In 2020 the National Lottery Community Fund partnered with CAST, and supported by the Catalyst network to create the COVID-19 Digital Response funding initiative. The fund was aimed at charities whose work was affected by COVID-19 and who needed emergency funding to continue to deliver essential services. In this case the focus was on accessible remote communications. They had already been on a discovery phase to explore their challenge, but their needs were still not clear and the scope still remained quite large. We were lucky enough to run a 10-week definition phase to support with prioritisation, challenging their riskiest assumptions, prototyping, and testing to help them towards a solution.

The cohort

We were paired with a cohort of eight charities (initially 11, but a few moved around) with a focus on accessible remote communications. They were…

Down Syndrome International –  committed to improving quality of life for people with Down syndrome, promoting their right to be included on a full and equal basis with others.

End Youth Homelessness (now known as EveryYouth) – working to end youth homelessness on a national scale to give vulnerable young people a future.

Home-Start – a local community network of trained volunteers and expert support helping families with young children through their challenging times.

Lancashire Boys and Girls Club – support a network of over 100 member clubs across Lancashire a range of support and advice such as personal social development programmes, young leader training and accreditation.

One Voice Blackburn – working to create cohesive, aspirational, and confident communities in Blackburn and Darwen.

Slide – A community of dancers uniting people of all ages, abilities & backgrounds.

Voices in Exile – who offer practical and legal support to refugees, asylum seekers and vulnerable migrants with no recourse to public funds in East and West Sussex and Surrey.

16-25 independent people – working with young people who are homeless, leaving care or at risk of homelessness in Bristol and the South West.

Our Approach

There were some parameters about the programme which helped create structure and manage expectations. We had 10 weeks to deliver the work with the entire group, all work must be done out in the open i.e. committed to proactively sharing learnings from the programme by keeping week notes and communicating outcomes and findings at the end, and a minimum amount of time was required from the cohort members. Other than that, we had quite a lot of freedom to shape the programme which we were incredibly grateful for – it meant that we could use our expertise and approach to shape it as best as we could.

You might be wondering how we were possibly going to run one project for eight different charities across quite a broad field. Each of the charities were using accessible remote communications in a different way. Thinking back to that time, you might recall that a lot of us were learning how to use tools specifically relevant to the pandemic as we went along, and this was no different. The cohort, like many charities, had heavily relied and enjoyed face to face service delivery and collaboration before the pandemic arrived.

The first step was to have a quick call with each of them to find out:

We held a full team kick off on the sunniest day of the year and hoped everyone would turn up (they did) to introduce the project and hit the ground running. Our proposed approach was to split the 10 weeks up into five smaller sprints, each with a sprint goal, a planning meeting and a retrospective at either end of the sprint to make sure that learnings were captured and fed back into the next sprint. We aimed for a two-fold learning approach – the first about Agile project management and the method of iterative improvements, time-boxing and creating small chunks of prioritised work to be delivered within the two week sprint. The second prong was based on the specific theme of the sprint, which we decided on after speaking to each charity. Our aim for this was that the cohort would feel more ownership of each theme and learn new skills by the end of the sprint.

If you’ve worked with us before, you’ll know that our preferred way of working is to provide knowledge and help build skills that will serve our clients in the long run, rather than just delivering something that they need in the short term. It works best when clients are open to learning and willing to get stuck in, and despite the charities increased busyness due to the pandemic, they were incredibly open to getting out of their comfort zone and giving new things a go.

After the kick off meeting, we grouped the cohort based on similar needs with the view to give more bespoke support to each of them and support them on a more focused basis. This also gave a chance to collaborate with the incredible designer and community-led design practitioner Gemma Copeland from our sister co-op Common Knowledge, and Aaron Hirtenstein, a long term collaborator and project manager extraordinaire.

We made a particular emphasis on learning and support – not just from us – but from the cohort itself. This spoke well to the open working criteria because there was already a lot of knowledge in the virtual room that could serve others. The conversations started to flow around ‘we used this and we didn’t like it because…’, ‘don’t waste your money on that, we already tried and this is what we found’, and ‘this has worked really well for us’, it’s what open working dreams are made of. These conversations evolved into quick drop-ins for charities to showcase a thing – software, a skill or a hack that they’d used to help their day to day. We also weaved masterclasses – an hour slot from an expert in the charity sector into each sprint so that the cohort could hear from the most relevant people within our vast network.

We broke the sprints down into themes of:

  1. Off the shelf tools and accessibility, masterclass: Accessibility and equitable technology by Sonia
  2. Creating online communities with an international masterclass from Ruth Pethybridge, Caroline Sinders, Craig Barbeary and Frankie Tortora
  3. User testing and data, masterclass led by Kayleigh, the overall project manager and our user research lead
  4. Goal setting and roadmapping, masterclass by Jen Rose, a Product Lead at an organisation called accuRx and Richard from Outlandish
  5. [There was an extra masterclass requested by the cohort about inclusive decision-making, based on the public workshop that we run]
  6. Wrap up and next steps for the cohort

Alongside the weekly masterclasses and skill share drop-ins, we would meet for each sprint meeting and explore different versions of retrospectives each time, and also ran ad hoc coaching and one to one support. Kayleigh also got into writing the week notes which were cathartic and looking back, a great way to archive what we did on a weekly basis.

We delivered the entire project remotely on Zoom and despite that (!) we are proud that we managed to form a team despite us never having met in-person. The weekly one to one support calls flourished into catch ups and wider questions about how each charity was coping during the pandemic, and how we were finding it as individuals and served as a source of respite at an incredibly stressful time.


This wasn’t a typical project in the sense that we got to deliver a ‘thing’ and then continue to work with the cohort. Once the definitions phase came to and end, we stopped working on the project but we did manage to gather feedback in our close meeting. Here are some of the kind words that people shared:



Longed for:

Looking back, this was a great project to be part of at an otherwise horrible time during the world. We wish all of the charities the very best and hope that the skills continue to be useful to them