Key findings from an exploratory study into
making technology imaginable and usable for
small voluntary organisations
- SVOs – small voluntary organisations
- Tech – technology
Many small voluntary organisations feel technology could support them to become more accessible, relevant and efficient – but they don’t have time to properly research and test different approaches or to implement and maintain them.
Study findings include tips and advice from small voluntary organisations on overcoming the barriers to using technology; pointers for support organisations; and things for funders to think about – such as how they can support infrastructure, training and experimentation costs associated with ‘digital transformation’.
This page shares the findings from an exploratory study on helping to make technology (tech) imaginable and usable for small voluntary organisations (SVOs), carried out by the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) and the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST), working in partnership with a small group of charitable funders. They are based on:
- Scoping interviews with representatives from our five funding partners
- The synthesis and analysis of online survey responses from 72 SVOs with an annual income of under £500,000 who were primarily ‘early adopters’ of tech
- A design sprint process, including user testing a digital prototype with representatives from four SVOs
Our starting point was an understanding of the important role of engaging with and using tech for SVOs interested in making their services relevant, accessible and efficient. These organisations are currently facing particular challenges, including:
- Increased demand for services
- Increased competition for fewer resources
- Changing patterns of service access and use across many of their beneficiary groups, including new behaviours for searching and finding support, and growing expectations of services being available online
- Increased competition from exclusively online providers (despite concerns about the efficacy of much online provision)
For many of them, there are aspects of their service delivery models (specifically, the interface with clients) that feel inefficient, frustrating or obsolete, and that don’t match the digital expectations and behaviours of their client groups. Recent research and commentary in this area has highlighted that the take-up of digital technology with the voluntary sector has been particularly slow in comparison to other sectors. However, while there is a degree of wariness and caution towards technology amongst many voluntary organisations, there are also exciting opportunites and examples of how technology can help. Against this backdrop, the primary aim of the study was to explore the extent to which SVOs are able or willing to consider if and how technology might have a positive role to play in their work.
Supported and advised
Supported and advised
This study has been supported and advised by Comic Relief, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales and The Tudor Trust.
What does ‘tech’ mean to small voluntary organisations?
Basic access to hardware and infrastructure: broadband, smartphones, laptops
Internal systems and processes to increase organisational efficiency: accounting systems, document sharing
Flexible communication tools for service users and other stakeholders: e-newsletters, social media, video conferencing, online design tools
Tech to support service delivery: databases, case management, web-based forms and surveys for data
Digital-first products and services: mobile apps, virtual reality apps, medical devices
With funds and time tight, don’t reinvent the wheel, use the experiments of other small charities and experts to guide decisions and involve service users in testing”
Tech is imaginable – but not as usable as it could be
Barriers to use are practical, not psychological
Guidance around use – more stories about the lived experience of tech
Funders can play more of a role in supporting the introduction of tech into small voluntary organisations
Tech is imaginable – but not as usable as it could be. Many people want to engage, but two significant barriers prevail – a lack of knowledge about where to access support and a lack of time to learn how to practically implement and use tech.
Barriers to use are practical, not psychological. Challenges centred around the cost (in both time and money) of resourcing and development and change, including new skills training for staff and capital costs associated with implementing and maintaining new tech, often in areas with problematic broadband access.
Guidance around use – more stories about the lived experience of tech are needed to help inspire organisations and map out learning and adoption journeys. Support from colleagues and fellow charities was the most useful source of advice and information.
Funders can play more of a role in supporting the introduction of tech into small voluntary organisations – by providing core funding to cover tech infrastructure and experimentation as organisations build a digital culture; building links between small voluntary organisations working on similar problems to encourage collaboration; and signposting to trusted support.
A lot of tiny community groups come to us wringing their hands because they think they need a website. But for their needs and audience, often a Facebook page would suffice”
Small voluntary orgs
Five suggestions for small voluntary organisations
Start somewhere and don't be disheartened if it goes wrong
Focus on the problem you're trying to solve
Don't reinvent the wheel
Start somewhere and don't be disheartened if it goes wrong. Yes, you’re right that this stuff IS important. Not only that, it’s essential. You don’t have to be an expert and can start small. Getting things wrong is part of the process − that’s OK and it’s expected. Everyone’s learning. Breaking down big projects into manageable, incremental steps will help you stay focused while minimising the resources required.
Focus on the problem you're trying to solve. Understand your context and the needs of whoever you’re aiming to help first and foremost. Sure, get inspiration from elsewhere, but that’s no substitute for really deeply understanding the specific behaviours and expectations that you need to respond to in order for any tech to be used and useful.
