Image of the Catalyst 'roots and fruits' tree model, shown on our impact interviews page https://www.thecatalyst.org.uk/impact-interviews

Catalyst highlights from the last six months using the roots, fruits and trunk model to frame our learning and impact. Written by Catalyst's Producer team.

Catalyst has over 30 initiatives, projects and services running currently. Producers, Steering Group and support functions help weave, review and strengthen the network, while our initiative and project leads support the entire UK social sector.

Enabling this network to flourish is like taking care of a tree. We need to bolster the roots, be attentive to the trunk, trim the branches periodically and collect the fruits. 

Our shiny new impact interviews page brings to life stories of some of the people of Catalyst. This blog surfaces additional highlights and learning nuggets from our collective efforts…

The fruits

Initiatives

20 core partner-led initiatives, which together support thousands of beneficiaries. Organised into collaborative circles.

Support & Training circle

Catalyst Resources created clearer user journeys through our free resources, which received nearly 12,000 views in the last 6 months. New experiments include a ‘Learn User Research’ email course. This has had over 150 sign-ups in 4 weeks since launching, with 45% still engaged by lesson 7: “The short snippets and highlights helped keep user research in my mind. We're very busy with other priorities at the moment so this was an ideal way to keep user research on my radar.”

Digital Candle found that of the 300+ enquiries registered, Google ad grants, social media and CRM remain the most popular topics. Interestingly, around 50% of enquiries need following up to clarify the question, showing the intermediary human sense-making layer is still crucial to effectively connect nonprofits and digital experts. See Siôn’s video, plus more impact case studies on Digital Candle’s blog.

Dovetail commissioned discovery research into how the governance of the platform could evolve, so it can be more directly shaped by its users (both digital agencies and nonprofits). It is now recruiting three paid advisors to help shape and interrogate its strategy.

Reuse circle

Open IP for Funders worked in partnership with legal and data specialists to develop a template for funders to use to enable reuse of IP developed by grantees as part of their funding. This removal of a blocker will hopefully enable more widespread reuse of technology.

The Open Working and Reuse programme aims to make open working the norm in the social sector. It found 100% of participants increased their understanding and confidence in how to communicate and share their work more effectively: “It’s been one of the best online courses I’ve ever done. I now have remembered my writing will get better the more I write, and it’s helping me move things on so much more quickly.” The  180+ weeknotes published by nonprofits on their dedicated Medium are now being shared and signposted through a new prototype Space for Reuse initiative.

Shared Digital Guides implemented a site search function and changed its name from Service Recipes, after user research found the name didn’t help people form accurate expectations. For users, the site is most valuable as a source of inspiration, validation and encouragement, and that the unique selling point (USP) for most was that the guides were contributed by charities. See Jo Kay’s video.

Collaborative network circle

Agencies for Good surveyed its 700+ Slack members, having observed from analytics that 70% of activity happens in direct messages. They learned that members get what they need from these 1:1 interactions, and value the space primarily for networking opportunities, finding a job or brief, and learning and sharing with peers: “I found new projects, partners and people to share ideas with. It’s great!”

The Data Collective and Evaluation of Tech for Good initiatives collaborated on a Decolonisation in Evaluation event, attracting funders and nonprofits who’d not interacted with Catalyst before. One key takeaway of ‘moving from extraction to nourishment’ (i.e. ensuring greater co-design and value exchange with participants from the outset) will shape the next phase of our own Catalyst evaluation.

The Tech for Good Organisers Network held an in-person unconference in London, with over 30 participants hailing from different grassroots tech for good groups from around the country. See Nish & Ed’s video

Initiative lead sociocratic governance experiment

In November 2022, the BuildingOUT team from Outlandish joined our circles to help our 13 initiative lead partners work more collaboratively. 

The aims were:

1. To help build shared understanding and confidence in using the core principles of sociocracy 

2. To support the circles to work more autonomously 

3. To improve our co-budgeting practices for collective resource-allocation.

We learned:

BuildingOUT observed there was lots of evidence of learning and collaboration in all the circles, e.g. members sharing a speaking slot at a conference, using circle budgets to commission research, or convening to think about EDI monitoring and evaluation. Also that we’d achieved some consistent and repeatable working practices. 

