Steering Group photo with all members

Steering Group members Jo Morfee and Kate Swade co-authored this piece on where we’re at collectively with the strategic review, and what comes next.

A quick recap - why create a steering group? (Jo)

In autumn 2022 we established a steering group to help us navigate through a strategic review and a potential transition into a new version of Catalyst. As a core team we recognised that it was important to co-create our next phase in the spirit of collectivism, and to involve folk who represent various aspects of our network. This was to be achieved through creating a representative steering group forum, plus multiple engagements with groups across the network via roundtable events and surveys, at various stages of the journey.

We conducted an open and equitable recruitment process to find the wonderful humans we’ve been working with for the past 9 months and we documented the learnings from that process here. The group is led by Lauren Coulman of Noisy Cricket, a strategic impact consultancy. 

Some of you may remember my blog from November 2022 ‘creating a structure, holding it lightly’, updating on why we’d chosen to put this structure in place, who had been selected to be a member, and what we intended to do up to March 2023. At this time, my intention was to blog bi-weekly but the scope of the work, along with some turbulence and changes internally has meant I’ve had very little time to write. So, with the help of a fellow steering group member Kate Swade (thanks Kate!) we’ve finally created a much overdue update on this piece of work together, and we hope it shines a light on some of the incredible work which has been going on.

As a recap, here is the purpose of the steering group;

And here’s some of the outputs we’re working towards co-creating, and testing with the wider network:

What’s been important to us (Kate)

It was apparent from the initial invitation to apply for the steering group that a key part of what makes Catalyst special is in HOW it does things. The care that the producers and Lauren the facilitator took to “onboard” the steering group was a real testament to that. As a steering group member it was sometimes a little overwhelming, and I think we all underestimated the amount of time it would take us to get up to speed. The sheer volume of work Catalyst has done since 2019, the depth of the impact, and the care involved, has taken us all a while to get to grips with. It’s been very inspiring! 

We’ve had only two in-person meetings, and one of the key outcomes of the first of those has turned out to be some core foundational principles that set out HOW Catalyst works - and will potentially work in the future:

Being Human: Listening to diverse needs and learning to equitably and inclusively explore new possibilities to collectively create the world we want to be in

Being Agile: Organising using a power literate and whole-systems lens and experimenting through good enough for now, safe enough to try infrastructure

Being Interconnected: Inspiring continuous growth and consent-based decision making through brave and humble spaces and partnering across the network and with communities to ensure mutual benefit

The language is still being refined and worked on, but we’d love to hear any comments about what resonates (or otherwise) here!

Part of being human is that we all move and learn at different paces. We have all had to do some ‘unlearning’ about the ways in which we use language, the assumptions we make and are bringing about the work and each other, the systemic conditioning each of us bring to bear in the work, and the different levels of time and energy that we’re able to offer. 

A key shift happened a couple of months ago when we moved from the onboarding phase - a luscious process, exploring and for most of us - ‘unlearning’ - into the delivery phase, where we actually had to start working together in sub groups to put some shape and structure on the future direction of Catalyst. Maybe predictably, we then found ourselves in the “storming” phase of team development, but that was really useful as it highlighted where more clarity and focus was needed, and we now feel like we’re moving quickly into performing mode. 

Where we’re at now 

We split into 3 sub-groups in April to start integrating everything we’d learned about Catalyst’s ambitions, the sector’s needs and the aspirations about the impact Catalyst wants to make. We have kept working together as a whole group as well, notably to develop the core purpose and aspects of the model - the “why” of Catalyst for the future.

Ahead of breaking into mini teams, we were provided with lots of information to process about sector needs, key audience engagement pieces and a comprehensive history of Catalyst, alongside some impact data. The Impact & Learning working group commissioned research into the needs of the third sector relating to digital, governance models, and tech justice. Each of these pieces proved invaluable (tech justice will land soon). 

The Charity Digital Skills report, supported by Catalyst, also provided insightful data. Once we had digested this, and in leveraging our own lived and learned experiences (the group is diverse and there is much richness here), we began to integrate everything and moved into the co-production phase.

