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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

  • Mark Wheddon

    Jude

    I am the Programme Manager for ‘Local Food’, a £57.5m Big Lottery Funded open grants programme, which has the main aim of making ‘locally grown food accessible and affordable to local communities’.

    It was heartening to read your blog, especially as we are increasingly doing many of the things you say funders should be engaged in.

    Since the launch of our programme in March 2008, we have always placed great emphasis not only on providing support to groups during their application and delivery stages through our Local Food Advisers, but also on encouraging peer to peer support and getting applicant groups to share, learn and improve by telling their stories to one another and sharing their experiences.

    One of the ways we do this is through a series of training events. These take place at pre- application stage and continue when projects have been awarded funding. Although each event has its own individual focus, from looking at how to successfully deliver project outcomes, thinking creatively about their sustainability, or improving their resilience, one of the equally important reasons for holding the events is to allow groups to meet each other, share their successes and problems, and learn from their experiences.
    To date, we have held more than 50 of these events across England, with over 800 people attending and benefiting individually, and then taking this learning back to their projects and communities.

    The value to projects is echoed through their anecdotal feedback:

    “Listening and picking up ideas of how other people overcome similar problems that are shared. Enjoyed learning about and listening to other projects”
    “Hearing about different projects and learning from them. Focusing on sustainability and ways to make the project pay for itself”

    We have bolstered these events by providing groups with an online ‘foodecommunity’, where awarded projects can easily publish their stories, and share good and bad experiences through their blogs. We are in the latter stages of opening this area up to the much wider internet audience. Here are a couple of our more colourful ‘fooderesidents’ blogs as an example!

    http://www.localfoodgrants.org/projects/7496/blog?q=cumbria%20wildlife%20trusts
    http://www.localfoodgrants.org/projects/6424/blog?q=growing%20with%20hart

    Storytelling is vital and forms the backbone of much of our publicity and our efforts to analyse the impact of Local Food so far. Our Local Food ‘Big Review’ http://bigreview.localfoodgrants.org/  demonstrates the impacts the projects continue to deliver.  Allowing and encouraging groups tell their own stories and share their experiences through visual media really brings the projects to life and showcases the real difference they are making.

  • David Wilcox

    Hi Jude – this is a really important idea, and it’s great that you are championing it. Maybe now’s the time for lift off.

    John Popham and I have been helping Big Lottery Fund explore this further as you’ll see from a series of posts on socialreporters.net. Guest blogger Will Perrin suggests how hyperlocal sites can help http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=235

    Maybe we should co-organise a get-together on this, particularly if BIG would help host?

  • Thaler Pekar

    Thank you for your insight, Jude! I appreciate your call for training, as, too often, funders ask, as the annual report is going to press, “Quick, we need a story!” Moreover, a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of what a story is, and how to gather and ethically share stories, ultimately hurts, rather than helps the sector and all involved.

    To your point that funders might “encourage different kinds of impact reporting”, the Slingshot Fund is using video as a story collection and knowledge sharing tool, in place of mid-grant reports. You can read more here: http://neurocooking.blogspot.com/2010/05/not-just-reading-about-but-seeing.html

    To help nonprofits gets started in sharing their stories, here is a link to a short article on 7 Tips for Finding Stories: http://pndblog.typepad.com/pndblog/2011/06/7-tips-for-finding-stories-in-your-organization.html

    Thanks again, Jude.

  • Alec Leggat

    Distribution is always the probelm, isn’t it? Even when donors support storytelling and case studies as a form of impact reporting it doesn’t often get into the wider public domain. In fact, it often doesn’t get into the narrower domain of the particular sector you work in. It can be quite demoralising producing reports and gathering case studies and facilitating storytelling when you have no idea what the donor does with it beyond a few misguided comments in repsonse to your annual report.

    I also wonder if an increased acceptance of storytelling, hearing the voices of “project beneficiaries” would encourage more stories about how projects didn’t work and an understanding that we can learn from our “mistakes or see the unintended consequences of an intervention.

  • Jude Habib

    There is a really interesting discussion going on here. Thanks so much for your comments and for contributing. I know that there are some examples of funders really moving in the right direction and offering some great opportunities to the people they fund. I do think that Big Lottery Fund are leading thee Mark and Thaler thanks for sharing those links – extremely useful. Alec perhaps my biggest source of frustration is what you refer to as distribution of content (ie stories) and I’d call cross promotion – I have a 10 channel rule and if orgs funders aren’t using the content across at least 10 different comms channels they aren’t highlighting the story in the best way.

  • Benwiv

    I could not agree more with the thrust of this article…As an experienced fundraising manager across a range of discplines; trusts/foundations, statutory, corporate and direct marketing (as well as PR/Comms) I often found myself at loggerheads with Directors (although usually not Trustees) who seemed to view ‘telling out story’ as selling out.

