Blog – Observations from someone new to how technology is used in the charitable sector

By Guest Blogger, Alex Smith – My working history has been wildly varied and ranged from multi-billion pound international corporations to SMEs struggling with tight budgets and growing lists of requirements.

Did this prepare me for working in the charitable sector? Well that’s a good question without a simple answer.

Firstly, I am used to mapping and prioritising work schedules for teams of developers, testers and Business Analysts amongst other entities you usually find in IT. This is quite a focussed task, where you talk to business representatives and ensure the technology delivered relates to their priorities with complex dependencies and important deadlines.

I can say that the complex dependencies and list of priorities is pretty much the same in the Charitable sector as it is for any business. However, when you have limited resources and the team may only consist of one person, good will and a smattering of third parties, it becomes ever so much more of a challenge.

Unfortunately there seems to be a public perception that charities must subsist on good will, hand outs and free labour. To some extent, this can be true, however, it is also true that you tend to get what you pay for.

You can be lucky and find some incredibly capable people who are willing to work for very little in the knowledge that they are giving something for the greater good. But there are also unavoidable expenses, such as hosting costs.  This can cause significant issues from the perspective of finding investment if you have to justify costs with little to no immediate return.

I have also found that people have to adopt multiple roles, not just fit inside a box as with most profit-making companies. This reminds me of working for educational institutions, where it is generally  encouraged to learn new skills and find new ways of achieving goals innovatively in order to avoid expense. It can be quite freeing to feel that you can use a much greater range of skills than just those you have specifically been employed for, but on the other hand, it makes it difficult when you ask the question “who is responsible for …” because it may end up being yourself if you cannot persuade someone else.

Because people are not necessarily in set roles, deadlines tend to be slightly more flexible than in business. Essentially because there are more reasons not to meet a deadline and it is hard to hold someone accountable who is both doing you a favour and not necessarily doing something that is part of their core role.

Arguably the most significant difference in working in the charitable sector is that most people are there because they believe in something. Since budgets are lower and wages reduced compared to other sectors, you attract staff who really want to contribute, otherwise they would go and earn more elsewhere.

One of the biggest challenges of leadership for any organisation is to inspire people to work their hardest, but if they turn up to work with a belief that they are contributing to something great or helping solve a social issue, they are generally already motivated.

Additionally there are greater political pressures on teams working in the charitable sector. It can be said that it is not enough to do the right thing, but charitable organisations must be seen to be doing the right thing. The recent scandals in the media around charity workers hiring prostitutes is an excellent example of this.

Their actions have not only impacted them, as it would in any company, but has directly affected their directors as well as brought the organisation into disrepute. The knock on effect is the knowledge that every worker has the potential to collapse an organisation and affect those in need for which the organisation was originally established.

As a result of a few staff behaving poorly, potentially all the beneficiaries of the charity will now lose what they would have been provided with.

In summary and put simply – the main differences in working in the charitable sector are:

  • Far greater responsibility
  • Broader scope of roles
  • Harder to meet deadlines
  • Greater motivation
  • Less funding