Why Funders Should Care About Digital Service Design

I’m currently working for two sister grant making organisations, the Big Lottery Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund (the latter of which is hiring for digitally-minded folks at the moment — see below).

This is a great privilege since I get to do lots of work on one of my real passions — improving the experience of people who are seeking funding from a grant-maker.

As I’ve been working on this challenge at both funds, I’ve thought a lot about grant-funders relationship with design and digital technology. The key question for me has been ‘What’s unique and special about funders and digital, versus what’s just the same as other organisations?’. This post is my first stab at an answer.

The problem with popularity

Classic businesses want to be popular, ideally really popular. Most companies put in a lot of effort to make sure that they get as many valuable customers as they can. Businesses buy adverts, develop brands and occasionally perform PR stunts, all just to make us pay attention to them.

Grant-making organisations live in a very different world. Their most common fear is of being overwhelmed by demand, of having more ‘customers’ than can be served. And, when the main product you offer is the possibility of realising dearly-held ambitions, being overwhelmed isn’t always an unjustified fear.

Many funders, especially smaller ones, handle this problem by simply not offering any open channel by which people and institutions can apply. Instead they seek out projects to fund through relationships and research, and simply don’t offer any publicly visible way of applying. I must confess: if I worked for a smaller funder, I’d almost certainly do the same.

But many funders, especially larger ones, really want to be open. The funders who distribute money raised for good causes by people playing the National Lottery want to be highly open, because the money comes from every corner of the land.

This is where service design comes in.

Service Design is the business of taking a focused, professional approach to making customer experiences that are smooth, quick and enjoyable. It’s now very common in the private sector, and increasingly common in governments. If you’ve ever used an app you thought was especially easy or enjoyable to use, it’s definitely been subject to service design. If you ever had a particularly seamless booking or check-in experience for a train, plane or hotel then you’ve almost certainly experienced it too.

Generally speaking in order for an organisation to get good at service design it needs to combine the skills of its own current staff, who really know the sector, customers and organisational history, with some new skills that are brought in through hiring new people with different backgrounds. These novel skills normally include software development, design and product management — skills that simply didn’t exist when many funders were established.

Now, these new people aren’t free, and every penny a funder spends on operating is a penny it can’t give away. But despite this tough trade-off, funders are increasingly concluding that the new skills are worth the investment. The question is ‘why’?

The siren song of ‘the high barrier’

It’s no secret that people will go to extraordinary lengths to achieve things that really matter to them.

Given this, it would seem absolutely more than legitimate for a funding organisation to ask itself “If we already have plenty of applicants, is it really worth spending money on something that might generate more demand?’’ After all, if your customers would crawl through broken glass to get at your product, is it really worth the time and effort to sweep the glass away?

This is a very seductive conclusion — after all, who doesn’t like an answer to a problem that requires no action? However, despite the temptation to follow the ‘high barrier’ logic, I’ve been seeing funding institutions inside and outside the UK reject this default position, and start to make moves towards a user-centred perspective. The question is ‘Why is this happening?’. Here are some answers, as I see them.

Five reasons why funders are starting to care about and invest in service design

The first reason for funders to embrace service design is diversity and inclusion. Without engaging diverse users deeply in the design of applications processes it is incredibly easy to deter prospective applicants entirely by accident. Words, images and concepts that look absolutely AOK to the staff of a funding organisation can easily turn out to be off-putting or confusing to the precise people they are trying to serve. I know this because I’ve been that funder: contentedly designing a page that a user tester later described as ‘not for them’, and that they said would have caused them to close their tab, if they’d encountered it online.

The next reason that funders should care about service design is that virtually all funders care to some extent about impact. Finding great projects which generate great impact is the key motivating factor behind most grant makers around the world, and the fear of not finding and not backing impactful projects haunts many of us who work for these institutions. Service design has a crucial role here because it widens the potential pool of people who will apply and ideas that funding staff will ever get to see. A great idea from a non-usual suspect is unlikely to find its way through the doors of an organisation that hasn’t spent time and energy ensuring that those doors and open and approachable.

The third reason for service design is that it sends a strong message to prospective applicants and current grantees that the funder considers compassionate, careful design of services to be a good thing, and a normal thing. For years most funders have been trying to nudge their grantees towards paying greater attention to the needs and wishes of the people they serve. However, that message — ‘please listen carefully to the people you serve’ — will resonate more strongly if the services a funder offers strongly echo a people-first approach.

The fourth reason funders should care about service design is that poorly designed services in the funding universe can be worse than unpleasant, they can actually be dangerous to the health of applicant organizations, and to the welfare of the people they support. What in a business might be a ‘slow turnaround time’ can, in a funder context be ‘too late’. A thoughtful use of service design by funders can help lower that kind of risk, by simply making them more aware of what it is like to be an applicant.

The final reason that service design is of relevance to funders is straightforward compassion. Most people who work in funders do their jobs because of at least some kind of desire to make the world a better place. Making applicants from civil society endure poorly designed application processes, which make them sad or stressed or worse simply isn’t compassionate. Need I say any more?

So those are my five reasons why it’s worth funders getting serious about service design, especially in the digital world.

Want to get involved?

At the moment I’m helping the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to embrace service design skills, so that it can offer truly great grant-making services to the amazing organisations it supports. HLF is key funder of the UK heritage sector, and if you’ve been in a museum, castle or archive in the last two decades, there’s a good chance that players of the National Lottery have helped make it sing — it’s spent nearly £8bn since it was started in the 1990s.

If you’re a designer, coder, product manager, content designer or other generally digitally savvy person, and you’d like the chance to help a wondrously important institution to support the UK’s heritage through great grant-making, then please take a look at the available jobs, or ask me questions directly. It’s a great chance for folks outside of London to be part of an impactful, values driven and important organisation. And because the move to service design is just getting going, it’s a great chance to be involved in something really new and exciting.