Christine Cawthorne explores the 'why' and 'how' of working in the open

As part of the Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response programme, five ‘OWLs’ helped 63 charities share over 700 assets for other organisations to use – for free – in a project that encouraged working openly. 

Working openly is an idea that’s been gathering momentum over the last few years and Catalyst wanted to explore the potential of sharing programme learnings and resources across the non-profit sector. 

The Open Working Lineup team (the OWLs) encouraged programme grantees to share their learnings, research and ideas so that others in the sector could reuse them. In turn, by sharing their work, they got feedback, consolidated their knowledge and made connections with others working in the same area. 

As well as experimenting with the best ways to encourage working openly, the OWLs put together an open working manifesto and toolkit. This toolkit gives charities and funders the best resources for learning why and how to work in the open.

What are the benefits of working openly? 

There are plenty of benefits to sharing and reusing work. And it makes sense to spread this message in the non-profit sector – where money, time and specialist skills can be scarce. 

Working in the open has a lot of benefits – both for those sharing the work and for others:

  • Communicating what you’re doing helps you get buy-in from stakeholders internally. It also helps you get valuable feedback from peers in your community, meaning you can improve whichever service, initiative or idea you’re working on.
  • It positions your organisation as an innovator and it can attract the attention of funders who are seeking to fund digital projects.
  • By learning from those who have gone before you, you’ll build on existing learning and it could help you to make the right decision for your organisation. 
  • You should also be able to save time – and money – from re-using work that’s already been done, which will mean you’ll be able to see results more quickly.
  • Working in the open is reciprocal – just as you benefit from others’ work, so others benefit from you sharing your stories and assets. 

In the open working toolkit you’ll find a run-down of why working in the open is a good idea – for everyone. 


Hand drawn graphic - why should you work in the open?

Encouraging people to work openly

When we, the OWLs, looked at how and where to start this project, we realised that we’d be asking people to change their behaviour at work. This is never an easy thing to do, especially when you take into consideration existing working habits, the culture of organisations and the support needed to change. 

We thought about this a great deal: what makes people change their behaviour? You can’t just suggest it and it happens immediately without any issues. In the theories of behaviour change we looked at, the stage that consistently cropped up was awareness that change is needed.

On top of this, we had a hunch that people would need two other things to get them to actually share: 

  1. time to reflect on what they’d learned in their project
  2. the confidence to share this learning.

It seemed logical to focus on raising awareness of open working, which we planned to do with a mixture of talks, workshops and weekly emails. 

We would then help people build a habit of taking time to reflect on their learning, and build their confidence to share this with their peers on the other Catalyst and The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response projects. 

The open working toolkit can give you inspiration to learn more about why and how to work in the open, plus see how to overcome barriers in ways to make working in the open really, really easy


Hand drawn graphic - what to share and when

Defining the ‘minimum viable share’

The short-term aim was to get people to share the smallest, or easiest, thing that would be of value to others. For example, writing a post on social media that describes your project, or publishing user research that your team did onto your website. 

Why start so small? We didn’t want people to think working openly was a cumbersome, extra thing they had to do. We wanted them to see it could just be part of how they work. It can be as simple as publishing project assets (research insights or designs) so that people outside your organisation can access them, rather than just saving them to your computer. 

Our mantra throughout the project was ‘keep it simple’ and we described working openly as being simple and straightforward. To help do this we sent weekly emails raising awareness of what open working is, how to do it and showcasing the things other charities were sharing. We used storytelling (and puns) so people would want to read them (and measured the open rates to make sure this approach worked).

Examples of emails sent by the OWLs

One of our most successful ideas was introducing the ‘weeknote’ – a weekly update of what grantees were doing and learning on their projects – and encouraging people to post it on the Catalyst Medium platform. 

We listed the kind of things people could share (find more ways to do open working in the open working toolkit). These range from writing regular blogs about what you learned to sharing design assets and research insights. 

Hand drawn graphic - things you might share

Working openly gives people ‘permission’ 

We tried a mixture of approaches to get people to share. Lots of it was done through encouragement and cheerleading – showing what people were sharing and helping them put together blog posts or weeknotes.

Because working openly was a condition of receiving the funding for the programmes, it meant we would be able to insist on it if we needed to. But it turns out we didn’t. Once people thought about the potential benefits of doing it and saw that it was easy, there wasn’t much convincing to be done. 

The conversation moved quickly from ‘you should share’ to ‘this is how you share’.

The biggest thing the OWLs did was give people permission to take the time to reflect on what they were learning and why it was valuable – to themselves and others. Because it was part of the funding conditions, it was implicit that we considered it a worthwhile thing to do. Normally in projects we’re so focused on getting to the end to have a ‘thing’ to show, we don’t have the time to actively reflect on what we’re learning. And yet it’s this learning that is so beneficial to people and the organisations they work for. 

You really do get as much as you give when you share your work with others.

Permission doesn’t mean getting signoff. It means getting encouragement that other people will find your thoughts, experiences and learnings useful to them personally. You absolutely should write that weeknote or that blog post. It might seem scary at first but it will resonate with someone and help them. 

Look at the types of work and learnings that people share in the open working toolkit. 

The open working manifesto and toolkit 

To spread the word about working openly, we made an open working toolkit for you. Use it to get inspired from others working openly, to get guides on how to do it in your organisation or to help convince others it’s a good thing to do. It’s useful for you if you work in a charity or if you’re in funding (there’s a whole section on open working for funders). 

To build better services for those who need our help we need to work together – and that means being open. When we share what we know we help others learn, just as we learn from them.  

Working openly means everybody benefits: you attract ideas, funding and people who can help. Others will accelerate their learning and make progress more quickly. Mistakes are avoided, work isn’t duplicated.

By sharing and reusing work, we can better help those who need us. 

Make things open: it makes things better. 

Read our manifesto for open working in the non-profit sector.

Meet the OWLs

Hoo were the OWLs? The team was:

See how other organisations have worked in the open, including the 700+ design assets and reflections from charities working on digital transformation projects with Catalyst.


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