Catalyst producers chat with an activity lead. At their background, a board of ideas using post-its

CAST incubated Catalyst for five years, now it's independent. Collaborative review led to Catalyst becoming a Community Interest Company (CIC), with a new vision and mission.

Following a successful five-year incubation period by CAST, Catalyst is now an independent organisation. After a comprehensive review in collaboration with the network, Catalyst has become a Community Interest Company (CIC), with a renewed vision, mission and model - access a full Q&A for this transition. Below are some highlights from the journey we’ve shared - and a look at what the future holds. This article has been co-authored by CAST’s communications team and the Catalyst Producers. 

As ever, we’d love to hear from you: if you have any questions or would like to share your own reflections, please get in touch via hello@thecatalyst.org.uk 

How it started…

In 2019, against the backdrop of a rapidly advancing digital landscape, Catalyst was set up ‘for all that want to see a social purpose at the heart of the digital revolution’. Incubated by CAST and funded by private and public foundations, Catalyst was founded with the intention of ‘supporting charitable organisations to respond to changing needs, behaviours and expectations, using digital, design and data to create a thriving, stronger social sector.’  

Initially, it focused on building collaborative networks, improving digital practice, and identifying tools and services to support the sector’s digital capabilities. During this experimental phase, it spent time identifying and reaching out to like-minded individuals and organisations, in order to connect up more of the network.

CAST’s Director Dan Sutch at the official launch

This proactive approach also led directly to a number of prototype services which went on to become a core part of the Catalyst offering - such as Dovetail, Digital Candle and Design Hops. The Catalyst network was growing at pace, and the path ahead was emerging - until, in March 2020, the pandemic hit. 

Most social sector organisations needed to urgently shift focus - and Catalyst was well placed to support. One of the core pillars of Catalyst’s mission was to motivate charities to explore and embrace digital. Suddenly, however, there was no longer any choice in this matter, and organisations had to rapidly pivot to a digital-first delivery mode. 

In the early weeks of the pandemic, organisational boundaries were dissolved between core Catalyst partners (including CAST, Shift and DOT PROJECT), as people pulled together to mobilise a coordinated network response. The result included a series of remote working guides, a programme called Catalyst Digital Teams to help charities respond to the challenges of the pandemic, and partnerships with Nesta and London Funders to match their grantees with suitable digital support. 

Looking back at this time, Catalyst Producer Ellie Hale reflects: 

“Despite the intense challenges and pressures on the sector, (or perhaps because of it), the early pandemic was an incredible period of experimentation, creativity and mutuality. We saw charities embracing new opportunities for remote service delivery, communication and collaboration, while digital partners put competition aside and pooled their resources and expertise, creating a Slack workspace to connect and share around the common needs emerging (which has since developed into Agencies for Good). Some of this was thanks to the groundwork Catalyst had laid in its initial months, helping build networks and connections that could then spring into action. But the urgency of the moment brought people together far beyond the original reaches of Catalyst too. Several new volunteer matching platforms sprang up overnight from people eager to support the sector, and we tried to map these platforms as they developed but it was hard to keep up! 

“The adrenaline fuelled many long nights, rapidly-built relationships and a huge, sudden expansion of sector innovation examples - some of which survived and thrived, while others fell by the wayside - such is the nature of innovation. The crisis irrefutably demonstrated the value of lean, agile and design-led ways of working. It gave organisations a chance to rapidly learn by doing, and an imperative to document and share knowledge openly through resources like the DigiSafe digital safeguarding guide, which continue to support best practice today.”

First gathering of Catalyst

Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response

As the pandemic unfolded further, The National Lottery Community Fund set up an innovative grantmaking model, working alongside expert partners to ensure that almost £45 million of National Lottery funding reached those communities most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. 

As part of this, almost £5 million was put into a brand new fund: Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response, a Catalyst network response underpinned by a core delivery team and fiscal hosting from CAST. The fund - which launched in August 2020 - aimed to help voluntary sector organisations across England continue to deliver vital services to people and communities affected by COVID-19, with a focus on marginalised communities and vulnerable groups hit hardest by the pandemic.

