Citizens Advice Manchester

Organisation size: Large (income £1 million - £10 million)

Based in: North West

Interview with: Stuart Pearson, January 2020

Citizens Advice Manchester provides advice to people, through a drop-in centre, telephone advice line and local outreach services. We are a member of Citizens Advice Bureau and part of a network of over 300 charities across the UK. There are three of us in our digital team, in an organisation of more than 60 staff and 60 volunteers. I’m a Head of Digital with a remit for all things tech and I set the digital roadmap for the organisations. I have an IT support assistant who also helps me with all the day to day work of crawling under tables and turning things off and on. We’ve recently got another volunteer working with us on our data. Our story really started in 2008, over ten years ago, when a new Chief Executive started at the organisation. I’d already been at the organisation five years, working on the website and the email and IT system, moving us on from rows of ring-binders and dial up modems. They asked me to be more hands on in shaping the organisation going forward and genuinely believed that someone who knew about tech should have a seat at the table when discussing strategy and the future. I was lucky really and I was given free remit to work out the best way forward. Before I knew digital transformation was a ‘thing’, that’s what we started doing.

Scene 1: Internal systems and processes

For me one driver for digital is about freeing our team to do the things that matter to them, so I started with internal systems, removing what was no longer needed or useful. We moved to Office 365 and other applications to the Cloud, to reduce on premises drain and encourage more collaboration, mainly around bid-writing, which was a big part of our work at that point. The problem was, it didn’t change the culture: people just used Office the way they always had. I tried to introduce Yammer but again we had zero engagement. I shared the experience with our national team who were looking at a move to their work applications and moved to G-Suite. The feedback from them was positive and I was then able to make the case for this change and we followed them to G Suite three years ago. This also allowed migration to Chrome OS from Windows. The impact on IT support has been huge. I no longer have to spend all my time on things I’m not interested in, like server maintenance, Java updates and virus protection. Freeing me up to provide more value to the team. 

This was a great move for improving collaboration and transparency, as well as changing the culture around this. Now everyone can get involved in bid writing, with trustees sense checking live documents and no nonsense around who has which version. We were an early adopter of Facebook's internal communications tool Workplace. Having had an internal intranet, and tried Yammer and Google Plus, this is the first product that has created a genuine dialogue between teams that isn’t controlled from above. People now share success stories and praise. Staff really value it.

Digital has provided us with a range of powerful, easy to use and deploy tools. Many of which have been free or massively discounted for non profits.

Scene 2: Data

Data has become a big priority for us this year. I think it is often seen as the poor relation to digital transformation, but for us, it is integral to it. A few years ago, our data use was primarily for vanity stats or to report to funders. Collecting outcomes data and entering it into our system was laborious and staff often didn’t do it. We had monthly performance data from our national office but when there were questions, no one could remember specific details of what happened and why.

To get us started it made sense to use Data Orchards’ 2016 Data Evolution Report. I turned it into a Google form which I sent to the trustees, the leadership team and managers (of course now it is now a self-assessment tool you can fill in online). It was such an interesting exercise because it’s based on perceptions. People were using me as the benchmark, thinking we were further ahead than we are. However, those trustees and people closer to the work knew the challenges, giving much more realistic and lower scores. The exercise really helped us get wider management engagement. I was able to put data on the agenda in strategy meetings, including a proof of concept for an outcomes dashboard to improve data use across the organisation.

I’m very much committed to ‘data democratisation’ where every team, not just one person, gets to see the data about them and make decisions based on this. The new outcomes dashboards we created really helped with this. They show the number of advice calls we answer daily and the outcomes recorded. Now the teams know their data is used and they can see the impact that they are making, they are much more motivated. In November, we answered more calls than ever before and recorded an extra £2 million of outcomes.

However, I think we can do a lot more. I want to use our data to examine customer journeys, understand our client needs and personalise services - and we are upskilling ourselves to do this. We now have a skilled data volunteer and we were successful in getting on to the Google Data Solutions for Change programme. They give you free access to their platforms and tools like Big Query for nine months, with unlimited credits for QwickLabs training. We think there might be interesting trends in our data and want to use Google AutoML for machine learning, but we’re not there yet.

Dedicated funding has always been a big challenge for us in terms of digital. When trying to help our data push we missed out on a National Lottery proposal around using data for good on their collaboration funding. We really wanted to trial a data driven approach to targeting our services but it was just too difficult to explain and perhaps too innovative for the fund itself. We have also approached DataKind for support. They are going to do a ‘data dive’ with volunteer data scientists to start finding the potential trends in our data. We are very excited about this.