They celebrated partners’ bravery to bring and work through differences, in service to our collective ambitions.

They advised our theory of change should be more actively guiding decision making. It currently feels disconnected, partly because it’s under strategic review, but should be helping create shared purpose.

With just one meeting per month for each circle, it’s difficult for members to establish the culture and shared ways of working needed to underpin effective consent-based decision-making. Ironically, there also wasn’t explicit group consent and shared understanding of the value and approach of sociocracy itself. Several members have changed from the original group that began this experiment eighteen months ago, and most hadn’t had any prior experience of sociocratic working.

The biggest source of discomfort and conflict was the co-budgeting process. Talking about allocating money is always difficult and requires a high degree of trust and psychological safety. There was sometimes an element of competition to the process between members which caused tensions. Added to that, people experience different levels of comfort in participating in decision-making. 

Next steps

We’ll be clarifying roles and processes through updated documentation, and offering more training opportunities with BuildingOUT’s continued support. We’ll also work to reduce the cognitive load on members and make space to redefine how each circle is working based on current needs.

The roots

Learning and Impact working group

The group has commissioned five discovery research projects in the last six months:

1. Working with infrastructure organisations to increase Catalyst’s reach and impact

Superhighways collaborated with Megan Gray and Lightful to run a pilot digital skills training programme for small charity members of the 4in10 Child Poverty network

They delivered: 

- 10 free webinar and technical training sessions plus one-to-one support 

- to 91 attendees from over 40 organisations.

Topics included: 

- ‘Putting your postcode data on a map’, 

- ‘Using data better at your organisation’, 

- ‘Canva for infographics’ 

- ‘Social media 101’.

The learning hypothesis was that Catalyst could extend its reach and deliver more value to the sector by working with infrastructure organisations like 4in10. It was also a test of collaborative partnership working across the network.

We learned:

- Infrastructure organisations and networks are critical actors in the sector. They are trusted and have established channels of communication, but it can be challenging for them to source relevant, high quality digital training for their networks. Working in partnership with Catalyst can help ease some of these challenges.

- The project reached people that hadn’t heard of Catalyst yet..

- Sessions designed specifically relating to London Challenge Poverty Week, provided an opportunity for groups to learn practical skills relevant to actions they would later take collectively.

- As a small organisation themselves, 4in10 benefitted hugely from the project. They learned new skills which will allow them to better support their members in the future. 

- Building the confidence and capability of these important infrastructure orgs creates the conditions for new connections and lasting impact, ‘creating a greater movement for change.’ 

- Many attending organisations were led by and/or working with diverse communities, e.g. African Community School, Romanian Culture & Charity Together, Women's Solace Aid, and Eritrean Youth Club.

- There is potential for Superhighways and the 4in10 network to continue working together, especially because they share a geographical remit and a funder. 4in10 network members have already gone on to access other support from Superhighways. 

“Such a useful range of tools to be aware of. The fact that we had to try and use them as part of the training helped to illustrate how simple they are, and will be helpful in terms of remembering.” - Charity attendee

Next steps 

We intend to create a guiding model and practical templates to support future collaborations between coordinating partner, delivery partners and infrastructure partners. Learning about the practical, hands-on webinar format Superhighways used is also informing the design of the Test Drive Tools initiative.

See the full evaluation and learning report.

2. Sector trends

Anthropology design researchers, Anthro{Nation}, conducted a comprehensive literature review and desk research to understand the latest social sector trends, including digital trends, affecting the nonprofit sector. This included the latest annual Charity Digital Skills report, which Catalyst currently supports.

We’ll share the full report and findings soon as part of a wider learning campaign. 

3. Governance

Working in a networked and participatory way is complex, and governance is something we continue to collectively grapple with. As noted above, our initiative leads have been experimenting with collective governance for the past 18 months and it has been a rich (if sometimes intense!) experience. 

In quarter 1 of 2023 we commissioned research by the School of Systems Change to help inform the design of our governance model. How might it help make the complex more simple? 

We’re working on how best to package the report’s detailed findings in a really accessible way. Stay tuned… 

4. Web3 and the evolving internet

Web3 is one of those buzzwords that’s growing in popularity, but what does/might it mean for the social sector? Peer learning experts, Huddlecraft, are running a learning cohort for five nonprofits, supported by two mentors, to find out. 

