The following is a conversation with Jeroo Billimoria and Cynthia Rayner of Catalyst 2030, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: Catalyst 2030 is a fast-growing global movement of people and organizations committed to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, by 2030. Launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January of 2020, the organization is a social entrepreneur and innovator-led movement responding to this global call to action for people and planet.
It’s also a learning organization. And earlier this year, it issued a report titled: Catalysing Change: Catalytic networks and catalysing collaboration towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals. And here to discuss those findings with us are Jeroo Billimoria, chief facilitator of Catalyst 2030, and Cynthia Rayner, a consultant to the group.
Welcome back to The Business of Giving, Cynthia and Jeroo.
Cynthia: Thank you, Denver. Thank you for having us.
Denver: Let me start with you, Jeroo.
I mentioned in the opening that this was a fast-growing global network. Share with us, Jeroo, the dimensions of that network as it stands today.
Jeroo: The dimensions of the network, well, I think it is now over 1,500 social innovators and their organizations. But if you count from an individual perspective even people…who are, we are at around 1,700. And we are also looking at 196 countries across the world where our members are working, with more than 50% of our network being from the Development South, especially Africa and Asia. So we have really grown from when it was 50 people to what it is now, and it’s growing.
Denver: That is fantastic. That ain’t a network, that’s a movement. Congratulations! Cynthia, how did this report, Catalysing Change, come about? What is the objective, and who is it aimed at?
Cynthia: Well, Denver, I think it’s really important as movements grow that we document what’s happening, really tell the story of how an organization, a movement is growing and developing, and really think clearly about the values that underpin an organization and a movement.
So really, the objective here was to go back to the beginning and start to tell the story from the beginning as to how this movement began, what were the intentions behind it, as well as what are the intentions now. How has that grown and evolved? And we spent time with almost 50 of the members of the organization.
Many of them had been there from the beginning. Others had joined as the movement grew. And we spoke to them about: Why did they join the organization? Why did they become part of Catalyst 2030? What were their intentions? And we documented that. What came out of this was seven really important learnings.
And I think what’s exciting about this is that these are learnings that don’t just apply to Catalyst 2030, but they really apply to any group of people, or group of organizations that are trying to collaborate and be better together. It really takes a look at how organizations and movements can grow based on values, not just on objectives and goals, and to really build a movement that can stay with integrity to those values.
So these are learnings in the report that don’t just apply to Catalyst 2030. They really apply more broadly to anyone trying to grow a movement that has big, audacious goals as a part of their DNA.
Denver: Yeah. And before we dig into those seven lessons, Cynthia, tell us a little bit about what is a “catalytic network” and what is not a catalytic network.
Cynthia: So that’s a great question, and it was something that we really were trying to understand as we went through these interviews. For me, what was exciting was even to think about this idea of a catalytic network because oftentimes, I think when people are growing movements, they think about what they want to be, but oftentimes they don’t think about: What do they not want to be?
And what we found was that people were very intentional in the creation of Catalyst 2030. Not just about what they were moving towards, but what they wanted to ensure was not part of the network. So what we really think about catalytic networks is that… and I mentioned this before… the idea that it’s organized around values, that it’s not just goals, objectives, ideologies, but really that values are the central tenet of organizing.
They’re also built around collaboration rather than competition. And many networks might say, “Okay, we have a unique selling point that differentiates us from this other network.” What we found within Catalyst 2030 was that in fact, it’s a network of networks, so it’s building upon other networks and actually trying to tie them together into a more united force.
A catalytic network is resilient, but it is not singular. So it’s not replacing other organizations and networks; it’s actually creating additional layers across systems, which was an exciting finding. This idea that it can actually create more solutions, a plurality of solutions… that we’re adding, rather than taking away or simplifying.
I think that’s really important in complex systems that we think about: How can we add things, rather than just thinking about: How do we simplify and get down to a single solution, which can exclude things that might be really important?
Cynthia: Yeah. So those are some of the things; there’s more in the report And please read it to learn more about what a catalytic network is and what it is not.
Denver: Jeroo, let me ask you to dig in a little bit about what Cynthia just talked about. And this is one of your first learnings, and that is “Unite with values.” That’s a place where these networks begin. Boy, and so many of the experiences I’ve had, you start with: What’s our objective? What’s our goal? But you talk about starting with values. Speak a little bit about that, how that works, why that’s the case.
Jeroo: I think with Catalyst, we really always thought values is what drove us, and a common value base and a common understanding base is what got the members together because as you know, in the history and the origin of Catalyst, they always say we started as a WhatsApp group among social entrepreneurs who used to meet across Ashoka, Skoll, Schwab, Echoing Green.
And each one of us had our own organizations with our own missions, et cetera. But what bonded us was values, was the passion for change. And that’s why we thought that was the fundamental principle of getting Catalyst together. And that’s also what is one of our main learnings there in the report.