Starting with just two available programmes, the fund grew to encompass a further five, all designed to support those facing challenges as a result of the pandemic. At every stage, the Catalyst network strived to maximise reuse and encourage open working, in order to deliver benefit to as much of the sector as possible. Interventions included the development of the open working toolkit, the creation of a library of open working assets and the staging of an online Festival of Learning, enabling charities to share assets and insights. 

Over the space of just over 12 months, the fund awarded more than 220 grants to around 160 charities, supported by over 60 partners - with funded charities collectively supporting more than 20 million people. Two thirds of respondents to a 2023 survey of programme participants stated that their digital products and services were still running, with more than half reporting they wouldn’t have existed without the dedicated crisis response funding. Over 600 digital assets were made available to the wider network by participating charities - and 91% of those that responded to programme surveys stated that they had shared learnings across their networks. 

Key outcomes from the National Lottery Community Fund work

As CAST’s Director Dan Sutch recalls: 

“The intensity of this work to provide immediate support also meant that some longer-term ambitions of Catalyst were delayed and deprioritised - including a focus on more transformational narratives and foresight work, and the desire to be truly collective in its operation. The focus on capacity building activities (working within existing structures and paradigms and improving the ability, capacity and capabilities of civil society organisations to use digital, data and design towards collective social objectives), over field catalyst activities (bringing about a reorganisation of how we might address social challenges, through the use of digital, data and design) was essential for that moment in time. But the ambition of Catalyst had always been to find a balanced approach between the two; one that could both build capacity and demonstrate new ways of organising.”

So much of Catalyst’s mission was accelerated during the pandemic. A huge amount of quality support was delivered, at pace, creating impressive and lasting impact. At the same time, the period amplified challenges - in particular the desire for Catalyst to be network-led, which was more difficult whilst incubated within CAST, which was itself part of the network. 

Delivering deep sector-wide support…and sowing the seeds of transition

As the sector began to emerge from the urgency of critical pandemic responses, Catalyst needed to take stock. The sector, its needs and Catalyst’s role in it, had evolved. Research from Catalyst’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion partner, Collaborative Future, also highlighted three challenges in particular for the network: 1. For many, Catalyst was synonymous with CAST; 2. Catalyst still needed to find a way to work in genuine partnership, and 3. There was a need for more diverse and equitable representation across Catalyst.

Core partners from CAST, Shift and DOT PROJECT (and later Collaborative Future), who were collectively stewarding Catalyst, made the decision to move into a transition phase. They set in motion a plan to establish a new dedicated Catalyst team, which would review Catalyst’s work and impact to date, and identify a refreshed vision, mission and set of activities to take it into the future. 

Ellie Hale explains: 

“I was appointed the inaugural Producer of the new Catalyst team at the beginning of 2021. We made the strategic decision to continue delivering core services (‘initiatives’) while simultaneously recruiting new team members to lead this review, as we didn’t want digital support infrastructure that the sector had come to rely on to suddenly end. This meant the review took longer to complete, but it also opened up opportunities to try new ways of working with dedicated network partners as we went along.

“Over the last three years, our 20 core partner-led initiatives have each continued to develop and iterate, in particular exploring how best to embed equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) considerations at their heart. Collectively, they became a test-bed for new experiments in network governance and collaboration, which have helped build our partnership muscles of collectivism and equity.”

From the end of the pandemic until very recently, Catalyst has existed as an ecology of interconnected support initiatives, networks and community spaces, research projects, learning infrastructures and digital commons, each working to transform the sector’s approach to digital, and to supporting communities. This has included more than 30 activities, delivered by over 90 dedicated core partners.

From roots to shoots: how the transition took shape

Following the recruitment of a new core Producer team in November 2021 and a review of activity to date, the Producers began experimenting with decentralised forms of governance with key delivery partners, organised into sociocratic circles. In 2022, a dedicated Steering Group was recruited, and research commissioned to look at Catalyst’s governance, strategy, existing activities’ impact, emerging technologies, and the question of ‘what needs catalysing now?’