The team received their most diverse applicant pool ever for the mentor role, which indicates who's currently in the web3 space. The cohort immersion will take place in May. Findings will be fed into the Catalyst review, since distributed governance and decentralisation are central web3 concepts. 

5. Tech justice

Former Catalyst Producer, Siana Bangura, is leading an exciting piece of discovery research to explore the landscape of work currently focused on ‘tech justice’ in a UK context, and how Catalyst should best respond to and support this movement. Potential themes include surveillance, digital policing and borders, the impact of AI on those racially minoritised, and the ownership of web platforms. This will kick off in May.

Inclusion working group

In 2022 we collectively decided to make our approach to inclusion more intentional, in service to our value of Equity, and our aspiration to make Catalyst a space where collective liberation is possible. We tested creating a working group, whose members were compensated for their time.

Its aims were:

- To make the initiative circles (and more broadly, all Catalyst spaces) a safe and inclusive environment as a non-negotiable; where we can all get some needs met (e.g. relationships, collaborations, being heard, seen and understood, to matter), 

- To raise the bar for where the sector needs to get to around inclusion and collaboration,

- To take people on a journey of what we’re trying to create, acknowledging that we may lose people along the way.

Its activity was:

- To focus on inclusion projects, 

- Advise on the approaches within Catalyst,

- Providing a dedicated space for individuals from minoritised groups.

We learned:

Having the working group comprised entirely of folks from minoritised groups meant it contained a lot of valuable lived experience, but also placed the burden of the work on those who experience oppression most deeply (a common tension of this work, as Siana noted in her blog last year). 

Midway through the year, we identified that this was not how we wanted to work, and that we also needed more learned experience to do the work justice. So we engaged with a specialist consultant following a procurement process.

Working with Held Collective, our inclusion consultants, we’ve realised we need a new approach. The working group’s remit has not been clear enough, and we need to more succinctly define the overarching aim of our inclusion work, as well as our collective and individual roles within that. At times it has been challenging, and one key learning is that we need to be able to offer healing spaces, clear conflict policies and skilled facilitators within our network to hold spaces with care.

Held also observed that the working group felt quite separate to the wider community and that we’d unintentionally created a division in creating this structure. In the interests of inclusion work being more embedded and integrated, we have disbanded the group in its current form, in service to allowing something new to emerge.

In February’s final working group meeting we explored a proposal from Held around individuals becoming ‘Inclusion Champions’; being trained to advise the wider community. This might look like bringing in external folks with lived and learned experience, or working with existing circle members, or both. It’s still a work in progress as we need to align the inclusion plan with the overarching strategy for Catalyst.

The trunk/core

Steering Group

The steering group forum continues to work on our strategic review and in quarter three of 2023 we will have a draft model and revised strategy for Catalyst. As a recap, the steering group purpose is:

Sub groups have recently been formed to complete specific elements of the strategic review, in the following themes:

We anticipate by July 2023 there will be a draft version of the new model and proposition  to share with our stakeholders. 

Members of the group have been blogging over on our Medium, if you’d like to find out more.

We continue to explore with the CAST board how Catalyst’s emerging new strategy might complement CAST’s and how we can work together to also understand our different roles and approaches.

Comms

Catalyst comms activities reached over 5,303 organisations, including 178 new followers, since December, with an average of 3.1% engagement rate on social media, which is higher than the average 1-2%.

The newsletter, our primary comms tool, has an engagement rate of 22.5% and 5,421 subscribers.

Our (relatively new) comms partners, Passion4Social, worked closely with our learning partner, inFocus, on the impact interviews project. Their next project will be a campaign telling the story of the Catalyst review, and the many strands of learning and insight that are feeding into it.

New and shifting roles

As noted above, Producer Siana transitioned into a different role in the network - leading the tech justice research project as a freelance partner.

We recruited a dedicated Operations specialist onto the core team, who joins on the 8th May and will be key to helping us move through our transition gracefully.

Closing thoughts

The breadth, depth, interconnections and beautifully fractal nature of Catalyst have always been both its biggest assets and a perennial challenge to communicate succinctly! 

