Key learning through NCVO’s journey of digital transformation

NCVO is making some big changes to how we approach digital and technology , so that we can support more people in more organisations.

I’ve been sharing our experiences in a series of blog posts. Here I summarise the most important things we’ve learned.

1. Finding time to think big can be difficult, but it’s invaluable

Looking back to 2017, when I started thinking about a new digital strategy for NCVO, we were mainly firefighting and fixing broken stuff. We couldn’t focus on things that would make a difference. And I knew  there were big complex problems that we didn’t fully understand, let alone know how to deal with. We had to make the time and space to understand this.

I started with a couple of conversations with someone I trusted. Then I asked our leadership team for the space and a bit of resource to think big. Since then it’s been challenging but always satisfying. With each step we’re coming closer to making a bigger difference.

Read more: Why NCVO decided to be radical and brave with its digital and tech plans

2. Understand what you have, and how it works together

Having lots of websites was the key challenge. So firstly, we needed to understand what we had, what it was built with, the tools that we used, and how data flowed between websites and systems like our CRM.

We didn’t do anything fancy. We used paper, post-it notes and pens to map things out, changed it until we thought it was right, and put it up on the wall so that everyone could see it. It was surprisingly difficult, but also incredibly powerful when we showed it to our colleagues.

Read more: Starting to make sense of complexity: mapping out NCVO’s digital ecology

3. Work out what your assumptions are and what you need to learn

To work out what you should do, you need to understand a range of things. We all start with some knowledge, some assumptions (things we think we know) and some questions. We used a simple tool called a ‘knowledge board’, a great technique, to capture  these.. A colleague of mine from our membership team summed it up brilliantly:

‘With twenty years’ experience working and volunteering in the sector, it sometimes felt a little challenging to have to say with confidence what we knew. Or to admit that something was an assumption, with limited evidence beyond my usual ways of doing things. But it was ultimately satisfying to uncover what we did know, and it was also useful to clarify and say what we were not so sure of.’

Read more: Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions: how NCVO started talking about what we know (and what we think we know)

4. A little bit of user research can teach you more than you might expect

‘Start with user needs, and keep them involved’ is the first of a set of ten digital design principles created in 2018 by and for charities. Doing ‘user research’ can seem scary if you haven’t done it before (and I hadn’t). Or, you may think that you don’t have the time. But, speaking to 5 or 6 people, if you ask the right kind of questions, can teach you a huge amount.

There are some easy ways to capture what you learn, such as ‘user stories’ – ‘As a X (type of user), I need Y (a need, can be high level or very specific), so that Z (the user’s goal)’. We also found it very helpful to capture what we learned about how our users behaved when they were using our sites, using ‘personas’. Ours are: the needs-based searcher, the highly engaged, and the explorer (can you recognise yourself as one of these three?).

Read more: How NCVO learned about user needs and behaviours and Personas and knowledge boards: capturing new insights about NCVO’s users

5. ‘Guerilla testing’ is a great technique

We learned that there were some things that our users needed, that we weren’t providing. To learn more about how we might meet this need, In order to solve this problem we tried out prototyping and guerrilla testing. A prototype is just a way of showing something without actually building it. It can be drawn on paper or a simple digital prototype can look like a real digital product. It’s a low cost way to test ideas and learn quickly. Guerilla testing is a form of quick testing. Instead of scheduling testing sessions, you  approach people and ask for a little bit of their time. We did this at one of our big conferences and tested ideas with around 30 people during the breaks and lunch time.

Read more: Prototypes and guerrilla testing – how NCVO started exploring unmet user needs

6. Sometimes you might need top-notch technical advice

From the start, we knew there were likely to be some quite technical things to get right in our new digital strategy. We had questions about the right technologies to use, and how to integrate things effectively and securely.

So, whilst getting digital right is really about people, sometimes it can get pretty technical. This is not a problem that’s easily solved. Very few organisations are large enough to have a chief technology officer. We were lucky to be connected to an excellent independent technical architect who has given us incredibly valuable advice. I’m keen to explore with others how we can make this kind of expertise accessible to charities of all sizes.

Read more: Getting technical – starting to develop an architecture and roadmap for NCVO’s future technology

7. When asking for investment, tell a story and get the right hooks

Eventually it was time to ask NCVO’s board of trustees to make an investment in improving how we use technology and digital approaches. We had lots of data, principles, ideas and some high level plans, and many different things that we wanted to change. The challenge was to craft a concise, compelling strategy and business case.

I approached this by storyboarding different narratives and playing around with the key hooks and the flow of the story that we wanted to tell, landing on a tried and tested format that would take the board on ‘a gentle emotional rollercoaster’.

I also drew them in by showing what NCVO looked like 20 years before, and how much had changed because of the digital revolution.

Read more: Making the case for investment – turning data and insight into a compelling strategy

8. Conversations are better than tender processes

We knew that to deliver our strategy we would need new technical partners, so we set out to find them. We had thought a lot about how we wanted to work with our partners and had been slowly developing our team and learning new skills. In my experience, tender processes are horrible, so we focused on conversations. With recommendations from other charities, we went out and spoke to potential partners. 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.

It took time, but we’ve ended up with some fantastic partners, and we’re continuing to learn about how to best work together.

Read more: Recommendations, conversations and trials – finding the right technical partners

In the autumn we’ll share more about our vision to support more people in more organisations by improving how we use technology and adopting the best digital approaches.

How are you doing with all things digital?

If you’d like to explore how your organisation is doing with all things digital – from data protection, to service design, to leadership and strategy – try out NCVO’s free digital maturity matrix. It’s a simple way of assessing your current strengths and weaknesses, and helping you see what you need to do next.

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Megan Griffith Gray Megan is our head of digital, data and planning. She leads NCVO's strategic planning as well as our digital and data team.

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