Image headed 'What is Catalyst' with sets showing the initiative leads and core team

An update on the last few months of activity across Catalyst initiatives.

Renewed commitment to Catalyst’s work and mission 

2021 was a year of significant change and deep reflection for many organisations, including grantmakers. The shifts of the last two years have highlighted all the more clearly the sector’s need for quality digital support, infrastructure and networks. 

The following is a progress update we shared with Catalyst founding funders last month. We wanted to share it more widely to recognise the work and thinking contributed to Catalyst by over 20 core partners. You can read about the funders’ response and our next steps on Producer Siana’s blog.

What have we been up to?

Continuation of ongoing direct support to the sector through vital services and resources

The 2021 Charity Digital Skills Report found that, after including core digital costs in all grant applications, training for staff and volunteers in digital was the second most important change charities felt funders could make in terms of their digital funding (with training being the top request from small charities).

Catalyst partners have targeted training offers at emerging areas of need, as the sector reflects on and consolidates digital progress made during the pandemic and charities look to strengthen longer-term digital foundations: 

  • Third Sector Lab, in partnership with Zoe Amar, SCVO and Reach Volunteering, hosted a Digital Trustees matchmaking session to 134 nonprofits and hopeful trustees, following the Charity Digital Skills Report finding that 38% of charities think there is room for improvement in digital skills at board level and only 14% of organisations have a digital trustee. The event was packed out and there is another scheduled for February. One insight from the event was that many boards are resistant to recruiting a digital trustee, as they ‘already get digital’ - even if the charity staff often disagree!
  • SCVO and Third Sector Lab ran three DigiShift training calls for charities, receiving on average 100-200 registrations each month, on the topics of supporter experience, agile comms and a popular special guest appearance by Oliver Burkeman, time management author of 4,000 Weeks. Attendees reported that the peer-led Q&A with each speaker is one of the most valuable parts. Third Sector Lab ran three training sessions as part of The Curve, on website accessibility, digital service design and data, reaching ~42 organisations per session. The SCVO and Third Sector Lab teams are looking to consolidate and grow their core audience of returning attendees, as well as expanding their reach to new audiences. 
  • DataKind UK, in collaboration with partners and subject experts, ran three skills surgery Q&A sessions with charities as part of the Data Collective. These were on: mapping tools, data and the law, and moving to the cloud. There were 82 attendees across all three events, and they overwhelmingly agreed that the events had increased their knowledge of data use within the social sector, and their confidence in their own data use, noting it was ‘excellent for focusing the mind’ and ‘really useful to hear stories of real world experience’. One attendee said ‘It didn't increase my confidence. It highlighted that we are too confident where I work about these issues. But there is a lot of work to do to get that organisational culture right. So, very useful session. Thanks.’ All attendees of the mapping tools session committed to trying out at least one tool in their work.

Peer learning initiatives continued to provide opportunities for partners to meet and exchange insight:

  • CAST’s Coffee Connections had 291 charities and social enterprises receive peer matching emails. A recent piece of unsolicited feedback revealed a user had met with their first match several times already, ‘which has been great’.
  • The Catalyst Network Meetups ran three events totalling 26 participants from digital agencies, nonprofits and funders, exploring topics including organisations’ behind-the-scenes tech infrastructure, highlights from the Design Council’s Design for Planet event and an interactive end of year reflection and learning session (see Jamboard screenshot below). The next meetup on 23rd February will revisit the topic of digital maturity in social sector organisations, building on Nissa Ramsay’s 2020 Digital Journeys report.

We brokered expert digital support through key services:

  • Digital Candle, run by SIDE Labs and Platypus Digital, made 34 matches, connecting charities and volunteer digital experts on 1-hour calls. Feedback from a sample of 41 charities was that the experts they were matched with were knowledgeable, approachable, well prepared, understanding, and in some cases prepared to engage in follow up emails and calls. The Candle service has also attracted interest from other organisations looking to clone it, including the British Red Cross and CAST for the Deloitte Digital Connect programme.
  • SIDE Labs’ Dovetail directory of digital agencies that work with charities, now lists over 150 agencies, with 70-80 unique visits to the site each week. The website, built using nocode tool Webflow, has been cloned 75 times.

