Picture of a tree beginning to grow leaves

A story about procurement and contracting, and supporting a community of digital agencies able to respond to charities’ digital needs.

Since March 2020 we’ve been trying to create and support open and fair forms of procurement and contracting with digital agencies and service providers across Catalyst. 

Our attempts have ranged from the very traditional and transactional to the more relational and participatory. 

We’ve tried to balance fairness, openness and inclusivity with relational ways of working and with the need to move quickly.

We’ve made mistakes, done some good things and tried to act from a place of humility and appreciation for the efforts of many amazing agencies to help hundreds of nonprofits make better use of digital.

Our objectives

  1. Create an open contracting process where agencies can view and bid to work on charity digital projects 
  2. Create and nurture ways for agencies to build community and develop best practice. This includes helping them to connect, collaborate and partner on work and bids.

Contracting scenarios

Here are some examples of the types of situation we wanted to impact:

  • An individual charity puts out a brief for a piece of digital development work
  • A digitally-curious grantmaker wants to scope a new digital funding initiative, and wants support and input from others who’ve done it before 
  • A programme co-ordinator wants help to deliver support to a large cohort of nonprofits to accelerate their digital journeys.

In Catalyst’s network setting all these scenarios create power-related questions about contracting processes e.g:

  • How decisions are made 
  • How resources are allocated
  • Who is best placed to deliver work and in what ways
  • Who decides who will be contracted
  • How to maximise collective action, learning and benefit so the network benefits as much as its organisations

Early lessons from lockdown #1

At the start of the pandemic, a number of digital agencies shared ‘crisis response’ digital briefs via email and discussed who was best placed to take them on via threads. This led to a collective conversation and group agreement on the outcome. It was a great example of each person and organisation acting in a networked way, for the benefit of the whole system rather than any single organisation. 

As the volume of briefs increased and Catalyst's role as a space to hold and manage them emerged, we wanted to replicate the spirit and success of this, on a larger scale.

Experiment #1: Loomio (May 2020)

We used collaborative decision making tool Loomio for our first attempt. Loomio allows multiple users from different organisations to discuss and vote on a topic, through openly-viewable threads and polls. It's particularly useful for enabling speedy and transparent collective decision making. Collaboratives such as CoTech use it to support their cooperative governance. 

We used Loomio to test a hypothesis:

‘If we use a collaborative tool to publish open briefs and invite input from digital agencies, digital agencies will collaboratively self-organise and identify who is best placed to respond to the brief, while sharing useful insight in the process.’

We tested Loomio for a limited period with a small group of trusted agency partners who were already familiar with Catalyst. Despite enthusiastic engagement from a few individuals, it didn't really work in the way we hoped. 

Loomio learnings

  • People liked the open approach but there was hesitation about the level of openness we were suggesting - the mutual trust wasn’t yet there
  • The agencies’ introductory Zoom session generated more valuable sharing, ideas and connections than the Loomio discussion threads.
  • The process wasn’t clear enough, nor were the briefs or how to discuss them
  • The process was time-consuming for partners and core Catalyst team members
  • We didn’t use its voting features
  • Timeframes were too tight (pandemic response driven and beyond our control)

Loomio: 3 insights

1. Decision making wasn’t 100% collaborative. Due to contractual agreements with some of our funders (that we hadn’t appreciated at the outset) sometimes CAST as Catalyst’s incubator had to be the decision-maker. Many agencies didn’t mind this as much as we expected them to. 

2. It didn’t enable agencies and clients to chat and test their relationship chemistry. This confused and frustrated both sides and created extra work for the core Catalyst team.

3. The process made it difficult for small agencies to engage. Partners were not paid for their time contributing to the discussion or taking part in voting. We saw how collaboration comes with an overhead. Smaller agencies couldn't afford to spend the time collaborating without a guarantee of subsequent work. 

Experiment #2: Open Projects and Agencies for Good (July-September 2020)

Following a retro on the Loomio experiment, we decided that the two objectives would be better achieved separately. This meant separate spaces for tendering and agency community-building.

