Free expert advice can take the pain out of IT projects

An effective IT system is a prerequisite for a successful charity merger, but it doesn’t have to be a drain on already limited budgets. Small charities often have fairly rudimentary IT provision on which they may have managed for years. A merger shines a spotlight on the flaws in the system and also generates new technological requirements for data integration and customer relationship management.  With a national register of nearly 8,000 volunteer specialists with time to donate, often in between professional contracts, our IT4Communities programme has been helping voluntary and community organisations resolve their IT challenges for nearly a decade.

Last financial year the Charity Commission reported a 150 per cent rise in the number of merger cases in which it has been directly involved – a result of falling donations and investment income.  Our experience reflects the same trend, with a 300 per cent increase in the amount of merger-related work in which our volunteers have been involved.

Merging is a complicated and drawn out process requiring the resolution of multiple issues before ‘union’ can take place.  There are legal, structural, financial and cultural considerations and while the overall goal may be to save money, there can be considerable expense associated with the journey.

When the disability rights charities Disability Alliance (DA), the National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL) and the Royal Association for Disability Rights (RADAR) decided to amalgamate to form the Disability Rights Partnership, cost saving and efficiency were two of the most keenly anticipated benefits.

By merging management, assets, operations and services, the potential economies of scale were huge, but when it came to IT, a totally new modus operandi was a must.

The overarching need to be prudent with restricted finance – while also ensuring that equipment is fit for purpose, future-proof and good value for money – is an intimidating prospect at an already difficult time.  Without an impartial and expert eye on the situation, charities can often flounder.  Mistakes made at this stage can be expensive and obstructive at a time when efficiency and speed are critical.

We ‘matched’ the emerging Disability Rights Partnership with Faye Heatley, an expert in interim project management with over 15 years experience as well as the in-depth technical knowledge required.  Her unique skill set has proven invaluable to the charity and has informed the integration process in unprecedented ways, which has delighted her ‘client’.  In the two months she has already given pro bono, she has audited the existing IT infrastructure, run focus groups to identify departmental priorities, set up trials of new equipments and even helped put together funding bids to finance the investment.

Our volunteers often go on to form lasting relationships with the charities they have supported that extend way beyond their initial involvement.  Some have joined the board and others have even been offered permanent jobs.

Anne Stafford is the programme manager of IT4Communities, an initiative run by AbilityNet, which adapts technology for disabled people