We hope this not-so-short snapshot gives a glimpse of some of our proudest and/or most valuable recent achievements and insights as a collective. We look forward to sharing our full learning report in June.  

Catalyst has over 30 initiatives, projects and services running currently. Producers, Steering Group and support functions help weave, review and strengthen the network, while our initiative and project leads support the entire UK social sector.

Enabling this network to flourish is like taking care of a tree. We need to bolster the roots, be attentive to the trunk, trim the branches periodically and collect the fruits. 

Our shiny new impact interviews page brings to life stories of some of the people of Catalyst. This blog surfaces additional highlights and learning nuggets from our collective efforts…

The fruits

Initiatives

20 core partner-led initiatives, which together support thousands of beneficiaries. Organised into collaborative circles.

Support & Training circle

Catalyst Resources created clearer user journeys through our free resources, which received nearly 12,000 views in the last 6 months. New experiments include a ‘Learn User Research’ email course. This has had over 150 sign-ups in 4 weeks since launching, with 45% still engaged by lesson 7: “The short snippets and highlights helped keep user research in my mind. We're very busy with other priorities at the moment so this was an ideal way to keep user research on my radar.”

Digital Candle found that of the 300+ enquiries registered, Google ad grants, social media and CRM remain the most popular topics. Interestingly, around 50% of enquiries need following up to clarify the question, showing the intermediary human sense-making layer is still crucial to effectively connect nonprofits and digital experts. See Siôn’s video, plus more impact case studies on Digital Candle’s blog.

Dovetail commissioned discovery research into how the governance of the platform could evolve, so it can be more directly shaped by its users (both digital agencies and nonprofits). It is now recruiting three paid advisors to help shape and interrogate its strategy.

Reuse circle

Open IP for Funders worked in partnership with legal and data specialists to develop a template for funders to use to enable reuse of IP developed by grantees as part of their funding. This removal of a blocker will hopefully enable more widespread reuse of technology.

The Open Working and Reuse programme aims to make open working the norm in the social sector. It found 100% of participants increased their understanding and confidence in how to communicate and share their work more effectively: “It’s been one of the best online courses I’ve ever done. I now have remembered my writing will get better the more I write, and it’s helping me move things on so much more quickly.” The  180+ weeknotes published by nonprofits on their dedicated Medium are now being shared and signposted through a new prototype Space for Reuse initiative.

Shared Digital Guides implemented a site search function and changed its name from Service Recipes, after user research found the name didn’t help people form accurate expectations. For users, the site is most valuable as a source of inspiration, validation and encouragement, and that the unique selling point (USP) for most was that the guides were contributed by charities. See Jo Kay’s video.

Collaborative network circle

Agencies for Good surveyed its 700+ Slack members, having observed from analytics that 70% of activity happens in direct messages. They learned that members get what they need from these 1:1 interactions, and value the space primarily for networking opportunities, finding a job or brief, and learning and sharing with peers: “I found new projects, partners and people to share ideas with. It’s great!”

The Data Collective and Evaluation of Tech for Good initiatives collaborated on a Decolonisation in Evaluation event, attracting funders and nonprofits who’d not interacted with Catalyst before. One key takeaway of ‘moving from extraction to nourishment’ (i.e. ensuring greater co-design and value exchange with participants from the outset) will shape the next phase of our own Catalyst evaluation.

The Tech for Good Organisers Network held an in-person unconference in London, with over 30 participants hailing from different grassroots tech for good groups from around the country. See Nish & Ed’s video

Initiative lead sociocratic governance experiment

In November 2022, the BuildingOUT team from Outlandish joined our circles to help our 13 initiative lead partners work more collaboratively. 

The aims were:

1. To help build shared understanding and confidence in using the core principles of sociocracy 

2. To support the circles to work more autonomously 

3. To improve our co-budgeting practices for collective resource-allocation.

We learned:

BuildingOUT observed there was lots of evidence of learning and collaboration in all the circles, e.g. members sharing a speaking slot at a conference, using circle budgets to commission research, or convening to think about EDI monitoring and evaluation. Also that we’d achieved some consistent and repeatable working practices. 

They celebrated partners’ bravery to bring and work through differences, in service to our collective ambitions.