Model sub group - thinking about the “what” (Kate)

Based on some super-creative speculative futures exercises that the whole team did, to stretch all our thinking about what might be possible for Catalyst to do in the future, this group has been pondering the “what”. We think we have come up with a model that, while putting the how at the very centre, has three potential suggestions for Catalyst initiatives that are linked to, but evolutions of, its current activity. 

One of the key tensions is one that has been there since the beginning of Catalyst: the tension between providing capacity building services for the sector, and the ambition to more fully embrace its “Field Catalysing” role from the original 2019 ambition.  It’s likely that this will be something that is explored when we have more in depth conversations about the model with Initiative Leads, funders and the wider Catalyst community in June. Watch this space for more - the model will be shared in draft form very soon.

Governance sub group - thinking about the “how” (Jo)

The governance group has been well informed by the comprehensive recent research conducted by the School of Systems Change, key findings from this will be shared across our channels in June. Jasmine Castledine, who led the research piece, also joined our sub group as a subject matter expert. Also in the group is Linda Humphries, from Paper Frogs, bringing a wealth of experience from her past lives as former senior technology adviser to the UK Government's chief technology officer in the Cabinet Office, and former digital chief of staff at Coop Group. 

Together we’ve started to explore some of the tensions around designing a governance model, with some fascinating discussions around power, ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ governance elements, and how to best enable the emerging ambitions and the ‘how’ of Catalyst. In essence we’ve been grappling with the question of ‘how might we design a governance structure which doesn’t stifle innovation, but is enough of a structure to ensure that we’re fundable and can function, and is in line with our values?’ 

What we’ve found is that most people tend to assume that you’re talking about the legal form / entity when governance is discussed. But actually what is most important to Catalyst is the HOW - including the cultural aspects, the values, principles and practices underpinning the work, and being more explicit about power dynamics. 

Within the ‘hard’ governance, including the legal form, it seems that there are virtually no options to truly radicalise or innovate. We are currently exploring Distributed Autonomous Organisations (DAO’s) and other emerging new structures, but it seems likely that we’ll need to settle for an existing ‘trusted’ legal structure to enable our funding relationships to continue. We are planning to engage our founding funders over the next month to explore this. 

The core learning is that as long as the structure doesn’t limit us, or get in the way, we can most likely innovate mostly via the ‘soft’ governance elements. 

Impact sub group - thinking about the “who” (Jo)

The impact group are currently exploring what we mean exactly by ‘sector’ and ‘communities’ and ‘funders’. We are seeking to develop our understanding of the core audiences of Catalyst, what their needs are, and whether there needs to be any shifts to our focus. This has been informed by research, and also by the emerging purpose statement (our why), which we hope will bring much greater clarity and result in a refreshed vision and mission. 

There has been a lot of excitement and energy around better connecting up our funder ecology with communities, and how we might share stories more effectively from the ground up. We made a start on this storytelling in our latest impact report, which was video case study based. 

What’s next? (Kate & Jo)

We’ve had our heads down for the past five or so months, and we are still beavering away getting things to a place where we can coherently share. There are many outputs to be produced which has been keeping us busy. Lauren has been doing an excellent job of documenting everything thoroughly as we go, on both Miro and in decks, so we’ll have plenty to draw upon in engaging with the network and creating the final evidence base.

We’ve got some initial meetings with our funders and initiative leads planned in June and July. We are hoping that a “good enough for now, safe enough to try” version of the model for the future Catalyst will be out in the world in summer following these engagements. 

We will be creating a transition road map once the engagements are complete. The overall timeline has shifted again from March 23 to September 23. This is a direct consequence of working in an entirely collective and participatory way, and ensuring that everyone has a chance to be heard. We have also had a stand of work ongoing with the CAST board, whom are currently responsible and accountable for the outcomes of this process. We’ve been engaging with them bi-weekly since the start of 2023 to keep them informed and up to date. They’ve given us a list of requirements should the decision be taken for Catalyst to separate from CAST. This is being held and managed by Lauren and the Producers, alongside the wider work. 

Have your say 

If you’d like to get involved in the engagement process over summer and are not currently within the network, please get in touch. Or if you feel moved to leave us a comment on this article, please do!

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale