At Catalyst we try things and they don't always work out. But when they do work sometimes they really work.

Once in a while life points you in a direction and gives you a choice. Resist it or go with the flow.

That’s what happened when Catalyst received a lot of applications to its second Development programme in December 2020.

They chose to go with the flow and set up a new programme for these applications.

The results of which have been amazing!

What it is

“The programme itself is focused around building capabilities and learning about digital service design, and also trying to encourage reuse, and rapid prototyping that's based on existing technology”- Catalyst Grant Manager . 

The Definition programme was a 10 week support and learning programme, run from February to April 2021 to help 55 charities reuse existing tech and prototype solutions to their users’ needs. We split them into seven groups, each one led by a digital partner. Partners chose their own delivery process and structure - enabling them to do what they do best.

The story

The applications: why Definition happened

Back in December 2020 we received 99 applications for 30 development grants. Grants that would give both the charity and a digital partner funding to run a 10 week development project to build a solution they had already researched and defined. 

However, only 18 applications turned out to be suitable for a development grant. Of the rest, 58 couldn’t make a case for a development grant, but perhaps could benefit from another type of support. This was unexpected and presented Catalyst’s funding team with a challenge: what do you do when you can’t allocate all your funding but applicants still have a need for support?

You pivot of course!

The big pivot: a new funding programme

So that’s what we did. We looked again at the applications and identified two reasons why they failed to make a case for development. Each one either:

  1. Didn’t define a clear, logical solution - they hadn’t prioritised what needed building or hadn’t evidenced why it needed building


  1. Proposed a solution that could be prototyped or delivered via existing tools or software. It wouldn’t need an agency to develop it. With support the charity could do it themselves.

Based on this we set up Definition: a new programme based on the support they actually needed:

  • Time to focus on defining a solution
  • Help with prioritisation
  • Help to think about consequences of a solution
  • Support to explore accessibility and safeguarding aspects of a particular solution
  • Guidance and input into testing existing software and solutions

Story: It was there the whole time!

WellChild first applied to the Discovery programme after their peer-to-peer support group for parents and carers of children with complex medical needs, The WellChild Family Tree, had grown rapidly during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Initially expecting to develop an app for their community, user research established that in fact the Facebook platform already being used was preferable, and instead identified some areas of improvement. Following the Discovery project WellChild were put into the ‘Definition Programme’ where, with the support of a Digital Partner they discovered other functions within Facebook that could be used to change their group type (from General to Parenting), giving them access to many more functions that were then utilised to provide new features that users requested during the discovery phase. This resulted in a significantly improved community for their users; with some minor adjustments and some valuable technical support, huge improvements have been made with limited technical requirements.

Extra benefits to working in groups

We also believed that applicants working on similar types of solutions could learn from each other. So we put them into groups based on this e.g. content design, elearning platforms, accessible remote communication. 

Then we asked seven agencies to mentor them, provide tech support and build their skills. 

The results were eye-poppingly amazing. By project end we saw a confidence in charities and a willingness to try things that weren't present before. 

We saw camaraderie in the groups and abundant peer support. 

They embraced agile ways of working and the use of collaborative tools. 

And we saw consistently high levels of reuse of existing tools and software, further justifying the decision to set up the programme. 

Let’s look at what participants had to say about the programme. They were asked by researchers from inFocus, Catalyst’s evaluation partner.

The impact

94% : Very high satisfaction

94% of 53 respondents expressed very high satisfaction with the process or their final prototype. They told inFocus that:

1. Solutions met objectives

Every project met their objectives - to prototype or create a solution that solves either a direct service delivery problem or an internal problem affecting service delivery. 

“Our solution is a solution for the long term. Being built in a system that is used throughout the organisation and being accessible through our users’ personal devices, it will continue to be relevant and accessible in years to come”  Charity participant.

2. Solutions exceeded expectations

The quality or value of their solutions went beyond their original expectations. Solutions were often more evolved, simpler, stronger or more usable than they expected.

3. Users had a positive experience

When tested their users liked and had a good experience of using their prototypes. This happened consistently and even when it didn’t it provided the feedback they needed to iterate and create one that worked better for the user.

Improved skills

Participants reported significant improvements in their skills. We asked them to rate both their skills and their organisations before and after. Then we charted rises in confidence across nine areas. 

The largest improvements happened across six of these areas. 

Sharing the love

Charities told us that interactions with their peers were largely positive. On average they rated it as 9/10. Most of all they valued:

  • Networking
  • Sharing the things they created
  • Learning together
  • Cross-pollination of ideas for their project

In some cases they became collaborative. Commenting on one of the groups she observed, the Catalyst Grant Manager noted that:

“The group worked very closely together. They gelled as a kind of peer community. They were working collaboratively in workshops, as opposed to building a community of peers. They were ‘eLearning together’.”

“There is loads of value from mixing them because they can learn from each other and also people see the art of the possible. It provides them with motivation from their peers” – Digital agency participant

Also, 98% rated their relationship with the digital agency running their group as positive. 53% rated theirs as excellent or almost excellent. 

Sharing the learning

Charities consistently shared what they were learning with people inside and outside their organisation. 87% shared inside and 83% shared outside.

“There was growth in sharing… assets they've shared… writing things up and publishing. I think that has been really helpful… they had a lot more stakeholder engagement internally. People within their organisations and colleagues and senior leaders had a better view of the work they were doing, which was really good”. - Catalyst Grant Manager

Increasing their digital maturity

We asked charities at both programme start and end how they rated their digital maturity. The stages are:

  • Stage 1: Curious about digital
  • Stage 2: Starting out
  • Stage 3: Advancing

By programme end 96% had progressed a stage to either the starting out or advancing stages.

“We began securely in Stage 2: starting out. At the end of the programme we are at Stage 3: advancing - embedding digital change, developing digital projects and having some in-house digital skills.” - Charity participant

“Yes we have moved up and digital is now better integrated into our way of working”. - Charity participant 

The future

What does this mean for funders and charities?

The Definition programme’s approach works. This is indisputable. Because of this it raises some interesting questions for others who might do similar in the future.

How might funders running digital programmes change their programmes to respond to the needs they see in applications - in real time? 

This might mean changing goals and objectives e.g. funding less or more, or changing the programme so that those needs get met. It could mean diverting funds in the middle of a programme into a sub-programme, like Catalyst did.

How might funders become better at discriminating between opportunities for charities to reuse existing tools and software, and those whose only option is to build a solution?

That way they could be more confident in what they fund and how. And charities would receive more cost-effective support. To do this funders need to understand the culture of reuse. 

How might funders come to value reuse as much or more than innovation?

‘Reuse’ is still a fairly new concept whereas innovation is something funders have sought ever since forever. But what if funding digital innovation is unhelpful? What if the less exciting idea of funding reuse is more effective, better value and less wasteful? What if what we should be funding is actually reuse, repurposing and innovative use of existing technology?

Digital agencies could run definition programmes for groups of charities.

All the Definition programme agencies have created amazing resources they could use to do this. They could charge a fee. Charities could ask funders for money to join these, or self-fund even. It might cost them £2000-5000. 

Here are a few links to resources created by the Definition support partners:

Reply  (User research + Prototyping) -

We Are Open (User research + Prototyping) -

Panda (Content Design) -

Erica Neve (eLearning) -

We Are Open folder of illustrations - if you would like to use any (cc-by-nd Bryan Mathers, We Are Open Co-op):

Our Catalyst network - what we do

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