The results of this research, along with reflections and input from Producers and others across the network formed the basis of a nine-month strategic review held collectively by the Steering Group and stewarded by Producer Jo Morfee, which concluded that Catalyst should become a separate legal entity as part of creating better conditions for the work to flourish. It also proposed a renewed purpose, model and vision. 

In 2023, the Catalyst Producers presented a business case to the CAST board, who approved the plan to establish Catalyst as a Community Interest Company (CIC) with a refreshed vision of: ‘Shaping liberatory technology for just and regenerative futures.” 

During this time, operations specialist Megan Gray was recruited onto the Producer team, and support partners from Outlandish and Held Collective were brought in to support collective governance and EDI in the Initiative Lead circles. Engagement about the transition with the wider network continued, including Initiative Leads and funders. We are very grateful to our core funders for supporting this review and transition from the outset. 

What the future holds

As of April 2024, the Catalyst network will be supported by a Community Interest Company (CIC), limited by guarantee. The network will be guided by a renewed vision and mission.

The ambition is to continue with the different experimental approaches to governance, and the CIC will be the legal structure for this. Producer Jo Morfee explains: 

“Whilst some of the ‘hard’ elements of governance are coded into this form - for instance the requirement to have Executive Directors, and activities we can / cannot undertake as a community interest company, we are exploring innovating in many of the ‘soft’ elements of governance. Particularly in cultural aspects, sharing power, how we make decisions and how we approach organising as a network.”

Catalyst will strive to collectively learn and grow an understanding of what ‘liberatory tech’ looks like in practice, and how the sector might centre the needs of communities in digital decision-making, through building collective power (the refreshed mission).

In terms of specific initiatives, Catalyst will continue to directly support the Charity Digital Skills Report, Digital Candle, Evaluation of Digital Products and Services, Catalyst Resources (as part of the core Comms function) - and, for six months only (whilst a review is completed) the Tech for Good Organisers Network

In addition, Catalyst will provide contributions, but not core service funding, for eight new radical Shared Digital Guides, and a discovery research project to learn more about EDI approaches among Agencies for Good’s community.

Catalyst has provided some ‘next steps’ funding for those initiatives which are no longer continuing. This covers a period of up to six months to ensure that leads have time to plan, with support, and that learning will be captured for the benefit of the network. CAST will continue to support the Digital Leads Network, Design Hops and Coffee Connections initiatives, as the continuing lead delivery organisation. CAST is also set to further develop Shared Digital Guides, and is in conversations about supporting Digital Candle, Digital Trustees, The Curve, Dovetail and Agencies for Good

CAST and Catalyst will continue to work together on the Open IP for Funders initiative, which works with funders to create the conditions to promote and encourage community and sector-owned technologies that are developed, used and reused across civil society. 

For more information on these and other strands of work, please see the CAST and Catalyst websites.

If you have any questions about any of the initiatives, please contact hello@thecatalyst.org.uk. For information on data use, please see the Data and newsletter section of the transition Q&A.

In conclusion

From the minute Catalyst came into existence, this moment of transition was always inevitable, as Catalyst was always intended to be a network-led collective. As David Ainsworth noted a year on from launch: “We began life as an experiment – a time-limited entity, designed to see what the nature of the need was”. The reality was that the need - and indeed the shape of the sector, the supporting infrastructure and the world at large - changed beyond anything that could have been predicted back in 2019, and so CAST and Catalyst have changed and pivoted and adapted accordingly, to provide support where and when it was most needed. 

CAST’s incubation has enabled Catalyst to learn and explore what the theory of network-led support and advocacy means in practice, whilst being supported by an established, trusted organisation. Take a look at a snapshot of what Catalyst is thinking about at the moment in this blog.

CAST will remain an integral part of the Catalyst network. Since we have built up strong bonds as colleagues over the past five years, we hope that we will continue to collaborate over the coming months and years.

Catalyst’s new approach and activities will emerge over the coming months - and as Linda Humphries, Founder of Paper Frogs and a member of Catalyst’s Steering Group commented during the March 2024 celebration event: “From reaching out and working with community groups, and at the other end of the scale with the funders, and bringing those things together, it just feels like there’s such a possibility for magic to happen - and I’ve no idea what that will be, but I’m really excited about what will happen.”