We grew our reach and deepened engagement with partner-generated content:

  • The Catalyst website attracted over 6,500 visitors (and over 22,000 page views) between 1st September and 31st December 2021. Six fortnightly newsletters delivered a digest of news and opportunities from the network to 5,320 subscribers. These six newsletters had an average open rate of 28.4% and an average click rate of 6.35%. According to Mailchimp, the open rate is around the same as peer average, but the click rate is higher (peer average is around 4.4%). The newsletter is often highlighted across social media as a useful charity / digital resource; an example from the time period in question is this tweet from Josie Fraser (Head of Digital Policy at National Lottery Heritage Fund), which describes it as ‘a must subscribe if your not-for-profit organisation is thinking about doing more with digital’.
  • We published 13 resource articles and nine news pieces from Catalyst contributors in this period. The top five resource pages accessed during this time (sorted by time on page) included Coding Black Females’ piece on emerging tech and an overview of no-code solutions and attracted more than 900 page views collectively, while the top five news articles, which included updates from the Agencies for Good community and Catalyst recruitment plans, attracted more than 1,500 page views collectively. Each one attracted an average read time of more than five minutes. 
  • Twitter activity between September and December attracted 200,500 impressions, 4,592 link clicks, 189 retweets and 578 likes (this includes promoted tweets for the Producer job roles). LinkedIn activity has attracted 6,615 impressions, 194 clicks and 131 reactions. 

Maintaining momentum and progress towards longer term plans; building on the prototypes created in the last year that support sector-wide technical and relational infrastructure

Building a culture of reuse takes time, but partners are making some good headway:

  • Third Sector Lab has been heading up the Open working and Reuse work, publishing a Trello board of their activities. They are working to track what is currently being reused and by whom across Catalyst.
  • CAST has been investigating users’ needs and behaviours around Service Recipes through a survey and user interviews, as well as exploring templating to improve the publishing flow, and implementing search to make discovery easier.
  • CAST created a prototype Reuse library to house the 750+ open assets created by charities and digital partners across Catalyst to date, underpinned by a taxonomy comparison of different charity classifications. Initial testing by Third Sector Lab was positive, and the next step is to test with charity users:

We’re refining our understanding of what ‘relational infrastructure’ means and how to do it well:

  • There has been exchange of learning between the Agencies for Good, Data Collective and Tech for Good Organisers’ communities of practice. Though each serves a different audience, they have all been able to share tips and ideas around relationship-building, community engagement and impact measurement. The Data Collective joined forces with the Tech for Good Organisers network around recruitment for their Network Coordinator/Community Manager roles, sharing and helping shape each others’ job descriptions and processes and eventually deciding to recruit a joint hire who can serve both networks.
  • The Tech for Good Organisers Network formalised its Theory of Change, data sharing policy and co-budget for the next year, which includes a small Community Grants fund to be collectively governed by members and distributed to local tech for good communities. Its members exchanged tactics for engaging with local infrastructure organisations and have hosted eight tech for good events in the last quarter, including joint events on hybrid working, online facilitation techniques and system-shifting design from the London-based communities, which reached over 120 people in total; two events on responsible tech in Manchester; and a community relaunch, a design sprints workshop, and a tech walk and talk in the South West.
  • The Data Collective has now become a core part of lead organisation DataKind’s 5-year strategy, ensuring its continued investment and growth, with its first dedicated staff member now fully funded for two years. The Collective have continued the work started last year on data about the sector. They have published a ‘hub and spoke’ model for delivery, and identified two spoke working groups bringing together collaborative leadership to improve data about the sector in two main areas: a) Place based infrastructure and b) Data Publishing, following the recommendations of the Data About The Sector report. The first spoke meeting on Data Publishing Standards went well, resulting in the creation of a list of related initiatives, and the group has agreed to meet for at least another four sessions in the New Year. 
  • The Agencies for Good community for digital partners now has ~150 active members each week (of its 380-person membership). 80 of those post each week, which is a high engagement rate for a Slack community. Its volunteer working group recruited two new members, and experimented with event formats, hosting a panel event on growth and values, a retro and a collaboration call, as well as an in-person meet-up - all of which were positively received by the community, attracting over 100 participants in total. 

