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NGO software development challenges and how to solve them

Christina Lynch
Marketing Manager
NGO Challenges.jpg

Software development for NGOs (non governmental organisations), non-profits and charities is a broad topic for a single blog post. So, as a starter for ten, I’ll attempt to outline some of the regularly encountered issues surrounding development projects happening in the NGO/charity space.

No longer thought of as an operational overhead, software development delivers a range of benefits such as:

*Improved engagement and awareness among target stakeholders *Higher fundraising conversion *Reduced delay in time-critical processes *Increased efficiency and money saved

NGOs and charities don’t have a monopoly on cost control

When you put your 50p into a collection tin, run a marathon for a good cause, or donate books to a charity shop, you expect the recipient institution to treat that money with a certain amount of respect. You expect that there will be checks and balances, a vigourous pursuit of value for money, and equal measures of solemnity, sincerity and sobriety poured out over every penny spent.

The general sentiment is true in reality, but consider how similar such an outlook is to how private sector organisations behave. I mean, they wouldn’t last very long splurging money on frivolous projects either. My point is that larger NGOs and charities operate much like any other organisation in how they approach the issues of cost control, value for money and accountability. In fact, the larger and more complex they become organisationally, the more opaque the distinction. The major difference lies in the duty that NGOs and charities have to spend rather than conserve the funds that they raise; it is what they exist to do. Of course, many (particularly smaller) organisations struggle to undertake their work with the limited resources available, so suffering the trouble to spend it all is seldom top of their concerns. In any case, in terms of software development, what’s critically important is:

1.They understand what they are spending money on in the context of their overall mission 2.They can determine the tangible benefits arising from this investment, ahead of time

The choice of software development company, and its commitment to transparency, is essential to ensuring these aims.

Volunteer skills can play a part

Smaller NGOs and charities benefit the most when software developers contribute expertise in their free time. Such volunteering, facilitated by the likes of Social Coder, Donate Code and Charity IT Association can be a godsend for the largely unfunded organisations, giving them access to skills for creating websites, often with bespoke capabilities that help that organisation deliver services or carry out fundraising. These can be used to extend the value of low-cost or free software elements (often open-source), which all adds up to important digital capabilities for next to nothing.

The willingness of skilled developers to undertake this pro bono work, often in collaboration with one another as part of a coherent project, begs the question, ‘why do NGOs and charities pay for any software development?’

The simple answer is that many projects are too complex, or too important. NGOs and charities have learned to identify the limitations of volunteer-driven initiatives for software, in much the same way they learn the limitations of volunteers in all other operational areas. It’s why they hire staff and rent premises. They also understand the value of bespoke software development to achieve very specific objectives because a reliance upon off-the-shelf solutions can only get them so far.

NGOs and charities must use data to their advantage We have found that NGOs and charities are placing an increased emphasis on the value of data-driven insights in order to undertake their core mission/s.

For those organisations providing urgent or emergency care services, the way in which they collect and analyse information has become critical to operational decision making.

Previously, their approach to the challenge of ‘saving more lives’ or some other measureable outcome could have been to spend valuable funds on extra people or more modern equipment. Now, data science methodologies are helping coordinate and integrate swathes of disparate data sources into an engine for intelligence. These are proving highly productive, worthwhile uses of money as they target resources to where they are needed most, aiding long-term strategy as well as short-term tactical choices.

Other examples of software initiatives for NGOs/charities include:

Structured education solutions that equip caregivers and their clients to engage, interact and proactively manage medical conditions Digitisation of secure personal data capture in harsh environmental conditions Real-time data analysis and visualisation tools to provide instant insight into fast-moving crisis situations

Helastel has a wealth of direct experience in this area, which we’d love to spill the beans on here but can’t really, for confidentiality purposes. That’s something else worth bearing in mind about NGO and charity software development work: much of the data is very sensitive and governed by a raft of security and compliance requirements!

 

Software is playing an increasingly integral role in the future of charities and NGOs. This is mirroring the trend among private sector organisations that are equally keen to exploit the value of data, and achieve their objectives at the lowest possible cost.

Like private sector organisations, charities and NGOs take advantage of government grants, and collaborative projects with academia which are progressively digital in nature. They can even utilise the free labour of volunteers, though this is limited by the ambition of large projects involving complex data migration, analysis and integration, and ever-increasing compliance requirements surrounding data protection.

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