Good practice: Getting the most out of your IT

Putting in place an efficient and cost-effective IT system can seem like a daunting and expensive task for many charities. David Ainsworth lists six simple solutions from the specialists, while related articles profile Richard Craig of the Charity Technology Trust and address data security and online fundraising

IT for charities
IT for charities

Many charities muddle along with donated computers, antiquated databases and technology that is ill-suited to the needs of staff.

But charity IT specialists say a few simple steps could help many voluntary organisations improve their IT and save money.

1. Don't let your fear of IT prevent you from planning

The first step to saving money is being clear about what you want to achieve, says Anne Stafford, a programme manager at the charity iT4Communities, which matches charities with IT professionals who want to volunteer.

"IT planning is not something that many organisations do as standard," she says. "It's also something many people are scared to do. But it can cost you a lot of money if you try to set up your IT without knowing what you need."

Stafford says people often get in touch with her organisation after they have wasted money on ineffective IT solutions by not thinking through their needs.

"Before you spend anything, think about what your organisation is trying to do, and work out what technology you actually need to do it," she says.

According to Stafford, charities should create a schedule for replacing outdated equipment. "Don't wait until something breaks before working out how to fix it," she says.

Sue Fidler, an IT consultant who works with voluntary organisations, agrees. "If you have 10 computers, replace three a year. You never want to get into a situation where they all break down at the same time."

2. Enlist free help

One way to cut IT costs is to use skilled volunteers, and according to Stafford there is a surplus of them at the moment.

"There's a huge bank of volunteers out there," she says. "The most common request we have is for website design, and there are many professionals who are happy to support charities to do that. At the moment, we have more volunteers than charities."

Stafford says volunteers can also help with planning and procuring IT infrastructure. "The value of having an impartial adviser is they can tell you what you really need, and they have no stake in the procurement process," she says.

She also recommends that people look at the list of suppliers on the website of the advice charity Lasa, which has details of 150 vetted suppliers of IT goods and services for third sector organisations.

3. Look for cheap software

Many charities don't realise they are eligible for cheap software, says Fidler. The charity technology exchange run by Charity Technology Trust is a particularly useful resource, she says.

"You're able to access a whole range of Microsoft products for about 7 per cent of the normal price," says Fidler. "Too many charities either pay for licences in full or use free substitutes."

Even for products not available on the exchange, charities should usually be able to broker a better deal than commercial organisations, says Sarah Winmill, director of IT for support services at University College London and outgoing chair of the Charities Consortium IT Directors Group, the umbrella body for charity IT directors.

"Use your brand when talking to suppliers," she says. "There is usually someone in a company who can give you a better deal because you're a charity.

"It may be that you need to go past the sales people to the top executives. It might be a good idea to get your fundraising people involved in procurement, because selling your charity brand is their area of expertise."

4. Consider new technology and ways of working

Winmill says outsourcing and shared services are two of the most valuable tools available for charities.

One technology that helps with this is cloud computing, which involves using programmes and storing data on systems provided remotely by a commercial supplier. The supplier is responsible for maintenance, security and backing up data, which reduces the need for those skills at the charity.

Winmill says this is less a tool for saving money than for improving results. "Cloud won't save you money compared with having a server in your office, but it can improve the way you work."

She also recommends partnerships as a way to save cash and improve results. "Look hard at what you can share with other charities," she says. "Share project management, share infrastructure, share people and share knowledge. All of these are hard to do, but can produce real savings.

"If you are going to do it, have a clear vision about what you're trying to achieve. And make sure that you look at the future. Your needs today might not be the same in three years, so make sure you can revise any agreements as you need."

Integrating systems is the holy grail for all IT, says Winmill, but is difficult to achieve. "Keep it simple. Everything in the office should be able to talk to everything else in the office.

"We're constantly fighting the proliferation of software and systems. If you have a system that does 95 per cent of what you want it to do, and it fits into your existing infrastructure, it's better than something that does exactly what you want but doesn't talk to anything else."

Another technology she recommends is virtualisation, which allows data to be stored more efficiently on a charity's system. "This is something you should be doing if you have more than 10 servers," she says.

5. Improve your procurement

Anna Pryce, a business development consultant at software company MSM, says charities must be clear about their needs before approaching suppliers.

"Whatever you do, don't jump into the procurement process before you know what you want," says Pryce. "That can be very costly."

She advises charities to be open with suppliers, and explain what they are trying to achieve. "Explain your budgets, your needs and your measures of success," she says.

Pryce also advises charities to think in terms of "total cost of ownership" rather than just a one-off price. "If something is expensive but will then need little support, it might be cheaper than free or cheap technology that needs a lot of maintenance," she says.

6. Think long-term

Fidler says many charities create false economies by trying to save money on IT only to end up spending more.

"Trying to save too much cash by using old equipment will cost you money," she says. "Make sure that you have IT that is good enough for what you need it to do.

"Don't accumulate old, outdated hardware just because it's free. Something that is free can waste a lot of money in staff time."

Neil Campbell, managing director of Intrelate, which supplies services to charities working in health and social care, says charities are sometimes better off investing in technology than in staff.

"A lot of charities are doing things on paper when they could use computers," says Campbell. "Don't spend more than you have to, because you should only ever buy technology if you can see what the return will be on your investment. But spend enough.

"We're working with people who would be able to remove whole layers of bureaucracy by employing the right technology."

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