We’re nurturing some emerging learning networks and regional partnerships:

  • Collectively we have convened and participated in a number of events with grantmakers, including a session on the potential for Open IP in grantmaking, and making the case for open working to a forum of Scottish funders, and the inaugural meeting of the London Community Action Response network, which has led to subsequent work building reuse and open IP into the London Funders recovery fund. We’ve learned from this that open license types really vary, and it requires slow exploration by individual funders. 
  • We have also been strengthening relationships and reciprocity with regional partners. In Wales, ongoing conversations and resource-sharing helped feed into the launch of Newid, a programme of digital support for the Third Sector in Wales, delivered by a consortium of organisations (ProMo-Cymru, WCVA, Wales Cooperative Centre and Welsh Government). It draws on the learning and model of Catalyst, as well as their own report into the needs of the third sector in Wales. 
  • In Northern Ireland, an early 2022 roundtable discussion convened by Community Foundation NI on the future of digital for Northern Ireland charities recognised the value of a Catalyst-inspired networked approach to serve the needs of organisations and communities in that region, and we’ll be exploring how this (and Newid) might best connect into the wider Catalyst network over the next few months. 

Transition of Catalyst towards a more equitable network-led model

A key element of this is distributing power and governance:

  • One of the things we’re experimenting with is how/when to encourage more decentralised, many-to-many interactions between people and initiatives across the Catalyst ecology, rather than with the current centre of power of the ‘core’ team/CAST. Over the last six months we have shifted to a more democratic model for organising the delivery of Catalyst’s direct support to civil society organisations: an ‘Initiative Leads’ circle. This allows a far greater diversity of people and voices to shape and govern Catalyst than was previously possible. The circle meets monthly and is made up of the people who run existing Catalyst services. It currently includes people from 10 different organisations, many of them sub-contracting to additional partners. Together their task is to: 
  1. Ensure continuation and development of core Catalyst services; 
  2. Hold and collectively manage budgets for the initiatives that contribute to this; and 
  3. Identify priorities for maintaining quality support and connections across Catalyst (including budget and other resource allocation).

This group also contains four sub-circles, reflecting Catalyst’s main pillars of work, which meet every 2-4 weeks:

  • Support and Training
  • Reuse Infrastructure
  • Collaborative Network
  • Core Support

The partners in this circle have fed into our longer-term funding bids and we’re currently recognising partners’ contributions and time by an offer of a £400-a-day participation fee (a coalition of partners have published this and other forms of fair remunerations/reciprocity exchange in a user participation guide). Circle members hold a shared responsibility to help widen the participation and further distribute power within the circle, e.g. proactively seeking opportunities to invite people from under-represented groups to join both the circle and initiative delivery teams. 

And, of course, our new Producer team:

  • In September, we launched a recruitment process to find two new people to join the Producer team at the heart of Catalyst. These roles will be central to helping steward the network’s work and ambition over the coming years. We worked with our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion partner, Collaborative Future, to ensure the recruitment was as open, inclusive and accessible as possible, and so that we could create a process and templates that would be easily reusable by other teams and organisations across Catalyst.
  • The result was 37 really strong applications from a broad range of backgrounds, sectors and regions, and the hiring of two incredible people, Siana Bangura and Jo Morfee, who will bring a wealth of valuable experiences, skills and perspectives to Catalyst. Collaborative Future commented that they were two of the most exciting hires they had ever helped an organisation make. The Producers will work with the network this year to determine what governance and organisational structure is best placed to help Catalyst achieve its collective vision.

