Leading high impact tech teams in the charity sector – Q&A with Ivan Teage
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According to a study conducted by Tech Trust, 59% of UK charities still do not have a digital strategy in place, with the majority lacking investment in the tools and training needed to implement it.
Given the benefits, this statistic is somewhat shocking. The same report suggests that charities with a digital strategy are in a far better position than those without. 92% of digitally-focused charities said they expect to increase their measurable impact due to investment in technology. Respondents also cited tangible benefits such as increased donations, increased productivity, and efficiency.
Digital transformation clearly has the potential to transform the way the charity sector works, enabling it to do more with less. It can turn the disruptive challenges of new legislation, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), into an opportunity to engage with donors more closely, and provide fundraisers with a connected view of real-time information.
But such benefits can only be achieved when charities are open to rethinking how they operate. Success here hinges on building high impact technology teams guided by resourceful digital leaders. To deliver results, third sector technical leaders must possess clarity of vision when it comes to identifying achievable digital transformation goals.
Ivan Teage is Head of Development at IGD, a research and training charity specialising in food industry best practices. He has more than 20 years experience working in tech, with the last 15 of those spent in the charity sector. During that time, Ivan has helped multiple charities strategically optimise their use of technology and data.
We caught up with Ivan to get his thoughts on how charities can adapt to meet the demands of a continually evolving digital landscape (The following views represent a broad professional opinion and are not related specifically to his current role or organisation).
What are some of the common assumptions about tech teams in the charity sector?
I’d like to think there is an assumption that teams are passionate, dedicated and multi-skilled, and resourceful, and this is certainly usually the case. Working in the charity sector can be a great way to learn fast in a high variety environment and do something meaningful.
I’ve also heard assumptions that in-house teams won’t add value, so charities should outsource technology; that charity technology teams can’t be cutting-edge and career opportunities are limited; and that strong technological leadership can be lacking in charities.
I don’t believe this is always the case, in-house teams can deliver huge benefits much more efficiently than external consultancy when the passion and culture is strong. In terms of being cutting-edge, the charities may not have the resources to buy the latest tech but that’s no barrier to creative thinking and in fact constraints can drive more innovation. Yes, management structures in charities are frequently not comparable to tech companies and limited resources may mean a manager may be from a different skills background. But a good leader is a good leader. There are many other ways to influence the technology programme, and to receive technical mentorship.
What unique challenges do tech teams in the charity sector face?
It can be a challenge to secure sufficient resources (financial and people) within charities. On the flip-side, consistently limited funding drives teams to find cheap solutions with limited waste. Being in this situation many times myself has given me a highly resourceful approach.
Leaders need to be creative to provide career paths for their teams via an honest and open dialog. It can be tough for staff to feel they are progressing where the teams are smaller and there is no formal progression structure. Recruiting at the right level is key, e.g. bringing people in who will benefit from the breadth of experience they will get rather than a senior expert looking for depth and focus in a particular skill area.
Often the charity is trying to do a lot with a little. Typically managing multiple internal and external applications, dealing with support and building new services. This makes frequent ‘context switching’ inevitable, which makes it hard to concentrate and finish tasks. Some thrive on this, many more find it a distraction. It’s important for leaders to know their teams and their working styles and help them navigate these challenges.
A common challenge I see in charities is where ambition outstrips capability and/or capacity. This can be due to limited experience with tech projects across the organisation, and a limited confidence in guiding a (non-technical) leadership team down the right path. It’s easy for a team to be optimistic about what they can achieve, though often the time and cost of keeping everything else running smoothly is underestimated, as both maintenance and new project work can often fall to the same individuals.
Separating application support from application development functions can help here, as well as solid and rapid decision-making. The window for opportunity (e.g. for a technology feature or solution to achieve its goal and add value) can be so narrow, that prioritisation needs to be razor sharp to get the best out of a limited capacity. This can lead to tough calls and decisions that don’t always please everyone.
A key challenge for a leader of a small technology team is managing single points of failure in both skills and responsibilities. The ‘rule of three’ where possible will allow there always to be: someone who is proficient in a skill or function and takes primary responsibility for it, someone who has done it before and has moved on but can do it if needed, and someone who is learning the ropes. This means you need a team of generalists not specialists.
In what areas do charities fall behind when it comes to extracting value from digital?
