The Interview Summary

How would you describe Catalyst in one sentence?

Jo: A community of interconnected humans and organisations who want to make the world a better place using technology as a medium.

Ellie: A network of people and organisations collectively shaping digital for the social sector.

Could you tell me a bit about yourself and your role within Catalyst?

  • I’ve been part of Catalyst from the beginning and part of the CAST team that initiated and has incubated the network for the last four years. 
  • Originally, I was running the Design Hops service, delivering workshops that were an Introduction to Digital Service Design for charities - super fun and great for building networks, connections and relationships. 
  • When the pandemic hit, I led the capacity standard work, identifying and bringing together partners, resources, tools, any kind of capacity that could support sector responses to the challenges of COVID and particularly taking services online. 
  • I helped to build a team to deliver an amazing pot of lottery funding, supporting charities and partners to develop digital products/services. This created incredible networks and relationships through Catalyst. Catalyst became a funder, distributing this money on behalf of the Lottery and centralising a lot of power and influence. When that fund wound up, I became a nominated person to build this new team to review Catalyst's vision, structure, and activities in response to post pandemic sector needs and then take that new entity, whatever is decided and designed through that process into the future. So that's where we're at now.
  • I was drawn to the role specification for the producer, put out in late 2021. What stood out for me at that time was the huge ambition inherent in the work and the approach to tackling some of humanity's most pressing problems collectively as opposed to just working within one part of the picture. 
  • The role of the producer is massively varied. We're constantly context switching, adapting, problem solving. At the moment, the role is mostly one of weaving and connecting up dots really within the network, facilitating and holding spaces for people, enabling good work to happen as much as we can. It's also about putting our own influence to good use. Being aware of that you can never fully eliminate power but trying to utilise that for good. 
  • We’re working on our core. You'll have seen our tree model, and the producers sit within the trunk of that tree. But we're working really hard to devolve and decentralise some of the power that was centred throughout the crisis response period particularly and trying to shift more accountability to the community in the network. The core is a work in progress, which involves a lot of work on roles, structures, systems, processes, methodologies, such as sociocracy, trying to enable more equity generally across the whole network - there's loads to be learned. And it's often quite messy, because it involves a lot of unlearning as well in terms of working in a hierarchy. 
  • We have five core values. We're continually working on embedding those into the work operationally. The overarching value to mention is love, which often doesn't get associated within a work context, but actually, it feels quite fundamental. The others include equity, collectivism, reciprocity, and curiosity. 

Could you tell me more about what makes Catalyst unique in your opinion?

  • Catalyst relies on the fact that there's already this very rich and ever evolving ecosystem of support. Catalyst is a bit more unusual in its effort to join those dots, this is some of our role as producers, but it's really the work of the whole network to mobilise a collective response around this core question of how we do digital in the social sector.
  • Our approach is not one of centralised leadership, it’s thinking much more about what equitable network lead models look like. Our hope is that it enables a much wider range of people and groups to drive, shape and govern Catalyst. We're not unique in being a network. But I think some of that grand ambition of driving sector level field level change is what makes us quite unique. 
  • We’ve been experimenting with achieving that through sociocratic governance over the last year with our closest partners. So rather than being decided somewhere else, and then that group implementing them, it's the people who are closest to the challenges and closest to the actual work itself, making decisions about how that money is spent, and where the strategic focus is. It’s been a rich source of learning and unlearning previous societal conditioning and personal experiences. 
  • We try to be open and honest when we don't get it right so that we can all notice, learn and improve. We focus much more time, energy, and effort on how or what we do rather than traditional focus on outputs. I think we're all part of this collective process to build these new muscles, mindsets, behaviours that are needed to navigate some of these massive societal shifts in new technologies, new ways of working, new ways of thinking about what it means to be human in the world today, new opportunities for creating more justice, more equity, stronger collaborations. Catalyst is a zone where we can figure out and practice all that stuff together, which is super exciting!

Since your involvement in Catalyst, what would you say have been the main achievements today?

  • Pre-Pandemic: Developed great strategies for collective learning and for insight to be gathered and shared through the network. 
  • During Pandemic: Mobilised hundreds of different people from organisations to run services, programmes, peer communities that were supporting the sector response, many of which are still very much central to Catalyst's delivery at the moment; hundreds of thousands of views of Catalyst free resources relating to delivering services online (blogs, toolkits, email courses etc.). These remain available and are being accessed, meaning wider reach and impact; and hundreds of grants and service contracts provided with our delegated lottery fund. This vastly accelerated the organisation's development and confidence in digital.
  • Post pandemic: Learnings around how to function as a values led, relational, equitable network and co-evolving that with the network at systems and individual group levels, thinking about equalising power, access, and contribution. Examples in practice are having a culture role within our meetings (a nominated person to monitor the meeting vibe and whether some people need support to participate, making sure stuff is addressed as it happens), inclusion consultants, creating additional spaces to promote safety, voice, validation and processing differences and disagreements. We’ve seen a big shift in the sectoral culture of open working.
  • Working out how the fast-evolving fields of digital data design intersect with cultural transformation. And that's the ongoing inquiry of the network. 
  • We've got around 750 assets that were shared by charities and the pandemic response, which are open and usable by anybody. We've got Medium full of published blog, week notes, and blogs, by loads of different organisations. We're working to make that stuff more accessible. Different Catalyst partners are leading on different initiatives, some focused on funders, and ensuring funders can bring open IP clauses into the heart of their grant agreements that enables more of this stuff to become default in behaviour across the sector, others working on how do other organisations use all of this rich, open material that's become available.

What do you think members of the circles would describe as the main achievements?

  • It varies with each individual and initiative.
  • Some impressive quantitative data on impact but I hope a lot of the initiative leads would have noticed the cultural shift and the values that we've been trying to embed, and different ways of working. One initiative lead said recently that a year ago, if someone had asked him what Catalyst was about, he would have said, advancing technology in the social sector. If they asked him what it was about now, he would say working in a values led way, and collaborating and that it was mostly about relationships in order to achieve our objectives.

What's next for Catalyst? 

  • Following the period of Covid crisis response, there is now a period for strategic review.
  • We’re working with Lauren Coleman from Noisy Cricket social impact organisation. Within that project, we're planning to have co-created a new governance model and a vision and a strategy for Catalyst by summer this year 2023. There will then be a network consultation before moving into the next delivery phase depending on what emerges in the latter half of this year following that consultation. We'll be consulting every step of the way, co-designing new projects and initiatives to meet the emerging needs. There's lots at play at the moment, many moving parts and lots of research and inputs coming in to help us co-design this next step.
  • Finally, we intend to continue to centre our values, inclusion, participatory approaches within the new model.