Scene 3: Services

Developing services with social impact has always been our greatest priority. Using digital in new ways to do this is why we’re seen as an innovative organisation. However, I think it’s important to share the failures, as well as the successes - it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

In the last year, we were one of the first in our network to try WhatsApp as an access channel and had great engagement with clients, but had to pivot to Facebook Messenger when they changed the APIs. Facebook Messenger does not delete data automatically so it’s not ideal, particularly for GDPR, but we spoke to the Information Commissioners’ Office and developed a disclaimer. We knew over 100 clients a month were contacting us that way already so it made sense to add the plug-in on our website. The response was good and we accessed a new younger client group, as well as those where English is not their first language. However, the problems arose when I started getting notifications at 2am from clients who needed a quick response. So we decided to develop a chatbot for out of hours service instead.

This wasn’t easy. People’s queries and support needs were even more complex than we anticipated. We are also very conscious that they shouldn’t get caught in a loop and should always have the ability to connect to a real advisor. We’re now at a point where we are broadly happy with it, but want to develop it further. It is essentially a set of frequently asked questions. We make it clear it is not a person and that it collects data, so that it can be passed on to an advisor if they want it to. We’ve found about 10-15% of people get the answers they are looking for, without speaking to an advisor, which means the advisors can focus on cases where they are needed most. This is a great success rate for us to build on.

Our collaboration with the national office has really helped us. The former assistant chief executive was a strong advocate for our work and I now sit on their technology committee as the network representative. They are obviously a much bigger and well resourced charity so it’s been a huge learning curve, particularly getting my head around user research and service design concepts and practices. We recently won the national innovation award from them which was a really nice acknowledgement of our work. We're really excited to be working with them to develop an incubator network with the national team, to encourage and test new approaches to advice before they are used across the network.

Closing scenes

To any other charity doing this, particularly smaller ones, I’d say the most important thing you can do is upskill yourselves and get involved in your local Tech for Good community. I also read what other charities are doing on Twitter and Medium to get ideas. When you are the only person working on digital in a smaller charity, the most important thing is feeling like you are not on your own and to have somewhere to sense check your sanity. People expect you to know what’s happening and that you are doing the right thing.

In 2020 for Citizens Advice Manchester, I want to focus on changing culture around digital across our staff, so innovation is not just seen as my role. I’ve been encouraging them to identify what their pain points are. One recent problem they came up with was the structured case notes needed, which take a day a week to enter into our system. We are now working with a developer to build an automated system to provide an advice flow that generates the case notes. Then next up is to test Twilio integration to automate admin tasks like appointment reminders and cancellation, to free up their time. I hope this shows our staff that they have great ideas for change too. That's the best thing about my role: digital transformation does not have an end and there is always another idea to help us help more people and provide a better service.

Paisley YMCA

Organisation size: Medium (£100,000 to £1,000,000)

Based in: Scotland

Interview with: Darran Gillan, January 2020

In 2014 it would have been hard to envisage that Paisley YMCA would be the cutting edge digital youth service it is today. They had just gone through a quality review by their parent organisation YMCA Scotland and had not done well at all; the key thing being that they needed to start doing some quality youth work with young people in their community. So the organisation then began a long and exciting journey.

Central to the story is their Youth Work Manager Darran, who was recruited into the organisation at this low point and given the mission of getting them doing proper youth work again. He set out looking at what other youth organisations were offering young people in Paisley. There were lots of traditional youth orgs offering sports, life skills, music etc and the YMCA was very careful that as it had been out of the game for a while it didn’t want to replicate what was already there, but to try and complement the existing youth provision in the local area.

Darran set about doing some good old fashioned street and detached youth work; getting out there and talking to young people to hear their ideas and the things they wanted or needed from a youth club. As they got to know the young people well they then got invited into high schools in the area to deliver some career development programmes and skills development programmes for work.

Through this work and their wider detached work they realised there was a big need for support for young people to transition into work; to get those life skills and personal skills needed to stay in job placements and do well. They also said to do this they need to be supported to move into employment that would require digital skills. At school they weren’t being provided with this as teachers weren't getting the CPD in digital skills or employment - and so were getting left behind by all the new tech. At the same time they realised that many young people struggled to even get online. Most of them met outside on the street by McDonalds in town and when Darran asked them why, it was because they could get good free wifi from there! Just because people are young, we shouldn’t assume they are the stereotypical ‘digital natives’.

So they launched their first digital programme called iEnterprise, a youth digital incubation hub to help young people launch enterprises and use tech from inception right through to the launch and implementation of a new business. It was aimed at closing a digital skills gap as well as giving them soft and personal skills to make a success of work or business.

Unlike some organisations that start out to ‘do digital’, for them it had come up organically by asking young people what they wanted from a youth service.

