Digital, design and data for social good

Catalyst Launch event

Written by Dan Sutch, Co-founder of CAST

It is urgent, after decades of technological advances that have chiefly benefitted big business and the bottom line, that we direct digital’s tremendous power towards work to protect our planet and to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. That is exactly what the new cross-sector collaborative The Catalyst sets out to do.

The UK has 166,000 charities. These organisations, 97% of which operate on less than £1M p/annum, are the vital pillar, alongside the state and the market, of civic life—they stand frontline in efforts to build better communities, lives and landscapes up and down the UK, and to millions of us they act as a vital safety net and link to forging a better future. But by comparison to the state and the market, this “third” pillar largely does its work without the use of digital, design and data.

We live, and these organisations operate, in uniquely daunting times: with climate crisis, mass migration, rising poverty and the retrenchment of public services hanging over us all, and posing a particular threat to all of us impatient for social progress. These forces mean that these organisations will continue to be asked to support, protect and catch more and more of us in the UK, even as they operate on ever fewer resources. This I have no doubt they will continue to do with great passion, expertise, dedication and professionalism.

But I no longer want to them to do so relying chiefly on the tools of the last century. I think it’s vital that they do this work with every tool in the modern box.

In this conviction, thankfully I am not alone. Earlier this month we held the first gathering of the Catalyst, a powerful and growing collaborative of funding bodies, civil society bodies, digital design agencies and government, who are all convinced that we must support charitable and voluntary organisations to use technology to advance their social and environmental missions and improve their efficiency and impact. Crucially, too, we come together in response to growing demands from these organisations themselves for improved provision of such support.

What’s fascinating about digital, design and data, is how they act as the Trojan Horse towards genuinely lasting and transformative change in organisations. Time after time, over the past four years working at the organisation I co-founded Centre for the Acceleration of Social Change (CAST), and before that at the UK’s primary tech-for-good funder Nominet Trust, I have seen charities embark on the relatively small-scale task of designing a new digital product or service, and in the process undergo a radical shift in how they organise and govern themselves as an organisation, how they listen and respond to users, how they fundraise, how they collaborate, create and scale solutions. My experience is that it is the single most efficient route by which charities can refashion how they tackle social and environmental issues.

While Catalyst started as an ambition to strengthen civil society and voluntary and charitable organisations, it has very quickly become a collective reimagining of civil society for a digital age. Not just how do we support organisations to respond to the changes in people’s needs, behaviours and expectations, or just to make best use of digital, design and data for social good (as huge as those aspirations are), but how can we collectively recreate civil society so that it works for everyone in an era where digital is so integrated across all areas of our lives.

Of course, Catalyst is not the first to issue this rallying cry for change within the sector, or the first to suggest that to solve the issues that lie ahead we must bring our charities into the 21st century—it being ludicrous to look to Silicon Valley, or organisations chiefly motivated by shareholder value or profit, to develop truly social or environmental technologies.

But we believe that we build on uniquely strong foundations and that Catalyst marks a major step forward for all of us already active in this field.

Firstly, this is the first time such a powerful group of trusts and foundations have aligned themselves with such an ambitious task, with City Bridge Trust, the City of London Corporation’s charitable funder, Comic Relief, the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Esmée Fairbairn, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and The National Lottery Community Fund all committing sizeable intellectual and financial resource into the endeavour. Secondly, this is the first time that such a campaign has been driven and owned by civil society leaders themselves—with unprecedented backing and ownership from a whole assortment of industry bodies. Indeed, we see it as a sign of the maturity of the tech-for-good sector that we need the Catalyst, to formalise arrangements for cooperation and collaboration and make the ecosystem easier for voluntary and charitable organisations to navigate and draw down the right support. Lastly, over the course of the past year we have taken soundings from literally hundreds of organisations to build out a picture of exactly what works, and what action we need to take next.

A strong start. But this movement needs to grow. 30 years after the birth of the internet, the private sector has established a near-monopoly on digital development and its rewards. Our vision is for the next phase of the internet to be shaped by a digital non-profit sector every bit as dynamic and vigorous as our digital businesses. Change on the scale the sector needs, that all of us whose lives are increasingly digital need, cannot be achieved by one organisation alone. We need to flood the sector with people and organisations with phenomenal digital knowledge and skills if we are to support charities to take a lead role in creating new digital products services. It will be to all of our benefit. If you are a Catalyst for more positive change, please join us. We cannot do it without you.


The founding funding partners of Catalyst: Dan Sutch, co-founder and director of the Catalyst network with founding funding partners DCMS, The National Community Lottery Fund, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, City Bridge Trust, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Comic Relief


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