Check out the graphic timeline of the Catalyst Story

Following a successful five-year incubation period by CAST, Catalyst is now an independent organisation. After a comprehensive review in collaboration with the network, Catalyst has become a Community Interest Company (CIC), with a renewed vision, mission and model - access a full Q&A for this transition. Below are some highlights from the journey we’ve shared - and a look at what the future holds. This article has been co-authored by CAST’s communications team and the Catalyst Producers. 

As ever, we’d love to hear from you: if you have any questions or would like to share your own reflections, please get in touch via hello@thecatalyst.org.uk 

How it started…

In 2019, against the backdrop of a rapidly advancing digital landscape, Catalyst was set up ‘for all that want to see a social purpose at the heart of the digital revolution’. Incubated by CAST and funded by private and public foundations, Catalyst was founded with the intention of ‘supporting charitable organisations to respond to changing needs, behaviours and expectations, using digital, design and data to create a thriving, stronger social sector.’  

Initially, it focused on building collaborative networks, improving digital practice, and identifying tools and services to support the sector’s digital capabilities. During this experimental phase, it spent time identifying and reaching out to like-minded individuals and organisations, in order to connect up more of the network.

CAST’s Director Dan Sutch at the official launch

This proactive approach also led directly to a number of prototype services which went on to become a core part of the Catalyst offering - such as Dovetail, Digital Candle and Design Hops. The Catalyst network was growing at pace, and the path ahead was emerging - until, in March 2020, the pandemic hit. 

Most social sector organisations needed to urgently shift focus - and Catalyst was well placed to support. One of the core pillars of Catalyst’s mission was to motivate charities to explore and embrace digital. Suddenly, however, there was no longer any choice in this matter, and organisations had to rapidly pivot to a digital-first delivery mode. 

In the early weeks of the pandemic, organisational boundaries were dissolved between core Catalyst partners (including CAST, Shift and DOT PROJECT), as people pulled together to mobilise a coordinated network response. The result included a series of remote working guides, a programme called Catalyst Digital Teams to help charities respond to the challenges of the pandemic, and partnerships with Nesta and London Funders to match their grantees with suitable digital support. 

Looking back at this time, Catalyst Producer Ellie Hale reflects: 

“Despite the intense challenges and pressures on the sector, (or perhaps because of it), the early pandemic was an incredible period of experimentation, creativity and mutuality. We saw charities embracing new opportunities for remote service delivery, communication and collaboration, while digital partners put competition aside and pooled their resources and expertise, creating a Slack workspace to connect and share around the common needs emerging (which has since developed into Agencies for Good). Some of this was thanks to the groundwork Catalyst had laid in its initial months, helping build networks and connections that could then spring into action. But the urgency of the moment brought people together far beyond the original reaches of Catalyst too. Several new volunteer matching platforms sprang up overnight from people eager to support the sector, and we tried to map these platforms as they developed but it was hard to keep up! 

“The adrenaline fuelled many long nights, rapidly-built relationships and a huge, sudden expansion of sector innovation examples - some of which survived and thrived, while others fell by the wayside - such is the nature of innovation. The crisis irrefutably demonstrated the value of lean, agile and design-led ways of working. It gave organisations a chance to rapidly learn by doing, and an imperative to document and share knowledge openly through resources like the DigiSafe digital safeguarding guide, which continue to support best practice today.”

First gathering of Catalyst

Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response

As the pandemic unfolded further, The National Lottery Community Fund set up an innovative grantmaking model, working alongside expert partners to ensure that almost £45 million of National Lottery funding reached those communities most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19. 

As part of this, almost £5 million was put into a brand new fund: Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response, a Catalyst network response underpinned by a core delivery team and fiscal hosting from CAST. The fund - which launched in August 2020 - aimed to help voluntary sector organisations across England continue to deliver vital services to people and communities affected by COVID-19, with a focus on marginalised communities and vulnerable groups hit hardest by the pandemic.