It went really well and was very different from anything the YMCA had ever done before or to what other youth activities were in the area. It really took off when the O2 Think Big initiative was attracted to their project and began to fund the programme and seed fund the young people’s business ideas.

Soon young people from poor backgrounds were developing their own companies and businesses using coding, new apps, white hat hacking, 3D printing, etc - people from low academic backgrounds learning how to run a business in practice, rather than through a text book. It was also a genuine partnership between Darran and his staff and young people, as the workers and staff learnt alongside the young people about the new tech and ways to use it.

They began to become more well known for this work and were nominated under the 'Demonstrating Digital' category at the SCVO Scottish Charity Awards in 2017 for their mobile makerspace. In 2018 Darran won the Digital Youth Work category at the 2018 YouthLink awards for the iEnterprise digital incubator programme. In 2017 and 2018 Paisley YMCA was nominated as Digital Charity of the Year at the Digital Leaders 100 Awards in London and again in 2020 Paisley YMCA have been nominated as Team of the Year at the national YouthLink awards.

The success of the programme though made them hit new challenges. Darran had no real staff team and no building in which to house the work. He had to deliver it from wherever they could get space: the library, local community centres and churches, which had a lack of wifi infrastructure and good tech equipment. Often the classes would take place with them all tethered to his own mobile wifi and he would be personally driving around with all the laptops needed in his car from venue to venue. All he needed was to be broken into once and the project could collapse.

This was coupled by raising the aspirations of young people. Darran could only take them so far, he wasn’t a ‘tech expert’ and the young people started to get cross and frustrated at the fact they couldn’t scale some of their bigger ideas as they were being held back by the infrastructure and the skill of the workers.

Darran also didn’t find much comfort from his board initially, many of whom were skeptical about the value of going digital. He had to really push at Board meetings to show the value of going digital and gain their support. At times, Darren contemplated leaving, it was hard to see anything changing at this point.

Another challenge was that they were championing digital so much that they had a blind spot on the negative impact of tech for young people - in mental health, data, cyber bullying - and realised they needed to have complementary work in this space as well.

So things were tough for Darran at this point in the story but then two visits outside Scotland to look at various ways to improve the digital work and take it to the next level became real turning points. Firstly he took part in an Erasmus trip to Finland to meet with youth organisations that were delivering digital youth work a lot more advanced than anything Paisley YMCA were doing. They also had lots documented and written down about how to do it well. They had this concept of a ‘maker space’ and this was the lightbulb moment that made Darran realise this was a model he could follow; if only he had the space!

Secondly he was then invited to a Queen’s Young Leaders Tech and innovation event in Singapore. This made him realise he had to have a clear vision and then be a strong leader to work towards implementing it. He was inspired by many of the people he met, in particular the CEO of Impact Hub Singapore who said innovate first and policy and regulation will follow. This became his mantra and he knew he could come back with what he had learnt in Finland and Singapore and change the culture of a traditional YMCA to become a true digital youth work organisation.

So he focussed on setting up the ‘Maker Space’ a DIY environment where young people gather to create and invent using digital technology. He focussed on working with young people who chose to take part, the ‘screen-agers’ who told him they wanted to do gaming, hacking, taking stuff apart, setting up solar, new energy tech, agri ideas, YouTube channels, etc - and he knew that other areas like sport, detached youth work, music, etc would be covered by other agencies. They built the Maker Space for them and kitted it out with the best tech and top notch wifi, better kitted out than any school or uni combined - he knew he couldn't lose people because the infrastructure was poor - and he hasn’t looked back since…

In the Maker Space, they now deliver CoderDojo code clubs, a STEM for girls programme staffed exclusively by female staff and they get female CEO and tech people to come and give inspirational talks. They work with councils on the digital CPD of local teachers, exploring how VR can be used in lessons like history, and are soon getting some new funding to look at digital wellnesses and offsetting the negative impact of digital. They have worked with a housing association to develop a digital product to help older people and residents understand Universal Credit reforms, and have also run projects to support older autistic young people understand coercive control within online relationships. All of this is being delivered by and with young people, with many of them leading on the tech themselves.

They have also worked in partnership with others. Impact Arts, Action for Children and Street League now contract the Maker Space to deliver on digital aspects of their programs, as do the Girl Guides Scotland who use the space to deliver their new digital challenge badge - where the guides are coached by girls from the YMCA STEM programme. They also partner with local libraries to run coding classes, with libraries looking to bring in young people and are also working with a tech company to develop some predictive tools to identify early signs of neglect and abuse in young people.

One remaining challenge is that they are still a grant relying organisation, so they are looking into alternative ways to fund the work. Traditional funders often don’t want to fund the centre as it is hard to categorise into traditional criteria. They need more flexible funding to test hypotheses and to create digital projects that respond to young people’s needs, rather than funding for outputs or a known solution. Whilst challenges still remain, the big vision is that other YMCAs across Scotland will follow suit and become digital spaces first and foremost - and become digital hubs at the heart of their communities.