Denver: Yeah. So you really get to know each other before you decide what to do? Would that be fair to say?
Jeroo: Oh, definitely. And one of our learnings, because every year we try to see what are our learnings… because we have to stay a learning network. One of our learnings this year is that we really are very relational. And when our collaborations take place or when they succeed, it’s because of the relations that come… and the bonding, and the trust, and the values which come and help align.
Jeroo: So that’s a big learning for us also.
Denver: Yeah, it’s amazing. And when you think about that in your own life, it really does apply. The people that I trust, the people I get along with, I get to know them first before we decide what to do. And I’ve never elevated it to this level in terms of this collective change, but it really does make intrinsically an awful lot of sense.
A second learning, Cynthia, was “Power the collective.” And this is made up of several key activities. What would those be?
Cynthia: Well, a lot of what we were talking about how we come together was about how we actually make that happen both across time and space. So one of the things that came across was that these convening activities that Catalyst 2030 organizes over the course of the year are extremely important for building that relational capital. And oftentimes, the convening activities can look really simple, but there’s a lot of activities that are happening within those convenings that have a lot of power.
So, for example, Catalyst 2030 organizes every year an event which has many, many different sub-events across the world called Catalysing Change Week, so there are hundreds of events. And while many of these conversations can be quite simple, in fact what’s happening is that we’re really creating this momentum and ensuring that people have a chance to hear from people that they wouldn’t be able to hear from otherwise.
Another event that Catalyst 2030 organizes is the Catalyst Awards. And this is really, interestingly enough, a way of ensuring that social entrepreneurs and the real grassroots entrepreneurs have a say in how they award those who are the funders. Usually those funders are the ones in the power position.
But in this case, we invert the traditional dynamic and we say, “Okay, we would like to, as grassroots innovators, we would like to award those who are in positions of traditional power.” And so these are the ways that Catalyst 2030 actually takes what it values and lives it out in actual events across the course of the year. There’s more of those, but those are the two big ones that come to mind right now.
Denver: Yeah. And with all those, you really establish a cadence to these convenings, don’t you?
Cynthia: Absolutely. They have to really have kind of a place in the calendar and a place in people’s minds over the course of the year. Another thing that Catalyst 2030 has is its general assemblies. And I have been so enthusiastic to join these general assemblies because not only do you get people from all over the world convening on a monthly basis and really getting to know one another, but they are timed so much so that you actually get so much information in such a short amount of time.
It’s really incredible how you can see over the course of a year how those learnings build so quickly.
“…an honest broker, I always say, is a person who doesn’t say ‘ I, myself, me’ first, but is able to see what is the best connection that is happening, who would be the best people to bring forward and to bring to the table. And I think it’s putting the mission and the network and the movement before self. And it’s something which we put as a training. It’s actually something which we constantly reinforce with the team and the secretariat tries to live on a day-to-day basis.”
Denver: Yeah. Jeroo, you state that these networks are supported by an honest broker and a team of facilitators. Share with us how they need to go about their work and how that may differ from what many of us are accustomed to.
Jeroo: So basically, an honest broker, I always say, is a person who doesn’t say “I, myself, me” first, but is able to see what is the best connection that is happening, who would be the best people to bring forward and to bring to the table. And I think it’s putting the mission and the network and the movement before self.
And it’s something which we put as a training. It’s actually something which we constantly reinforce with the team and the secretariat tries to live on a day to day basis. I know for myself, I’m constantly asking myself: Have I put the right people in the forefront? Have I made sure that it’s happening?
So it’s almost like a checklist of questions on whether you are doing the right convening, the right connecting, not being over-dominating in a co-creation, letting others voice their views, staying in the background. It’s like a mental checklist, which I try to get people to follow.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah. And I guess implicit in all that is that an honest broker doesn’t promote a single agenda or vision, correct?
Jeroo: No. No. Not at all, yeah. Because then you are not honest, and you have to follow the movement and what the people say. And I’ll speak for myself, sometimes I may want “B,” but the movement members will say, “No, we want ‘D’,” and then we go with “D.” And you’ll say, “Mmm…” But yeah, you have to follow what people say.
Denver: Well, everybody I talk to always speaks about how you are such a wonderful, honest broker. Let me ask you this, how did you develop those skills?
Jeroo: Actually, I think it’s just my parents and simple, “God gave you two ears and one mouth. Listen more, speak less. And then try to serve.” Simple.
Denver: Cynthia, “Lead from the first mile.” Now that flips the script from what we normally think of as: the last mile. What are the lessons there?
Cynthia: Well, this is a beautiful term that came through the interviews. And when I first heard it, I thought, wow, this is just something that totally turns my mind around. Oftentimes, we’ll talk about the last mile as being the place of the grassroots, but in fact, if we think about it, that is the first mile, we get a completely different picture of how global development can happen.
