Update from Catalyst’s working group experiments

Ellie Hale
Catalyst
Published in
14 min readSep 14, 2021

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TL;DR — Three Catalyst-supported groups have been exploring different collective, inclusive and relational ways of working together; from creative mapping to collaborative funding and community management. They’ve done and learned heaps that will inform their own work and beyond, as part of the next phase of Catalyst. Plus — we’re recruiting! :)

As I wrote before, the next phase of Catalyst will see it transition to a more equitable, network-led model with distributed leadership. Over the next three months we plan to hire and onboard a new dedicated team to make this happen. Applications will open later this week through our Notion page — see a sneak preview!

In the meantime, several groups have been exploring and testing what ‘collective’ actually means for Catalyst — in terms of governance, strategy, sense-making and fair allocation/distribution of resources. Details of what the groups are and who’s in them can be found on our Coda page.

Track back a minute — why are we doing this again?

A screenshot of our current Theory of Change (yellow), and how it relates to the web of phased goals and activities of Catalyst’s transition

I’ve found it helpful to think of two dimensions to our collectivism here: strategic and ethical.

Strategic

Catalyst is necessarily a collective effort, because its task is bigger than any one organisation can do alone and by coming together we can achieve something greater than the sum of our parts.

Becoming an effective strategic collective, and working out what that means for this particular configuration of organisations and people, takes time.

Ethical

Added to that is Catalyst’s part in, and response to, the long-overdue reshaping of power and privilege that is rippling across the sector and society. Finding ways for humans to be and work together, and with the environment, in an equitable balance — and in particular on large, complex problems — is one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.

The spaces, structures and people that make up Catalyst therefore need to advocate for and practice social and environmental justice at every turn. Catalyst as an entity with power and influence needs to create/be an enabling environment for the transition from domination to partnership systems.

Building a truly collective effort

Some of the changes needed are to address barriers to the strategic collectivism, e.g. ensuring existing partners have more visibility and control over resource-allocation and Catalyst’s strategic direction. This will help grow, connect and improve the support we deliver together.

Others are about dismantling barriers to that collective becoming more representative, inclusive and equitable, e.g. proactively making space so that decisions and power are held increasingly by under-represented groups like communities experiencing racial inequity, disabled people and people who are LGBTQ+-identifying, representing a range of locations/sectors/digital maturity/lived and learned experience.

How are we doing currently?

EDI network research

Back in November 2020, network research by Catalyst’s equity, diversity and inclusion partner Collaborative Future found there was clear room for improvement. Partners reported that:

  • Power in Catalyst system feels opaque — there’s a desire for more equality and openness
  • People only feel valued once they’re ‘in’ and not everyone feels they belong (nearly 50%)
  • Catalyst is not representative of large portions of society.
Screenshot from Collaborative Future’s E&I survey, showing 30% of respondents disagreed with the statement ‘I feel like I belong as part of Catalyst’

Evaluation review

More recently, our independent evaluation partners inFocus spoke to many initiative leads partners (people running key Catalyst services like Digital Candle, DigiShift and Beyond).

They found the recent focus on grant management and responding to urgent needs gave Catalyst a different, more centralised, structure than was originally intended.

Digital practice

The way we approach and teach digital design also needs closer inspection. Resource testing with the Centre for Knowledge Equity found the current language and approach around digital is not working for lived experience leaders.

There are live conversations and explorations across the network to evolve design practice so that it is holistic, relationship-centred and non-extractive.

There’s also a clear opportunity for more people from currently under-represented groups to shape Catalyst and hence digital practice in the sector.

Intentions for the next phase of Catalyst

  • Widening participation, decision-making and power-sharing
  • Intentionality around behaviours, interactions and relationships, modelling more equitable and empowering ways of working
  • Explore what a collective effort looks and feels like in practice, and how it might be sustained
  • Consider the value exchanges to ensure those often overlooked or underrepresented in these types of networks are able to fully invest their time and energies (e.g. paying people to be part of working groups, hiring panels and interviews in the hiring of our new core team Producer roles)
  • Prioritise and surface more inclusive digital approaches to ensure practice veers away from being extractive, disempowering or divisive.

So, how have we been testing this so far?

1. Network engagement working group

  • Tasks: Explore how best to communicate how Catalyst is evolving, and engage the network in this process; explore how information flows through the network; identify qualities and roles of the dedicated team and stewards; in the process, experiment with decentralised sense-making to help inform future Catalyst strategy/model/ways of working.
  • Who: Initiated and convened by two network freelancers, Roz Sutton and Joe Roberson; sessions facilitated by Tess Cooper from Collaborative Future. Participants hailed from charity, digital and grantmaking sectors; nationwide (minus Northern Ireland); not as diverse as we’d have liked (something to work on).
A spaghetti of connections shows how people in the Network Engagement Working Group are linked

It’s not the first time we’ve convened representatives from across Catalyst to help set the direction — as one of the group pointed out, this felt a bit like the ‘architects’ collective design workshops we held with selected partners ahead of the launch back in 2019, which helped shape Catalyst’s initial focus and work streams. The difference is the ‘help’.

When Catalyst pivoted to provide crisis response during the pandemic, it rapidly merged people from multiple organisations and freelancers to effectively become one team (CAST, DOT PROJECT, Shift, SCVO, NCVO, the National Lottery Community Fund, Deepr, Neontribe, Dartington and others). We hung out on the CAST Slack and came together in regular Zoom calls that were sometimes as confusing and chaotic as they were collaborative (but then, wasn’t everything in those early months?!). Nonetheless, it was an exciting step towards more equal relationships.

As we transition to be more network-led and work together to figure out what that means, every convening moves further away from being a consultative exercise and becomes an opportunity for different groups to decide and drive the direction of Catalyst. That’s the idea anyway.

What did they come up with?

The Network Engagement Working Group felt Catalyst’s role was mainly to:

  • Facilitate movement of ideas and practical tools between organisations and to do that collaboratively rather than centrally
  • Balance practical delivery with foresight — making sure there’s always a central source of things that people can pick up while also shaping new horizons for the sector to dream and step into
  • Support the figuring out of what good looks like in different aspects of digital — Catalyst being a source of trust that the sector can use as an evolving open standard
  • Be a voice on what’s needed for the sector, “smashing our glass ceiling”
  • Make a new social contract on how charities work together (giving each other a leg up)
  • Provide a medium for individuals to share genuine expertise and experience, peer to peer, outside of organisational affiliations
  • Drive a collectivist agenda — creating the mechanisms by which the things we do, create and share are possible
  • Create things that are self-sustaining after a certain point
  • Create conditions for strong, equitable relationships
  • Empower others to lead the lives they want.

Actually, a lot of alignment. And pretty inspiring.

They also highlighted three priority areas:

  1. Working with existing trusted sources of support in the sector (‘infrastructure’/ umbrella orgs)
  2. Focus on what good looks like
  3. Diversity.

A test of self-organising

The working group was also testing the extent to which people would feel they had power (or permission?) to act autonomously as Catalyst, to sense-make and organise together, without support or direction from a central source.

One of our questions for this next phase is how/when to encourage more decentralised, many-to-many interactions between people and initiatives across the Catalyst ecology, rather than with the current centre of power of the ‘core’ team/CAST.

Given the nature of previous, more transactional, one-to-many relationships with Catalyst (or really, with CAST as incubators of Catalyst), this was perhaps a tall order in just four weeks.

I deliberately didn’t attend many of the sessions in an effort to get out of the way, so big thanks to Doug, Steve, Charlotte and Roz who’ve helped me make sense of it since (Doug wrote about it here, and I’ve pulled out key takeaways from the Miro board here).

Especially huge thanks to Tess, who brilliantly held the space and designed the sessions so that there could be really open, candid conversations between a group of 14 charities, digital partners and funders who’d mostly never met before — about things like pay, power, diversity and what it means to work as a collective. No mean feat and lots we can build on in future convenings.

Successes and learnings

There was a good balance between sharing different perspectives and reflections, sitting in and exploring the ambiguity, and practical suggestions for how to move forwards. Several ideas emerged that the group committed to exploring further, most around engaging wider networks that can gain/give value as part of Catalyst —including infrastructure organisations, funders and digital partners.