Right to Remain

Size: Medium (£100,000 to £1,000,000) 

Based in: London

Interview with: Lisa Matthews, February 2020

Right to Remain are a very small organisation who at the beginning of their digital story had only two staff. Nine years on, they are really getting started with digital. They have five staff, two of whom are working on digital. They have shifted from being mainly a face-to-face community organisation with a basic website and newsletters, to one where digital services are now being viewed as one of the most important things they do, and essential for big reach. They are embarking on exciting plans and learning lots about their work and the people they work with along the way. 

Their story began nine years ago when they decided to talk to all the community groups they work with to ask them what they needed from Right to Remain and how best they can serve them as they support people in the immigration and asylum process. They heard clearly from them that they needed a guide to understand the asylum and immigration process and help to navigate it. So they developed this as a book and an online resource: a digital toolkit.

Having a small team meant they could be very dynamic and agile and we were able to do everything in-house. They taught themselves to design the site and set it up. This was driven by financial necessity and practical constraints. Back then there was limited organisational understanding of digital: they may not have got support to invest in a consultant, so they just got on with it.

That proved to be a great decision. Today the toolkit is used by over 11,000 people every month and is clearly having a much further reach than just the community groups they work with. They use video as a key way to communicate messages and have also grown their digital outreach work, with over 20,000 organic followers on Twitter without dedicated comms staff to push it.

Skilling up within the organisation meant the transition to working digitally was really embedded in the organisation, and they could do write-ups and presentations as a way to bring their committee along with them and convince them of the case. The committee itself has been on a similar journey, as new people joined who supported the shift to digital, and as their social media following grew they used this as a way to recruit new members who they knew would self-select as digitally savvy. The committee is now fully on board and up to date, so staff feel confident they would make good decisions if asked to invest in or make calls about technology or the digital side of the work.

Today they have gone through a point of no return. Digital is really working for them as they are now reaching tens of thousands of people whereas in the past it would have been hundreds. Many of their community groups also know lots more about what they are doing and can support them through their digital channels, which helps when working with time-poor grassroots groups. Not resting on their laurels though they need to keep improving and today are embarking on a new chapter in their story. They have recently received a new grant specifically to work on developing their digital toolkit.

They are going back to the communities they originally spoke to nine years ago, to make sure the digital toolkit is as accessible and as good as it can be. They want to really understand the digital lives and behaviours of those they work with; the community groups, service providers, activists and people in the asylum and immigration process.

They are learning lots; things like realising people have no real website loyalty and that although it is a lot better than before the digital literacy and access to digital devices and sites is still a real barrier for many groups in the system. Trust in information and how to trust and how to verify information is also a big issue they are learning now and they would see this as a critical part of any new digital literacy programmes they may decide to do. They will do some testing but they are realising there is probably a much bigger piece of work around digital literacy and champions to be done with people in the immigration and asylum system.

Having largely done this all in-house they have recently done some work with CAST and through them discovered the wider ‘Tech for Good’ world. They do appreciate the temptation to go full on into the Tech for Good world and do lots of digitisation of their service delivery but, as they state: ‘that might not be right for our users and we have to keep whatever we do based on them’.

As a community based, connection based, relationship based organisation one key thing they’ve learnt is however well digital is working; there is still always a case for face to face work. They are still hearing just how important face-to-face relationships and drop-in centres are and this has to go hand in hand with new digital offers. Whilst their digital toolkit has really changed relationships with community groups there is still a desire and preference to do things face to face and this will be something to explore as they go further on in their story. 


Size: Large (Income £1 million - £10 million)

Based in: London

Interview with: Jude Luckett, January 2020 

Tempo is at a pivotal point in an exciting digital journey; one they hope will fundamentally transform them from a paper-based organisation to one that is a digital first organisation ready for the future.

Tempo is in the middle of a digital transformation programme to digitize ‘Time Credits’ - and redesign their operating model. This is expected to significantly change how they operate, in order to sustain what they do into the future. They hope this will put them at the forefront of the sector, embracing the potential of digital to enable increased volunteering, more diversity among volunteers and social action.

Tempo uses Time Credits to enable more people to volunteer and participate in communities and services, working in partnership with local authorities, health, social care and housing providers, schools, businesses and voluntary sector organisations. People earn Time Credits for volunteering with community groups and organisations, and redeem them on activities provided by local businesses, such as going to see a film, swimming, visiting attractions and more.