Work across Catalyst has been strengthening more inclusive practices:

  • As well as the governance changes mentioned above, several initiatives are making concerted efforts to promote and broaden diversity and inclusion, and this will be a big focus of Zoe Amar’s Charity Digital Skills Report this year. 
  • For example, the Agencies for Good community advertised for a new working group member this month and of the two (successful) applicants, one was a Black woman. An inclusive working group makes cultivating an inclusive community easier, and while there is still a way to go to broaden the diversity of this and other spaces across Catalyst, this is a positive step. At the latest community meetup, 40% of attendees were Black women, and there was an important and needed conversation around the particular barriers Black women face when bidding for and delivering digital support to charities. These shifts are in no small way thanks to the presence and efforts of community manager-come-EDI lead, Shanice Blair, whose post is funded by Catalyst and who is ensuring that diversity and inclusion is a top priority for that community. The working group has also recently produced handy tips on inclusive job postings and application processes for digital support partners, to help shape good practice in the sector. Comments from members include: ‘I've joined a number of Slack groups over the last two years and this is by far the most active and, importantly, productive and that's very clearly down to your leadership so thank you!', ‘[Shanice] being around since the start to include me actively has been one of the main reasons this isn’t just another Slack group I'm inactive in! It really helping me settle + be active in this collective so thank you’ and ‘[Agencies for Good] set me on the right path, ended my isolation and reminded me how I love people and collaboration.
  • We learned a huge amount from our very different approach to Producer recruitment, which included using open role-based questions rather than CVs, recruiting an interview panel from the network who were then trained in inclusive recruitment, holding a mediated decision process to consider our biases and committing to shaping the roles around the right people so that a variety of needs could be met. We paid candidates for their time completing a task for the interview and paid the interview panel through a combination of financial and in-kind support, based on what was most valuable to them. 
  • The inclusive recruitment approach and templates have since been replicated for the Tech for Good Organisers network, where candidates fed back that the process was ‘a breath of fresh air in comparison to the usual 2 page CV/supporting statement’ and ‘extremely fair as you created a space for us to be judged as closely as possible for the totality of who we are… considerate, enjoyable, reflective and well structured.’

Wider learnings and insights

At the beginning of each Initiative Leads meeting, each person shares one new learning or insight. Here’s a selection of highlights:

Trends in digital support needs

  • Current demand among nonprofits seeking training has been for a mix of perennially-important topics like practical tools support, digital strategy, CRM and social media, combined with more recent trends such as how to maintain human connection and consistent quality through hybrid working and services, and how best to integrate multiple internal systems and data, many of which sprang up as ‘digital duct tape’ in response to the pandemic and now need attention so they can become longer-term digital infrastructure. 
  • There is also a need to help cascade new skills through and between organisations; training should include tips for disseminating digital know-how inclusively as part of standard service delivery and internal comms.
  • There is a desire across the network to ensure longer-term support for nonprofits’ digital growth, related to organisations’ consolidating and moving to a longer-term focus above. Many are looking for tools to help them invest well and skill up for the longer term. A related insight is that more digitally mature charities are facing a funding cliff-edge once they get to a certain level, e.g. having tested a nocode/off-the-shelf platform that then requires further development or scaling.

NoCode vs community-owned technology

  • We’ve had several interesting discussions in different forums about the balance of no-code/low-code, off-the-shelf tools, vs bespoke, open source, community-owned tech in the sector, and how to judge which is the appropriate model (factors include the phase of development, the hosting organisation’s digital maturity and their ability to maintain something bespoke). 
  • A few partners attended the Community Tech patchwork event in January, hosted by Power to Change, to feed into wider conversations about this.