Open tendering: a more traditional process

Taking inspiration from other open innovation programmes we designed a more traditional process. We created a simple system for agencies:

  • See a brief on a webpage 
  • Apply for a brief (via SurveyMonkey Apply)
  • Application is assessed by CAST assessors and the brief’s producers
A screenshot of a page from the Open Projects website, showing three briefs, their budgets and their deadlines, each with an 'apply' button
Open Projects page screenshot

Agencies appreciated this more familiar process. But it didn’t support conversation and sharing. 

Spaces for collaboration: Agencies for Good and Network Meetups

Many agencies were already connecting online via a Slack group set up by Hactar, DEV and Super Being Labs. It began life as a space for a handful of friendly agencies to collaboratively discuss and work on Covid-response briefs being developed by funders like Nominet and charities supported by Catalyst. 

This group became a natural place to share Open Projects updates. But it doesn’t help anyone if the same handful of organisations apply for all the briefs. So we promoted membership to other agencies and shared Open Projects updates more widely. 

Agencies for Good would also become a home for agencies to collaborate on the delivery of Catalyst programmes.

We also started the Catalyst Network Meetup - a monthly topic-based community lunch and learn session.

Experiment #3: Improved Open Projects (November 2020)

In July 2020 Catalyst was awarded £4.8m funding from The National Lottery Community Fund. Catalyst would become an External Delegation Agreement (EDA) partner, distributing Covid-response funding to charities and agencies for digital development. This would create lots of new opportunities, and test our new processes.

However, our first EDA tenders received a low level of interest from agencies. We had failed to get some basic things right. So we set out to rapidly change this through a two-week design sprint run by service design agency Snook. The sprint aimed to:

  1. Identify the barriers preventing agencies from applying
  2. Identify what could remove the barriers and encourage relevant applications

The sprint identified several areas for improvement:

  • Better content design and accessibility e.g. easier to find Open projects, better brief titles and numbering, consistent language 
  • More upfront information about the application process
  • Changes to the design of the grant programmes we were planning
  • Greater prior notice and flexibility around timescales 
  • Culture change: cultures and practices that make existing partners feel like they belong were turning new potential partners away from applying. 
Screenshot of a brief from Open Projects, with user feedback text overlaid in orange and yellow boxes
User feedback on a programme brief.

Other recommendations related to equity and inclusion, and network communication and relationships. You can see Snook’s full playback of recommendations.

We recruited Outlandish to help our team model the values of inclusivity, diversity, collaboration and power distribution that we wanted the network to embody. 

We implemented recommendations and continued to iterate programme design as we learnt until the end of the EDA programme in August 2021. 

Experiment #4: Collective conversations (June-September 2021)

Towards the end of the EDA funding programme we revisited a Loomio insight: that Zoom sessions created more collaboration and knowledge sharing around briefs. So we developed a 90-minute ‘collective conversation’ model for a later-stage EDA programme brief. We repeated this with community business funder, Power to Change. Both calls received positive feedback from everyone and created more focused briefs.

Where are we now

These experiments have led to a good infrastructure that is alive and thriving:

  • The Dovetail directory of 170 tech for good agencies now features a briefing template that incorporates our learnings
  • Agencies for Good has 450 digital partners and freelancers regularly sharing briefs and connecting over collaboration opportunities. It is run by a working group of seven digital partners with a community manager.
  • Funders have used Agencies for Good to collaborate with agencies on briefs before they go live. Funders have used the draft Catalyst reciprocal remuneration guide (final version to be made available soon!) to give back to agencies for their collaboration time. 
  • Work commissioned through Catalyst is building in longer timescales and greater flexibility. Also, it will incorporate our inclusive recruitment practices.
  • The Catalyst Network Meetup continues on a quarterly basis. The next edition on April 27th will focus on Inclusion in Tech.

We still want to increase the number of agencies that feel Catalyst is something for them. The greater the number and density of connections, the stronger the network becomes. 

New opportunities coming soon

Heads up that the Catalyst producer team will be looking to commission more brilliant people to support a network review in May and June. Stay tuned for more on that in May.

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