Some of these have stalled and there’s clearly a need for more support/direction to help them come to fruition. This shows what role the core team might best play in future in helping the network to help itself. Others are progressing, if slowly. Several of the group mentioned it would be helpful to have more structure within which to work — boundaries, time-frames and more formal design processes. A common reflection was the desire for something ‘more tangible’. Without an understanding of how their discussions fitted into the bigger picture, people found it hard to turn them into actions.

It felt like a positive step in the right direction though. People valued

“the openness and feel of this group”

“learning from others in the room and being prompted to think about things differently”

“watching people think through a gnarly problem.”

One member also reflected that ‘circle’ felt a better term for this sort of group than ‘working group’. That aligns more closely with terminology used in decentralised governance practices like sociocracy and holacracy, which we borrow from already.

Over the last month, I‘ve been using many of the group’s phrases and priorities in our next-phase funding proposals, which feels great. More of this!

2. Initiative Leads

Tasks: Participate in a cobudgeting experiment to collectively allocate Catalyst resource for Continuation and Momentum of vital support; inputting to discussions and budget-drafting with an expectation that they will receive the agreed budget for the initiatives they represent if/when the funding comes through, and so hold a collective responsibility to the fund.

Who: The Initiative Leads group is currently made up of the people who run existing Catalyst services. I’ve added a list of who and what services/activities they represent to the website. As we transition, we’ll widen this group. We’ll also figure out the relationship between them as operational budget-holders, the Stewards, who support the core team to lead on Catalyst’s strategic design and direction, and other working groups/circles that will hopefully come to be responsible for other decisions at different levels.

As part of the formation of this working group/circle, members agreed to:

  • Be generous, collaborative, honest and open with each other wherever possible — about needs, constraints, concerns etc. Recognising this is a challenging thing to attempt, especially in the tight time frame, and likely to push people outside their comfort zone. It will take several iterations to get right, so it’s ok to fail and feel tensions — these can be a source of learning if surfaced
  • Help develop and iterate the practices of the group as we go, including a fair policy/formula for remuneration of members’ time spent on this and a practice of consent-based governance. We landed on a £400 day rate offered to all members in recognition of the time and value each brings to this group, with the time commitment being an estimated 1.5 days per month
  • Hold a shared responsibility to help widen the participation and further distribute power within this group, e.g. proactively seeking opportunities to invite under-represented groups to join both the circle itself and initiative delivery teams.

The group has explored a collaborative funding approach to design an annual budget for continuation and momentum of core services. It takes inspiration from the way co-ops and other groups use cobudgeting.

We reached consent on a super-lean budget that covers everyone’s baseline costs. Reflections included:

“Sometimes it feels a bit vague and hard to follow when you’re dipping in and out, and hard to know what you’ve agreed to in short time”

“Appreciated the balance of simplicity and complexity. Liked having one simple thing to focus on now. Good to have early focus on the big picture rather than going into detail straight away”

“Was there enough contention?”

I’m excited that CAST is recruiting a new Head of Finance who’ll support Catalyst one day a week. They’ll help us shape contracts and agreements that strike the right balance between our current set-up, where CAST holds ultimate financial liability for these budgets (at least for now) and our aspirations for shared accountability between multiple partners.

The next step is meeting in sub-groups to collectively allocate surplus funds to wherever the Leads feel they’ll make the biggest impact. It’s been hard to keep up the momentum of these over the Summer, when aligning diaries was a challenge, but I’m looking forward to picking this up again now.

3. Agencies for Good

This space is a great example of a community that is very much of the network. As in, it wasn’t set up by anyone in the ‘core’ Catalyst team, or any Catalyst-secured funding. But it was, and is, a group of people who’ve been key contributors to Catalyst’s collective effort.

How it began — by agencies, for agencies

It started with a real-life in-person meetup, pre-COVID. Darshan of SuperBeingLabs brought a handful of agencies together to discuss how more charities and funders might prioritise Discovery work (the value of which is now all the more evident after the last year).

