Top tips for nonprofits building digital services

A montage from some of our recent workshops and charity digital sessions

This post from CAST’s Ellie Hale originally appeared on the WCVA blog.

Digital technology, coupled with design approaches, can help third sector organisations expand the reach of existing services, sense and respond to new needs as they emerge, and achieve more for less. We’ve worked with around 300 nonprofits and funders over the last two and a half years at CAST, supporting them to embed digital across their services, strategy and governance. We’ve helped organisations large and small to research, design and build digital services that improve lives.

For example, we helped Breast Cancer Care create and grow BECCA, its community support app, to help 12,000 breast cancer survivors in just one year. We helped Refugee Action and SafeLives use off-the-shelf tech to improve their training and practitioner support. And we helped evaluate cApp, a web tool created by small charity seAp, which is now helping over 200,000 low-income people prepare for the work and disability benefits assessment. It has multiplied the charity’s client reach by 1,000x for just 10x the level of investment in their face-to-face service.

Along the way we’ve learned some tips that can help nonprofits improve the way they approach digital service delivery. Here are a few:

Understand the problem space by researching users’ needs and behaviours

Before embarking on a digital project (or indeed any project) you should start by researching your users’ needs. This will help you identify what problem you need to solve, and what features of a solution would be important and useful from your user’s perspective. Don’t assume you know this at the beginning before you have firm evidence!

You’ll need to gain a deep understanding of your users’ situation, behaviours, attitudes, challenges and goals. It’s hard to capture this sort of detailed information through surveys and focus groups, so we recommend holding 1:1 interviews, and observing people’s habits in the situation you’re trying to help them, if you can. If this sounds scarily time-intensive, don’t worry — in user research, it’s actually better to spend a lot of time with a smaller number of people, rather than one moment with lot. See if you can speak to five users a month on an ongoing basis.

We’ve put together a short guide to carrying out effective user research, and this template questions document will help you get started if you’re unsure of what to ask in an interview.

Start small, test and iterate

There’s a perception that creating digital products and services is too expensive or time-consuming for most smaller organisations. Or that you need whizzy coding skills to create anything. Not true! A curious mindset, strong relationships with the people you’re trying to help and a willingness to test things with those people through incremental, iterative steps are all you need to get started.

The tech startup and design communities have devised some great practices such as lean and agile ways of working that help digital development projects minimise waste, while providing maximum value for end users. For instance, think about what the minimum viable product (MVP) for your service might be, and how you’d test that. Or use a knowledge kanban to track your assumptions about what you know, what you think you know and what you don’t (yet) know.

Iterate through cycles of build > measure > learn as you research, design and develop a new service

Look at what’s out there before you build something new

Once you’ve completed user research, tested core assumptions and have an idea of the product or service you want to build, check if it already exists. Duplication and ‘reinventing the wheel’ wastes money and effort, after all. Beyond a simple Google search, there are some good online and meetup communities of nonprofit digital folks who can point you in the right direction: Digital Charities, the ECF newsletter and local NetSquared and Tech for Good meetups around the country (soon to be one in Newport, so we hear..!)

Non sector-specific sites like Product Hunt, and tech for good databases like Nominet Trust’s Social Tech Guide and Comic Relief’s Tech for Good Hub are also useful sources of inspiration and market research.

Use existing technology and tools

Another thing that cuts cost and waste is using existing tech rather than building from scratch, such as drag-and-drop website builders like Squarespace and Tilda, or freely available tools such as Typeform and Airtable. For example, small charity Unlock used Typeform to create this simple tool to help people with criminal convictions understand whether they can still become a charity trustee. Airtable, meanwhile, is being used by an increasing number of nonprofits as a user-friendly CMS or CRM system. Both tools are GDPR-compliant.

The Charity Catalogue contains loads of great tech tools you might find useful, all with charity discounts listed. And Alidade is a handy site that takes you through the steps of identifying tech that is relevant to your social impact project.

Collaborate and build partnerships

Working in partnership helps share both the cost and benefits of innovation. Try creating a stakeholder map of all the organisations working in the same space, who might want to team up.

We’ve been part of an agile development project over the last year that brought together Wales Co-operative Centre, WCVA and BITC to co-design a new tool to help third sector organisations engage skilled volunteers. Each of the partners has gained insights into the problem, as well as the more general needs of third sector organisations and private sector volunteers. It has helped inform the design of our prototype First Days app, as well as shaping each organisation’s understanding of their users.

A snapshot of the First Days prototype, built by the fab team at InFact

Help us to help you

Later this month we’ll be launching a set of design principles for the third sector, encompassing many of these digital service design tips and more. See this blog for more details, and to attend virtually or in person.