How charities can get the most out of digital support programmes - what we learned from supporting Tech for Good grantees

Part of our Tech for Good: stories and learnings from charities series

In June the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST) wrapped up our support on the Tech for Good programme, where we helped nine charities to develop new or improved digital services. The programme focused on making sure services were socially responsible, and on test-driven and user-centred approaches. 

We’ve taken the opportunity to reflect on our experience of supporting grantees over the nine-month programme - what worked, what didn’t work and what we learnt along the way.

We learned, among other things, that it’s vital for charities to have dedicated project leads who have the time and space to make a difference, that it’s crucial to have tailored and flexible support, that charities need to have time to commit and the willingness to change direction, and that peer learning is an amazing tool to help break down barriers.

We hope these findings will be useful to charities engaging in digital development programmes, partners supporting them, and to the grant-givers funding them.

TL;DR: Short on time? Skip ahead to the infographic showing our nine key learnings

Background

Just over a year ago, CAST began providing digital support as the lead support partner for the Tech for Good 2019 Programme. We worked in consortium with some of the most experienced organisations in the UK’s tech for good community: doteveryone, Snook and Founders and Coders.

The programme first launched in 2016 and was funded by Comic Relief and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, with the aim of building the digital skills and confidence of non-profit organisations. The Tech for Good theory of change is based on the hypothesis that a combination of funding (between £24k and £51k) and digital support, will result in non-profit organisations delivering more effective and accessible services, that will, in turn, benefit service users. 

Through our support interventions we hoped to equip all teams with the necessary skills and knowledge, so that by the end of the programme, all teams would have:

  • a solid understanding of the problem space from the user’s perspective
  • confidence in researching & testing with service users and the ability to identify key user needs
  • the ability to map key milestones and communicate progress to key stakeholders
  • an understanding of the value of peer connections for shared learning and development
  • confidence to work in an iterative way.

Our approach

At CAST we help organisations use digital for social good. With our expertise in service design, we approached the programme as we would any other design challenge. We developed a service blueprint, with many assumptions baked in that we’d need to test along the way, and kicked off the programme with some initial user research to better understand the needs of the organisations we’d be supporting. 

When we initially designed our support for this programme, we knew it wouldn’t be simple and that a ‘test and learn’ approach would be essential, not only because we’d be working with a cohort of organisations with varied challenges, but also because we’d be working alongside other consortium partners to deliver support, while maintaining the delicate balance of this ecosystem.

Our key learnings

Each organisation benefited from a suite of blended online and in-person support, which included focused mentoring, development webinars and peer learning as they navigated their digital journey and developed services designed to meet specific user needs. Our key learnings are shown as an infographic below; scroll on for more detail on each one.

Infographic listing the headers for each key learning

1. Charities need a dedicated project lead throughout the lifecycle of the project 

All grantees were asked to identify a project lead at the outset of the programme. This would be the individual who would: have dedicated time and support from their team to engage in the programme, be the key point of contact within the organisation throughout the duration of the programme, and have ultimate responsibility for the project outcomes. 

Changes in personnel are inevitable but they come at a cost for the organisation, with knowledge and skills being lost in the process. Some of our teams were forced to hire new project leads at different stages of the programme and this ultimately impacted their speed of travel, their project outcomes, and in some cases resulted in teams pivoting from their initial project plans. 

One project lead commented: “I came late into the project but feel our goals were broadly achieved. The only downside for us is that knowledge/context was lost with the change of personnel on our side. Having continuity throughout the project would have been helpful and we would have taken up more of the support options.”

2. Playbacks at key milestones build confidence and accountability, and help teams communicate progress more effectively.

A crucial aspect of the programme is supporting teams to communicate their learnings and progress at key stages to internal and external stakeholders. We did this through playbacks, where project leads developed short structured presentations to share internally and with the rest of the cohort. 

The aim was to help build confidence in communicating and promoting peer accountability. Many project leads shared that they found it useful to have a structured way to share what they’re learning, felt encouraged by the feedback from their peers, and also found it useful to learn from different perspectives. 

The final playback was an online public event- Tech for Good: stories and learnings from charities, funders & support team. This was an opportunity for teams to showcase their progress and share learnings to help the wider sector tackle digital service design challenges.

3. Project leads need dedicated time and space to make meaningful progress and develop skills.

We assumed that project leads would have dedicated time and support from their team to engage in the programme, however this wasn’t always the case. For some project leads the Tech for Good project was just one of many large projects they were working on and some struggled to juggle competing priorities and deadlines. Many teams cited ‘lack of time to engage in the programme’ and ‘workloads’ as barriers that hindered their progress during the programme. 

4. Flexible support is essential to respond to emerging needs and the changing environments (e.g. COVID-19 impact on project timelines). 

We knew from our research that teams needed more help with some areas of digital than others (e.g. user research, working with technical partners, etc.) and we planned some specific support interventions to address these. However, as we well know, and to paraphrase Robert Burns, “the best-laid schemes of mice and men, go often askew”. 

