Sensing and responding to needs. Being flexibly collaborative. Giving grantees freedom. Equitable programmes...

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, over 350 funders have signed the London Funders statement, committing to more flexible funding practices. In this blog, I explore what ‘flexible funding’ has meant for us at CAST and Catalyst over the past year, based on our experience of delivering the Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response fund. The fund, which wrapped up last month, was a partnership between The National Lottery Community Fund and CAST, with support from the Catalyst network.

1. Sensing and responding to needs, continuously

We were delivering urgent support, at pace and with little lead time. This meant that we needed to have our ears to the ground constantly. We were looking and listening out for what we might be getting wrong so that we could change it, what we were getting right so that we could build on it, and what the sector was saying they needed so that we could design programmes that directly responded. This meant frequent retrospectives, analysis of anonymised application data, and constant feedback loops through surveys and face to face meetings with grantees and delivery partners.

Some examples of how we responded:

  • We created the ‘Definition Programme’ because charities needed help defining and prototyping rather than building bespoke solutions from scratch. We didn’t know this until after they’d applied. 
  • Through analysing application data, we picked up that a significant number of applicants were looking for a way to share and publish their organisational guidance. So we responded by creating a brief to co-develop with charities an open source solution called ‘Resource hubs’ that many charities could benefit from. 
  • From the Discovery Programme evaluation, we heard from charities that timeframes were too tight, people’s access needs were not being met in workshops and there was a lack of clarity as to who was involved and when. We responded to that insight quickly through the design of the ‘kick off’ session at the beginning of all subsequent programmes. Find out more about what we learned about participants’ needs - and how we responded - in our key learnings blog.

2. Being flexibly collaborative 

For Catalyst, collaboration is part of our core mission. Collaboration reduces duplication of effort, saving time and money. Through collaboration, we increase our collective knowledge, skill and capacity. It enables us to learn from one another’s successes and failures. 

We knew that in order to deliver urgent support to the sector we needed to build partnerships and relationships - and we needed to be flexible about who was involved and when. So we cast the net as wide as possible to get the right experts to join forces with charities. For example, we purposefully brought in digital experts that had a specialism in elearning so that they could provide support to a cohort of charities that shared that particular need.  

We facilitated peer support sessions, creating spaces for links to happen between all kinds of people and organisations in an organic way. 

We also encouraged collaboration through open working - charities were asked to share their journeys openly throughout the grant period, which meant that they could make connections early on. The Catalyst ‘Festival of Learning’ was another mechanism to encourage charities to share and connect. See the Open Working Toolkit for more information about how to support charities to work in the open.

3. Giving grantees the freedom to discover and change direction

'Across all of the charities interviewed, those who undertook discovery research with their communities and staff, as well as those who followed user-centred design methods, were much better placed to develop solutions that worked for them.’ [Nissa Ramsay reports in Digital Journeys]

User research was one of the top five key skills that participants felt they had got out of the Catalyst programmes. We asked grantees to carry out in-depth discovery into their users’ needs, to really understand the problem they were trying to solve before defining the solution. It gave grantees the freedom to change direction and explore alternatives. By doing that we gave grantees permission to fail (if necessary) early in the process, which is far better than investing lots of time and money into developing something only to fall at the last hurdle and realise it doesn’t meet the users’ needs after all.

4. Creating programmes that are equitable

We tried to meet organisations where they were at in their digital journeys. Whether they are starting out or advancing, there is always progress to be made when it comes to digital. Acknowledging that, the Catalyst programmes gave any organisation the opportunity to push boundaries in a way that was realistic and achievable for them.

Being equitable is also about providing all applicants with a fair and equal opportunity to succeed. And when it came to unsuccessful applicants, we tried to offer support in other ways. Be that through providing a link to an expert through Digital Candle, finding a Service Recipe that they might be able to replicate, or linking to relevant reusable tools and assets. You can see an example of one of the email templates we used here, together with a few examples of the type of personalised feedback we tried to offer. 

5. A broader perspective

During the pandemic, we focussed heavily on funding charities and digital experts directly. But beyond that we looked to specialist groups that could help the sector in the longer term. The Data Collective and the ‘Taxonomy’ work are good examples of that, using a data-led approach and creating sector-wide resources that would benefit the present and the future.


For CAST and Catalyst, being agile is part of who we are. We have always provided support by following iterative, test and learn cycles, and relied on our digital design principles to steer us. It was natural for us to translate these approaches to delivering the Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response fund. But when it comes to funding, there are constraining forces such as the deadline by which funding needs to be spent and the strict eligibility criteria for applicants. Even with these constraints there is still so much opportunity for flexibility, and much to be gained in terms of better outcomes, longer term impact and more equitable and inclusive funding practices.

As one grantee commented at the end of the programme:

"We've loved this journey. It's very different to how other funders work. Other funders say, ‘there's a pot of money, we want you to do this’, but this process has been a lot more fluid; a lot (of) two way communication. We've not been dictated to and in turn we've also not dictated to our members, it's almost gone the other way. I think that's worked really well."

You can see how other participants responded to the funding model and programme design principles in this animation -  and for more information on the fund, please see our Notion handbook.

Image by Ghinzo from Pixabay

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