Cardboard model holding a broken paper heart

A partnership of two halves: exploring how the digital agency model could work better for charities — as well as vice versa.

It's been going on a while now. Ever since Tech for Good became a thing. Charities and digital agencies have been getting into bed together and building products and services for good. They’ve had some amazing successes.

Not every coupling ends happily…

But just like it is for many new couples, relating to one another has, at times, been tricky. Despite best intentions there have been language barriers. And some cultural differences. This had led to friction between working styles and project management challenges…

…which can result in tension, fallouts and some failures. Some partnerships failed to produce offspring and many have split up after their first to go. Heavy of heart they’ve left in search of a new partner, usually after taking ‘time out of the game’ first.

…but there’s always much to be learnt.

Regardless of success or failure, each attempt to relate has had value. The charity sector has learnt a lot about working with agencies and made massive leaps forward in its capacity for tech for good. Some charities are even applying digital and design based methods to the rest of their work.

With this in mind, Digital Spark, Catalyst’s feeder project, set out to better understand how the agency model of working might better serve charities in building digital services and products. Hitherto we’ve focused on the opposite: how charities need to learn and change to use agencies better.

Working with service designer Miranda Dixon, we interviewed 16 charities and agencies (all agencies were designing digital products and services with charities). Then we analysed and synthesised our findings. Out of these we’ve extracted three insights to share. In this, Part 1, we’ll look at Needs.

Needs come first

When it comes to designing digital services user needs lead the way. So we took the same approach to the research, digging into and documenting each partner’s needs first. We’re publishing the needs of both partners because, just like all relationships, both have needs that need to be met.

Put your needs on the table

Each need represents a discussion item worth bringing to the agency-charity table, especially if partners are new to each other. Each need has potential to create cohesion or friction, depending on whether it’s discussed or not. Leave any of these needs under the table and your relationship will suffer.

Six Charity User Needs

  1. I need to be able to trust the agency I am working with so that I can be confident in the advice that they give me
  2. I need the agency I work with to understand the sector and landscape that I work in so that they can deliver a project most effectively within the boundaries of this
  3. I need to be able to understand the digital product build process so that I can steer the project toward the outcome I want to achieve
  4. I need the agency that I work with to adapt their working style so that I can steer the project toward the outcome we want to achieve
  5. I need transparency at all times during a project so that I can manage internal expectations and make decisions when needed based on project changes
  6. I need my values to be aligned with those of my digital agency partner so we can work more effectively together

“Get to know them as well as you possibly can. Really get to understand below the skin of what makes that charity tick; they are all different, all have their idiosyncrasies. Don’t assume; treat every charity as if you haven’t worked with them before.” — Agency

Six Agency User Needs

  1. I need my charity client to understand the digital product build process so that they can steer the project toward the outcome they want to achieve
  2. I need the charity that I work with to adapt their working style so that we can deliver the work to the best of our abilities
  3. I need my values to be aligned with those of my charity partner so that I feel comfortable working with them
  4. I need the charity I work with to agree to a flexible scope so that I can deliver the outcomes that my client wants rather than focus on outputs
  5. I need planned projects to be paid for and start on time so that I can manage the finances and resources of my organisation
  6. I want to do projects for charities so that everybody in my organisation feels fulfilled

“Our organisational values are aligned and that’s what I like.” — Charity

“Agencies are often really nice and do charity discounts etc. but that puts pressure on the agency. If you shave costs you shave resources. Do they feel they are compromising on quality?” — Charity

Not all needs must be met from the same source

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We believe these lists reach across both parties’ main needs in relationship with one another. But we don’t necessarily believe all needs must be met by their partner. For example, agencies might better understand charities’ context and landscapes through their own research too. And charities might understand product build processes through reading more broadly and talking to other charities about their experiences.

Can all these needs be met?

It’s been apparent that not all charities’ or agencies’ needs have always been met. We’re curious to find out more about which needs CAN be met, and which might call for a shift in the way agencies operate.

Whether you work for an agency or charity, please tell us about your experience of getting your needs met, or not! Comment below or email us.

Look out for Part 2, focusing on reasons for and against the agency model, coming in March 2020.

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