There’s a couple of learnings that really apply to this. First, this idea of linking many locals– so the idea that Catalyst 2030 plays this role in not dominant ideas coming from the global north, but rather many, many locals linking together and learning from one another.
And then this idea that the first mile, those who are in the locally-led organizations can really be the source of solutions and the source of power to lead is really… for me… one of the most exciting parts of this report.
I’m just going to read a quote that I really love. It says, “We need to reimagine ‘global’ as a sum of lots of locals, building a modern Marshall Plan for people in planet, that is data-driven and locally-led. It’s more about connecting the people of London with the people of Lagos, and Des Moines with Dar es Salaam, with the aim of delivering better at a local level everywhere.”
For me, this is just the most exciting thing to come out of this report, the fact that we can flip: who are the leaders in this idea of global development and in pursuit of the SDGs.
Denver: Yeah, and that’s a wonderful way to think about inclusivity. No matter what arena you may be in, but starting there, and then going up.
Jeroo: Can I just add something over here? This is really new and next week, actually, COP is happening, as you know. And instead of having all the conversations from the north dominate, our members had the idea to put solutions from the Development South. So, solutions from India, Africa, Egypt, which are actually working on climate change, and then saying that our call to action is that we want those solutions to form the basis of policies at COP.
So this just says what Cynthia is saying and how it’s even coming into day-to- day practice, you know?
Denver: Yeah. Lots of fresh thinking. No question about it.
Let’s talk a little bit about resources, and that’s about moving the funding, Jeroo, and moving that funding ecosystem toward new and transformative practices. Tell us a little bit about what’s going on in that area.
Jeroo: Okay. So, again, our members came together, and they said that part of our power of the collective will be to write a letter to all the donors. So we had a thousand-plus members sign that. That time, those many members we had, so pretty much almost all of them, mostly from the Development South, saying that there should be principles of inclusivity, unrestricted funding, multi year funding. All the things that we talked about were put into the letter, and then we had it.
Now, what we are trying to do is get donors to sign a pledge, but everyone signs pledges and forgets, so we are trying to say: “You signed the pledge, but then in six months you have to give us a commitment of how you’re going to change.”
And then there were yet other members of us who said: “We’re going to take it a step further,” and have created a self-regulation tool where funders can test for themselves how we are going to do it. And we are hoping that we can compile all of this cumulatively, and we will be able to measure if the sector and the funders are actually walking the talk and changing their behavior.
Jeroo: So a lot is happening on that aspect. There’s a lot happening with new economies and all of that.
Denver: Yeah. It’s really important, I guess, that donors redefine what success means because so often it has meant: Give a gift, and see results right away! So they really have to just change the whole paradigm and probably their time horizons as well.
Jeroo: For sure, because otherwise we are not going to manage to do anything. We’ll just keep shooting ourselves in the feet like we’re doing now.
“…we need places where organizations and individuals can stay together while they learn together. We need places where as small successes are happening, we can celebrate together. We need to be able to learn also from the things that are failures so that we don’t do them again, so that we can get up and try again and try something better. Really, systems change at its heart is a learning process. It’s not an ultimate destination.”
Denver: Cynthia, ultimately these catalytic networks seek to achieve systems change. And boy, we know you know a lot about that. What has been Catalyst 2030’s experience? And what lessons can be drawn from what you’ve experienced through this organization?
Cynthia: Well, I mean, I think the lessons are still coming. I think that’s what’s exciting about this… is that Catalyst 2030 is really a place where individuals and organizations that are committed to systems change can learn about how to do this together, and really share those learnings in real time, as they are happening.
Well, I like to think about systems change more as “systems work.” It’s the day-to-day practices that actually drive systemic change over the long term. And I actually just had a report open yesterday, a Bridgespan report from a couple of years back. And I noticed that it was saying that this type of change takes 15 to 20 years.
So really, what we’re talking about is we need places where organizations and individuals can stay together while they learn together. We need places where as small successes are happening, we can celebrate together. We need to be able to learn also from the things that are failures so that we don’t do them again, so that we can get up and try again and try something better.
Really, systems change at its heart is a learning process. It’s not an ultimate destination. And so Catalyst 2030 provides this real place where people can come together, people from all walks of life. So that’s the local social entrepreneurs and leaders. It is the funders. It is the private sector. All of these different types of leaders and organizations can come together and stay together while learning about how to create systemic change.
Denver: Well, let me ask you this, Jeroo. What would you say is going to be the most enduring legacy of Catalyst 2030?
Jeroo: The friendships. The friendships which will lead to collaborations, which will lead to the change.
Jeroo: And I say that because everything that will come will emerge from the trust which is there, right? And the values which are there. It means there may be lots of projects and collaborations and things which will happen, but if you say: what will stay 50 years from now, it will be the values which have been enshrined in the movement, which will keep it going.
