There’s a whole bunch of digital agencies who are really motivated by what Catalyst is trying to achieve.

“Catalyst is a group who have come together to build the capacity of charities to do more with digital. For me that is a drum that I have been banging for many years. Suddenly I've found a team of drummers with a great rhythm!” - David Van Der Velde, Land Digital

Right now 34 agencies are working with 123 charities across Catalyst programmes. This includes seven who are helping clusters of charities work together on some of our thorniest social problems.  

These clusters are participating in the 10 week Sector Challenge programme. 

Seeding solutions that anyone can take on and grow

Before the pandemic, Catalyst’s mission was to:

  • Build collaborative capacity
  • Help charities create co-owned solutions to societal problems. 

The pandemic hasn’t changed this. In fact it’s accelerated the need for it. So with help from The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response fund and network members Shift and Dot Project we created the Sector Challenge programme.  

The programme is designed to be highly collaborative. Instead of funding individual charities to work on a problem area each, we funded seven clusters. Each cluster is made up of one agency and 4-6 charities. 

Their mandate is simple: work together to explore digital solutions to one thorny issue. Carry out user research together. Define solutions and prototypes together. Test together. Build your collaborative capacity so that at project end you might take solutions forward. 

That’s a simple mandate, but for agencies it comes with specific asks:

  • Lead a user-centred design approach to these issues
  • Ensure your cluster members, most of whom don’t know each other, collaborate and learn about digital service design

Seven challenges

Here’s the seven challenges. They sit across four sectors.

Mental health and wellbeing 

Sexual abuse and domestic violence

Early years

Financial wellbeing

Agencies took part because they cared

Agencies had to bid to take part in the Sector Challenge programme. But after talking to them we discovered that finance wasn’t the main reason they applied. Instead we learned that:

1. They empathised with the issues

5 out of 7 leads had a personal connection to the cause. Either they or a family member had experience of a challenge, or had worked in that area before. 

“I grew up in a place that now has a lot of unemployment, drug use and teenage pregnancy and that kind of stuff.” - Doug Belshaw, Dynamic Skillset
“I bring my own lived experience in mental health and selective mutism into the pot. Bringing the idea of bringing lived experience into their charity cluster project.” - Jane Salazar, CoCreate
“The specific sector challenge was probably quite a passion for me as I used to work in that sector as an outreach worker.” - Jane Salazar

2. They believe in a collective approach 

Agencies see many charities independently trying to solve the same problems. In the best cases agencies are able to pass on what they’ve learned with one charity to others. But more commonly they watch charities re-inventing the wheel and building similar solutions, many of which struggle. 

The Sector Challenge programme tries to change this. Each cohort will create reusable research and design assets that anyone, anywhere can use to take solutions forward. 

“It is really exciting because it could be something that is just done once and then iterated on, rather than lots of different people building the same thing over” - Laura Paine, The Developer Society

3. They believe in impact potential

It’s not enough to only believe in a collective approach though. You also have to believe the approach will lead to good results, to good impact. We heard that agencies do believe this. They told us they want to use their expertise to both improve existing services and help start new ones. New, innovative ones that might not have been considered possible before the programme.   

“We thought there really is something here that we can help with quite easily” - Harry Harrold, Neontribe
“To me it seemed like a brilliant opportunity to use a bunch of expertise that we have internally”. - Digital Agency II

4. They like collaborating

There is a thirst among agencies to not only work with charities but to work together too. We observed this during Autumn’s Discovery Learning Programme when together we created the Covid-19 Tech Action Slack channel. They told us they want to do the same here, to ‘cross pollinate’ learning across clusters.

“We want to learn all their good stuff because they are great agencies and we want to see what their ways of working are”. - Digital Agency II

Results already showing

The programme is Catalyst’s leading open working initiative. Agencies and charities are sharing their design outputs and writing about their work as they do it. Anyone can re-use these outputs. 

The work isn’t over

The Sector Challenge programme is nearing the end but there will be a lot more to show than what we’ve shared here. We will write more at the end of April. To hear about this sign up for the Catalyst newsletter


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