    It’s an attitude that I’ve always found baffling and frustrating. Firstly, many of the people who benefit are desperate to tell their story to benefit others and to validate their own experience.Secondly, for most charities, the impact that they have on the lives of the people they exist to support is their ‘business’ – processes and outputs are no more than a means to an end. For a sector that never tires of championing itself as a lone voice of humanity in an increasingly materialistic world, it’s deeply ironic that we never seem to want to put people at the heart of our public message (and if we do they’re very often dry, formulaic case studies).

    Having worked for a medical charity and an overseas development charity, I’ve heard some harrowing stories and others that lift your heart. It’s no exageration to say that some of the people I’ve come into contact with have even changed the way I view the world and my relationships with those around me. It’s profound stuff and draining work, but it’s what we do – it’s the difference we make – and we should celebrate it. Taken as read that it’s done sensitively and ethically, refusing to speak about the work that we do is a betrayal of what we stand for. All too often ‘ethical’ concerns are a fig leaf that people hide behind in order not to push themselves out of their comfort zones.

    With my PR hat on, I’ve always made sure that the charities I worked for have a human face and that stories are shared across print, electronic and broadcast media. I’ve always exceeded my financial targets too and I don’t think that’s any coincidence.

  • Isabelle Lemaire

    Really interesting article. Thanks for posting on this. Interestingly enough, we’re (insightshare.org) working with two groups of young and vulnerable women in Uganda and Guatemala on Participatory Video and M&E. These girls have been making films with us for the past six months or so trying to find out what are the aspects of girls programming that can make it more or less successful. The girls have been doing this M&E using the Most Significant Change technique and have made some really amazing movies so far. Here is an example of a compilation of those films: http://vimeo.com/34797751

    Would love to keep this discussion going on how we can make sure beneficiaries have a say in the development debate and can actually be agents of change for better AID using participatory media tools.

  • Wally Harbert

    Exactly right, Instead of tearing ourselves apart about whether trustees should be paid, it would be better to spend time considering how we can restore the spirit of charity,

  • Chris Hornet

    Paid staff have mortgages to pay, groceries to buy, families to provide for. It is only natural that as individuals we (either consciously or self-consciously) are more cautions about what we say and how we act. That is where the real value of volunteers come in and we’ve seen time and time again that it is volunteers people feel most comfortable with and will confide in.

    The problem is whether organisations are prepared to allow volunteers to be these ‘protectors’, to allow them to speak and go ‘off message’. Organisations have got better at giving volunteers opportunties that are more skilled and more responsible but as a sector we still have a line where the thought is ‘only paid staff can do that’.

  • Heather Buckingham

    Thank you for these comments, Rob; and, as it happens, I agree with much of what you say. You are right to point out that volunteers may in practice have much the same skills as paid employees, at least in the sense that, once someone has acquired a set of skills (or experiences, etc.), they can make a choice to use these in a voluntary rather than a paid capacity (or vice versa). However, one thing that the paper highlights is that this choice is likely to be constrained, for instance by people’s financial and family circumstances, and as a result there may be considerable variation between communities in terms of the extent and nature of volunteering. Also, regardless of volunteers’ skills and experience, there are perhaps differences in the demands and guarantees that organisations can make of, or expect from, volunteers compared with paid staff, which may have implications for service provision.

    It is perhaps worth pointing out too that the discussion paper – which incidentally has a question mark at the end of its title (although this seems to have dropped off somewhere along the way) – is intended as just that: a presentation of different research findings in order to provoke debate. So just to clarify, for instance, the view referred to above about how volunteers cannot be expected to deal with complex client needs is one that has been expressed in interviews by some of the TSOs we’ve been researching. This is not a position that TSRC is endorsing, or claiming is entirely representative.

    It is is really interesting to hear your thoughts on this, however; and I agree that the current context of budget cuts may offer an opportunity for volunteers (and perhaps paid third sector staff too?) to work increasingly ‘outside of the state’, in a way that could be less encumbered by the constraints associated with state funding. Perhaps this might also lead to more radical, value-driven voluntary action, and that is a research question which we are keen to explore. However, this raises further questions about what this kind of action might look like, who will be doing it, where will they be doing it, and why – any thoughts anyone?

  • Laura Hamilton

    It is disappointing that in the current climate of shrinking resources, charities aren’t adapting their approach to volunteering. It seems that whether we’re in boom time, or bust time, volunteering still sits low down the pecking order in terms of charities investment priorities.

    The Guardian Voluntary Sector Network are hosting a live Q&A tomorrow (Wed 5th Dec) on “How can charities encourage people to continue giving”. I’d really encourage people to post up questions or comments that encourage the debate to focus on more than just cash giving. Join the discussion from 1-3pm here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/voluntary-sector-network/2012/nov/28/charities-encourage-continue-giving

  • Mark Atkinson

    My own experience which may or may not resonate with others is that whilst many charities love the idea of having more volunteers, they simply don’t have the necessary infrastructure to recruit, train or retain them. For those with a weak volunteer infrastructure and competing budgetary needs, they invariably allocate the cash to things which will make an impact in year. I think this is because they dont have the management information systems to demonstrate the £business case for volunteering and because the annual report and accounts dont require them to show the value volunteering brings to the organisation.

    Mark Atkinson
    VCSchange