Diagram with the sections 'increase relevancy', 'accelerate learning' and 'strengthen skills'

We’re drawing on all the most impactful templates as we work out how The Catalyst will operate, from Collective Impact to Creative Coalitions, Systems and Field Building to Portfolios of Experiments.

The Catalyst has the opportunity to draw on quite a few different models, which overlap but have their own distinctions too. As I will refer to them throughout this series of blog posts, I thought it best to do a swift introduction to each of them first. The Catalyst will be drawing inspiration from the following models —

Collective Impact

Collective Impact is not a new model, though I would say we’ve seen very little effective collective impact work being done here in the UK (the work JRF are doing to end poverty is an exception). The model has been much more widely written about and explored in the US and Canada, and the Standford Social Innovation Review dedicated a whole series to it.

The key features of a Collective Impact model are below and all of them feel relevant to how Catalyst intends to work —

“Shifting from isolated impact to collective impact is not merely a matter of encouraging more collaboration or public-private partnerships. It requires a systemic approach to social impact that focuses on the relationships between organisations and the progress toward shared objectives. And it requires the creation of a new set of organisations that have the skills and resources to assemble and coordinate the specific elements necessary for collective action to succeed.” —


Field Building

There are different examples of what field-building is—Social Innovation Generation has written up an introduction to it here and I especially like their questions to ask if you are building a field. Some of the key activities of field-building include —

  • Connecting fragmented players in a given area of work
  • Connecting people so that new ideas can be generated and new resources pulled into the field
  • Building common infrastructure, practice and shared standards, including access to shared resource

And some of the ways it can be useful are —

  • Brings attention and legitimacy to a certain issue
  • Brings coherence to a field
  • Increases the exchange of theory & practice between domains (in order to tease out best practices and reduce inefficiencies)
  • Develops incentives for collaboration that may not have happened organically

Government Digital Service are a good example of how to do that, from setting standards, and building communities of practice across government departments in the UK and internationally.

And I wrote something last year on things to think about when doing field-building activity — https://medium.com/thepointpeople/building-the-field-50c07a849db6

Field Catalyst

A Field Catalyst model is distinct from field-building because there is much less emphasis on shared practice, and a shared knowledge base, etc., and much more emphasis on identifying gaps and meeting them. This model also tends to be exclusively about a specific and achievable goal.

“Funders and nonprofits increasingly recognise that no single organisation or strategy, regardless of how large or successful it may be, can solve a complex social challenge at scale. Instead, organisations need to work collaboratively to tackle pressing social problems.”

The four characteristics of a Field Catalyst model are —

  • Focus on achieving population-level change, not simply on scaling up an organisation or intervention
  • Influence the direct actions of others, rather than acting directly themselves.
  • Concentrate on getting things done, not on building consensus.
  • Are built to win, not to last.

It reminds me a lot of the Creative Coalitions model detailed below, and is perhaps something that Catalyst will go on to do alongside or following on from the field-building activity: ie., there exists a real opportunity in Catalyst to evolve the social sector, to reimagine and recreate its future.

How Field Catalysts Galvanize Social Change (SSIR)

Ending malaria. Achieving marriage equality. Dramatically reducing teen smoking. Surmounting these and other daunting…


Creative coalitions

Creative coalitions was developed as a model by Crisis Action and turned into a useful handbook. The model requires a low-ego strategic convener — a systems entrepreneur — to catalyse and coordinate smart, collective action. By building mini-coalitions that work alongside one another, “you are able to avoid the Achilles heel of coalition working: descent to the lowest common denominator, sacrificing impact in pursuit of everyone agreeing.” It’s important that the sector or potential coalition members trust the strategic convenor — “they must empower you to craft the constellations of action that will have the greatest impact.”

The 6 key components of this model are —

  • Clever Coalitions
  • A Strategic Convenor
  • Staying Behind the Scenes
  • The Power of Exceptional Networks
  • Creative Tactics
  • A Culture That’s Hungry for Impact

Some of these components work for Catalyst’s ‘field-catalyst’ approach, but ‘staying behind the scenes’ isn’t the right approach for the ‘field-building’ aspect of Catalyst’s work.