For the past 11 years, Tempo has used paper Time Credit notes. The system worked fine offline at first. Paper Time Credits were easy to use, flexible and didn’t exclude anyone. They were also fun and attention grabbing. But as Tempo grew, issues arose. The paper system lacked data and relied on busy organisations reporting activity. Tempo didn’t know enough about who was earning Time Credits, or when and how they were using them to access activities. Administering the currency took a lot of manual counting and sorting, posting it out and counting it back in.

It was clear the organisation needed to look at how new technologies could improve their data, simplify their work and help them reach new and different audiences.

The start of a digital journey

Tempo had done some digital development in their early days but had experienced some failures, so ‘digital’ had been on pause for a while. It restarted a few years ago when they won funding to build some new tools: an online system for reporting earning activity and an online directory of places to use Time Credits as their printed directories rapidly went out of date. The Time Credits website was born and Tempo took the first big steps on their journey. These initial digital tools led to further ambition, and Tempo successfully applied to Tech for Good from Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn Foundation in 2018.

Realising the potential of digital

Tech for Good funding, and the support from CAST, were fundamental in changing Tempo’s relationship with digital. The process of understanding their assumptions and mapping user journeys both inside and outside the organisation highlighted the potential for digital to become not just a series of projects, but an integral part of how they deliver.

The programme also brought out significant learning about previous digital development, including a recognition that Tempo’s needs had been prioritised over those of end users in design. Assumptions about users had led to poor use of systems – for example, low registration rates due to weak relationships and communications with people earning Time Credits. Fully researching and improving user journeys became a priority and shaped the development of a more effective way of reporting for groups using Time Credits. And critically, they recognised the need for strong senior-level leadership and vision for digital. A prototype digital app, developed as an add-on to the Tech for Good project, helped gain that buy in across senior leadership.

Developing a digital strategy

At this point Tempo got critical outside help to carry out a digital maturity assessment which then led into a digital strategy. This highlighted lots of opportunities and the need for change.

Tempo’s first digital strategy had three main goals: improving the Time Credits experience for existing users and reaching new audiences; improving data quality and analysis to help them to demonstrate and improve their impact, and reducing the resources required to manage the currency.

Towards digital transformation

Trustees drove the new vision and committed some funding from reserves. An internal team with senior leadership was established to lead the two workstreams. The team set out to understand the biggest problems end users were facing and explore how to solve those with digital, simultaneously keeping an eye on where this could take them in the future. Working with a digital partner agency, Yalla Cooperative, the team developed a pilot digital Time Credits product that will provide a new platform for future delivery. This is being piloted in one Time Credits programme ahead of national rollout, with the dedicated team supporting implementation.

Experience so far

This journey is not an easy one. Tempo has had to take tough decisions on resourcing, as budget is tight. Research has shown that a significant number of users are digitally excluded, , while staff and commissioners worry about excluding people with low digital literacy. This throws up technological and strategic questions; how can a digital product work for non-digital people? Are they still a priority audience? Would excluding them undermine Tempo’s mission and values? To get buy-in from their customers, users and the team they have had to solve this challenge. Tempo has developed some innovative solutions for people with limited or no online access.

 A big success has been establishing a well-resourced in-house team working in partnership with the digital agency. The value of having people who are committed and know Tempo’s work inside out has been essential. They can gather information and listen to users easily and quickly. Buy-in from the wider staff team and partners has been much higher. Combining internal capacity with external mentoring and support rapidly built internal skills, which will be more sustainable than relying on an agency. Part-way through the journey a new CEO was appointed, with trustees prioritising digital transformation experience in recruitment. 

Tempo is now at the end of the first part of their digital journey, in which two critical points or decisions stick out. One was the initial strategy development and the realisation Time Credits cannot truly scale without digital. The second was the creation of a dedicated and experienced internal team, including a senior leadership role, with sufficient resourcing and support to enable successful digital development and implementation.

An exciting future awaits as Tempo launches Digital Time Credits and begins to develop new digital tools!

The Children’s University

Size: Medium (£100,000 to £1,000,000)

Based in: North West

Interview with: Liam Nolan, January 2020 

Children's University is a small organisation, with five staff, but one with a big reach and a very clear model about the work it does and how it wants to do it. Whilst today its work is underpinned by a really exciting digital platform, for a long time it wasn’t doing anything ‘digital’ well and had lots to learn and a big leap of faith to take.

Ten years previously it had invested in a new database for its work that had been very costly and the organisation ended up with a flawed system that didn’t really work for them or the project. Unfortunately this set back the organisation for a long time, as naturally trustees and senior staff became wary of investing again in anything digital: once bitten twice shy!

