Charity IT

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Committing to 100% uptime for your charity's IT

Technology is transforming the charity sector and revolutionising its methods of fundraising and generating awareness. Whether it’s through IT management of events to drum up support, social networking to spread the word or provision of more convenient ways to donate, technology is becoming inextricably tied into the foundations of a charity’s core existence, resulting in an increasing reliance that requires more and more maintenance.

Simultaneously, IT managers of charities have to contend with a growing number of connected devices and a greater reliance on more complex, broader ranging applications. But the truth is, while IT managers are busily migrating into the cloud, going mobile and facilitating new ways of flexible working, most are relying on an IT systems management approach incapable of successfully governing the management of IT.

In an increasingly digital age, the traditional break/fix model of IT management is simply no longer good enough. Instead, charities need to embrace a predictive environment that delivers 100% uptime, or they run significant risks of diminishing donations that, in the context of persistent budget cuts and increasing competition, they simply can’t afford to take.

But quite apart from the reputational problems with IT failure, including when charities are operating under outsourced public service contracts, there are the resilience requirements under SORP and by the Charity Commission. IT failure can lead to a whole range of negative consequences. Effective IT systems management for charities isn't just an operational necessity; it is essential to meeting both the spirit and rules of charity sector compliance.

Proactive is reactive

Many charities are taking advantage of the web and mobile technologies to ensure giving remains both convenient and compelling to a tech-savvy society. The problem, however, is that in a number of cases new connected devices are added to the IT network without true consideration of the impact they might have on the overall infrastructure. The result is a potential lack of governance which could lead to serious security concerns, downtime and constrained decision-making.

The use of real time monitoring to flag such potentially business impacting IT issues before they occur is now a standard Managed Service Provider (MSP) service. Yet, while knowing that network capacity is at 90% or email levels are approaching capacity before the infrastructure hits critical may reduce the likelihood of massive failure, just how much business value does this really deliver?

The reality is that when the MSP calls to say key thresholds have been breached and alarm bells are ringing, an IT manager has no option but to react; to make an immediate investment to address the problem and avoid downtime. Such panic buying is never going to be cost effective – nor will it tie in to any strategic plan. It will certainly result in an unplanned spike in costs.

A little bit of network monitoring may stop a major outage but it still feeds a reactive IT strategy managed on the basis that services will be available 99.999% of the time, when the stark reality in today’s environment is that only 100% uptime will do.

This is not just a question of semantics either. No charity can afford to lose a morning of inbound and outbound calls while a hardware failure is resolved, or to find its existing infrastructure has no room to accommodate a proposed increase in staff or volunteer numbers, ultimately impeding future growth. The break/fix approach that still dominates in most charity IT environments is simply not acceptable for these critical components and there is no tolerance for failure.

No time for downtime

With today’s hybrid environment, charities need to use IT and telephony effectively all the time. They need to exploit collaboration with donors and enable employees and volunteers to be productive irrespective of location.

This is a quantum leap in IT consumption – and it needs to be reflected by a quantum leap in IT service and support. Success should be a measure of the actual day to day user experience, essentially the provider’s ability to work with internal IT resource to prevent those telephony problems or router issues before they occur.

At the heart of both of these changes is information – the use of real time monitoring of every aspect of the IT and telephony infrastructure that can be analysed and assessed to predict requirements well in advance and, critically, be presented in a simple to comprehend fashion to deliver valuable business insight.

While there is no one monitoring system that can deliver this view, the successful interaction of multiple, separate tools overlaid with a business intelligence layer can create a predictive environment that transforms the way the infrastructure is assessed and managed on both a day to day and strategic basis.

Predicting uptime

To achieve this 100% uptime, the newest breed of Managed Service Providers use intelligent monitoring to predict potential failures before they occur – and replace the relevant component to avoid any downtime. This is hardly a new approach: this predictive model has been successfully deployed for years in any number of industries from aeronautics to Formula 1. Individual components are continuously monitored for any signs of potential weakness – and intelligently replaced during planned downtime to avoid any unplanned failures or glitches in performance.