“Each individual or organisation you’re working with brings something special to the coalition, but each one of them will not be able to support in every area. In recognising and engaging with that diversity we can find immense power.”

Table of Contents — Creative Coalitions Handbook — Crisis Action

This is a Handbook for people seeking to work with others to change the world. In today’s world, the injustices we’re…


Movement building and social movement ecology

Building movements is different from building organisations, and communities, as detailed in this article. In a movement, the mission defines the ultimate goal and accountability is to a cause greater than any one individual. Leadership of a movement is distributed and agile, as individuals become more deeply engaged and bring others into the fold. Great examples of recent movements include Black Lives Matter, #MeToo , Friday’s for Future and Extinction Rebellion.

An evolution of movement building is that of creating a Social Movement ecology — where there are more complex ways of thinking about strategy that transcend any single, individual, organising culture, to make new effective social movement ecology. These ecologies will include things like mass mobilisations — actions such as the Women’s March or Occupy Wall Street— that draw significant public attention, but that can fade away quickly, alongside the slow-and-steady work of building long-term institutions, such as unions or political parties, as well as countercultural communities and alternative institutions outside of the mainstream. Often, there is little contact between groups employing different strategies — and little sense of common purpose.

However, these different efforts need not see themselves at odds with one another. Movements function best when they recognize diverse roles and find ways to employ the contributions of each in constructive ways. In fact, this can be a key to success. Gandhi — through his personal commitment to each of the three approaches and his ability to express a vision of them as a unified whole — was able to cultivate what can be called a healthy “ecology of change,” in which groups with diverse theories and practices for changing their society could each expand the capabilities of the movement as a whole — http://thisisanuprising.org/2017/03/17/gandhis-strategy-for-success-use-more-than-one-strategy/

There are some great resources about movement building and especially movement ecologies on the Ayni Institute’s website and last year I did NEON’s movement building training which draws a lot on Ayni Institutes’s movement ecology work.

Networks for systems change

The role of networks in driving forward large-scale change takes me back to when we founded The Point People. Part of our reason for setting up was to make visible those people who were playing the role of network weavers, bridge-builders and sense-makers across the field of social change. We wrote a post here about what it means to have a networked mindset, to be Of The Network. In those early days June Holley was writing a lot about networks, with a handbook called Network Weaving, and she’s still a prolific publisher on Scoop with her pages on Networks & Network Weaving and Network Leadership. Mostly recently she published this article on Scaffolding for Systems Shifting Networks where she talks about six basic structures that work together to create an environment for rapid change.

“Networks come in all shapes and sizes. However, if you want to be a system shifting network you will need to put in place scaffolding so that transformation can emerge easily and quickly.”

Other earlier examples of work that recognised the distinct role of network weavers and the need to consciously design for effective networks, was the ReAMP case study — How to build a network to change a system. Kerry and I drew on this a lot when we worked for Nesta on how innovations from the Big Green Challenge could be diffused: networks were key.

“A facilitation pool or network weaver pool is a group of already trained facilitators who learn how to become network facilitators, especially focusing on helping to facilitate and coordinate collaborative projects.”

Now networks, the structures of them, the skills to build, design and deepen them and what to put them to use for, are much more recognised, valued and written about. In this article about building an effective impact network they talk about five key steps —

  • Clarify purpose.
  • Convene the right people.
  • Cultivate trust.
  • Coordinate actions.
  • Collaborate generously.

“Cultivating an effective and sustainable impact network requires dedicated effort and a long time-horizon. Impact networks must remain adaptive to changing circumstances.” —

There is a whole toolbox here for Catalysing Networks for Social Change and more recently there was a whole series published by Standford Social Innovation Review on Network Entrepreneurs — they talk about network entrepreneurs as being “the most impactful leaders you’ve never heard of.”

