Can a small amount of money really make a difference to someone struggling? What if the focus was on supporting enjoyment instead of the difficulties they faced? This is how the Catalyst programme is supporting people. Nikki Wimborne is part of the programme team for Cripplegate Foundation and Islington Giving, helping to deliver grants that support people’s lives in Islington. Here, she outlines what makes the programme different and the impact it’s having on people’s lives. 

The Catalyst Programme awards up to £500 to people on low incomes to pay for opportunities that make a difference.  By switching the focus from addressing urgent needs towards giving space for enjoyment, relationships are elevated from the transactional to the explorative. And the boosts to wellbeing and self-esteem that have come from unlocking joy have had wider beneficial effects. 

Due to its flexibility and lack of stringent rules, the Catalyst approach is ripe for replication and scaling. The development of Catalyst in Islington reflects this – since 2009 it has grown to involve more funders and include more partners. 

The Catalyst programme came about through listening to partners about what was needed and a willingness to try new ways of doing things to bring about change. Putting trusted partners in the lead and handing over control underpinned the Catalyst pilot.  

Creating space for considering aspirations

Four funders devolve budgets to 20 partners. Partner organisations, explore what would make a difference to the people they work with and can pay for opportunities they could not otherwise afford, unlocking potential and increasing wellbeing. Catalyst grants offer more than money, creating space for people to think about what they want and what they enjoy.

Crucially people are at the centre of the Catalyst programme. This is about finding what would make a difference to each individual and supporting them to consider their own aspirations. 

Relationships as lever of change

Catalyst has enabled transformational change for people living with physical and mental ill health, and experiencing other vulnerabilities. These changes are unlocked by things both practical – the stress relief of being able to afford a child’s passport – and fun – supporting a family to take their child to the zoo for the first time. For other people, small Catalyst grants have had a transformational impact, supporting the rebuilding of a life affected by addiction and criminal involvement. 

Change is achieved because of the relationships with partners and their relationships with the people they work with.  There is a growing body of evidence around relationships mattering for transformative change. Julia Unwin and Hilary Cottam are two thought leaders in this space.   

Due to the small amounts of money involved, Catalyst grants are low-risk, and deliver good value for funders, partner organisations and beneficiaries. 

There have been additional beneficial outcomes stemming from people feeling more confident and connected. One person used money to take lessons in Zumba, then began offering free and subsidised classes in their community. 

Shifting from deficit- to asset-focussed

Partner organisations tell us that Catalyst offers a different angle on their work, shifting the focus from the stresses and difficulties people face, towards things that make people feel purposeful and happy. This helps inspire beneficiaries and motivate staff who begin to see people’s lives change for the better.

Partners meet every six months to share learning applicable across sectors and situations. The monitoring requirements for Catalyst grants are deliberately low. They do not require endless reams of paper; partners are trusted to award their budgets and report back in a way that makes sense to them. Rather than using standardised measurement tools partners reflect, share and learn together about what works and how and when change occurs.  Partners value the Catalyst programme as it delivers tangible outcomes and they can see people’s lives shift as they are heard and can get what they need to develop or feel included or acknowledged. 

Funders and commissioners devolving power

Devolving power in this way can feel uncomfortable for funders. Similarly, the impact of paying for magic lessons for a child who doesn’t feel confident, or covering the costs of monthly gym membership for a mother, can seem small. Yet they have proven to make a huge difference to the way organisations work with the people they serve and to the recipients who have had someone listen, believe in them and support them in their aspirations.

Of course, risks involved in this approach were discussed at early meetings. For us as funders, an important way of reducing opposition and building trust has been through close, honest relationships with partners. Catalyst allows organisations to try and fail. Not every grant has a huge transformational effect, but enough do, making this freer, empowering approach worthwhile. 

Catalyst is now an established part of our grants portfolio. With a comparatively small amount of money, Catalyst has made life changing differences to the lives of hundreds of people in Islington. It has achieved traditional outcomes, like helping people into employment, or to advance at school, but it has also created family memories, and removed blockades to a fulfilled life.

Next steps

To help other funders, commissioners, and budget holders learn more about the Catalyst approach, we produced a report that shares the learning from 10 years of Catalyst in Islington. Some diagrams from the report are included in the above article. You can download the full version.

Some of the stories from the Catalyst programme are truly powerful. You can watch a short film, in which three recipients of Catalyst funding share their stories. 

Additional reading