So when Liam, their new Communications and Stakeholder Engagement began, it took him and the team a while to convince the wider organisation they had to embrace digital to make their work ready for the future. This job was also made harder as the work they did was effective and successful. Why would you upset that by adding a digital or tech element to the work? A team of five people worked with over 110,000 children a year through their Children's University programme which works through partners to support children to do extra curricular activities . The children record these through their special Children's University passport, which allows them to record their achievements and importantly have them verified too. So it all worked and worked well.

But these were all still being done on paper passports and it meant they had no way to systematically record who was doing the activities and what they were doing. In turn they were then also missing out on all the rich data at a school, local or national level they could be used to evaluate and develop their work.

But Liam and the team were determined to press ahead. Whilst those factors felt to some like reasons to not do anything new digitally, to the team it was the reason to do something new. They had a clear model of what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve through their programme, so they could very clearly then look at how digital and tech could help them to do that better and more easily; enhancing their existing offer rather than challenging or replacing it.

So they set to work on trying to do this… it just needed the trustees to take a leap of faith with them...

The main challenges they met along the way were firstly their own trustees. Getting them to sign off on something new when they had so little faith in the organisation’s previous entries into the digital world was going to be hard. In a £350k per year organisation they were asking them to make a considerable investment and place lots of faith in the staff and any agencies they might end up using, and they were fearful they would get ripped off and end up with something that complicated their current ways of working.

They used parts of grants from Esmée Fairbairn and Garfield Weston for engagement and inclusion work that included costs for digital work to get work underway. This went some way to appeasing the trustees, and in the end they released some reserves to get the project up and running - but expectations and pressure were high, so Liam and the team would have to show it was working. They did lots of presentations and illustrations of how it would work, to convince the trustees that this was just doing business as usual bigger, better and easier, rather than bolting on something new and shiny that wouldn’t work. They set up a digital sub-committee to oversee the build too - so after much persuasion they had come around to the idea and took the leap of faith.

The second challenge was finding an agency who could deliver the technical product with their limited budget . They had a very clear brief but were not prepared for the overwhelming world of agile vs waterfall ways of working and the big pitches from agencies.

They had wanted to work with a ‘charity’ specific agency but found many of them too expensive for them as a small organisation on a tight budget. They looked at working with CAST on the accelerator programme, but again it didn’t feel right as they were far clearer in what they needed to do, knew their users etc so were not far back enough in their journey for that programme to be right for them. They also looked for funding. They talked to Nominet. They also looked at the Comic Relief Tech for Good programme, which on paper looked great but again they felt the predetermined nine-month support programme wasn’t right for them as they didn’t need all that support. They definitely needed the hand-holding these programmes offered but felt they needed more control over what that would be, when and who would do it, so they could make it work best for their project. Having said this they found everyone in this Tech for Good space extremely generous with their time and insights and also really honest about what would or wouldn't work for them.

So they decided the best thing was to go on a big learning curve and find a digital agency who could work to their budget. They had to make compromises on whether they did waterfall or agile as a design process and on which agencies they could afford to work with. They received some good advice to split the contract with any agency into two - into a discovery section, then a build section. This was really good as it gave them a chance to pick a different agency if the first didn’t work out as well so it made them feel less nervous.

The budget meant they went with a type of waterfall approach to the work as using an agile approach felt too much like writing a blank cheque - which they didn’t have!

Through all this they are now with a great agency in Sheffield called The Tech Dept. Through the selection process they learnt that it is important to find an agency who understands the charity’s financial structure and what is important to you. Someone to guide you on how to cut the cloth well but someone who will also say what is really important - that you definitely need buttons and arms on a shirt whichever way you cut the cloth!

They learnt also that by really focussing on what was important for the children, they could get rid of some of the things they thought they wanted - i.e like realising that they could drop a messaging function despite always thinking they needed one.

Having been on that steep learning journey they have repaid the faith placed in them by the trustees. The new system is built, up and running and now has over 17,000 children using it. They know they still have a big job ahead to make sure it carries on working and that they get more children to use it, but it is now tied to the license that partners who deliver their programme sign up for, so it is an integral part of the programme moving forwards.

Thinking into the future they do know they could begin to think about how the platform could be monetised for some of the commercial partners they work with, as a way to fund the work in the future, but dipping their toe into the world of social investment or impact investing feels a long way off and they want the goal of the platform to be the outcome for the young people, not financial gain.

But from the early years when they were struggling to convince people of the benefits of digital and tech as a way of delivering their work, the organisation has come a long way. Their CEO is now an avid advocate of tech as a way to deliver social good. They were awarded Digital CEO of the Year at the 2019 Social CEO Awards. They get credibility now within the wider sector for what they are doing and their CEO is even speaking at external tech events talking about their own work and encouraging other organisations to take the leap of faith they did.

Children’s University is now seeking funding to expand their platform further in order to open up their programme to all children.