There were some additional support needs that emerged during the course of the programme and the outbreak of COVID-19 meant that many teams had to rapidly adapt their plans and needed our support to do so. From learning the basics of remote user testing to shifting all services online, it's here that our ‘test and learn’ approach really paid off and where the benefits of flexible funding models and funders who are committed to being led by user needs really came to the fore. 

As the need for better digital safeguarding practice grew, we worked with Against Violence and Abuse (AVA) to design interactive workshops for the Tech for Good cohort. Due to demand across the sector and with the support of Comic Relief, we were able to open this up to other non-profits and we then went on to assemble a team to develop DigiSafe, a step-by-step digital safeguarding guide for charities designing new services or taking existing ones online. 

5. Communicating programme milestones and time commitments early helps manage expectations and productivity.

At the start of the programme we worked with teams to develop a roadmap with key programme milestones identified. We also shared key programme dates and commitments at the outset to help teams better plan their time and commitment over the course of the programme. 

We asked the cohort for their view on our approach to support and one project lead said: “it's so refreshing to have this support within a funded programme”.

6. Tailored support is crucial, but only beneficial if teams are open to it and have capacity to engage. 

Thanks to the consortium support approach we were able to draw on the skills and expertise of those who have pioneered best practice in supporting charities to develop responsible, effective social tech. Teams benefitted from a range of support including: Consequence Scanning workshops, Product Management expertise and user research best practice. 

Many project leads cited “skilled support and advice, 1:1 coaching and introductions to key contacts” as the key elements of support they found most helpful. But some project leads also mentioned that they regretted not taking more advantage of the support on offer. For some this was due to lack of time or competing priorities, while others joined the programme later and had less opportunity. 

7. Teams who are reluctant to pivot or change direction are slow to progress and deliver meaningful project outcomes. 

Every team in the cohort had a specific social challenge they hoped to address using digital and many of them already had a potential solution in mind. This is often where we start with many of the organisations we support through our Design Hops and other programmes. We know that it’s common for organisations to start thinking about solutions when faced with a challenge and we usually start by asking you to ‘park’ your solutions. 

There are a number of reasons for this. The first goes back to the outcomes outlined at the start of the programme (see 'Background' section, above); we want project leads and their teams to have ‘a solid understanding of the problem space from the user’s perspective’. To help teams better understand their users and the user needs they were trying to address, we shared user research methodologies and guidance. 

Insights gathered from user research play an integral role in shaping any potential solution and help teams avoid the common pitfall of designing giant ‘white elephants’, that are often costly, take a long time to develop and sometimes don’t actually meet the needs of users.  

Some teams already had a solid idea of the solution they wanted to develop and had done some user research prior to the programme to better understand their user needs, while others had legacy projects that they were attempting to revive through the programme. Others still chose to stick with their initial solutions despite what they learnt from their user research and ultimately struggled to make much progress or define clear outcomes for their projects, instead choosing to retro-fit a solution to a potential problem that had yet to be surfaced. 

8. Charities with different levels of digital maturity require different levels of support intensity.  

We know from our research that organisations at different stages of their digital journey have different levels of digital maturity and require different types of support. This finding was reinforced by the organisations we interacted with through the programme, with some teams preferring a more hands-on approach from their digital coach and support partners, while others who were further along on their digital journey or more familiar with the digital design process required fewer support interventions. 

9. Peer learning opportunities provide valuable opportunities for shared learning, unblocking challenges, and building peer accountability.

At the outset we knew that we wanted to provide plenty of opportunities for peer networking. We’ve learnt from our Coffee Connections how valuable informal conversations and sharing experiences is in the sector and we know that often learning and hearing from peers is more convincing. 

We held bi-monthly Peer Learning Sessions, which provided an open forum for project leads to discuss their learnings and challenges and learn from their peers about other approaches and experiences. Most teams cited peer learning opportunities as one of the most valuable aspects of the programme. 

Conclusion

Over the last nine months, we’ve learnt so much from supporting these amazing teams on the Tech for Good programme. It’s been a great opportunity for us to interact with and learn from funders, partners, evaluators and most importantly non-profit organisations providing crucial services to address social challenges.

We’re so grateful to have had the opportunity to play a small part in the digital journey of these teams (see more of their stories here) and the experience has provided us with such rich insights that is already impacting the the way we support non-profit organisations, through programmes such as Explore and Catalyst & The National Lottery Community Fund COVID-19 Digital Response

Of everything we’ve learnt, the most important learning has been flexibility. The journey is seldom linear when it comes to digital design. It’s messy and requires us to be always questioning, always learning and always adapting to changing needs and behaviours. 

Background

The Tech for Good programme was developed to help charities use technology to deliver better services. Charities receive a monetary grant alongside an intensive package of support from experts, with the intention that at the end, the charity will have a new or very different product.

Projects last for nine months. Each includes a two-month discovery phase incorporating user research, an intense four-month definition and development phase where teams work with a tech partner to develop a potential solution, followed by a three-month launch phase. The programme is funded by Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn Foundation with intensive programme support provided by a consortium of support partners (doteveryone, Founders and Coders and Snook) led by CAST.