This small but growing minority of IT organisations has also begun to explore the value of consolidating monitoring tools to move beyond break/fix to a predictive model that delivers 100% uptime. Combining trends in performance with business plans can predict potential issues six, 12, even 18 months in advance, giving the charity time to cost, assess options and plan.

This is a continual process of refinement that not only prevents issues occurring but essentially levels out the spend. There are no peaks and troughs, the charity has a flat-line, controlled IT expenditure and, critically, the opportunity to realise real productivity gains through more intelligent, well managed use of technology. With clear insight into IT and telephony performance, it is far easier to have highly intelligent, meaningful conversations about the strategic direction and opportunities for planned investment.

Furthermore, combining in-depth and real time understanding of the entire infrastructure with self-healing technologies enables the preventative measures that fundamentally transform users’ day to day experience with technology. Rather than hoping the fix will occur within the Service Level Agreement (SLA), problems can be routinely addressed to avoid interruption.

Weighing up the risk

For all charities, IT outage in an era of 24x7 operations, mobile users and online business models is incredibly damaging and expensive. Given the speed with which technology is becoming increasingly vital to facilitating donations, stimulating future growth and adhering to compliance in the charity sector, there is no time to delay.

The role of IT is evolving to encompass every aspect, amidst more complicated applications and millions of connected devices, and effective IT utilisation requires far more than the proactive support model that dominates today. Predicting the problems that may occur or business needs that may arise well ahead of time is key to achieving healthy IT in a charity. After all, when every aspect of the infrastructure is so critical, can any charity really afford for failure to occur before swinging into action?

Managed 24/7's John Pepper - for all charities, IT outage in an era of 24x7 operations, mobile users and online business models is incredibly damaging and expensive.
" The problem...is that in a number of cases new connected devices are added to the IT network without true consideration of the impact they might have on the overall infrastructure. "

The importance for charities of unified communications

The vital work of charities is too important to jeopardise by taking risks on unproven technologies. Charity managers and on-the-ground workers alike retain a healthy scepticism when it comes to supposedly silver bullet solutions that promise to transform the way they work for the better. Sometimes, though, a technology matures to the point where the benefits it offers become so compelling that it warrants a closer look. One such technology is unified communications (UC).

UC can keep managers happy by improving a charity’s productivity and cost efficiency, as well as enhancing the oversight and transparency of its operations. Just as crucially, it can simplify and speed up the day to day work of co-ordinating campaigns and fundraising undertaken by frontline staff and volunteers in offices, shops and out in the field.

Bringing together technologies

So what is UC exactly, and how can it help? Without getting bogged down in the technical details, it’s an umbrella term that brings together a series of well established technologies designed to improve communication and collaboration among individuals and groups. These include, but aren’t limited to, audio and video calling and conferencing, instant messaging, file sharing and "presence" (the ability to see instantly when someone is available).

While many people will have used some of this technology on an ad hoc basis, their experience might not have done much to convince them of its merits. For example, the frustration and miscommunication that can arise from a choppy video-conference call, with embarrassed IT staff fumbling to restore broken connections, is now such a familiar office experience that it has become a staple gag for the writers of workplace-set sitcoms.

But this cliché took root when the technology was still in its infancy and broadband internet service was far less robust and widespread than it is today. Implemented in the right way, UC is now just as reliable as more established methods of communication such as the telephone and email, while being both cheaper and considerably more versatile.

A key point is that all the components of a unified communications solution integrate seamlessly, using simple, common means of access. People can quickly and easily see who’s available, arrange and join meetings irrespective of how they’re connecting – whether they’re on a workstation in the office, a laptop at home, or out and about with their smartphone or tablet.

They can access shared calendars, documents, spreadsheets and other files (with changes being made to a central copy, thus eliminating the need for a long and confusing chain of disjointed emails and attachments).

People sharing ideas

People can call up a shared whiteboard during a call to sketch out ideas collaboratively or communicate points more visually when needed. They can record meetings to ensure these are available for later review and can be shared (or transcribed and shared) with those who weren’t able to attend. And more besides.

