For charities, impact matters. It’s what gets those who work in the third-sector out of bed in the morning. It’s also what prompts individuals, grant-giving trusts and government to part with the cash that keeps the sector going. Many organisations are now realising that, although occasional large-scale evaluation can tell you how much impact you are having it’s a pretty blunt instrument for understanding your programme’s strengths and weaknesses and driving impact on a day-to-day basis. This is where real-time impact management comes in: data on how things are going on a daily basis empowers staff to make better decisions and drive up the impact of the organisation.
Technology can play a critical role in this type of impact management. I’ve seen this first hand. When I joined Action Tutoring in 2014 it was typical of many small and medium-sized charities. Data was spread across spreadsheets and a database that was not fit for purpose. Generating insights from this data was practically impossible and even running basic reports for trustees and funders was cumbersome. Most importantly, staff were having to spend considerable time on data-entry and repeating basic processes (e.g. processing volunteer applications).
Over the last two years I’ve overseen a transformation in Action Tutoring’s systems and how it uses data. Staff now have access to critical information that allows them to reliably assess how things are going; they can instantly see how each programme is doing against key performance indicators such as average pupil or tutor attendance, and can identify problems as soon as they appear. Good volunteer management is facilitated by a database that automates routine tasks and streamlines communication, as well as an online sign-up process which both reduces the data burden on staff and ensures a volunteer’s first experience of the organisation is positive. Analysis and reporting tools make it easy for management, trustees and funders to see the big picture.
I set-up Impact Box both because I’d seen this transformative potential but also because I was aware of the considerable barriers charities face to using technology and data in this way. Most people who run charities are not tech people. This presents a challenge when they do commission technology projects and are then confronted by a range of options presented by developers who all claim that their solution is best. Impact Box’s mission is to help charities overcome these barriers and deliver outstanding technology solutions for the third sector. Our guiding principles are critical to how we do this.
For technology to make a difference it has to empower staff. Too many projects fail to deliver because they don’t put the end-user first. The result is poor adoption and in some cases resentment towards the new system. To avoid this Impact Box makes the design, testing and implementation phases of its work 100% user-oriented. In practice this means adopting some of the best techniques from agile software development like the user story. We judge whether a solution is fit for purpose not on the extent to which it fulfils technical requirements (e.g. ‘enable fast querying across multiple tables’) but instead on whether it helps the user do what they wanted to (e.g. ‘tighten up communication with donors to ensure no-one falls of the radar by being regularly sent a list of email addresses for donors that have not been contacted for six months’).
An organisation’s mission should guide every decision it takes. This includes decisions about technology and systems. Impact Box works with organisations to determine which solutions can make the biggest contribution to the organisation’s mission. This is particularly important given finite budgets - charities need to prioritise the areas that have the biggest impact on a day-to-day basis. In many cases this involves putting systems in place to facilitate what we call impact management: tracking key performance data in real-time. Creating these short feedback loops allows an organisation to continually assess how things are going and make data-informed decisions. Generating this data in a way that doesn’t burden staff often involves using technology to automate data collection and input which is why we spend time understanding the internal processes of the organisations we work with.
One conventional approach to delivering a tech project is to enthusiastically embark at the start on the mammoth task of mapping out complete requirements for the solution which are then taken away and built to completion. Our approach is different. We gather only the requirements we need to get a first version working. Then we let you test it right away and give feedback. This isn’t because we think requirements are unimportant. It’s because we think that the best way to gather requirements is through an iterative process that puts the actual solution in front of the end-user. Our process allows your thinking to evolve over time rather than having to decide everything up front. With this approach changing requirements are something to be welcomed rather than avoided - they are a sign that together we are getting closer to identifying what the best solution looks like.
For most charities - particularly small and medium-sized ones - things change all the time. That’s why we put enormous effort into making sure our solutions are sustainable. Often this involves investing time in developing charities’ own technical expertise through staff training. It also informs the type of software we implement. Adaptability is critical: if simple changes can’t be made in-house going forward then it’s probably not the right option. Above all we want to avoid the situation where charities have to pay developers every time a funder asks them to record a new piece of information because adding a column in the database requires being able to code. Too often we see big technology projects making charities dependent on developers for technological beasts that they lack the institutional knowledge to control. We want to change this.
Over the next year we are looking to put these principles through their paces by partnering with a number of charities who want to make use of technology to drive impact. If that sounds like you please get in touch!