Charities can have core outputs that are not seen as technology dependant. This can lead to lack of senior board representation from technology and/or technology mistakenly not being seen as ‘core’ to the organisation. This inevitably leads to a failure to seize new opportunities in the right way, and worse, a failure to successfully exploit the technology outputs that come from an in-house team.
Charities need to be very watchful of reputational impacts and technology advances can have an impact on this, (e.g. having a voice on social media channels). Technology leaders need to have the necessary communication and influencing skills to convince others that this is a positive change, not a threat to an unchangeable status quo.
Optimistic ‘best case scenario’ project management and not understanding the true costs of good quality technology work compared to the available capacity can lead to project failures, with typically negative feedback loops then set up for future faith in technology solutions and the teams that provide them. This then requires a period of careful recovery and strong leadership!
Charities need to be mindful of their own importance and influence within the wider technology sector. Wheels do not need to be reinvented! Sometimes the ambition is to create digital products that directly complete with well-established or emerging products from the big five (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft). A good leader takes time to explain why this this is unlikely to succeed, and to drive the right partnerships and collaborations to achieve the same goals in alternative ways.
Why do Agile initiatives within charities often fizzle out?
I’m pleased to say this is not always the case – I’ve had some success here, and these challenges are not just for charities! The organisation’s leaders need to be fully behind the change initiative (with or without full understanding of Agile). The first challenge is to get acceptance that things could be better and that there is a driver for change, then you can make a case for a well-structured Agile change initiative.
Things that have worked for me:
- A multi-pronged approach – get support, enthusiasm and interest from everyone from all different angles
- Identifying the key people to win over / key blockers – form a strategy for influencing them and never underestimate their influence if they are not supportive. One comment in the wrong place can undermine an initiative very easily
- Training and inspiring – getting a critical mass of people enthused about a new way of working
- Talking always in terms of outcomes and benefits – not techniques
- Taking time to validate approach – success needs to be evidence based not opinion based. Reporting on what worked after a project, not before
- Making sure the culture is receptive to receiving feedback on processes, before introducing new processes
You can’t be Agile without a supportive collaborative working environment and being able to give, receive and incorporate iterative feedback, so always best to concentrate on these aspects first.
Is leading a tech team in the charity sector different to leading in the private sector?
Overall, I don’t think there should be much inherent difference. There can be a common thread amongst charity employees; that you all have a non-financial reason to be there, and this can be a strong energy and passion that needs to be harnessed well and not abused.
In the charity sector you often need to hire adaptive collaborative generalists for a small team, that have a connection to the values and mission of the charity. You can’t always compete with the private sector on salaries or the building of deep technical profile, so you need to compete on wider aspects of employee growth, environmental and feel-good factors.
The outputs from a charity can be more complex and harder to value, when the bottom line is not the only consideration (this can offer a richer and broader experience for the team).
Many charities have a trading arm, or at least commercial operations (e.g. fundraising), this needs to be treated like any other business. I’ve seen this cause internal conflict for staff who want to work solely on charitable objectives and don’t sit comfortably with commercial pressures.
Which future tech trends should charities be paying attention to?
Only the ones that might be relevant to them! Charities have very diverse interests.
Firstly, they shouldn’t neglect their internal systems and processes. Are there the right communication tools in place to facilitate fast friendly communication and strong collaboration and partnerships? Are the teams spending time managing legacy in-house systems that could be replaced with cloud services? Legacy ‘quirks’ and upgrade costs can cripple a charity and prevent any moving forward, so painful though it might seem getting over this hump, bringing the charity up to date in terms of internal systems is critical. Typically, this might be the infamous ‘digital transformation programme’!
Innovation is a tricky one. Many technology experts understandably want to innovate and build new skills. The reality is this might not always be a good return on investment for the charity as a whole. It’s important to identify the team’s mission and focus on the services that are needed. It’s unusual for charities to generate their own IP value directly from technology products which means it’s ok to share more and innovate through partnerships, reuse and integrations.
Charities should watch out for the agency or in-house team trying to sell the newest shiny things. Know what problems you want to solve and seek the right tech solution for this. You need a strong technology lead for this in-house who can make the right investment decisions, align the team with the needs of the organisation, and keep a holistic pragmatic view of the overall enterprise architecture.
Looking ahead? There are of course opportunities in AI, 5G, and IoT for everyone. Also, perhaps charities should look at entirely new business models. The funding landscape and potential operating models have changed dramatically, and well-established charitable institutions can learn a lot from the way start-ups and social enterprises are operating.