In other words, UC allows disparate networks of people to collaborate more effectively without technology or bureaucracy getting in their way or causing time-wasting bottlenecks. Given how most charities work, this clearly has many advantages. The business of gathering donations or applying for grants, for instance, generally involves many geographically dispersed people being able to collaborate as smoothly as possible.

For instance, a mental health charity had been struggling to co-ordinate efforts across 13 offices, a swathe of high street shops, plus volunteers, homeworkers and fundraisers spread all over the country. With UC, the charity is now able to ensure everybody is aware of the latest campaign messages and fundraising focus, and can mobilise teams at a moment’s notice.

The positive impact of the technology isn’t restricted to large charities or organisation-wide campaigns, either. Even something as apparently simple as setting up a fundraising stall at a local fête or market is made far easier. It often takes weeks of calls, emails and poring over diaries to firm up who’s labelling the jam jars, setting up the stall, leafleting the area and so on. With UC, a charity can organise the whole thing in a single call.

Dramatic cost savings

For charity managers, the technology brings other important benefits, most notably the potential for dramatic cost savings through productivity gains and vastly improved operational efficiency. This results in a higher proportion of their vital funding being spent on the causes they support rather than on things like travel, expenses and office expansion.

For example, UC lets charity managers make far better use of their existing premises through "hot-desking" – since anyone can sit down and work productively from anywhere. And the ease of setting up virtual meetings means they can eliminate the common costs associated with assembling a group of people in a room together – for instance, having to pay for them to travel perhaps an hour each way to attend.

Other operational staff, such as procurement and IT managers, see similarly positive results. Unifying communications across a charity simplifies what is often a messy mix of technologies and services, purchased ad hoc by different offices and departments, with one system or service often incapable of talking to another elsewhere. UC, meanwhile, can be delivered as a service at low cost, doesn’t require you to buy any specific hardware, and people joining in sessions simply need a web browser and a broadband connection.

Then there’s the whole issue of transparency. With all communications unified and on record, the technology gives managers an unparalleled ability to track and review a charity’s activity to ensure it is working in line with the Government’s Charities Statement of Recommended Practice, as well as any compliance requirements, so that it can remain fully accountable to the authorities, governing bodies, supporters and beneficiaries.

While much of the private sector has been investing in UC for some time, and is already reaping many of its benefits, charities have to date been slower to investigate the technology. Their caution is understandable. Commercial businesses are always looking to gain an edge over competitors so they’re prepared to take greater risks trying out new things. But when you’re a charity, you can’t afford to spend precious funds on a whim - you need to be certain any investment will allow you to serve your charitable cause more effectively.

Promoting cultural change

Because UC fundamentally alters the way people work and interact on a daily basis, it also helps to promote a cultural change throughout the organisation, and again some charities are reluctant to embrace such change because they see it as "more for the private sector". Cultural change seems to imply big, expensive programmes that divert funds away from an organisation’s core work, so many charities perceive it as a risk and don’t view it as a priority.

There seems to be a fear that by changing what they’ve done for a long time, and what people are used to, they might throw their operations into chaos and their staff into confusion – better the devil you know and all that.

This position is becoming increasingly self-defeating. Charities can gain so much by switching to unified communications that the sooner they follow the private sector’s lead, the better. But it is important to seek out and work with providers which understand the particular needs of the sector and can help you introduce the technology in the right way. With so many different suppliers and offerings on the market, that isn’t always easy.

As a rule of thumb, it’s best to avoid providers which only frame UC’s advantages in terms of cost savings and management efficiency (important though these undoubtedly are). Implementing UC from on high, with little thought to the cultural impact it might have on the organisation or any help to smooth the transition, can make it far harder to realise any benefits.

It’s vital when implementing UC for those responsible to spend as much time as needed supporting the frontline staff and volunteers who’ll actually be using this stuff. They need to understand not only to how to work it, but why it will help them do their jobs more effectively and, by extension, allow them to provide greater help to the causes they care about.