When the pandemic hit, crisis response briefs came through and support organisations who already knew each other rushed to collaborate. One case led to a collective conversation, facilitated by CAST’s Dan, representing Catalyst, to determine who was best-placed to build a ‘Business Response to Covid-19’ platform for BITC (the group decided on Outlandish). The structured chat has been the prototype for successive collective conversations we’ve tested recently (mostly with partners who don’t already know each other). As a collective, I think we’re still learning what conditions are needed for agencies and freelancers to self-organise and self-select/deselect around a brief. Having existing relationships certainly helps people to be more open and honest with each other, but doesn’t seem to be a dealbreaker.

Establishing a Slack space

When a follow-up email thread to that chat started getting unwieldy, a group of the agency folks set up the Covid19TechAction Slack. Over the following months, briefs, links and support were shared by all members in an organic, ad hoc way.

In September, I helped create new channels for the digital partners delivering the Lottery-funded Catalyst programmes. Many of these organisations, openly procured through our Open Projects platform, were either new to the tech for good space or not well connected with many of their peers.

These channels initially prompted lots of busy conversations and sharing but by March this year, chat across the whole Slack had gone a bit quiet. The initial buzz of pandemic-accelerated mutuality had died down. It had also been a full year since the crisis hit, and the name Covid19TechAction felt a bit outdated.

Members working group and hack day

A small group of the most active members (John, Gem, Chris, Noam, Molly and me) came together as a working group to think about what next for the space, and to clarify its identity and audience. We conducted audience research with current members then held a hack day, facilitated by freelance systems coach Gemma. We were joined here by James, whom none of us really knew and who brought the valuable perspective of an ‘outsider’ (in his own words); that it felt a bit cliquey and needed to be more actively inclusive.

The hack day resulted in a new name, ‘Agencies for Good’, a snazzy new website built by SIDELabs and Hactar, and the decision to hire a Collaborative Future intern as a Community Manager-come-Diversity & Inclusion Champion for an initial 3-month pilot.

The new Agencies for Good website

The launch of the new website led to a surge in new agencies and freelancers joining — membership doubled in a month. All the more important to make new joiners feel welcome, help them connect, and prevent it feeling cliquey.

Simple actions we’ve taken include personalised welcome messages, encouraging people to post and respond to messages across the multiple channels, and posting working group updates in a #Community-development channel to be transparent and invite more people to help shape the space. With around 2,500 messages shared each month, there are clearly people connecting and getting value.

Community management and deepening connections

Over the last three months, Community Manager Shanice has designed and run a set of experiments to nurture collaboration in the community, and build trust and relationships between more members. Some tests have been more successful than others. Highlights include ‘Question of the Week’ posts, an event on ‘How to grow while maintaining your values’, and a peer-pairing project that builds on learnings from Coffee Connections. She’s researched other communities and identified ways we might boost diversity and inclusion, which we’ll be looking at as a working group this month. There’s lots we can do and changing the make-up of the working group itself may be an important first step. Watch this space for a blog from her soon…

It’s a bit confusing what the relationship of this space is to Catalyst. But it feels clearer to me than previously. Catalyst seeks to be/collectively create an enabling environment for people and organisations wanting shape digital in the social sector. Agencies for Good is one example of a space where that happens. It’s not a Catalyst-run or -owned space; it’s part of the ecosystem. It contributes to our shared objective to foster peer learning for digital folks in the best way possible. Much like the far more well-established Digital Charities Slack does for nonprofits, and a host of other peer networks, handily compiled by Ross from Third Sector Lab.

Catalyst co-funded Shanice’s role, in partnership with Nominet, because fostering more diverse and inclusive spaces — and more equitable connections and relationships between people in those spaces — helps redress the power imbalances I mentioned at the beginning. It helps build the relational infrastructure on which everything else sits, and in 2021, that infrastructure has to be one in which everyone feels able to be an important and valued contributor.

What next

I’m excited to keep learning from what could be better in these spaces. And to build a diverse team for Catalyst that facilitates and centres a collective ethos. Together with the wider Catalyst community, we’ll keep building on the knowledge gained, and keep evolving the vision for what these spaces make possible.

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Ellie Hale
Catalyst

Connecting & nurturing relationships, communities and networks at Catalyst (currently incubated by CAST). Co-organiser of several tech for good meetups.