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Gregor Thomson of Founders & Coders reflects on how best to work with a cohort of charities to help them build digital capability.

This article is aimed at digital agencies working with social sector organisations. It tells what we learned from a four week programme working with nine organisations, as part of the Catalyst and National Lottery Community Fund’s Discovery Learning Programme.

We worked with a cohort of organisations whose services had been affected by COVID-19. All were developing digital responses to pressing questions that had arisen as a result of the pandemic. Our job was to coach and support them, and help them learn how to design a digital solution.

After four weeks, they were able to start work on new digital solutions in their own organisations. They were also able to apply for further Catalyst funding to continue their work - which had now been validated through user research. Our main interventions were:

  • Two three-hour workshops for the whole cohort each week
  • A two-hour drop-in each week
  • Bi-weekly one-to-one calls with each charity
  • Two presentation sessions, where each charity would present what they had learned to the rest of the cohort.

We focused on a collaborative approach, with dedicated time for peer-sharing in every workshop. By the end of the programme, each charity had conducted user research and was well prepared for the next steps in their digital journey.

We learnt a lot from delivering this programme and wanted to share what we discovered. We had three main areas of reflection. The first, that there is strength in collaborating. The next, that solutions should fit with what exists already. And the third was around understanding digital familiarity within the cohort.


The Catalyst discovery programme involved considerable focus on collaboration, both within organisations and between them.

Collaboration between organisations provided an opportunity for solidarity. After completing exercises individually, digital leads from different organisations found solace in reflecting together on how they went. When we discussed problem statements, we found that more than one organisation reconsidered which user type to focus on. The discussion between non-profits provided a valuable opportunity for reflection. Organisations also gained solidarity from discussions. Design thinking can be intimidating and challenging when you haven't done it before. Knowing that others found things tricky, reflected that this was okay.

Collaboration also provided value within organisations. We believe there should be a consistent lead on any digital project. (See this article by David Ainsworth for more detail). But that lead doesn't need to be alone. We found individuals felt lost at times and second guessed themselves. Having a colleague to support provides opportunities to discuss ideas and increase confidence.

Digital solutions should fit to what exists

We learnt two key things about fitting to what exists already. The first was that digital solutions should fit with what service users are familiar with. Often the best solutions fit into what they are using already. Solutions needn't always come in the form of a bespoke app. If service users are active on Facebook and happy with it, find a solution that still uses Facebook. You can improve the content and interactions, and spot where the current service is lacking, without needing to change the technology.

Understand the digital familiarity of the cohort

We also reflected that facilitators must understand the digital familiarity of the cohort. Understanding means we use the right terminology and move at the right pace. We’ve found that two things help mediate disparities amongst cohorts. The first is to keep definitions concise but explicit. This means everyone can understand and use terminology without excluding others. Additionally, we found showing cohorts how to use technology is more effective than explaining. We use Miro for our workshops. Sharing our screen to show how to use the application is an accessible way to onboard cohorts.

Our final reflection is that understanding is demonstrated in presentations. We held presentation days twice throughout the programme and all nine organisations presented. We provided a template based on the exercises we’d run through. Presenting increased organisations’ confidence in what they knew and provided space to share progress. This helped us, as facilitators, know how each organisation was getting on.

Our programme provided support to nine social impact organisations delivering crucial services. We are grateful for the opportunity to have been part of this programme. We learnt so much from working with such a diverse and interesting cohort. Furthermore, fellow digital agencies shared knowledge throughout. Together, across the Discovery Learning Programme, over 100 organisations received support. We take our learnings forward with us. Founders and Coders hope that sharing them is helpful in understanding the value and experience of digital training.

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale