With the festive period now truly upon us, I have recently found myself attending a host of different seasonal events and catch-ups, both professional and social, which have seen me having to repeatedly answer the unavoidable question, “what do I ‘do’”? Having worked in the charity sector for the past few years, I suppose it’s no surprise that many of those listening to my somewhat faltering answer have some connection themselves to the third sector, too. And this has led to some interesting observations. “Oh, we need to improve our systems,” is a phrase that has become strangely familiar in response to my explanation, and this struck a chord with me in terms of what it suggests about the way in which organisations often approach the idea of database development.

When considering embarking on a system implementation or development within your organisation, it can be tempting to see it as an enterprise that is somewhat separate from questions of organisational strategy, procedure or mission. However, if my time at Impact Box so far has taught me anything, it’s that a system implementation goes hand in hand with all of these concerns, and is in fact the perfect time for a charity to review, consider and enhance all of the above. Or, to put it another way, don’t be tempted to simply try to develop a system, but instead be open to the idea of allowing the system to help develop you. But what do I mean by this rather conceptual suggestion?

Well, as I see it, the best system implementations are those which ask fundamental questions of ‘what,’ ‘how,’ and - central to the ethos at Impact Box - ‘why’? That is, what do you as an organisation want to achieve, how do you think you’d like to achieve it, and why do you need to achieve it? Rather than looking to the charity to provide up-front all of the ‘hows’, then, this more encompassing approach enables a truly collaborative ‘working out’ process, which significantly widens both the perspective and the potential impact of the project. By understanding the full picture, the end-goal can be fully explored by both client and developer, and previously unconsidered but truly mission-centred solutions can be proposed and examined.

Our work at Impact Box now almost always begins with a form of journey mapping. This is not simply so that we gain a better understanding of the organisation (although it is certainly a very helpful aspect!), but because it provides the perfect opportunity for everyone involved in the project to take a step back and review the organisational procedures against strategy and mission. Without this step, one risks jumping straight into the means and ways of achieving a specific task, perhaps without interrogating whether the task in question is in fact the most effective, efficient or missionally relevant thing to do. In summary, perhaps it would be fair to say that the best system ‘implementations’ do not implement at all, but instead enable prospective users to step back and explore the wider perspective surrounding questions of data collection and service user experience. It is one of the things I admire most about the way Impact Box works, and I can happily say that one of the most enjoyable parts of my role is working with varied and diverse charities to investigate these big questions. This keenness to explore the root and centre of our clients’ requirements is a constant and gratifying reminder of just how driven we are to help charities achieve the greatest impact possible.

So, for any organisations thinking about ‘improving your systems’, my advice would be don’t be tempted to view the task in isolation; place the enterprises of system development and strategic thinking side by side and you may well find that they each support and enhance one another.