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Personal views about how agencies and charities can work together well.

This resource is for people:

  • working on digital projects with freelancers or agencies
  • thinking about improving how digital projects work at their organisation

It covers:

  • Perspectives from 4 different developers
  • Resources about best practices on digital projects.

Understanding an organisation properly - Chris Wilson - Effini

Effini is a data science organisation that focuses on a people-focused approach to data. Chris is their Head of Engineering and sees projects through from beginning to end. Effini offers solutions that use a wide range of different software.

When do charities work with this kind of developer?

When you are designing a new impact and evaluation framework, or choosing new systems to work with data. The more complex your data, the more likely you are to need support.

An organisation like Effini can help you work out exactly what you want to measure and share. Then they recommend and configure or build software so that it works well for you.

What’s important to a good project?

Chris believes that Effini needs to understand the culture of an organisation to deliver a good data project.

He talks about a recent project with the organisation Caring Together as an example.

With strong support from a CEO and a project lead, Effini ran early workshops that explored:

  • What data the organisation had, where it was currently kept, and what was missing.
  • What the organisation needed to know to make sure it was fulfilling its mission
  • What KPIs would tell the organisation what they needed to know.
  • Who needed to see data, and what would help them understand or use it.

“We realised that one important metric for the organisation was were they using staff efficiently? Were they making the most of staff time in an area? We were able to show them that this was data that they had. We could combine it with open data sets to help them analyse it"

Using their processes the teams created KPI's and prioritised needs. This was successful because of shared understanding.

The solution was a complex Microsoft Azure project to configure, that would then be simple to use. Effini needed to work closely with the digital transformation lead at Caring Together to make it successful.

Exploring functionality first - Katja Mordaunt - Freelance

Katja is a freelance technical lead. She works on small and medium scale projects developing apps and websites. She leads small teams and codes in PHP or javascript, but she also works solo. She works flexibility to suit the needs of small charities.

When do charities work with this kind of developer?

Freelancers who work like Katja often get involved in projects at different scales. They might be:

  • working with an agency helping medium-sized charities build new apps or services
  • working with a small charity configuring a WordPress website 
  • working with a collective to prototype new products or services

What’s important to a good project?

Katja likes to work on projects that focus on layout, interactions and functionality first. She prefers not to have full visual designs at the beginning of a project.

“It is about not wanting to waste time” Katja explains. Making changes to a website with fully designed pages can be very time-consuming.

“But it’s also that it can stop developers thinking properly! We can end up focused on ‘how do I make it look like this’ when we should be thinking about how it works and what users need."

Taking a functionality-first approach takes a brave organisation. Katja has been able to do this recently with The Wildlife Trust's Nextdoor Nature Hub.

They accepted putting a test website in front of an audience. They understand that genuine alpha and beta testing helps get products right

Working this way also needs funding that you can use in stages. Once you know that the product is usable and useful, you can add more design elements.

Getting communication right - Jonny Kates - William Joseph

Jonny is the technical lead at William Joseph, who designs inclusive products, services and brands. Jonny has a background as a front-end developer, focused on getting the website right on the page. As technical lead, he makes sure all the designers and developers understand the organisation’s needs.

When do charities work with this kind of developer?

Many charities work with digital agencies of this type to build websites, apps or services. You usually have a technical lead. Depending on your project - the technical lead may have a different speciality.

Some agencies, like William Joseph, have designers that do full brand development work. Other digital agencies may do the design and build of your website but expect you to have brand assets from a graphic designer.

What’s important to a good project?

Jonny talks about how projects don’t have to start out well to become great. He describes a project with Parentkind in its early days

“We were stuck in a loop of getting conflicting feedback on designs from many people. The developers and designers didn’t know what to do. And I’m sure it probably felt to them like we weren't listening".

Both organisations were brave enough to take a step back. They put their focus on setting up the right kind of communication. They created a small core team from both organisations. The group decided to focus on having conversations and building trust. They developed shared tools and worked on a long flow chart of user journeys. Then they explored ways of involving wider stakeholders that were not open forums for criticism.

The project manager from Parentkind and developers from William Joseph spent time co-working. Together they built a collaborative and inclusive decision-making process and a long-term working relationship.

Feeling trusted - Hannah Ouazzane - Neontribe

Neontribe is an agency that supports tech for good projects. They carry out user research, software development and design. Hannah is a junior developer. She codes in both Python and Javascript depending on the project.

When do charities work with this kind of developer?

If you work with an agency, you may have junior developers working on your project. They tend to be in their first year or two of coding professionally. They can build things as well as other developers. Often, they have great up-to-date knowledge that can help find solutions to your problems. But they will usually rely on developers in their team with more experience for final decision-making.

What’s important to a good project?

Hannah describes feeling trusted as the most crucial thing to making projects work smoothly. Neontribe has been working with NCVO on a wide range of projects since 2017. “When we scope a sprint” Hannah explains, “They know that we are telling the truth when we say we can’t fit everything in. They’re used to prioritising”. This means that the developers can focus on the actual work - rather than worrying about meeting unrealistic expectations.

Part of building that trust is being able to speak to the right people, often enough. NCVO projects also have regular calls with the key decision-makers.

Hannah recognises that trust must be difficult for charities to feel. This can be particularly true because of the uncertainty that is part of working in an agile way. She wonders “what can agencies do, to help charities trust us? How do we let them know that we want to make the best thing we can for them - even when we are saying "no"?”

Resources to help you learn more/ get started:

  • Read: Catalyst’s best practice for successful digital projects. Insights gathered from research with charities and developers. Start with Part 1.
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