MeetingZone's David Monteith - implemented in the right way, unified communications is now just as reliable as more established methods of communication such as the telephone and email, while being both cheaper and considerably more versatile.
"A key point is that all the components of a unified communications solution integrate seamlessly, using simple, common means of access."
"...UC allows disparate networks of people to collaborate more effectively without technology or bureaucracy getting in their way or causing time wasting bottlenecks."
"...the technology gives managers an unparalleled ability to track and review a charity's activity..."

Being imaginative with your communications policy

Deaf Direct is a local charitable company which has worked with and for deaf and hard of hearing people since 1927. Our primary purpose is to promote responsive, professional and empowering opportunities to a diverse and unique community comprised of deaf and hard of hearing people with the goal of creating a society in which deaf and hard of hearing people enjoy equal participation and access without barriers or prejudice.

The charity offers a wide range of services to deaf and hard of hearing people, family members and carers, and professionals and other organisations across Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Oxfordshire. Our key services include access to information, booking of communication professionals such as sign language interpreters, meetings, events or training through to outreach services, advice about hearing aids, social activities and access to a network of Deaf Clubs.

IT strategy

We are always looking to save money but at the same time keep our technology up to date. Relying on an outsourced IT partner means that we don’t have the expense of having to pay for internal technical staff and we know that they are always up to date with the latest innovations. We have worked with IT solutions company Quintech for many years and they have been responsible for the installation and support of all our IT across our entire organisation – from servers and PCs through to software and Internet access across all of our three sites.

Role of communications

As you might imagine, communication plays a major role within the charity and is governed by our communication policy that clearly sets out Deaf Direct’s approach to effective communication both internally between staff and externally for clients and the public. As a charity we continually work with staff to improve communications at all levels to ensure that individuals develop a range of appropriate communication skills.

Staff who begin employment with Deaf Direct without any signing qualifications are expected to obtain the minimum BSL (British Sign Language) level 2 qualification. Our policy covers both internal and external communications but the underlying ethos is for individuals to recognise the preferred communication methods of who they are speaking with and to treat one another with respect and courtesy.

As part of our ongoing technology improvements we decided to upgrade our ageing phone system with new technology that would allow us to both reduce costs and enhance the quality of communications between staff and also with service users.

Introducing unified communications

Five years ago we had an old BT Meridian phone system that was at the end of its life and was costing us between £300 to £400 per month in maintenance charges. What we needed was a system that would be more cost effective and because we have a mixture of deaf, hard of hearing and hearing staff, we needed additional video calling functionality that could be used to support communications using sign language. We also wanted our staff across the three sites to be more accessible and support remote communications for mobile and home-based personnel.

After a recommendation from Quintech, we decided that a software-based unified communications solution from Swyx was the best fit for our requirements. We like the fact that they provide a holistic service so when they suggested a phone system that was software-based and could offer us greater functionality and flexibility and be part of our overall IT network, this made perfect sense. The fact that the system also supported video calling between staff was ideal.

As part of the charity’s communications policy it is vital that where possible sign language must be used in the presence of those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Therefore the decision to go with an Internet-based solution was really a no-brainer, as traditional phone systems simply didn’t have the same level of functionality. This also means that we can always keep up with technology.

The installation took between half a day to a day, and we went straight from the old BT system to the flexible new UC (unified communications) solution. Part of the smooth integration was down to Quintech. They took care of all the configuration including "out of office", "greetings", "auto attendant" and "call routing" and carried out all the end user training.

Greater flexibility and more responsive

At first the staff thought it was a bit strange to be using a phone via the computer and many stuck with still using the handset rather than the softphone on the screen, but as time has gone on, everyone is now using the softphone. The most loved favourite feature is the F11 function which allows staff to simply highlight a number on-screen, whether in a database or on a website and connect directly without any dialling.

Deaf Direct has 30 users of the system and up to around 20 at any one time. Our staff are based across three sites at our HQ in Worcester and sister offices in Hereford and Oxford which are connected together via ISDN 30 and a VPN (Virtual Private Network).

