Recommendations, conversations and trials: finding the right technical partners
Since December I’ve been sharing our experience of developing a new digital strategy at NCVO, through mapping our digital ecology, learning about user needs and behaviours, developing a vision for a radical new technical architecture, and crafting a compelling business case.
After NCVO’s trustee board approved our strategy the hard work really began. As we started to think about how to turn our high level vision into a reality, our minds quickly turned to how to find the right partners.
In this post I want to share how we went about finding and selecting the fantastic organisations we’re now working with.
What was important to us?
Over the last few years we’ve been developing multiple digital products at pace. Our team is large compared to the vast majority of charities, but small compared to the big brand name charities, so a good relationship with an agency can be make or break.
As we started building our ‘new world’, we wanted to find partners that:
- Had strong technical expertise and believed in doing things well, for example by making use of existing technology rather than developing from scratch, or an interest in high quality code, using existing standards, that can be shared and re-used (open source).
- Genuinely wanted to work as one team across their people and ours. We like to lead discovery work ourselves, and play an active role through development and testing phases. So we were wary of agencies that like to do all the work themselves (especially lucrative discovery phases) and were delighted to talk to organisations that were excited to hear that we care about doing user research ourselves.
- Were willing to consider being flexible in how they worked. Agencies (like all organisations) have their ways of doing things. That’s understandable. They’ve tried and tested ways of working which allow them to be efficient and create a positive working experience for their people. But we knew that we were going to continue working with multiple partners, and switching between too many ways of working makes us inefficient and is just really hard. So, being able to rationalise around a set of tools (for us: Slack, Trello and GitHub) was important. But also the seemingly small stuff, like how invoicing was handled.
- Were truly Agile in their values. All agencies will say that they are agile these days, but often that just means working in sprints. We cared more about the values and principles of agile. So, while tools and processes are important, do they actually value talking? Or do they try to channel all communication only through a project manager? While documentation is important, do they actually push us to release early and often? And are they truly user-led? Do they challenge us on our assumptions, do they encourage us to change direction if user research or testing reveals something unexpected?
- Wanted to develop our skills. We knew going into this that we wanted to consider bringing a developer into our team. Knowing this, it mattered not only that our partners could work as one team with us, but also that they were interested in actively supporting us to develop our skills. Both through mentoring and/or training a developer, but also by helping the rest of the team to adapt to having a developer among us.
- Shared our values about social impact. We gravitated towards agencies that worked a lot or exclusively with charities or similar organisations. We didn’t explicitly think about this, but we probably assumed that the kinds of organisations we’d gel with were likely to understand our sector pretty well. Having said that, we talked to one agency that worked predominantly with public sector organisations rather than charities. We really liked them, and hope to work with them in the future.
- Charged the right amount. We knew that the success of our digital strategy depended on weaning NCVO off paying too little for things. Sometimes you get what you pay for, and we wanted a lot of expertise. While money wasn’t a deciding factor for me, I am very grateful that not all of our partners are as expensive as the most expensive in the bunch! It means we can afford to deliver more value with our limited resources.
- Were the right size. We wanted agencies large enough to have expertise in a range of areas, and cover so that we weren’t reliant on single developers (although some of our partners are better than others at ensuring that knowledge is shared among their teams). But we didn’t want large agencies that were overly bureaucratic, or didn’t care about us as a client/partner.
How did we find the right partners?
It basically came down to:
- Trying it out
There are so many agencies, so where to start?
We knew that we were after agencies with specific technical expertise, such as python or, when we were considering our choice of publishing technology, WordPress or Wagtail. We asked around. Our friends at CAST helped us out with some recommendations, as did Chris Thorpe. One agency was recommended by another we worked with. I find that charities are generally willing to share their experiences (not always in the open, especially if they’ve had challenges). In the spirit of sharing, at the end of this post are the great partners we’ve started working with.
I hate tender processes.
In my experience, they’re just not a great way to find the best people to work with. There are a few reasons for this:
- Lots of good organisations don’t respond to briefs, ITTs (Invitation to Tenders) or RfPs (Requests for Proposals).
- It’s hard to learn what you need to learn in order to make a good decision.
- You get a sales pitch from a sales person, which in the worst cases bears little resemblance to what you actually get when you start working together.
