the right problems. Several charities explained how the programme helped them dig deeper into problem complexity.

“We became more aware that beneficiaries' needs and circumstances change. We didn’t really know what our beneficiaries are facing. So we worked continuously with users for the whole project.” - Participating charity

The digital agencies running the programme observed similar outcomes. They saw some charities change the focus of their ideas or switch to a different user group, because of the research.

“At the end they completely changed their target group based on research, and at the end they felt like ‘actually I'm much clearer on what people want and I feel more optimistic that I can deliver what they want’.” - Participating digital partner

2. Better strategic approach to digital

When a charity has a clear strategy their digital efforts deliver better outcomes. The DLP shone a light on their strategies and created a strong impact on charities’ overall approach to ‘doing digital’. This was particularly helpful for people working in small charities.

People on the course:

  • Gained a deeper understanding of their organisation’s strategy and its gaps (including when strategy was absent)

“It (the Discovery Learning programme) got our organisation thinking about how to work smarter and more digitally. We talked about it for years... and it gave us time and space to think about this now.” - Participating charity

  • Gained new and better ideas for what their organisation needed to do next with digital. For many this was to reuse existing tools and software to improve their operations.
  • Learned better how to explain design and digital approaches to their colleagues and management
  • Broadened their understanding of what is possible in the digital ‘landscape’
  • Better understood the commitment needed to take an effective approach to digital, and the benefits of making the effort

“The DLP made us realise that there is still so much more we need to know - a classic lifting-the-sticking-plaster-off situation” - Participating charity

3. Better approach to non-digital

This was a surprise. Charities on tech programmes have applied their digital learning to non-digital work before. However, we didn’t expect it to be the third biggest DLP impact. 

During and after the programme charities began using digital tools and design processes more. In the words of one partner the DLP became a ‘Trojan horse’ for introducing new impactful methods to an organisation.

“This programme has completely changed the way I look at my charity - how we design our services, how our internal processes and communication works and how we evaluate what we do. Also how we have made so many assumptions about what users want - sometimes wrong ones - we've never actually asked them.” Participating charity

Charities told us they had begun using knowledge boards and service blueprints more widely too. 

“I think when we are starting a new project (digital or non-digital), things like the service blueprint are such a useful way of mapping out the whole layout of the project and thinking about the different experiences of those involved.” - Participating charity

What charities did next

Some took their learning in-house and some shared it across their networks. Some applied to our Develop programme and others didn’t. Some will apply to Comic Relief’s Build programme. Some will self-fund their next stage, others will decide what to do after developing a strategy. 

They will all continue their digital journey. Many will be ready for next stage funding - from you or another. Learn more from some of the charities involved as they reflect on the programme in two new videos: here and here.

Could you run a discovery programme?

The evaluation also surfaced what didn’t work well and how the programme could be improved. Out of this learning we created a prototype guide to creating a better user experience when running digital funding programmes

If you’re a funder ask us to talk you through how to run your own DLP. 



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