Time-bound tests. Test a new piece of tech or a new digital approach for a time-bound period, e.g. two weeks, after which review usage as a team and make a decision about whether to continue or change direction. This can combat the paralysis that comes with putting off a big decision, and deal with internal scepticism of new ways of working.
Don't reinvent the wheel. Speak to other small charities about what they’ve done to solve a particular problem, and what they learned from the process. Also, crucially, speak to the end users of the service themselves (be it an internal or external service) about what tech they are using in their day-to-day. It might throw up previously unknown or unexpected avenues for improvements that build on existing habits.
Learning lunches. The pace of change is always increasing, and creating a culture of learning is essential to ensuring an organisation keeps abreast of new developments in technology and its applications/implications. Embed reflective behaviours and knowledge-sharing into the day-to-day through bringing colleagues together over food (a great motivator!).
Seek advice from other organisations who are further down the road than you are”
Definite encouragement to embrace tech as much as possible
- ‘Just go for it and try it out’
- ‘Embrace the tech available at the level you want it’
- ‘Embrace it as much as you can with the capacity you have’
- ‘Go for it’
- ‘Don’t fear tech …’
The importance of being strategic, starting with a purpose, and actively managing the introduction of tech
- ‘Think about its purpose before implementing something that looks good’
- ‘Have a good project manager and have a good understanding of full costs’
- ‘Just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s right for your service’.
- ‘Don’t do too much at once’.
- ‘If it doesn’t help the service user access help or use your help, or make services more efficient, what is its purpose?’
- ‘Spend a lot of time trying to find the right solutions’
- ‘Never become wedded to a current process or way of working’
The importance of allocating resources
- ‘It’s important not to underestimate the time and financial implications researching, purchasing and implementing can take’
- ‘There is no gain without some initial pain… but the benefits are enormous’
- ‘Budget but be prepared for delays and additional costs’
- ‘Give it enough time – tweaking and improving it takes time’
- ‘Investing in the time to learn and use is key’
- ‘Allocate resources to training staff and implement tech’
Seek advice and support
- ‘Be open to asking for help and advice’
- ‘Get help!’
- ‘Get the right advice for your particular service as “one size fits all” does not work’
- ‘It’s important to speak to other, similar organisations to obtain help and advice’
Things for funders to think about
Develop your digital literacy
Recognise best practice
Accept learning and change as a necessary part of developing digital services
Support infrastructure, training and experimentation costs
If you want to be an effective funder of small organisations, you need to develop your digital literacy or to partner with organisations that can provide this expertise.
Ensure assessment processes do not disadvantage the iterative nature of digital development, and work to ensure assessment structures and decisions reward recognised best practice (such as BetterDigital.Services and the Charity Digital Code). That means treating digital confidence and competence as a 'must have' rather than a 'nice to have'.
Become familiar and confident in processes that manage risk and minimise waste in digital projects. This confidence includes accepting learning and change as a necessary part of developing services in a digital context – build flexibility and support into your processes, systems and reporting. Failure as part of learning is a positive – as long as it is in pursuit of charitable goals.
Think seriously about how you might support the infrastructure, training and experimentation costs associated with 'digital transformation' in small organisations, in order for them to be resilient and fully able to respond tot he changing needs of their communities. Small organisations cannot be expected to take a leap forward without proper, flexible support.
Tech support orgs
We had three starting points for this study, which aimed to better understand the varied approaches grant makers take to risk.
Balancing benefit and risk
Appetite for risk
The invisibility of risk
1. Balancing benefit and risk
Grant-making decisions can be understood as judgements about a balance between benefit and risk - the aim being to select applications that funders reasonably believe will make the biggest difference against their funding priorities, while being confident that the proposed work is achievable and that the funded organisation is capable of delivery.
2. Appetite for risk
There can be a lack of alignment within trusts and foundations in terms of understanding ‘what risk means to us’ and how it is best measured and managed. Due diligence processes need to be proportionate to the size of the organisation being funded and the size of the grant.
3. The invisibility of risk
The invisibility of risk can produce processes and behaviours that are problematic to applicants and grantees - and that impede the flexibility and agility that the moment may call for. We saw a need for more trusts and foundations to move from a deficit to a strengths-based approach, placing greater emphasis on where potential lies to deliver a positive outcome and how to work with organisations to manage and live with risk.
When we speak to people in small charities about tech, they aren’t just asking about ‘social media’ and ‘IT’, they realise it’s more than that. This is different to even two years ago”
Read the report
Annie Caffyn, Ellie Hale
We worked with the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST) to explore the extent to which small voluntary organisations are able or willing to consider how technology might have a positive role to play in their work.
Not everything lends itself to a technological solution”
Learn more about IVAR