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Reflections on our recent Funders' Forum

Funders are, understandably, busy people. So it’s not often you have the privilege of being able to bring a group of them together in a space to collaborate. This is exactly what the Catalyst core team were able to do last week at our latest Founding Funders session.

A session with a difference

Representatives from six of our key funders and partners joined us for a forum slightly out of the ordinary. Those of us used to sending and presenting funding updates will be familiar with the more traditional update formats which often include a shiny slide deck and perhaps a lot of ‘talking at’ your audience. As part of our intentions to continue redefining and reshaping these sorts of relationships, we designed a session that was interactive and more workshop-style, creating an environment which enabled a more active form of engagement.

As with all our meetings, we began with checking in on how each person was entering the space. All-in-all, folks were in good spirits and feeling focused as we dive into a new year of working together. We also opened the space with a check-in question, asking everyone to name something they valued most about Catalyst. The responses were varied and encouraging - people noted that they valued the ambition of Catalyst - to collectively and intentionally shape what 'digital’ in the social sector looks and feels like; the many resources available on our site; our range of services; the unique expertise people involved bring to the table; the ‘instant access’ to a broad range of people and agencies once you’re connected and plugged in; and the budding potential of the network as it continues to grow and transform. 

Embedding reciprocity

People also noted the importance of our values-led approach to working and building relationships. For our funders to be acutely aware of this in particular, felt significant. As a new team still in the ‘forming’ stages, we’ve invested a lot of time and energy - as we should - into getting to know each other as people, understanding the ways we like to work, and the values that drive each of us as individual Producers. At our most recent in-person co-working day, we were able to pin down five ‘core values’ that would be central to how we approach our work: Love, Collectivism, Equity, Curiosity, and Reciprocity - more on these soon!

And on the value of reciprocity, from the beginning, we’ve been keen for our funders to also see themselves as part of the Catalyst network - funding the work of others in the network, whilst also being involved as stakeholders. Often reciprocity can be lacking in more conventional funder-grantee relationships due to established patterns of hierarchy and power, dictated by the default ‘transactional’ nature of the partnership.

Ahead of getting together, we sent out our (13 page at the time!) update and invited comments and feedback from everyone, with the intention of discussing these as prompts in the space, ensuring there was a lively back-and-forth. We were pleased to see deep engagement with and interest in questions of governance (how will we keep members of the network ‘on mission’ with a more decentralised approach to working? How will this affect decision-making?); questions over geography and building the network out across the UK - and beyond; and also collectively figuring out what a Community of Practice could look like for this group.

How funders and their grantees are engaging with Catalyst

The bulk of the second half of the session saw us split into two breakout groups and explore key questions in our session Miro board. We wanted to know, broadly, how might funders and their grantees best engage as part of Catalyst. 

We broke this question down further into additional prompts:

  • What have you done so far, and how might this be different? 
  • How has the landscape changed?
  • How are you supporting grantees at various stages of a digital journey?
  • How can the network best support you as funding organisations?

The responses were varied and enlightening. Actions funders have taken so far included:

  • Consistently signposting their service users to Catalyst as a resource
  • Embedding more digital ways of working into their core costs, understanding it as key infrastructure for effective working
  • Making use of Catalyst’s research and insights in their decision-making and strategy development

Many are still figuring out how to best support their grantees on their digital journeys, noting there seems to be ‘more support for taking the first step, [but] not as much for progressing into a more [digitally] “mature” state’. We know the subject of ‘Digital Maturity’ is topical, so will be hosting an event on Wednesday 23rd February to dig into this further. 

How the landscape is changing

It was also interesting to take a step back and reflect on the different ways the landscape has changed for us, particularly in light of a global pandemic that forced many of us to take our work online. Some of the responses and reflections included noting:

  • There is ‘less fear and suspicion’ when applicants say they want to do something digital in their work
  • Large to mid-sized organisations are thinking more about data than before
  • During the pandemic things were done out of necessity that would not have been possible before - and that this was overall a good thing

Other interesting observations included the renewed pressure on big tech companies to be more mindful of their impact and their ways of working; more acceptance starting to take hold amongst trustees in organisations that a focus on digital is essential and not just a ‘nice to have’; and finally - something I found quite interesting to hear more about - the fact that digital skills are now critical for most organisations but it’s now even harder to fill digital posts, something the likes of Tech Nation and Udacity have reported extensively about in recent years. 

What we know

There are still more conversations and follow-ups to be had with our funders as we continue to grow and develop our working relationship, but the session provided us with useful information to action some next steps. We know we want to make it even easier for our funders to signpost their grantees and service-users to relevant resources; we know there is a real appetite to come together quarterly in a Community of Practice for funders specifically - similar to what we hosted - in order to provide ongoing space for contributions and active discussion amongst the members of the group; we know there is some enthusiasm for coaching support around the needs of the sector; and we know there is an ongoing interest and commitment to ensuring equity and inclusion is at the heart of the work we are all doing - noting that Digital Poverty is at the forefront of our minds as well as broader questions of accessibility and shifting power.

Moving forward with gratitude

As we closed the session and checked out, the sense of gratitude in the space was tangible - gratitude for being able to be part of spaces of collaboration and reciprocity; gratitude for being able to have these conversations with a view to taking real action to deepen our impact at our respective organisations, in service to the communities we serve; gratitude for the many possibilities of the work we are doing, and the ways we are - to paraphrase the words of one of our friends at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Régis - going beyond the work of a programme, and working towards being a more self-directed and self-defined community and movement.


Note: Although the following list is not exhaustive, we’d like to thank our funders National Lottery, Sport England, Comic Relief, City Bridge Trust, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Power to Change, and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation for all of their support on this journey so far.

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