Hunting for digital development best practice clues on behalf of small charities

2nd July 2018 Posted by: James Richards, Fuse Project Lead at CAST

If you are a small charity, you probably do not have a lot of cash to splash around. Margins are tight, and your small teams might be dedicated but they might not have the capacity, expertise or experience to research, scope and design the digital products that their organisations need and their users want.

The wants and needs of organisations and users can of course be incredibly diverse, and it is a great temptation to accept the offer of an agency or vendor offering you a taste of their one-stop ’product’ or ’solution’. 

The following are some of the pitfalls to avoid if you are a small charity pondering your digital options.


You Need An App/Chatbot/Blockchain

Charities can be pressured into feeling that they need an app, chatbot or even – god forbid – some shaky blockchain deployment. Well-meaning staff, execs and trustees can have heard about a piece of technology (perhaps something they have seen another charity use it, or read about it in the media), and feel that their charity and clients should have access to the same cutting-edge, shiny thing.

The needs of the clients, and the challenges that they face, are however often very different to the main focus and use of these products. Some agencies and vendors will be more than happy to leap in to offer any number of ‘digital solutions’, without really considering with their client if it is what is really needed. They’ll also be happy to keep taking the cash when the product inevitably turns out to be something that is not really used, or that fails to deliver much value.

This is clearly not always the case, but charities can begin to look like marks in the eyes of the unscrupulous.


Know Where The Bodies Are Buried

Small charities often combine paid staff with volunteers, while many of the smallest are entirely volunteer-run. With the best will in the world, the growth of digital products can be a unplanned and unruly tangle of activity and consequence. These hybrid creations can be an unholy combination of different needs and technologies and can work sometimes despite, not because of the efforts spent in their creation. Often responsibility for the ongoing maintenance and upkeep of technology can fall to volunteers (who eventually leave, taking their knowledge of how everything works with them), or those who lack the skills or insights to keep the product thriving and on course.

Identifying who can help you to discover where the (digital) bodies are buried is essential. The legacy solutions that your charity is currently living with would have seemed like a good idea at the time, and perhaps genuinely made sense in a previous context, so it is important to tread carefully when dealing with the fallout of those decisions. There is no place for blame in charting a path to success. And it’s really important for everyone involved in the project - including charity staff and design/technology partners - to understand what went before, and how successful/unsuccessful it was, so that it can inform the best and most sustainable decisions for your charity in the future.

 

Don’t Go For The Black Box

All too often we see a charity has not only been sold a digital ‘pup’ that’s not fit for their purposes, they have been sold one they cannot even get into. Like the Maker’s Bill of Rights, the old adage rings true, that if you cannot open it, you do not own it.

Unscrupulous vendors and agencies can suggest contracts and agreements to their clients that might provide a superficially attractive looking product, like a free or discounted website build, but which locks the charity into a costly relationship for as long as they need to update the website. It may not be immediately obvious that changing something as simple as a logo or a social link could require a surprisingly long process on the agency’s part: protracted reference to service level agreements, change requests, tickets to be raised - all of which means time and money being spent. This arrangement can be sold to charities on the basis that a skilled team of designers and developers will be on hand to respond to their every need, but the reality is more often that the charity finds they have surrendered any control they might have had over their own digital product.

This isn’t always the case and there are a number of excellent agencies who’ll work with charities to give them what they need - no more, no less - providing them with the skills and tools to take their own steps towards their digital futures. Too often, however, the ‘enterprise solutions’ offered are an over-specced black box, that takes agency from charities, and makes them dependent on expensive software licenses or proprietary software.


Just Say No (Thanks Right Now)

Technology vendors have large, skilled teams who are trained to sell, and just saying ‘no’ as a small charity can be really hard. Charities can be under a lot of pressure to show their relevance and value, and being decisive, even if that decision is wrong, can feel like the right thing to do. However, taking the time to really gather the evidence and survey the options will invariably lead to a better outcome for the organisation and its users - not to mention significant time and money saved in the long run.

The good news is that there is more help at hand for charities now than ever before. Organisations such as the Small Charities Coalition offer high quality advice and support to their network of members (membership of the Small Charities Coalition is free). More charities are also choosing to share their own stories of digital success, and through events and meetups like NetSquared and Open Charity, they are being open about how and why things haven’t worked as well as they might. Our own CAST is a charity that exists to support nonprofits to embed digital and design across their services. We take care to embed a clear and hands-on approach to doing digital design the right way into the organisations we work with, so they are empowered to continue the work independent of our support.

And there are of course ways for charities to navigate the sometimes perilous and confusing tech landscape. We have created a conversation menu to help charities as they begin to investigate their digital product needs, and to confidently frame their questions. There are also a growing number of agencies and freelancers who are committed to creating user-centered products with charities that are appropriate in scale and scope, and created to be open and sustainable. And a growing body of guidance and support organisations to help them get it right. This shift from ‘tech for profit’ to ‘#techforgood’ is significant and can only help charities as they enter into relationships with agencies and creative technologists with their eyes wide open.

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