How small charities are being shaped by their digital workspaces

author Brett Dixon, February 9, 2017

There are some 200,000 charities in the United Kingdom – the majority of them small organisations providing invaluable services in their local communities. The third sector may be more important than ever, but the financial pressures of today’s economic climate and the realities of running a small organisation on, at times, a shoestring budget mean that the digital workspace is the modus operandi of a large and growing number of third sector organisations.

All shapes and sizes of intranet

Just as customer relationship management software can be customised to a vast and growing number of workflows, so the choices available to charities considering investing in a system are equally varied. A larger, UK-wide charity that spends a considerable amount of its time directly raising funds may wish to opt for a simple, easy-to-use and quick to learn digital workplace. E-learning packages for these charities can be incredibly sleek and straightforward – which is ideal in the context of an often high turnover of staff who may not be advanced or enthusiastic IT users.

Other organisations have more complex needs. There is a sophisticated web of research-based and policy-forming third sector organisations. These often produce large volumes of content, some of it destined for public consumption. Data protection is a risk to be managed for even the smallest charity; in fact, the small operating budgets and profiles of many organisations in the sector make this quite a key requirement in their workplace collaboration. Many rely on document management systems that can reassure their users without offering an overly complex myriad of functionality.

Compensating for a physical workspace

There are huge numbers of charities across the UK that operate in premises that are either shared or far from designed for the roles demanded of them. Many small organisations know the risks of workplaces that tend to lead teams to work in silos rather than interacting and collaborating freely. While good management can go a little way towards remedying less-than-ideal workspaces, this is another area in which many are very reliant on their intranet software.

Here, a combination of effective communications software and task management software can bring a team together in physical workspaces that would otherwise prove difficult to be productive in. As more and more work is done on mobile phones and tablets, many software products are now incredibly well developed; a well-designed mobile platform not only enables teams to be more productive with their travel time but also increasingly complements desktop working as well. This is not to say intranet software is completely mobile – users find new problems, as well as solutions, and there is definitely room in the market for user-friendly apps.

Shaping a charity’s workflow

Another common complaint in the third sector is the sheer scale of the demands on a team’s time. When prioritisation and effective team working is a constant pressure, the right collaboration software can work miracles. This requires e-learning, though, and this is crucial in any third sector organisation introducing a new piece of software, or in some cases setting up a digital workplace from scratch. The temptation for many charities is to ‘train up’ one or two key members of staff, and relying on the admin team (or officer) to continuously troubleshoot. This is an ineffective way of setting up a system, and full team training is more often than not preferable.

Training a charity’s whole office in a piece of software is a big ask: action lists are already full and e-learning is time intensive. Yet the effort brings with it benefits in and of itself. For many small, largely self-directed teams, the setup on adoption of a piece of software can be greatly improved simply by input from the different members of the team. Many charities operate from day to day with little overlap between different projects, and an e-learning session can give teams a valuable insight into how their individual work streams interact. Here, if a sufficient amount of time is dedicated to correctly setting up and training a team, repeat work and ineffective processes can be identified and remedied.

Tomorrow’s charity workspace

The needs of third sector organisations already vary widely between direct-service, research-based, awareness raising and countless other charities. Common to each of these is the competitive impact of a tightening financial climate and considerable political uncertainty. As funding applications, paperwork and internal admin take up often increasing amounts of charities’ time, those that take advantage of the highly competitive marketplace for intranet and workplace software will be putting themselves at a real advantage.

Whether this develops into better collaboration or a competition-led change in the face of Britain’s charities remains to be seen. What is almost inevitable is that the third sector will only become more digital in the years ahead. Given the possibilities opened up by some of the excellent products out there, this should be a cause for optimism.