But most organisations will, rightly, have some kind of process that ensures that prudent decisions are being made. In my case, in line with our financial procedures manual and in discussion with the relevant Director, I ensured that we considered a minimum of three organisations and documented the reasons behind our decision.
So, tender processes are horrible. But conversations are great!
Our approach was simply to talk to organisations. We were as open as we could be about how we work, our skills, our budgets, our ambitions, and the projects first in our list. We discussed stuff and we listened carefully, trying to learn as much as we could about the things that were important to us.
One of the things I said was important to us was technical expertise. So we asked our independent technical architect, Chris Thorpe, to join us for some discussions to help us assess this. Chris was great — not only did he spot whether people knew what they were talking about, but it was also great to see how they spoke to us with Chris there. Could they talk appropriately about technical stuff to non-technical people? (and did they try to mansplain to two women?!)
We also sought out and spoke to several charities of different sizes that the agencies were already working with. Not by asking for formal ‘references’ but by using our networks to find people ourselves.
Trying it out
After the long and time-consuming process of finding a new technical partner it can be tempting to consider the job done. But, as with all things in digital, it’s important to start small, test and learn. So we started each new relationship with a small(er) project, whether that was:
- A piece of scoping and discovery for a new digital product
- Developing one content type on our new publishing system
- An audit of our infrastructure set-up.
We didn’t have a formal process for reviewing the new relationships (though more retros would definitely have been valuable), but these projects gave us a chance to test each other out, learn how we could best work together, and we’ve been strengthening relationships and ways of working ever since.
Some more practical advice
- If you’re kicking off a new relationship, have a read of this helpful guide on our NCVO Knowhow site (thanks to CAST and Neon Tribe).
- ‘Build the right team’ is one of the 10 digital design principles designed by charities, for charities — read more.
So, who do we work with?
Neon Tribe are based in Norwich. They came recommended by CAST and they were partners on a project with a small charity that I had really admired. They told us from the outset that they designed digital products and services, but did not build websites. That was initially frustrating for us because we knew we did also need to build a website! But it makes sense because they are fantastically strong in lean, pragmatic user research and testing. And their expertise in the technologies we’ve selected is great.
Torchbox are based in Oxfordshire and in Bristol. They came recommended by Chris Thorpe. We were particularly interested in Torchbox because they created the open source CMS Wagtail that we selected as our publishing technology. Torchbox work exclusively with charities and non-profits. They are relatively large for us, have wide ranging expertise and top-notch expert and collaborative project managers. It’s challenging for us to manage our roadmap as their developers get booked up, but we know that if we’ve got work scheduled it will be of a high quality.
Isotoma took the longest to find. We wanted a partner to manage our infrastructure and environments, because we didn’t have capacity in house or the knowledge to implement the scalable serverless infrastructure that we wanted. It was hard to find the right fit — I wanted an organisation which fit with our culture and ways of working but I felt like I was only talking to big IT firms. When we talked to Isotoma, it just felt right. Isotoma build and manage infrastructure, but they also build products and applications. This was important to us because down the line we may want them to do code-reviews, and because they’re another potential development partner if needed.
And we still work with other agencies too:
- Text Matters built our NCVO Knowhow website (as well as How Charities Work and the site for the Charity Governance Code). Mark Barratt now also works with us on designing the styling and structure for our ‘new world’.
- Grow Create are a .NET agency. Although we’re rationalising our tech stack, we have an important existing .NET digital product that we will continue to develop with them.
- Reason Digital built our Volunteers’ Week site and Clicking Mad built the current NCVO corporate site and our Investing in Volunteers site.
Working with many partners
Our technical partners are very different. It’s still a challenge for us to switch between different ways of working. But on the flip side they have different strengths and weaknesses which means that we have access to an array of different expertise as we implement this challenging strategy.
And we’ve learned to value something else as well. Something we didn’t necessarily think about but has proven to be hugely important is how they work as one team. I talked in this post about our ‘front controller’ project, which has required three agencies to work together. At a meeting to review the first phase of that work, the partners all talked about how positive it was to work with others that shared their values and had no personal or organisational ego, just a shared commitment to delivering value together. If we were going out again for new partners I’d add a track record of working really well with other agencies to our list.
We organised a day for our partners earlier this year to help build these relationships and it was great to be part of lively conversations (with the most useful perhaps being in the pub after we’d ‘finished’!)