“We think of network entrepreneurs as representing an evolution of social entrepreneurs. Like social entrepreneurs, they are visionary, ambitious, and relentless in pursuit of their missions. But where social entrepreneurs often struggle to scale their own organizations despite heroic efforts, a network entrepreneur’s approach expands far beyond the boundaries of their own organization, supporting peers and partners across sectors to solve the problem.” — https://ssir.org/network_entrepreneurs/entry/the_most_impactful_leaders_youve_never_heard_of

Networks will definitely play a key role in Catalyst — in the field-building activity to help build trust, to help resources, knowledge and common practices be more easily discovered and distributed, and to bring more cohesion to the field. They’ll also be useful when shifting to the field-catalyst model in helping mobilise people around some more active change.

Systems Building

The first video we had on The Point People website back in 2010 was this TedX talk by Marc Ventresca — “Don’t be an entrepreneur, build systems.” Systems builders aren’t just being entrepreneurs, their work involves re-architecting an entire sector and “marshaling, mobilising, and connecting different worlds.”

Back in 2014 The Point People, with Marc, convened 15 ‘systems builders’ from across the world at Oxford University and created KeyWords — looking for binding words and practices that encompassed what system building and systems entrepreneurs do.

A more recent example of this work in practice is being led by one of the Point People, Jennie Winhall and Charlie Leadbeater with AltNow“A coalition of people from all parts of the landscape who start to think of themselves as ‘system builders’ and who work together to create the space and the support for practical experimentation at a system level.”

There are three things they think are important to achieiving more systemic impact:

“Participation from private, public and non-profit sector teams and individuals — these challenges are everyone’s problem and noone’s direct responsibilty — and so we develop a sense of shared purpose and shared opportunity together

People don’t come in with fully formed ideas — they are committed to the bigger mission, rather than attached to specific solutions, which allows them to flex and develop their approaches as their understanding deepens.

Most traditional incubator models start out with lots of people with solutions, and then focus in on supporting those one or two with the greatest market potential. System conditions remain unchanged. We reverse that logic: we start with a story that inspires big change — and we build a cohort of people from different parts of the landscape who are committed to that bigger story.”

Portfolio of experiments

Very similar to the above is the growing practice of doing a range of experiments framed under one common issue or theme.

Some practical examples of this can be seen in the Radical Childcare programme, the Alternative Camden programme and in the Systems Changers programme with Lankelly Chase - though we used the term “systems prototyping.”

Although in its early stages, some of the most impressive work in this area is being explored by the UNDP who have “the goal of firmly embedding innovation within UNDP as part of reengineering the “mothership” to face future development challenges” and have also set up a new network of 60 Accelerator Labs around the world.

This is an excellent post on the work they are doing to make sense of, and have influence, with a portfolio of experiments, which they explore under these headings —

  • Making sense of a current portfolio of projects
  • Social dynamics for learning and reflection
  • Making tacit connections explicit
  • Generating new frames
  • Creating new (micro)patterns of decision-making
Image for post
From — https://medium.com/@undp.ric/working-on-the-engine-using-portfolio-sensemaking-to-accelerate-learning-b7275accf419

Ecosystem strengthening

Ecosystem strengthening recognises and draws on the unique strengths of each actor in the community and looks to create collaboration at different scales. The McConnell Foundation in Canada talk about it here as —

“Developing and implementing innovative approaches to complex challenges goes beyond creating new programs, policies or social enterprises. At a more fundamental level it involves deepening relationships among government, finance, business, civil society, academia, media and citizens.” —


That’s a quick run-through of different change models — all of which I think have something useful for the Catalyst to draw on and to learn from.

One very practical example of a programme of work that is actually doing many of these things, is Participatory City. It’s really worth reading all of their background material.

If you want even more reading, I’d recommend this series on Systems Leadership too. In my next post I’m going to do a deep dive in to Transition Design because I’m especially keen to see what we can learn from this field — which is not new, but which I’ve only recently learnt more about after a meeting with DRIFT in Rotterdam last month.

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