Starting with just two available programmes, the fund grew to encompass a further five, all designed to support those facing challenges as a result of the pandemic. At every stage, the Catalyst network strived to maximise reuse and encourage open working, in order to deliver benefit to as much of the sector as possible. Interventions included the development of the open working toolkit, the creation of a library of open working assets and the staging of an online Festival of Learning, enabling charities to share assets and insights. 

Over the space of just over 12 months, the fund awarded more than 220 grants to around 160 charities, supported by over 60 partners - with funded charities collectively supporting more than 20 million people. Two thirds of respondents to a 2023 survey of programme participants stated that their digital products and services were still running, with more than half reporting they wouldn’t have existed without the dedicated crisis response funding. Over 600 digital assets were made available to the wider network by participating charities - and 91% of those that responded to programme surveys stated that they had shared learnings across their networks. 

Key outcomes from the National Lottery Community Fund work

As CAST’s Director Dan Sutch recalls: 

“The intensity of this work to provide immediate support also meant that some longer-term ambitions of Catalyst were delayed and deprioritised - including a focus on more transformational narratives and foresight work, and the desire to be truly collective in its operation. The focus on capacity building activities (working within existing structures and paradigms and improving the ability, capacity and capabilities of civil society organisations to use digital, data and design towards collective social objectives), over field catalyst activities (bringing about a reorganisation of how we might address social challenges, through the use of digital, data and design) was essential for that moment in time. But the ambition of Catalyst had always been to find a balanced approach between the two; one that could both build capacity and demonstrate new ways of organising.”

So much of Catalyst’s mission was accelerated during the pandemic. A huge amount of quality support was delivered, at pace, creating impressive and lasting impact. At the same time, the period amplified challenges - in particular the desire for Catalyst to be network-led, which was more difficult whilst incubated within CAST, which was itself part of the network. 

Delivering deep sector-wide support…and sowing the seeds of transition

As the sector began to emerge from the urgency of critical pandemic responses, Catalyst needed to take stock. The sector, its needs and Catalyst’s role in it, had evolved. Research from Catalyst’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion partner, Collaborative Future, also highlighted three challenges in particular for the network: 1. For many, Catalyst was synonymous with CAST; 2. Catalyst still needed to find a way to work in genuine partnership, and 3. There was a need for more diverse and equitable representation across Catalyst.

Core partners from CAST, Shift and DOT PROJECT (and later Collaborative Future), who were collectively stewarding Catalyst, made the decision to move into a transition phase. They set in motion a plan to establish a new dedicated Catalyst team, which would review Catalyst’s work and impact to date, and identify a refreshed vision, mission and set of activities to take it into the future. 

Ellie Hale explains: 

“I was appointed the inaugural Producer of the new Catalyst team at the beginning of 2021. We made the strategic decision to continue delivering core services (‘initiatives’) while simultaneously recruiting new team members to lead this review, as we didn’t want digital support infrastructure that the sector had come to rely on to suddenly end. This meant the review took longer to complete, but it also opened up opportunities to try new ways of working with dedicated network partners as we went along.

“Over the last three years, our 20 core partner-led initiatives have each continued to develop and iterate, in particular exploring how best to embed equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) considerations at their heart. Collectively, they became a test-bed for new experiments in network governance and collaboration, which have helped build our partnership muscles of collectivism and equity.”

From the end of the pandemic until very recently, Catalyst has existed as an ecology of interconnected support initiatives, networks and community spaces, research projects, learning infrastructures and digital commons, each working to transform the sector’s approach to digital, and to supporting communities. This has included more than 30 activities, delivered by over 90 dedicated core partners.

From roots to shoots: how the transition took shape

Following the recruitment of a new core Producer team in November 2021 and a review of activity to date, the Producers began experimenting with decentralised forms of governance with key delivery partners, organised into sociocratic circles. In 2022, a dedicated Steering Group was recruited, and research commissioned to look at Catalyst’s governance, strategy, existing activities’ impact, emerging technologies, and the question of ‘what needs catalysing now?’

The results of this research, along with reflections and input from Producers and others across the network formed the basis of a nine-month strategic review held collectively by the Steering Group and stewarded by Producer Jo Morfee, which concluded that Catalyst should become a separate legal entity as part of creating better conditions for the work to flourish. It also proposed a renewed purpose, model and vision. 

