How can tech organisations make their discovery programmes more accessible, inclusive, and participatory for charities?

Editor's note: Last week 103 organisations came to the end of their four week Catalyst discovery learning process. We Are Open were one of eleven organisations helping them through it. This blog shares three things they did to make the process participatory for them.  Anyone working with charities can use these methods and approaches to guide them through the discovery phase of a digital project.

Doug Belshaw, co-founder of We Are Open, takes it from here. 

“Very well facilitated, We Are Open are…open! Created a very welcoming, safe and supportive environment where people could ask any kind of question and not feel stupid.” - Justine Lee, Council for Learning Outside the Classroom

This participatory approach was core to the value proposition we offered Catalyst, along with the visual thinkery of Bryan Mathers, some of which we’re delighted to include in this post.


Google Jamboard showing lots of different coloured sticky notes
An example of some of the issues raised in the pre-mortem we ran as part of the Catalyst Discovery programme

1. Run a pre-mortem

Planning a curriculum to take a cohort from where they currently are to where you want them to be is not so different from planning a workshop. If you want to focus on participation, then this participation must happen right from the start; it’s no good allowing your cohort to sit back and listen while you go through theory for a few hours.

The first thing we usually do with clients and cohorts, then is run a pre-mortem. This is an approach to help avoid project fails:

A pre-mortem is a way to create a ‘safe space’ to express sentiments that could be construed as negative. It’s a simple enough concept: you imagine it’s 18 months in the future and the project has been a failure. The job of the pre-mortem is to identify in advance why that might happen.

The time horizon can be as little as the four weeks we spent with this cohort during the Discovery process. The idea is to elicit responses that lead to you collaboratively being able to identify:

  • Preventative measures — what can you do to avoid the failure happening?
  • Mitigating actions — if the problem is already having an effect, what can you do to lessen the impact?

The value of running this activity at the start is that participants realise that success in the programme is not solely down to the facilitators, but down to them and their organisation. There are always barriers to participation in funded programmes like these, and making these explicit shows the cohort that it’s up to all of us to work through them.


Some people in bold and others faded. List withwords ‘Full time’, ‘Part time’, ‘Furlough’, ‘Quarantining’ and ‘Isolating’.
Some members of the cohort had just returned from furlough, or were covering for furloughed colleagues.

2. Listen to your participants

Both we and our cohort had very little time between finding out we were successful in our funding bid and getting started. In addition, Catalyst had informed participants to prepare for a full-day session which, due to other commitments, we had to run almost immediately. We signed our contract on a Friday, and held the session on the Monday.

"Exceeded my expectations. The team are so warm, accessible and supportive and are really great communicators, languaging and sharing information just right for me. I found their ideas hugely inspiring… I really feel I have experienced huge learning and embedded new information with existing knowledge and skills." - Dawn Cretney, Enterprising Youth C.I.C.

The session was good, the pre-mortem and other activities went well, but nobody wanted to repeat the experience. It was exhausting. Participants have a day job to attend to at the same time as being involved in the programme, with some organisation still having furloughed staff. It was clear we needed to do something different.

Every week, we sent out a very simple survey. It contained three ‘traffic light’ questions, plus a catch-all:

  1. 🚦 GREEN — what went well?
  2. 🚦 AMBER — what do you have questions about?
  3. 🚦 RED — what didn’t go so well?
  4. 💬 Other comments?

As expected, the cohort liked our approach. But they also said they had found a whole-day session too much, in terms of the content to absorb, energy levels, and demands of their day job.

So we sent out a Doodle poll asking for their availability in four 1.5-hour time slots each weekday over the next month. From this, we could see that two sessions, one each side of lunch, would be best for the whole-cohort session. We also split the cohort into two groups for a further 1.5-hour session, plus offered 1:1 sessions which all but one of the organisations took up each week.

We’ve learned from working with clients that, while there’s a core to what we do and offer, each one is different. The added difference with a cohort is that you are dealing with the dynamics between participants as well as between them and your organisation. As such, it’s important to be able to flex once you’ve met them for the first time!


Sign which reads: ‘You are now leaving The Comfort Zone’
Most of our cohort were really challenged — in a positive way — by this programme!

3. Be the right kind of generous with your time

One thing we spent a good deal of time thinking about was how we would interact with participants outside of synchronous sessions. There is email, of course, but this can become unwieldy. Another default these days is something like Slack, but that is also fraught with problems.

Most notably, participants in a learning programme can become dependent on programme leaders, expecting to be ‘spoon-fed’ via instant message. It’s therefore important for those programme leaders to be clear and circumscribe their availability. We were delighted with our cohort’s general enthusiasm and willingness to grapple with new concepts and approaches, and feel that that was, in part, due to us not being just a Slack message away.

I feel like this programme has completely changed the way I look at my charity — how we design our services, how our internal processes and communication works, how we evaluate what we do… I can see so many applications for what I’ve learned — feel very lucky to have been chosen for this programme. Thank you so much.” - Lindsay Woodward, CFF

Instead, we used Google Classroom to share resources and assignments with participants, and BCC’d them all in emails to prevent the nightmare that can be ‘Reply All’ threads. This worked reasonably well, although Google Classroom is very much focused on the kind of teacher/student interaction found in formal education institutions. Although it was easy-to-use, we may look to something different next time.

In the final session, a celebration of what participants had achieved, we created a Slack channel for alumni communication. This was at the request of a couple of members of the cohort, and optional. Had we made it the default mode of communication, we might not have seen the same levels of engagement across the cohort. Not everyone can pay attention to chat messages just in case something useful pops up!


Image for post
The Discovery process is all about experiments that help organisations find the right path to the Development phase


There are other ways to make programmes like this more participatory, some of which we somewhat take for granted. For example, creating breakout Zoom rooms as a ‘clinic’ for those who are confused, or have questions/concerns, and don’t want to disturb the rest of the group.

Our advice, however, can be boiled down to two epithets:

  • Talk less
  • Listen more

We’re looking forward to getting involved in more Catalyst-funded work, and are exploring ways to turn the curriculum from this Discovery programme into one of our free email-based courses.

“We Are Open are excellent facilitators and very supportive. Explanations were always clear and easy to understand even though the subjects were not always familiar. They were patient, approachable and always happy to share knowledge. I would love to work with them again.” - Zara Shad, End Youth Homelessness

Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think We Are Open Co-op can help you and your organisation 😊

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