They advised our theory of change should be more actively guiding decision making. It currently feels disconnected, partly because it’s under strategic review, but should be helping create shared purpose.

With just one meeting per month for each circle, it’s difficult for members to establish the culture and shared ways of working needed to underpin effective consent-based decision-making. Ironically, there also wasn’t explicit group consent and shared understanding of the value and approach of sociocracy itself. Several members have changed from the original group that began this experiment eighteen months ago, and most hadn’t had any prior experience of sociocratic working.

The biggest source of discomfort and conflict was the co-budgeting process. Talking about allocating money is always difficult and requires a high degree of trust and psychological safety. There was sometimes an element of competition to the process between members which caused tensions. Added to that, people experience different levels of comfort in participating in decision-making. 

Next steps

We’ll be clarifying roles and processes through updated documentation, and offering more training opportunities with BuildingOUT’s continued support. We’ll also work to reduce the cognitive load on members and make space to redefine how each circle is working based on current needs.

The roots

Learning and Impact working group

The group has commissioned five discovery research projects in the last six months:

1. Working with infrastructure organisations to increase Catalyst’s reach and impact

Superhighways collaborated with Megan Gray and Lightful to run a pilot digital skills training programme for small charity members of the 4in10 Child Poverty network

They delivered: 

- 10 free webinar and technical training sessions plus one-to-one support 

- to 91 attendees from over 40 organisations.

Topics included: 

- ‘Putting your postcode data on a map’, 

- ‘Using data better at your organisation’, 

- ‘Canva for infographics’ 

- ‘Social media 101’.

The learning hypothesis was that Catalyst could extend its reach and deliver more value to the sector by working with infrastructure organisations like 4in10. It was also a test of collaborative partnership working across the network.

We learned:

- Infrastructure organisations and networks are critical actors in the sector. They are trusted and have established channels of communication, but it can be challenging for them to source relevant, high quality digital training for their networks. Working in partnership with Catalyst can help ease some of these challenges.

- The project reached people that hadn’t heard of Catalyst yet..

- Sessions designed specifically relating to London Challenge Poverty Week, provided an opportunity for groups to learn practical skills relevant to actions they would later take collectively.

- As a small organisation themselves, 4in10 benefitted hugely from the project. They learned new skills which will allow them to better support their members in the future. 

- Building the confidence and capability of these important infrastructure orgs creates the conditions for new connections and lasting impact, ‘creating a greater movement for change.’ 

- Many attending organisations were led by and/or working with diverse communities, e.g. African Community School, Romanian Culture & Charity Together, Women's Solace Aid, and Eritrean Youth Club.

- There is potential for Superhighways and the 4in10 network to continue working together, especially because they share a geographical remit and a funder. 4in10 network members have already gone on to access other support from Superhighways. 

“Such a useful range of tools to be aware of. The fact that we had to try and use them as part of the training helped to illustrate how simple they are, and will be helpful in terms of remembering.” - Charity attendee

Next steps 

We intend to create a guiding model and practical templates to support future collaborations between coordinating partner, delivery partners and infrastructure partners. Learning about the practical, hands-on webinar format Superhighways used is also informing the design of the Test Drive Tools initiative.

See the full evaluation and learning report.

2. Sector trends

Anthropology design researchers, Anthro{Nation}, conducted a comprehensive literature review and desk research to understand the latest social sector trends, including digital trends, affecting the nonprofit sector. This included the latest annual Charity Digital Skills report, which Catalyst currently supports.

We’ll share the full report and findings soon as part of a wider learning campaign. 

3. Governance

Working in a networked and participatory way is complex, and governance is something we continue to collectively grapple with. As noted above, our initiative leads have been experimenting with collective governance for the past 18 months and it has been a rich (if sometimes intense!) experience. 

In quarter 1 of 2023 we commissioned research by the School of Systems Change to help inform the design of our governance model. How might it help make the complex more simple? 

We’re working on how best to package the report’s detailed findings in a really accessible way. Stay tuned… 

4. Web3 and the evolving internet

Web3 is one of those buzzwords that’s growing in popularity, but what does/might it mean for the social sector? Peer learning experts, Huddlecraft, are running a learning cohort for five nonprofits, supported by two mentors, to find out. 