Reach Volunteering

Size: Medium (£100,000 to £1,000,000)

Based in: London

Interview with: Janet Thorne

Reach Volunteering is the leading skills-based volunteering charity in the UK and the single biggest source of trustees for the voluntary sector in the UK. They are run by a small staff team of nine people (six full time equivalent roles), supported by a number of volunteers.

Their digital journey really got going in 2012, but Janet Thorne, now the CEO, took inspiration for this much earlier. Janet started working for the organisation in 2008, having previously worked on a micro credit scheme. At the time, Kiva had just launched and people were approaching her to learn more. The team also looked at dating websites, which had really taken off. These had captured people’s imaginations and the potential of a similar approach to create an online matching platform for Reach Volunteering stayed in the back of her mind.

Looking back

Janet explains:

In 2008, Reach Volunteering looked very different than it does today. It was dated and involved a team, mostly volunteers, working from the fragments of information that we had, to broker between charities and volunteers or trustees. Reach managed the communication between all parties, to the point where it would slow it down and in fact, we became the barrier. 

In 2011 we started to spend more time working up our ideas for a new online self-service platform. We really believed in grounding the design in the needs of those who would use it. So we undertook discovery research (although we didn’t know it was called that at the time) and interviewed 30 charities broadly about how they involve volunteers with skills, what their challenges were, what works and how they recruit them. We also undertook focus groups and surveys, testing our ideas for a new platform. With some pro bono help from IBM we distilled these into a very clear set of user needs which proved to be invaluable in keeping us focused on the right things over the following five years. We submitted a bid for funding to Nesta’s Innovation in Giving Award.

But in 2012, we hit a crisis point. Reach Volunteering was at risk of closing, but we were also waiting to hear about the Nesta Award. We were worried, but having this idea and vision for how it could be different really helped to see us through. We knew if we could survive this crisis and keep up the energy we could make a big change.

Getting Started

We won the Innovation in Giving Award from Nesta in 2013 - and our journey took a big leap forward. It was at this point we committed to taking our service online and making it self-service. For Reach Volunteering, this idea was transformative and would turn the organisation upside down in terms of how we worked.

As part of the Nesta Award, we had a small amount of time with a mentor, John Drori. He was encouraging and helped connect us with key people we needed. This included someone who knew about project management, as well as a new digital trustee. We had no connections with the digital world and finding people who are good is key. Our challenge was that we just couldn’t find good people and when we found people we didn’t know if they were good.

It wasn’t plain sailing. We picked the wrong supplier to build the platform. Despite claiming to have an agile approach, they wanted everything specified up front and had a simplistic understanding of what was specified.

We all stuck with it and it was a very painful relationship; we even had to ask Nesta to step in and help challenge the digital agency to progress the work. In the end, the agency did honour the commitment but we ended up with something that could have been much better. It set us back by two years, wasting a lot of time and energy. I missed family holidays and the team, including our project manager and some of our IT volunteers, all worked incredibly hard and often, beyond the call of duty. We all knew that if we didn't succeed it would be the end of Reach. It was high stakes.

We thought the Nesta Award of £50k would be enough to build a prototype and test the first version of the platform. In practice that wasn’t true, but we believed we could. Dulverton Trust came in with balance of what needed - the grants officer there understood digital and the Trust had funded us before so we had a pre-existing relationship with them. We couldn’t have crossed the finish line without it and it was really helpful. We were rebuilding the charity at the same time as the platform, which also meant we were slow to start. We had urgent issues to work through first, and, as a small team, we didn’t have much bandwidth for such a large project. However, Nesta’s deadlines were also important because they were winding up the programme.

No looking back

In 2015 we got something good enough to launch with. Now we always try to do things in-house with a dedicated freelance developer we know and trust, rather than working with an agency where we are just one of many projects.

In our first full year online we increased matches by 32%, but we couldn’t tell what was working and what wasn’t. We were collecting feedback and were keen to respond to it, but the information was often contradictory. It was also fragmentary and incomplete. Our service is about harnessing good will (no one has to volunteer) and relies on self service, so it has to be really nice and easy to use. It also has to work for a large array of people with very different expectations of the service, of volunteering and of each other: charities of all kinds and sizes, and volunteers from a large span of ages and sectors, and with different perspectives. We didn’t have the tools to consider the service as a whole, to explore how effectively it was working, or to improve it systematically. The team didn’t even have a shared framework or language to talk about it. We knew that the issues most visible to us were only part of the picture.

So we started to implement a service design approach. We brought in a service design agency, Snook, to train the team in user research and how to evaluate user needs, prioritise features and prototype solutions. We didn’t want to hire consultants to ‘fix’ our service for us. Even if we’d had the budget (which we didn’t), we knew that this would be an ongoing process, our core activity and not a side project. So we were keen to embed the skills within our team and that’s what Snook helped us to do (you can read more about this here, on our blog).