In addition some staff have the ability to work from home and there is one member of staff who works full-time from their home in Lincolnshire for UK Deaf Sport (an affiliated organisation to Deaf Direct) which provides information and guidance to deaf or hard of hearing people who would like to participate, enjoy and excel at sport.

The new technology gives us the ability to directly connect both incoming callers and internal staff, whether they are in the same office or at a different location. The support for video calls means that staff who need to use British Sign Language (BSL) can simply connect via the on-screen softphone in conjunction with the webcam on their PC and their image appears on to the other person’s screen.

Likewise, if a member of staff needs to ask a question of another member of staff in a different office or location, or they need someone who can sign, then they simply initiate a video call.

Improving the communication between internal staff means in turn we can provide a better and more responsive service to incoming enquiries, whether it’s access to information, booking a course, hiring an interpreter or getting in touch with third parties such as solicitors, doctors or hospitals on behalf of deaf persons or their families.

Making better use of resources

With limited resources, the new system means we can literally call on those resources regardless of where they are. For example, if the main receptionist at the Worcester office takes a call for booking a sign language interpreter and she needs to check something with another member of staff, if they are in the same building she can then call them via video, or alternatively, by wearing a wireless headset she can simply walk down the hall and ask them face to face.

Similarly if the person she needs to liaise with is at another location, she can simply contact them, either by video call, normal call or even by instant message. In circumstances where a member of staff doesn’t sign, and they need to converse with someone who is deaf, then they can simply ask a colleague who does, to step in front of their computer and communicate or translate on their behalf.

Year on year cost savings

On average, we receive between 40-60 calls per day from deaf people or family members looking for advice or access to the charity’s range of services. With all our sites now connected on the same communications system means that the charity can also save on having a receptionist at each site. Instead all calls come into Worcester and are then redirected according to the nature of the enquiry. All calls between sites are on the same IP network so are therefore free.

The main benefit is that it has made all our staff more accessible and we have also been able to make considerable cost savings year on year. Future developments on the horizon include "full video conferencing" between all of the charity’s different offices, remote desktop sharing, SwyxMobile (using the SwyxWare app on smartphones) and the integration of the unified communications solution with a CCTV and door entry system.

Key benefits summarised

Let's remind ourselves of the practical effects of taking Deaf Direct's communications policy this major step forward:

  • Support for sign language-based communication via the phone.
  • Lower costs – reduced phone bills and maintenance charges equating to thousands of pounds every year.
  • Choice of communications – voice calls/video calls, instant messaging, email voice mails.
  • Free calls between sites and remote workers.
  • Support for charity’s communications strategy.
  • Always having the latest technology due to software upgrades.
  • 24 hour service – system automatically diverts to appropriate mobiles.
  • Lower staff costs – no need to have receptionist at each site – all calls come into Worcester and are diverted (free of charge) to other locations.
  • Flexible working – support for mobile and home-based staff.

Lessons learnt

We have no in-house IT resource, so outsourcing this to a third party is invaluable to us as a organisation. Due to their in-depth knowledge they can act as a single point of contact which can advise us on how to make the most of both our IT and communications for the benefit of our staff and also to the deaf community who we serve. We hold quarterly face to face meetings with an IT consultant and they provide regular top-up training for staff. Any day to day IT support issues are dealt with promptly and the majority of these are handled remotely.

As for recommendations to other charities I would simply say, due to economic circumstances, charities should consider outsourcing IT management simply because they provide advice and on-spot support. Most charities may think of employing staff to focus on the IT system internally, but this is not always ideal in terms of having time off (holidays), backups and so on. For ease of mind and for charities to provide effective services to their clients – outsource.

Deaf Direct's Gordon Hay - the charity continually works with staff to improve communications at all levels so as to ensure that individuals develop a range of appropriate communication skills.
"The new technology gives us the ability to directly connect both incoming callers and internal staff, whether they are in the same office or at a different location."
Whether communicating internally or externally, in circumstances where a member of staff can't do sign language, and they need to converse with someone who is deaf, then they can simply ask a colleague who can, to step in front of their computer and communicate or translate on their behalf.
"With limited resources, the new system means we can literally call on those resources regardless of where they are."