The team received their most diverse applicant pool ever for the mentor role, which indicates who's currently in the web3 space. The cohort immersion will take place in May. Findings will be fed into the Catalyst review, since distributed governance and decentralisation are central web3 concepts. 

5. Tech justice

Former Catalyst Producer, Siana Bangura, is leading an exciting piece of discovery research to explore the landscape of work currently focused on ‘tech justice’ in a UK context, and how Catalyst should best respond to and support this movement. Potential themes include surveillance, digital policing and borders, the impact of AI on those racially minoritised, and the ownership of web platforms. This will kick off in May.

Inclusion working group

In 2022 we collectively decided to make our approach to inclusion more intentional, in service to our value of Equity, and our aspiration to make Catalyst a space where collective liberation is possible. We tested creating a working group, whose members were compensated for their time.

Its aims were:

- To make the initiative circles (and more broadly, all Catalyst spaces) a safe and inclusive environment as a non-negotiable; where we can all get some needs met (e.g. relationships, collaborations, being heard, seen and understood, to matter), 

- To raise the bar for where the sector needs to get to around inclusion and collaboration,

- To take people on a journey of what we’re trying to create, acknowledging that we may lose people along the way.

Its activity was:

- To focus on inclusion projects, 

- Advise on the approaches within Catalyst,

- Providing a dedicated space for individuals from minoritised groups.

We learned:

Having the working group comprised entirely of folks from minoritised groups meant it contained a lot of valuable lived experience, but also placed the burden of the work on those who experience oppression most deeply (a common tension of this work, as Siana noted in her blog last year). 

Midway through the year, we identified that this was not how we wanted to work, and that we also needed more learned experience to do the work justice. So we engaged with a specialist consultant following a procurement process.

Working with Held Collective, our inclusion consultants, we’ve realised we need a new approach. The working group’s remit has not been clear enough, and we need to more succinctly define the overarching aim of our inclusion work, as well as our collective and individual roles within that. At times it has been challenging, and one key learning is that we need to be able to offer healing spaces, clear conflict policies and skilled facilitators within our network to hold spaces with care.

Held also observed that the working group felt quite separate to the wider community and that we’d unintentionally created a division in creating this structure. In the interests of inclusion work being more embedded and integrated, we have disbanded the group in its current form, in service to allowing something new to emerge.

In February’s final working group meeting we explored a proposal from Held around individuals becoming ‘Inclusion Champions’; being trained to advise the wider community. This might look like bringing in external folks with lived and learned experience, or working with existing circle members, or both. It’s still a work in progress as we need to align the inclusion plan with the overarching strategy for Catalyst.

The trunk/core

Steering Group

The steering group forum continues to work on our strategic review and in quarter three of 2023 we will have a draft model and revised strategy for Catalyst. As a recap, the steering group purpose is:

Sub groups have recently been formed to complete specific elements of the strategic review, in the following themes:

We anticipate by July 2023 there will be a draft version of the new model and proposition  to share with our stakeholders. 

Members of the group have been blogging over on our Medium, if you’d like to find out more.

We continue to explore with the CAST board how Catalyst’s emerging new strategy might complement CAST’s and how we can work together to also understand our different roles and approaches.

Comms

Catalyst comms activities reached over 5,303 organisations, including 178 new followers, since December, with an average of 3.1% engagement rate on social media, which is higher than the average 1-2%.

The newsletter, our primary comms tool, has an engagement rate of 22.5% and 5,421 subscribers.

Our (relatively new) comms partners, Passion4Social, worked closely with our learning partner, inFocus, on the impact interviews project. Their next project will be a campaign telling the story of the Catalyst review, and the many strands of learning and insight that are feeding into it.

New and shifting roles

As noted above, Producer Siana transitioned into a different role in the network - leading the tech justice research project as a freelance partner.

We recruited a dedicated Operations specialist onto the core team, who joins on the 8th May and will be key to helping us move through our transition gracefully.

Closing thoughts

The breadth, depth, interconnections and beautifully fractal nature of Catalyst have always been both its biggest assets and a perennial challenge to communicate succinctly! 

We hope this not-so-short snapshot gives a glimpse of some of our proudest and/or most valuable recent achievements and insights as a collective. We look forward to sharing our full learning report in June.  

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