One of the areas we identified for improvement was how we communicated our service to our users - we had not had the resources to consider this much in the initial website development. In 2018 we re-launched the website with a structure more focused on the key actions our users needed to take and with a brand that better reflected what they expected to see.

The service design process has allowed us to really change our culture and be more user centered - that’s been a big win. It’s really embedded and the whole team is involved in guerilla research. What I have learnt is that it takes a lot of ongoing commitment to do this well as a charity and a lot of factors mitigate against you. From a leadership point of view, you spend so much time talking about why your charity is needed and makes a difference, you have your narrative which is what gets you airspace and funding, so you get wedded to it. From a service delivery side, you know your service well - but from the experience of designing it, not as a user. You have partial, biased vision. We recently interviewed candidates for our Head of Service role, and we learnt that a lot of people talk about user needs, but don’t mean it in a genuinely curious way. Funding can also make it difficult to have an open, curious, user-centred mindset, and it is rarely structured to support a design-led approach. We’re determined to prioritise user needs and be genuinely curious to find these out, even if they conflict with the organisation’s narrative.

Where we are now

We now have a Head of Service and a Head of Digital. For our recruitment process, we experimented with abandoning cover letters and CVs in favour of three focused questions; we shared our learning on this blog post and found it an effective way to recruit a strong team. 

At the start of October we launched with a new version of our search and used a volunteer to help with the UX (user experience) and UI (user interface). That volunteer was previously involved in the Schuh online shop so knew a lot about filtered and faceted searches. His expertise was invaluable and really helped us improve the search.

Migrating our platform onto Drupal 8 is our next biggest challenge. This is a major release with fundamental changes to core modules. We have been used to ongoing investment, maintenance and patches, but now we need to look at rewriting the code for two thirds of our system. At this stage, we don’t know how to pay for this and it’s not something you can get funding for. It’s not a transformative piece, it’s not a new CRM that can do ten different things. It’s not innovative. Ideally you build up reserves but it’s a big project.

With tech, you always have to keep up and it always moves forwards: security updates; maintaining integrity; keeping it safe and robust - it’s not easy. And it’s the same with user needs: they are constantly evolving. As people use digital services and peer-to-peer platforms like Uber or eBay more and more, their ideas for how these services should work evolve too. People’s expectations for our service are the same as they are when they buy something on Amazon: they expect it to be smooth and swift; they expect consistency - and even though we are a charity, we have to keep up. What we are finding however, is that increasing our scale can be done without traditional routes such as traditional marketing campaigns. We get a huge number of volunteers by using LinkedIn job wrapping, which surfaces our roles to LinkedIn members according to skills and geography, giving them much greater visibility. We have also increased volunteer sign ups by improving the registration process (reducing drop offs) and by introducing a 'guest application' process (which has led to a 20% increase in applications). These all generate far more sustained activity than some traditional marketing methods would.

We also want to build on our team’s digital skills and they are keen to learn, but we feel like we’re on our own. We don’t know where to find the opportunities. There are CAST Design Hops but they aim to introduce people to the approach (which we have). We don’t know how long they will continue but there is not much else development and skills-wise available. We’ve also not seen anyone talk about how you find freelancers or resource different functions. Digital skills are also far more expensive than others and we face questions about how to keep freelancers and also, you don’t want to keep someone without developing their skills.

For us, volunteers are crucial to helping us move forward, particularly with technical expertise, whether it’s our new search functionality or improving our SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). Finding the right freelancers and volunteers with technical expertise continues to be challenging - so we rely on networks and people we know for referrals so that we can trust that they are good and the right people.

One challenge we are looking at this year is how data intersects with our user needs. How can Google Analytics, HotJar, feedback forms and outcomes surveys complement our user research to give us a fuller picture? We have a sense that it’s valuable and that we can do a lot more with this and in real time.

Overall, our core concern remains funding and sustainability. Our organisation is our service. We know there isn’t a financial market for this and not much appetite to pay for it. We also don’t have multiple projects, products or programmes. The online service is what we do and it has to be good. Traditionally funders have tended to prefer projects and pre-defined outcomes, rather funding a process of designing to meet users’ needs. We need to be core funded and it’s hard to make that into a project. It’s not possible for us to make cuts. Our team feels like a table with four legs. It doesn’t work with three. However, we have been fortunate to have some great funders who value the role that our service plays in the sector, and support us to get going. We are going to undertake further discovery research again this year though and potentially develop some additional ideas around skills based volunteering.

In 2019, Reach placed over 1900 volunteers, including 882 trustees. Reach’s service continues to scale in 2020.