In 2023, the Catalyst Producers presented a business case to the CAST board, who approved the plan to establish Catalyst as a Community Interest Company (CIC) with a refreshed vision of: ‘Shaping liberatory technology for just and regenerative futures.” 

During this time, operations specialist Megan Gray was recruited onto the Producer team, and support partners from Outlandish and Held Collective were brought in to support collective governance and EDI in the Initiative Lead circles. Engagement about the transition with the wider network continued, including Initiative Leads and funders. We are very grateful to our core funders for supporting this review and transition from the outset. 

What the future holds

As of April 2024, the Catalyst network will be supported by a Community Interest Company (CIC), limited by guarantee. The network will be guided by a renewed vision and mission.

The ambition is to continue with the different experimental approaches to governance, and the CIC will be the legal structure for this. Producer Jo Morfee explains: 

“Whilst some of the ‘hard’ elements of governance are coded into this form - for instance the requirement to have Executive Directors, and activities we can / cannot undertake as a community interest company, we are exploring innovating in many of the ‘soft’ elements of governance. Particularly in cultural aspects, sharing power, how we make decisions and how we approach organising as a network.”

Catalyst will strive to collectively learn and grow an understanding of what ‘liberatory tech’ looks like in practice, and how the sector might centre the needs of communities in digital decision-making, through building collective power (the refreshed mission).

In terms of specific initiatives, Catalyst will continue to directly support the Charity Digital Skills Report, Digital Candle, Evaluation of Digital Products and Services, Catalyst Resources (as part of the core Comms function) - and, for six months only (whilst a review is completed) the Tech for Good Organisers Network

In addition, Catalyst will provide contributions, but not core service funding, for eight new radical Shared Digital Guides, and a discovery research project to learn more about EDI approaches among Agencies for Good’s community.

Catalyst has provided some ‘next steps’ funding for those initiatives which are no longer continuing. This covers a period of up to six months to ensure that leads have time to plan, with support, and that learning will be captured for the benefit of the network. CAST will continue to support the Digital Leads Network, Design Hops and Coffee Connections initiatives, as the continuing lead delivery organisation. CAST is also set to further develop Shared Digital Guides, and is in conversations about supporting Digital Candle, Digital Trustees, The Curve, Dovetail and Agencies for Good

CAST and Catalyst will continue to work together on the Open IP for Funders initiative, which works with funders to create the conditions to promote and encourage community and sector-owned technologies that are developed, used and reused across civil society. 

For more information on these and other strands of work, please see the CAST and Catalyst websites.

If you have any questions about any of the initiatives, please contact hello@thecatalyst.org.uk. For information on data use, please see the Data and newsletter section of the transition Q&A.

In conclusion

From the minute Catalyst came into existence, this moment of transition was always inevitable, as Catalyst was always intended to be a network-led collective. As David Ainsworth noted a year on from launch: “We began life as an experiment – a time-limited entity, designed to see what the nature of the need was”. The reality was that the need - and indeed the shape of the sector, the supporting infrastructure and the world at large - changed beyond anything that could have been predicted back in 2019, and so CAST and Catalyst have changed and pivoted and adapted accordingly, to provide support where and when it was most needed. 

CAST’s incubation has enabled Catalyst to learn and explore what the theory of network-led support and advocacy means in practice, whilst being supported by an established, trusted organisation. Take a look at a snapshot of what Catalyst is thinking about at the moment in this blog.

CAST will remain an integral part of the Catalyst network. Since we have built up strong bonds as colleagues over the past five years, we hope that we will continue to collaborate over the coming months and years.

Catalyst’s new approach and activities will emerge over the coming months - and as Linda Humphries, Founder of Paper Frogs and a member of Catalyst’s Steering Group commented during the March 2024 celebration event: “From reaching out and working with community groups, and at the other end of the scale with the funders, and bringing those things together, it just feels like there’s such a possibility for magic to happen - and I’ve no idea what that will be, but I’m really excited about what will happen.”

Check out the graphic timeline of the Catalyst Story

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