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One charity’s story of collaborating with others to tackle a social problem through digital. 

“In hindsight it all makes sense. But as it was happening it felt quite painful.” - Sector Challenge participant.

This is a story. A story of 'one' charity’s journey through Catalyst’s Sector Challenge programme. Is it true? Well, yes and no.

Yes, because everything you’ll read is based on real charities’ experiences, discovered through formal and informal evaluation work. 

But it’s also a composite of several experiences: a true story of many, told as one. 

Let’s begin...

‘We have to give this type of work a go’

Hi, my name’s Kate. I’m a project manager at a small charity. Today is day one of our Sector Challenge project and I’m here to learn what this is all about. What I already know is this:

  • Sector Challenge is a programme bringing charities and digital agencies together to work on knotty issues affecting people in our society. 
  • My organisation’s CEO applied for us to join. I was on furlough at the time and have been back at work for three weeks.
  • We’re in a group with five other charities and one ‘digital partner’ who is facilitating us (I think they are a digital agency who specialise in charities)
  • I don’t really know what to expect during or by the end of this project!

But what I do know is that we need to give this kind of stuff a go. We want to get better at using digital to deliver our services. We need to jump in and try!

Plus it's always cool to meet other charities and share learning. Especially with so many things changing through the pandemic. 

Teething troubles 😬

First up is our group kick-off session. On Zoom of course. I know how to use Zoom quite well by now but I’m hoping to learn to use other tools too. 

Everyone seems nervous and excited. I’ve never been on a 10 week collaborative project with five other charities before. I feel a bit apprehensive about whether we will really be able to work together. Sure, we are all fighting the same cause, but past experience tells me to be wary of others’ agendas. I know I shouldn’t be, and that we have to find better ways to work together, but it's how I feel. 

Right away some conflict emerges. Turns out some people already have ideas for what solutions this project should work on. They share this. I don’t even know if we will be making separate things or one thing together. Maybe I should already have an idea too?

Nodding even though I don’t understand

There’s also words being used that I don't understand. I’ve never understood ‘agile’ and I don’t know what ‘sprints’ are. And what the hell is a ‘user need statement’ anyway? I feel technically deficient and a bit stupid. I disengage. Perhaps I should say something but everyone else seems to be nodding. Then I realise I am nodding too. Perhaps I’m not the only one feeling this way?

The digital partner’s lead person is reassuring everyone that they don’t need to understand everything now, and that they don’t need to have ideas for solutions yet. But they also seem a bit caught out by us not understanding their words. 

And also caught between trying to make us focus on the challenge ahead and helping us sort out our differences. I think we should build relationships first so I offer some supportive comments. The session ends, we are given some reading and will meet again in two days.

From storming to norming 💪

The next session goes really smoothly. I can see everyone wants to get on and pool their insight and resources. Our partner helps. And I learn new skills on a Miro board. I really enjoy using ctrl+D to duplicate post-it notes and add my ideas. I still don’t understand everything but I’m glad to be here. 

Over the next two weeks I bond with the others in our group through weekly workshops and regular check-ins. It’s good to understand their experiences of the challenges we share. A camaraderie grows - we are united by our cause. I feel like we are learning together, so maybe I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand some of the jargon. I notice I feel less alone. 

We learn to focus on users and the problem 🔍

And the digital partner seems to be in the swing of things now. They make a smart move and start every session with a slide about the shared challenge - our sector challenge. I think it helps us focus on the problem, rather than moving too early towards the solution. 

And I learn more skills. I learn how to run a user interview and create user need statements. I quite like these statements. I feel they are a good way to help me see things through the eyes of our users. Because they are based on what users have actually told us I feel confident in their accuracy. Some of their needs I wasn’t even aware of. 

Wobbles and arguments 😖

Just as it feels like we are really getting going our group hits two wobbles in a week. 

It turns out half our group have had trouble finding service users to talk to and haven’t done their user interviews yet. I wonder what went wrong for them because I got this sorted without much hassle. I learn that they didn’t do a very good call out for participants and didn’t cast their net very widely. We had good comms processes to reach our users and were actually over subscribed.

But it's OK; we work together to get it sorted. We are a team after all.

Or at least I thought we were. Well we still are but it's just that when we analyse our research the findings split the group. People pull in different directions. I realise that two members are still quite attached to their day one ideas and interpret the data in a way that supports these. This feels a bit naff to me so I say what I think and we have a bit of a fall-out. 

Then our digital partner steps in. Before they had supported the idea of bringing two people with lived experience to the group as co-designers. In hindsight this feels like a good idea and it's not too late to still do it. So we agree to recruit and pay them. It takes care and skill but by week 4 we have them on board. It feels good, and a breath of fresh air to have them with us. 

I enjoy open working 😺

Time is going quickly now. We are nearly halfway (only five more weeks to get it all done - eek!).

Things are going well but I notice how difficult it is for some of our group to stay present and sustain their involvement. How do you balance work and personal commitments during a lockdown?

At least we seem to be working as a team again. And we are sharing what we are doing more widely. I’ve started writing weeknotes - like a mini-record of what we did in the week, but written with feelings included. I was nervous about doing them but now I quite enjoy it. It feels good to take time every Friday to reflect on what we’ve done. I publish them on Catalyst’s Medium site.

We make a thing ⚙️

Also, we’ve started something really cool. We are making prototypes for two possible solutions! Both are simple, single-feature versions of solutions our group has co-designed together. I detect the odd grumble from one person but I feel like both ideas really do focus on the needs of our users. 

Part of why I feel good is because of contributions from the lived experience people in our group. I can’t believe I was uncertain about bringing them on board. They have provided a way for us to rally around and put our organisational agendas aside. 

Testing a real thing with our users! 💻

Gosh it’s exciting. We are actually testing our prototypes today!

It goes well. We give our testers tasks to carry out on a prototype then watch what they do through a Zoom screenshare. Wow! It is fascinating seeing how they navigate around and what they expect of each screen. By the end of the day everyone in the group has tested with three people. The results are clear - we need to ditch idea 1 and proceed with idea 2, with some modifications. 

So we send our digital partner off to make those tweaks then reconvene a week later to test again. This time we test with just a handful of users between us. Again it’s really helpful. 

The final act of the project is to take those test results and add them to a ‘development roadmap’.

Endings and bonus outcomes 🤩👏

It's that time. When an intense experience ends and suddenly there’s a bit of a gap. No more adrenaline kicks from user testing sessions. No more internal squabbles and politics. No more patient digital hand holding from a digital partner. For now.

I said at the start that I didn’t know what to expect but I am satisfied, as are most of the group (though not all). We have a prototype, with room to be improved, but ready to be used now. Turns out that’s how software development works - build something small, start using it, evolve it through ‘agile’ methods!

And I’m doubly satisfied too. Because I’ve learnt more cool skills (way beyond how to add post-its to a Miro board). I’ve learnt how design actually works in practice. I think I like how it focuses on testing and small iterations. It feels more manageable than a big project. 

Triple bonus! I’ve also realised how much other areas of my organisation could benefit from learning about digital design - not just for external service delivery but for internal processes too. I need to talk to my CEO about this.

Unfortunately I don't know what will happen next with our project. I’d like to be able to say we have a clear next step but until someone gets some funding or steps forward to lead I don’t know how or if our group will work together again. At least the prototype and roadmap are open source - anyone can use either now, even if they weren’t on the programme. Hurrah for open working.

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed my story!

Kate 💚

Sector challenge: key facts

The Sector Challenge programme was funded through the Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response fund.

There were seven sector challenge projects. They focused on four areas:

Mental health and wellbeing 

Sexual abuse and domestic violence

Early years

Financial wellbeing

What participants said

“The process was enlightening and could be really useful to the sector”. 
“It has moved us out of our 'comfort zone' to a place where we can be braver and see how digital solutions can help us address our issues in the future”.
“There was this feeling that we all have the same problems and working together we can conquer them, working independently we can’t”
“The difficulty was the differences between the group members: they weren’t the same shape, the same scale, the same internal challenges, so it felt very tenuous. I think the added uncertainty was not having a clear alignment on the same goal”. 
“In some cases, (charities) were pulling us in one direction and the actual user research was pulling us in a slightly different direction, so we trusted the user research”. 
“A chance to practise what we preach with bringing in lived experience, really meaningful participation, online co-production”.

4 main outcomes

  1. Collaboration, user research, prototyping, user testing, user journey mapping and working in the open were the most developed skills
  2. 81% of participating charities felt confident about taking on digital, design and data work in the future
  3. 80% felt more confident in using digital and design terminology
  4. 81% said they planned on collaborating with others in their sector on similar goals to the sector challenge programme

Read weeknotes about one Sector Challenge group’s experiences.

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