What is digital tool re-use for charities and why do it?
Re-using existing tools and code can help charities solve service design and delivery problems more quickly than building a tool from scratch. It can save time and money, and build a team’s confidence along the way.
As part of the Catalyst’s network, the Engine Room has been researching digital tool re-use among UK charities. Here’s their first report. Over the next few months, they will be developing and testing resources to support charities to re-use existing tools. But for now let’s start by explaining what re-use is and why it’s useful.
What is re-use?
We defined re-use as: “integrating or customising an existing digital tool, as opposed to building something from scratch.’’
- Using or re-purposing existing tools e.g. using Sharepoint for volunteer registration, or using Slack to create a community of practice
- Customising existing code e.g. re-using code from a similar service or customising open source code for a new tool or service
- Building re-usable tools e.g. making open source tools from scratch so other organisations can re-use them
We heard again and again how charities were re-using existing tools to tackle design problems. See some of the examples of re-use that emerged.
A quick way to test and learn
“We had a tool working in two weeks, it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”
We consistently found that by using existing tools charities were able to prototype and test their assumptions more quickly. This led to quicker ‘proof of concept’, demonstrating potential impact and user engagement. In turn, this made it easier to gain senior level buy in and approval for bigger projects and larger investments. As one interviewee explained: “being able to test this relatively quickly, especially in an organisation this big, made sign off much easier.”
Just as important as learning what was needed, re-use also enabled some teams to learn quickly where services or functionality wasn’t necessary. One charity testing an off-the-shelf chatbot found that users would rather wait longer and speak to a person. They determined there was insufficient need for a chatbot to warrant pursuing the project.
Reducing investment required to deliver a project
“It made the project possible”
Re-use makes it easier for charities to kickstart their entry into designing digital services. Without it many projects wouldn’t happen because of the cost and time involved in commissioning and building tools from scratch. For example when one domestic abuse organisation was gifted code by another it greatly reduced the cost and removed barriers to creating its own app.
Knock-on value within organisations
“We’ve learned that we can do so much with digital and existing apps”
We found a tonne of extra, internal benefits to giving re-use a go.
- Improved staff skills, confidence and digital know-how
- Increased organisational awareness and willingness to re-use to solve other problems
- Enhanced relationships between staff working on tech projects
- Reduced reliance on external tech support — documentation and help portals mean staff can fix problems themselves without relying on external developers
- Peer support through membership of a community of organisations exploring and sharing experiences of the world of re-use (though more sharing is possible)
No silver bullet
Re-use isn’t always the solution. It has limitations.
- It may not be a sustainable long term solution, because products change and are sometimes discontinued
- It gives less control over the user experience (UX), compared to a 100% customised tool
- Shared and open source code still needs investment to integrate, deploy and maintain
- Some charities need products that meet higher privacy and security thresholds than existing tools are able to