How to create digital services if you don’t get funding

Digital transformation has been a key trend for the past five years but the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this beyond what we could have imagined. Many charities have decided to improve their digital capacity by creating new services or upgrading capacity. And many have bid for funding to make this happen.

But not every bid will be a winner. You might be one of those which didn’t get funding, and wondering how to make progress.

The feeling of not getting the money to kickstart an ambitious project off the ground is not new to me. I’ve bootstrapped Chayn, an organisation creating resources for survivors of gender-based violence, on a shoestring budget since 2013. We’ve only achieved the kind of scale many organisations achieve in a year, some five years down the line. Not one to let the lack of funding hold me back, I’ve found ways of building and iterating digital services on very little money. 

I’m not saying we had no money. We did win a few grants to fund this work, although often only after we’d done a lot of development work. Still, it was relatively small compared to an ambitious and robust commercial digital product, which will usually need a team of researchers, designers, developers and content writers. The cost there can easily go into the hundreds of thousands. But not having that level of capacity is not a permanent blocker, if you’re creative with how to make most of the talent you have and volunteers who want to support you.

So how do you make progress?

Don’t let the unknown put you off

Starting something new is both exciting and scary because of the list of “unknowns” can be huge. This can be unsettling for teams and leaders. 

One way to tackle it is to embrace an agile framework. This means breaking down the development of your digital services into small blocks, known as sprints, and constantly reviewing and changing where you’re going as new information comes in. This can fly in the face of the traditional project management approaches where detailed timelines are drawn and have to be stuck to.

The agile framework or mindset is followed by the top companies and it’s used to to develop the products you use every day so we know it works. And if you think it’s only for companies in hipster startup offices made up of shipping containers and glass buildings in Silicon Valley, I’m here to tell you that is not true. Many small, scrappy nonprofits and tech for good projects use it too. And so does Chayn. 

Embracing this style of working means asking the hard questions about your assumptions. Do your users really need that? Does this feature need to be developed at the same time as the other one? How does user feedback change what you knew about the challenge in the first place? By honouring flexibility in the product development cycle, you ensure that the money and time invested in the project lasts longer as it will be less rigid and you’ll be able to pivot based on feedback. 

Make it easier to volunteer and build co-ownership

Volunteers are the backbone of the third sector. Often they’re given small tasks that may contribute to the delivery or admin of a project, but are not involved in all stages of the product design. This is a missed opportunity. 

There’s no way Chayn would have been able to build our projects without our diverse team of volunteers (including many survivors) - even with all the big grants we’ve received recently. Here’s how we run.

The Core Team is composed of long term volunteers who choose to be as involved as they want, whether it’s dipping in every few weeks to offer a big burst of support in one go or actively participating in projects every day. From multiple iterations, we know that a team of 30-40 is best for each cycle. Most of our volunteers find us through word of mouth or find us through social media. Our year is divided into three cycles of four months each. Volunteers only join for a cycle which means we focus on specific short term goals which we work towards as a team. At the end of a cycle, we remove members who have not been active and ask people to opt in if it works with their life. New volunteers are also added then.

Chayn’s always been a remote team, and in many ways, this makes it easier for many talented professionals and people with caring responsibilities to volunteer their time. They fit Chayn around their schedule. The only set day where we expect people to join our calls is Sunday as most of our team is not at work or education - though this is not ideal for everyone. This remote structure has made our organisation resilient, and encourages people from all parts of the country (or world) to join. It also allows us to be online and available for our community for more hours than it would be possible if everyone had to physically be present in an office for meetings. Our working style has been unfazed by the Covid19 pandemic. 

When involving volunteers, it’s important to offer some form of compensation or “thank you” for their labour. It’s a core principle of feminist labour. You need to recognise some volunteers, such as carers or single mothers and women of colour, will have additional burdens that you need to account for. It’s not to stop you from engaging with them because they want to give, and our projects need them! We need to create an environment and team culture that isn’t designed around a middle-aged white man.

Go from user-centered to user-led design

Like volunteers, service users (which in our case means survivors) are integral to designing better products. One option is to involve users in creating the products through co-production workshops. Another is to embed them in the team. Both can empower those who often have agency taken away from them through trauma or have never been given the opportunity to create solutions to their issues. It’s the right thing to do. 

You can choose what model suits you. I’ve chosen to go for user-led design but understand it doesn’t suit every organisation or service user. Whatever you decide to do, making these engagements meaningful and actionable should be the ultimate goal. There is nothing more demoralising than being asked for ideas, feedback and painful memories to then have nothing been done with it. Create active and responsive feedback loops throughout the product lifecycle.

You also come away with a better product and cut months of research time down to a few weeks. 

Learn and test through micro-pilots

You’ve heard of project pilots but have you ever considered doing a micro pilot? In 2015, we started thinking about the sinking depression that settles in your heart and becomes the first thing you wake up to, and sleep to, at night. For survivors of abuse living in toxic households, this is a grim reality and can act like a mental bind - stopping them from imagining a future when life won’t be like that.

The hypothesis we wanted to test is what happens if you deliver positive messages to people once in the morning and once before bed. Would it uplift their spirits and help them feel better? At that time, Chayn’s budget was less than £3,500 so we applied for a micro-grant from o2 Think Big and did an email trial with £300. Guess what? Over 70% of people thought these messages made them feel good.

We didn’t have money to do this on a large scale so we put it off for later. In 2016, this idea was re-formed during a hackathon we were hosting! We used all we had learned since about user needs and prototyped Soul Medicine, where important information was sent bit by bit. The three day hackathon gave us enough time and space for six people to come up with ideas for “courses” based on existing Chayn guides and the features that would enable survivors to choose a time for email delivery. 

With this experience, we applied and won a substantial grant from Comic Relief which was resourced with a mix of volunteers and contractors.

Test your hypothesis with micro-pilots and then use those results for a better informed grant proposal. All of our products are open source, with detailed documentation so if we move from a contractor to another or have a shift in strategy, we have these to go back to. It also means other organisations can build on our learning and save money - just like we do.


Focus on a slice of your audience

A trick I’ve picked up over time has been to focus very tightly on the audience. Who am I building what for? Inclusive product design is often thought of as building for everybody but that’s not always true. 

It’s true that all products should be accessible so people with disabilities can use them. But that’s not to say that all products are for everyone - or should be for everyone. 

It’s near impossible to make a product accessible to all, and we’re always pushing someone to the “outlier” category. These choices are political but also practical. I’m comfortable making those choices based on who our audience is, and making that clear upfront. And my experience suggests users, supporters and donors understand and respect that, too.

In our case, we’re designing a product that is very easy for survivors to use. It’s shaped around their wants, needs and behaviours.

Our experience showed us that many survivors, despite how easily navigable our websites are, were not finding the information they wanted on it and were messaging us directly. With zero employees, and no volunteers set up to respond directly to survivors on our social media - we decided to design a chat bot. 

We didn’t have enough money to create a full conversational chatbot, though I have other ethical issues with such chatbots - ours was going to be built for only two kinds of users:

  • Survivors who only have a “15 mins window” to search online for help without anyone finding out 
  • Survivors who are migrants and are interested in searching across countries and languages

This drastically reduces the time women take to search for information. To fund this, we applied for a small grant (less than £8k) and partnered with Founders & Coders, a UK-based nonprofit organisation that runs a tuition-free coding academy in London and Gaza. As part of the course, students have to do a tech project with a charity. 

Once the pilot was out, we were able to apply for more funding and get a senior developer to work further to improve the project. You can look for coding groups in your area. Just make sure there is supervision from a senior developer and you budget for their or someone else’s involvement after the pilot, as young developers may not have the experience to ensure robustness, data capture and privacy your users require.

Come back to it when the time is right

You’ve probably picked up this from the stories I’ve shared but I’m a fan of sitting with an idea if it’s good but just isn’t possible to do at the moment. For two years, we’ve wanted to create an easily searchable (and beautiful) global directory that lists organisations supporting gender-based violence survivors.  

With this project, somehow I forgot the learning I myself had gained. For two years, I waited for a large grant to build a robust directory with features that allow others to automatically extract and contribute to the directory and plug in their own systems. Something clicked a few months ago and we created our “directory” on Airtable and Stacker at 1/10th of the cost! 

Use lean tools

You may not be able to hire a digital agency or hire new members of staff to research and build a pilot. But you don’t have to!

Here are some of the tools that can help, and often come with ready-made templates you can build on top of - saving you crucial thinking and research time. They have free versions and pro versions. If you do choose the pro version, use the monthly version so you can cancel membership after you’ve completed your micro-pilot.

  • Figma: drag and drop platform allowing the test of product designs from start to finish.
  • Miro: drag and drop platform for project planning, online workshops and brainstorming.
  • Airtable: spreadsheets and simple databases on steroids.
  • Trello: project planning and product roadmaps.
  • Canva: designs and illustrations with the right dimensions for different mediums.
  • The Noun project: affordable and free icon sets.
  • Unsplash and Creative Commons library: a freely licensed repository of pictures.
  • Online conference tools: Google Hangout, Zoom, Demio, Jitsi and more.
  • Slack: team collaboration and chat tool.
  • Google suite: a host of free and collaborative online tools that works like Microsoft Office programmes.

Share what you want to do

When the challenge is big, working with others can make the project stronger and more sustainable. Partnerships are hard to pull off and can be more resource-intensive so it has to be with the right partners. We don’t have the resources to support survivors of sexual assault across the world, for example, so we’ve invited organisations to help us run YSM in their country, as a collaboration.

Sometimes it can feel like you’re working out in a large field by yourself on a misty morning and you forget that there is a wider ecosystem that could give you ideas and help. I write a weekly blog that shares what I’m doing, the challenges and opportunities for Chayn. Through this, many new ideas have come - from what tools I could use to team practices that enable us to work more productively.

Give it a go

For decades we’ve been told to appear perfect in public, as if we always have the answers and never struggle. This is false, harmful and puts undue pressure on us to always get it right. To always win.

Try a different way. Be open, and vulnerable in the open. Your authenticity will pull the support of people who care.

Give it a go. 

Photo by Fabian Blank on Unsplash


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