Denver: Very well said.
Jeroo: That’s my personal opinion.
Denver: Let me ask each of you this question, and if I may, let me start with you, Jeroo. We’ve talked about some of the learnings that have come from this report, but on a personal basis, your whole sense of personal awareness– What has been the biggest learning, the biggest takeaway for you over the course of the past three years of having been part of this network?
Jeroo: I think my biggest personal learning is letting go. If I can explain it, I think… part of my philosophy also in honest broker is Karma and Dharma, which is: You do your duty, and then you let the things happen. And that’s what I’ve always done.
But in Catalyst, I have really found that there is such a wealth of ideas from everybody that the best way to nurture that is by just letting it grow, and then people will take it on, and it’ll evolve from A to Z in a beautiful way.
So my thing is: Let it go, let it evolve, and let ideas take shape. And that’s my biggest learning, and I just love it, you know?
Denver: Oh, that is a simply wonderful answer, but let me follow up on it. How did you learn how to let go?
I think we all know we need to: let go. We can’t. What was the trick? What was the ‘aha moment’ that really got you to just “let go” so you could let it grow?
Jeroo: I think that goes, not just with Catalyst, but much, much, much earlier in life. I think with my very first networks… when I couldn’t help every child, even if I wanted to… and I had to let go then.
Jeroo: So I think that was the learning of “letting go” because if I continued, then I couldn’t rescue every child I wanted.
Denver: Yeah. Yeah.
Jeroo: So I think, for me, it started from there, but it continued. And in Catalyst, I remember I was saying, “But let’s try to have a strategy plan.” And that’s because I love my strategies and pathways… I have to admit it, despite everything.
And they were like, “No, we’re going to do it exactly this way.” And I said, “Okay, let it flow. Let it go. Whatever happens, we’ll get there.” And that’s what happened; this is where it is. And if you look at the first strategy document and now, it’s totally different. But yet the core elements and values have not changed in any way, you know?
“And ultimately, I really believe that is the legacy that Catalyst 2030 will have, is this ability to have a safe space where people can really change their minds. And if we could have that in the world… where people can come together, who have different points of view, and really spend time together and be in relationship with one another, I really think that we would have a better world.”
Denver: Yeah. No, I hear you. And I think a lot of it, it sounds like, too, is that you trust people. That you surround your people and you trust them so you can let it go because there is that trust, which probably comes from those relationships that you took the time to build at the beginning. So that’s really, really interesting.
How about you, Cynthia? What has been your biggest personal learning from this experience?
Cynthia: Yeah, thanks Denver. It’s actually really nice to reflect on this. I would say that in the last year, really, it’s witnessing mindset shifts and how that really happens. A lot of what we think of when we think of deep transformational change, happens when people change their minds.
And I’ve always been really curious about how that happens. But at Catalyst 2030, I’ve actually been able to see it firsthand. You can actually see when people are in relationship with people that they wouldn’t be in relationship with otherwise, that it creates an environment where people are able to change their minds to really think about what they are doing and why they do it, and then to have subtle shifts that actually can have profound changes in the world.
I’ve seen it happen for myself, and I’ve seen it happen for others. I’ve been able to talk to people about the mindset shifts that they’ve experienced. And ultimately, I really believe that is the legacy that Catalyst 2030 will have, is this ability to have a safe space where people can really change their minds.
And if we could have that in the world… where people can come together, who have different points of view, and really spend time together and be in relationship with one another, I really think that we would have a better world.
Denver: Wow! Those are two wonderful answers you guys have just given. Cynthia, this report, Catalysing Change: Catalytic networks and catalysing collaboration towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals, can people access this report? Is there a place where people can get it?
Cynthia: Absolutely. You just need to visit the Catalyst 2030 website. It’s linked right from the homepage, so catalyst2030.net, and scroll down to find the Catalysing Change 2022 report.
Denver: Fantastic. And Jeroo, what’s next? You always have something around the bend. What’s around the bend for Catalyst 2030?
Jeroo: So many things… I don’t know where to start. But I think, well, next week is the launch of the report of what we call our South x South Alliance where we are telling world leaders” If you really want change, listen to the First Mile.
So I think that’s what’s next. And we hope that the climate narrative will shift with that, followed by how we are redefining the term ‘localization’ into ecosystem development, and how if we have to change and work, we have to work as communities, and dot, dot, dot, many more things.
Denver: Dot, dot, dot. Well, the two of you need to come back and fill me in on the dot, dot, dots. Jeroo and Cynthia, I want to thank you so much for being here today. It’s always such a great pleasure to have you on the show.
Cynthia: Thank you, Denver.
Jeroo: Thank you, Denver.
Cynthia: Great to be here.
Jeroo: Yeah, you were amazing.
Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, will be released on Giving Tuesday, November 29th.