Parallels for our culture of reuse and open working

  • In open science there has been a big transformation over the last decade towards open repositories of things like covid sequences, with scientists holding collaborative conversations on GitHub as a central, open platform. It’s now common to see 10-20 different institutions collaborate on a paper, when it used to be 2-3 - all get kudos, which leads to grants. 
  • This has been driven by funders mandating open publishing, and paying for automations and support to make it easy.

Collective outcomes

With the support of Catalyst’s Learning Partner, inFocus, all Initiative Leads are currently in the process of codesigning outcomes for each of the sub-circles. These stem from the outcomes and indicators of their own initiatives (e.g. this set from the Support and Training circle initiatives), which are all tracked in our bespoke reporting tool, Ochre, creating a novel bottom-up approach to iterating Catalyst’s overall Theory of Change. 

Although the process has taken longer than initially anticipated, most initiative leads have found it helpful to spend time deeply reflecting on their own outcomes and indicators with expert support. The next step will be identifying key metrics for each initiative, and finalising the overarching outcomes for each sub-circle, for example:

Funders and partnerships

Renewing and growing Catalyst’s funder ecology

We’re excited and grateful that Catalyst founding funders including City Bridge Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Paul Hamlyn Foundation have confirmed their commitment to support the next two-five years of Catalyst’s collective work. We shared the content of our funding proposals in our September update

Developing new funded digital support programmes

We have formed a partnership with Power to Change for the Powering Up pilot project to meet the digital needs of their community business grantees via Catalyst’s networks, resources and services. A small working group including Power to Change, Catalyst core team members, and network partners DOT PROJECT and Outlandish have been co-designing the pilot, which will run for the first half of this year. The learnings, captured through a series of weeknotes and an overview of our programme design process, will help shape a four-year programme of capacity-building support. 

We are also working with several other funders, including Sport England, the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) and Comic Relief, to explore how the network might provide a collaborative programme of support to their grantees in 2022. We look forward to sharing more about these soon!

The value of networked support

An important feature of this programmatic work is that it draws on and contributes to the existing resource- and knowledge-base that Catalyst has built over the first two years. 

For example, ensuring grantees on these programmes also benefit from, and help shape, its wrap-around ecosystem of services and communities of practice, e.g. reusing a piece of open, community-owned technology developed by a previous Catalyst contributor; reading the experiences and learnings of similar organisations through Service Recipes; accessing free training opportunities through The Curve and DigiShift to continue their personal development and then joining a community of practice to keep learning and pay it forward. 

This coordinated, ecosystemic approach is what makes Catalyst unique and helps add value to each of the actors within it. 

Sustainability and looking ahead

Each of these new pieces of programmatic work is giving us an opportunity to onboard new funders and communities into the Catalyst ecology, and to test how we might make opportunities visible to the network in a fair and equitable way. 

They also offer the promise of different sustainability models for Catalyst, for example the idea of a ‘tithe’ added to grants+support programmes delivered through Catalyst by coalitions of partners (e.g. grantmakers working with digital agencies). This would support the ongoing provision and development of Catalyst’s wrap-around ecosystem of services and resources, such as the Digital Candle expert advice service, skills training webinars from DigiShift and The Curve, codification of good practice through Service Recipes and digital support sessions for trustees.

What next…

Over the coming months the Initiative Leads circles will ensure Catalyst support and networks continue to extend, deepen and evolve, reaching and helping the two thirds of organisations that now see digital as a priority for their organisation, according to the Charity Digital Skills Report. They will support those planning to invest more this year in digital infrastructure and systems (67%) with sector-wide technical and relational infrastructure, increasing reuse and sharing, and reducing needless duplication.

Meanwhile, the Producer team will work with the network (including the Initiative Leads, founding funders and beyond) to thoroughly review Catalyst’s work to date, its place in the wider sector ecosystem and whether the current balance of attention and resource is focused on the right areas. Together we’ll codesign a renewed ambition, strategy and governance/operating structure to carry our collective efforts into the future. 

We look forward to you being part of it!

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale