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Network, funder, service provider? We take a look at what people say Catalyst was, is and could become…

“A noun is not a name you give something. It is something you watch becoming itself, and you have to have the patience to find out what it is.” - Derek Walcott, poet and playwright
“If you never know what you are then you can become anything.” - anon

This article explores what Catalyst is through the labels (nouns) and doing words (verbs) that people have used to describe it. 

What it won’t try and do is create a definitive answer. Because, from talking to them, we found that Catalyst means different things to different people.

Nouns vs verbs

Labelling things with nouns helps us communicate to each other and navigate the world. We call a chair a chair, a ship a ship, a political party a political party. It’s easier than always saying ‘a thing you sit on that supports your body’ or ‘a floating object that carries things across the sea’ or ‘a group of people who share beliefs about how a country should be governed and want to do the governing’.

We need labels. We need nouns. 

But labels and nouns aren’t always helpful. They can be poor at describing things that mean different things to different people and change their form. Like networks, movements and things like Catalyst.

Because of this sometimes it’s better to describe things by what they do. 

In the beginning...

When something doesn't yet exist all we can do is imagine it, then try to make it. Let's look at what Catalyst was imagined as back in 2019.

“The Catalyst has the opportunity to draw on quite a few different models, which overlap but have their own distinctions too.” - Cassie Robinson, August 2019

Catalyst as a field catalyst?

In the early days we often imagined Catalyst as a ‘field catalyst’. A field catalyst is a type of intermediary organisation or network that:

  • focuses on a ‘big, hairy, audacious goal’
  • values ‘getting things done over consensus’ 
  • is ‘built to achieve an objective, not build an organisation’.
  • defines the mission in a way that is bold enough for stakeholders to rally around, yet specific enough to make a measurable difference.

That sounds cool. But not many people know what a field catalyst is... 

Other models and influences

Other early imaginings of Catalyst also drew on ideas from field building, collective impact, creative coalitions, movement building and social ecology, networks for system change, system building, portfolio of experiments, ecosystem strengthening and transition design. Phew!

Yeah that’s quite a list. There’s a lot of amazing stuff in those ideas but it takes a while to understand it all and you probably need to be keen to spend the time doing so.

What project leads say Catalyst has been

Back in April we asked a few Catalyst project leads. Here’s what one said:

“What I think it’s meant to be and what I think it is is probably slightly different. 
What I think it’s meant to be, as the name suggests, is catalysing a network with distributed leadership around digital transformation in the voluntary community sector. Different things, different strands, bringing them together. Supporting not only technical skills development but also sharing learning. 
What I think it has been is some elements of that but it feels like the challenges of rising to meet the pandemic-driven need from the sector and the rapid amount of funding it’s taken on and given out, have forced Catalyst to become less distributed in its leadership, less about network leadership, and more of an organisation that develops skills and is more transactional in its approach than I think it was originally intended to be.” - Catalyst Initiative Lead

Has Catalyst been changed by the pandemic like this person suggests? 

Probably. We will never know where it would be if Covid hadn’t happened. The pandemic certainly amplified many things about Catalyst. 

If a field catalyst is about:

  • big goals (accelerating digital in the sector)
  • valuing getting things done over consensus (less distributed, often more transactional)
  • defining the mission in a way stakeholders can rally around (pandemic for charities = a need to improve use of digital)...

...then perhaps the pandemic enabled Catalyst to act as a more powerful field catalyst

The question now is whether this is what’s most needed, going forwards.

What frontline charities say Catalyst has been

Let’s look at how those funded by Catalyst have described it.

  • “An overarching programme designed to help the third sector embrace technology - in this case as impacted by Covid-19.”
  • “Catalyst, through various initiatives, empowers not-for-profit organisations with the space to learn and develop skills as well as giving the opportunity to work together and disseminate learning.”
  • “Promoting digital development within the charity sector.”
  • “A funding stream to allow charities to develop digital ideas in a structured way using up-to-date product design methodologies.”

What others say Catalyst has been

We also talked to a mixture of funders, digital agencies and infrastructure organisations. Here’s what they said:

“A network...

  • to better civil society through digital, design and data.
  • of support for those who want to use tech for good.
  • focused on helping the third sector get the most out of digital. 
  • of organisations, charities, digital people, funders making better use of digital and design in society. 
  • of organisations and people working together to better civil society through the effective use of digital, data and design.
  • that doesn't feel as much like a network as I thought it might do.”

“An organisation... 

  • working to help the third sector modernise through digital solutions and in culture change around open working and reuse
  • that feels like a capacity-building charity
  • that focuses on digital working and helping other organisations on their digital journey.
  • that is essentially a funding body (at the moment). 
  • Is it CAST? How are they different?
  • that is hard to understand. A mythical organisation. To me you feel like an umbrella.” 

“A group or collective...

  • of people/organisations working to support, or catalyse, the transformation of civil society via digital, data and design.
  • of people all collaborating with some shared aims in mind.
  • of funders and government 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!”

“A ‘catalyst’

  • for development of digital for social good within the wider sector.
  • catalysing a network with distributed leadership around digital transformation in the voluntary community sector.”

Something else...

  • “A collective force for good that's greater than the sum of its parts where every connection and interaction helps move the mission forward.”
  • “An attempt to improve digital thinking and generate a culture of user-centred design within UK charities.”
  • “A movement that's for increasing best practice in third sector digital”
  • “Trying to do something differently and building a culture, an ecosystem.”
  • “About strengthening the ecosystem.”
  • “A once in a lifetime opportunity to transform civil society for the better.”
  • “A figurehead for the digital movement.”
  • “I can find Catalyst complicated on a bad day. Maybe because I know it quite intimately. Maybe that's how it would be perceived by someone coming to it fresh.”


When you read all of those descriptions it’s easy to see the differences in how people describe Catalyst, but there are consistencies too:

  • a network that includes everyone
  • a focus on helping charities do more/better with digital
  • transformation, culture change, collective working

One other consistency was in how often people weren’t sure of the difference between CAST and Catalyst.

What Catalyst could be or do

Could it be one of these five things, or perhaps all of them…?

  1. An umbrella place for any charity to get services, support and sometimes funding with digital challenges and transformation opportunities.
  2. A supportive and inclusive network of people and organisations working together to improve use of digital data and design in civil society.
  3. A time-limited anti-hierarchical, distributed-leadership field-catalyst with a mission to transform UK civil society through digital.
  4. A figurehead, movement and community open to anyone who cares about tech for good. Trying to be inclusive and modelling pro-social and power-sharing behaviours.
  5. A deep and systemic attempt to shift culture and practice to make UK civil society fit for purpose and ready for future challenges.

As Catalyst reflects on the last year, these questions are being explored across the network. 

Some need clear answers, like the relationship between CAST and Catalyst. This will reduce confusion and help people give and get value from Catalyst more easily. 

Others need a process of collective sense-making and trying-by-doing. It’s about understanding if we’re asking the right questions, rather than finding a single answer. Every group, conversation or experiment is a chance to try things out and see how they feel. This is ongoing. It helps Catalyst respond to new needs in diverse ways. 

Perhaps, in the end, it is many things

Perhaps Catalyst will always have a plurality of meanings; different meanings for different groups of people. 

Perhaps reducing Catalyst to a single description is impossible. Doing so could exclude those who don’t relate to the description. 

Perhaps it might do well to embrace its plurality of meanings. And resist single labels.

Perhaps all Catalyst needs to do is behave as if what it does matters more than what it is.

“We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.” - Stephen Fry
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