Why NCVO decided to be radical and brave with its digital and tech plans
The next few months are shaping up to be a very exciting time for the digital and data team at NCVO. After a year of discovery, exploration, refining business cases and finding great new digital partners, we have finally started work on some radical changes to our technology that will allow us to scale our impact without increasing our cost base. This will include building a ‘front controller’ (similar to GDS’s router) and our own API, migrating to a new finance system (eek) and rebuilding much of our digital portfolio in more future-proof technologies with a modular architecture.
I love reading about people’s experience of leading digital — the cultural challenges of aligning agile practices with more traditional governance, the pragmatic decisions made when trying to deliver as much value as possible with constrained budgets, the triggers that can make you launch into a complex and challenging project.
So, I’m trying to carve out some time to share our experience, in the hope that it may be helpful to others. This first post is about why and how this all started.
But first a little bit of context
- NCVO champions the voluntary sector and volunteering because they’re essential for a better society. We connect, represent and support voluntary organisations (charities, social enterprises and community groups). Over 14,000 organisations have chosen to join us as members (covering a third of the voluntary sector workforce in England).
- We are a charity and a social enterprise — we earn almost all of our income with little to no grant income. Our turnover is £7.5m. We have around 100 staff and 12 of us work on developing digital products, content strategy and production, CRM and data. That makes us a very large organisation compared to the vast majority of the sector and our members (97% of charities in England have an annual income of under £1m).
- Our digital and data team is incredible — they are the main reason I enjoy coming to work. As a team we’re small enough to be able to — and need to — work incredibly closely together. But large enough to have some specialist roles (two to three roles managing product development, four roles focusing on content, three roles developing our CRM, business systems, integrations and data).
- I have worked at NCVO since 2003 (I know!) and have led digital since 2011 — at first as part of a broad communications team, but increasingly focusing on digital and technology. I also lead business/strategic planning and monitoring and evaluation for the organisation.
The trigger for it all
Have you ever worked in a digital team where you felt like you were forever firefighting? That’s what it felt like for us for much of 2015–17.
Our work was dominated by mergers with Volunteering England, Charities Evaluation Services, and taking on services from the Mentoring and Befriending Foundation. Each introduced at least one website and a separate CRM system.
We had lots of technical debt to deal with, with urgent upgrades needed just to keep our sites secure. And then Mozilla withdrew their Persona authentication service, which we used for user logins, so we had to implement a new authentication system (we went for openID).
Our colleagues had great ideas for improving our online offer, but we were always saying no because we had to prioritise other work or because we would bump up against the complexity of a technical set-up that had grown around us organically and that we were hardly in control of.
I knew that there were big complex problems that we didn’t fully understand, let alone know how to deal with. It was decision time — work out what the issues were and chart a course through to a better future or get out of the way and let someone else have a try! I love a challenge, so I went for the first option.
The first job was to try and articulate what was making me feel so uneasy about where we were. I booked in some coaching sessions with the fantastic Dan Sutch of CAST. He listened to me and helped me make sense of the big problems we were facing. There were two of them:
- A large and fragmented portfolio of digital products
- The need for systems and integrations by which users can manage their relationship with NCVO, including their data and purchases
I made a proposal to our senior management team. First of all, we needed more capacity to manage through development at a quicker pace, both for our CRM and our digital products. Secondly, we needed to unpack the problems we were facing and work out what to do about them. The proposal was approved, and in September 2018 I kicked off a strategy project.
In future posts I’ll share what we did, what we learned, what we decided to do, and how we’re doing with implementing our ambitious plans.