Reach, a charity which matches skilled volunteers with charities that need them, pulled itself back from the brink of closure and doubled its impact after transferring its services online. It was a tough – but rewarding – journey, explains CEO Janet Thorne.
We pursued a radically different approach
“Reach Volunteering connects charities with people who want to volunteer their skills and experience. Back in 2010, our ambition was to do this at scale and keep growing, but it was labour intensive, even though it was a light-touch service. So we began thinking about new ways to do things.
“I was in the service delivery team at the time and I understood the constraints as well as the potential of the service. There weren’t that many successful online platforms at that time, but Kiva, which was aggregating micro-enterprise schemes, was one of the first off the block and one of the first inspirations for us. We also looked at dating websites, such as match.com.
“In 2012, Reach almost closed because of lack of funds and we knew that we had to do something radically different if Reach was to survive. The interim CEO stepped down and I became acting CEO.”
Our digital transformation was based on deep research into what our users needed
“We did a lot of qualitative research. We spoke to people in charities to understand how they involved volunteers in their work and how they recruited them. Even though we’d been working with charities like this for a long time, this gave us a fresh understanding of what their needs were.
“During these interviews, we tested the concept of an online platform to match volunteers with charities. We discovered that some ideas weren’t well-received, such as ratings for volunteers.”
Building the new platform was a leap into the unknown
“The process of building the new platform was hard. But we were clear what our users’ needs were, and that was important.
“It took a couple of years and we were limbo for quite a long time. It was a leap into the unknown and we weren’t playing from any rulebook. That was really difficult and it is testament to the team – the staff and volunteers – that they stuck with it.
“As a leader, I kept an open door and aimed to communicate frequently and honestly. If I hadn’t done this, I think people would have felt alienated and mistrustful.
“We aimed to have a culture where it’s fine to make mistakes as long as people own them and learn from them. As a leader you have to model that and be open about that.”
Delivering our services online transformed the whole organisation
“August 2015 was our big go-live date.
“Having the new platform changed everything: how we delivered the service, what the service team’s roles were and how we marketed ourselves. We have a small team of staff and volunteers. The volunteers’ roles, in particular, have changed.”
Our team needed new skills in user-led design
“Once we launched, we quickly become aware that we needed to develop a new skillset in terms of how we looked after and developed the service.
“We needed service design skills, so we got coaching for the in-house team to ensure that we were sustainable on an ongoing basis.
“Now we are in a continual cycle where we research aspects of the service from the user’s point of view, prototype, then test, refine and develop the service. This is essential because the digital world is evolving fast and expectations are rising.
“I think it takes an entirely different mindset to do this stuff well. You need a really disciplined, agile, user-centred test and learn approach. Some people struggle with that. They like to have everything laid out in advance. It’s also difficult to sell to funders and trustees – this different way of working can involve a degree of messiness and uncertainty which is uncomfortable. We recruited a trustee with digital expertise at the start of the process and this really helped secure board buy-in, and ensured that they could provide meaningful support and challenge to the team.
“The process really does yield results. Every time we make an improvement, such as a better sign-up process, it leads to greater impact, such as more volunteers being matched.”
We must remain endlessly curious about our service users
“It’s key to remain endlessly curious about the people who use your service – to regularly challenge the assumptions you have about their needs, and how they interact with your service, and to put them at the very heart of how you design and iterate your service.
“This is trickier that it sounds. As charities – and especially charity leaders – we tend to develop narratives about our beneficiaries, and how our service helps them. We use this narrative to inform how we measure impact and sell our charities to funders. It takes some resolve to be willing to be question that narrative, on the basis of your service users’ perspectives and experience. But it’s essential for user-centred design.
Most people expect to engage with charities online
“The world is digital. And for most charities that’s where the people they serve will be found. Increasingly, people expect to engage online. People have rapidly growing expectations of how easy it is to find things, how easy it is to upload the page and how well it’s written. Charities have to compete with the experiences that people have when they use sites like Amazon.
“You don’t necessarily have to spend huge amounts of money. More and more good stuff is out there that you can use for free and other costs have diminished.”
We’ve doubled our impact by going online
“At the end of 2018, we had almost doubled the number of placements made during the year, from 700 to 1,322. There has also been a 45% drop in the costs per placement. We expect to keep scaling and innovating in the coming years.”
This article originally appeared in The Digital Charity, the third edition of our EP Insights management briefing for social sector leaders. We offer a regular, thought-provoking selection of senior-level knowledge and practical advice that CEOs, managers and trustees can make use of to perform their roles more effectively. You can read and sign up for EP Insights at https://www.ep-insights.org/