Feedback #1: collective views of Catalyst—‘Pulling us all into the future’
In advance of our inaugural gathering, we asked all 150 delegates—designers, funders, charity CEOs, policymakers—to identify the macro issues facing society, and the social sector specifically, as they saw them, in order to help us forge the common ambition and shared purpose of The Catalyst. Here, we publish a summary of the responses.
In the run-up to the inaugural gathering of The Catalyst we sent out four questions to attendees. I have also been doing interviews with leaders in the sector to ask them similar questions and to dig a bit deeper. The reason for asking these questions, and why I’ll continue to do so, is for several reasons.
As The Catalyst goes further into delivery mode, it’s important that we keep a view on what’s happening in the wider context around it. Is the work staying relevant? Are we ensuring that the field-catalyst work is connecting in to other work and with other people?
There’s also a job to be done of making sense of and weaving together the different narratives across the different programmes of work, to share both internally and externally.
But most importantly, The Catalyst needs to be pulling us all into the future — and for that we need to find enough of a shared purpose to align around. It was striking, but perhaps not surprising that responses to the survey, reflected how little time the sector has to lift its head, let alone imagine and shape what might be possible in the future. So many organisations are head down, in frantic and responsive delivery mode, all of the time.
And without a bigger vision and sense of shared purpose there is a danger we’ll just be using digital to keep things as they are, just maybe in a more efficient and user-centred way. The questions we asked were designed to start drawing out that larger and longer view of what’s possible.
How is the world changing that requires charities to respond?
In these responses a lot of people had zoomed in on the micro talking specifically about areas that were perhaps related to their own work like the “disconnect between young people and local communities”, but some people articulated so clearly the macro issues, the global scale, the urgency and the interwoven nature of them.
From the climate crisis to rising inequality, to the distortion of power in the hands of the large tech platforms. Whilst it can be overwhelming to think at this scale, it can’t be avoided, especially because so many of the challenges we face are intertwined at their roots. I’d also suggest that if we don’t recognise and articulate this larger view then we may limit our view on what we might be able of achieving together through The Catalyst.
“The enormous challenges facing us today — increasing inequality and concentration of wealth and power, the rise of xenophobic nationalism and the retreat of rights for marginalised groups, the climate and environment emergency, and the failure of our political class to address these — require a proportionately huge transformation of the systems that have caused these.”
What are the biggest levers or influences over change in the sector — positive and negative?
The responses to this question covered a lot of ground, from the need for more funding and funders to shift their behaviours, through to new and better infrastructure, and the need to redesign our governance structures. Culturally people want to see new kinds of leadership, questioned the lack of real collaboration, and the sector’s relationship to risk. The “trends towards investment-based finance models” was seen as distorting the evolution of the sector and taking it down a growth rather than regenerative path.
The reality of people’s lives is also what inspires people to do the work they do in the sector but is also a huge challenge in terms of change.
“The communities we are working with are facing a number of challenges — and a lack of meaningful work, growing poverty and increasing social isolation means many communities are fractured and under strain.”
In which areas could the UK’s social sector be leading the world’s thinking and practice?
We didn’t want to shy away from what is difficult — it feels like with The Catalyst it will be important to be honest and transparent about how things really are.
Other responses included responsible and ethical tech development, demonstrating how to put “mission first,” new blended financial models, bridging the gaps between big business and social change and “getting more badass and mobilising the oppressed to fight for their rights.” Most common was the belief that the UK social sector can lead the way in putting social, environmental and economic justice at the heart of design and delivery of services, and in the weaving back together of our communities.
“The social sector and civil society has a once in a generation opportunity to harness this new interest and take a central coordinating role, to protect public value, mission, impact and help everyone play to their strengths.“
What do you think could be made possible through us all working together more effectively?
This is the whole purpose of The Catalyst, to really commit to what we can do together that we can’t do alone. The quality of relationships and the ability to identify as a collective, seeing beyond our own agendas and as belonging to— and believing in—something with larger ambition and purpose, will be crucial to The Catalyst. Some people had simple responses such as “Literally anything is possible” but I especially liked the two below — one for its recognition of us as a collective unit, and the other for its recognition that we all will have a part to play but it’s about being honest about the strengths, weaknesses and authenticity of who is best placed to do what.