Seven months ago, the lone-parent family charity Gingerbread was operating with a creaking ICT infrastructure in a run-down office. But six months later, thanks to a pioneering deal with Microsoft, it was using of £150,000 worth of software and hardware to improve its services and manage its supporter database. Gary Flood reports on an information makeover with a difference.
In May this year, lone-parent family charity Gingerbread was struggling to cope with a creaking information technology infrastructure in a grimy office that had only one toilet.
By November, however, it had moved to a new, modern headquarters with £150,000 worth of new computer hardware and software to boost its next phase of development.
The results of this makeover cannot be overstated. "We had such a primitive, IT system that almost anything would have been better," says Gwen Vaughan, chief executive of Gingerbread since late 2003. "Now we have a way to deliver a better service to our members, grow our business and finally manage that growth."
The old office's lack of facilities and single shared loo were not the only disempowering things about the old environment, says Vaughan. "Because the ICT system didn't work, the staff became hugely frustrated," she says.
"So much time was wasted working around it."
Janice Leeming, the charity's head of membership, says the problem affected all of its staff. "We were in permanent crisis-management mode - just firefighting, really," she says.
Like most charities, Gingerbread, which has an annual income of about £1m, did not end up in this situation on purpose. "Since we were founded in 1970, our priority has always been to serve the vulnerable people we are trying to help, so there's never been any interest in developing any infrastructure," says Leeming. "But the consequence of that was that we never had ways to support our staff. This created real obstacles."
Today, Gingerbread offers a diverse range of services to its members, from a confidential helpline staffed in office hours to networking opportunities for lone-parent families and support for more than 200 local self-help groups.
Gingerbread is a diffused organisation. It has a core staff of 25 working at its new headquarters, as well as a number of regional centres, but most of the organisation is in the community - the volunteers.
"When I arrived, we decided to improve communications with the volunteers and with our 11,000 members, but our ICT could not do that," says Vaughan.
"The new strategy was based on finding more flexible ways to deliver services.
Things such as customer relationship management (CRM) and web-based access seemed useful - we wondered if we could manage membership data in better ways."
It was a conclusion that could easily have just stayed buried in a management document. "We had no resources to change this ourselves," she says.
"I still can't afford to hire an ICT manager, much as I'd love to."
Instead, Vaughan turned to contacts from her previous non-profit roles for advice on how to craft an ICT strategy from scratch. One conversation led to another and, somewhat incredibly, an offer came, out of the blue, from the biggest firm in ICT - Microsoft.
Microsoft was prepared to donate £150,000 worth of new equipment, networking and a range of state-of-the-art business software - from desktop email and office applications to fully featured accounting and CRM software - to help demonstrate the benefit for charities of modern ICT.
"This is a one-off partnership we have struck with Gingerbread to help demonstrate the impact on productivity and business effectiveness of our full suite of solutions," says Paul White, director of the Microsoft Business Solutions Product Group in the UK. "This investment reflected how far the charity needed to go to make the most of technology."
The new equipment was all too long in coming for Gingerbread. "We were poised at the window, ready to chuck all the old stuff out," jokes Vaughan - before quickly pointing out that the charity was in fact about to donate the kit to, well, another charity.
Gingerbread asked Touchstone, its partner ICT services firm, to oversee the project, and paid for professional applications training from InterQuad, a well-known company in the field.
By November, the new systems had been implemented and all staff trained to the appropriate levels of expertise in applications from Word to Publisher, as well as the new CRM system, which is now integrating all membership contact details direct from web to database.
This represents fantastic progress, but the charity has not yet reached an ICT nirvana. "We have a huge learning curve ahead of us to make the most of all of this," admits Vaughan. "There are all sorts of issues with the new technology, but we all genuinely feel excited and are asking how much further we can go with this, and how soon.
"Our expectations were huge, although we tried to make them as realistic as possible. In effect, we are in our new house and love living here, although the paint's a bit wet and one or two of the sofa's back legs are wobbly."
The transformation began with a careful paper-planning process carried out by Vaughan's team and Touchstone. The initial analysis showed that some areas would deliver bottom-line benefits, such as money saved on mailshots, time saved through the automation of processes and a reduction of duplication. Others, meanwhile, could generate extra income through, for example, support for the processing of donations.
"We are going from administrating data to managing it," says Vaughan.
"We're not always on the back foot."
Although it might take some time to fully implement things such as the CRM system, an immediate benefit from the whole experience has been an increase in staff morale. "People can see the changes, and are feeling that the organisation has invested in both itself and them," says Tim Holt, membership officer at Gingerbread. "They are generally feeling a lot more valued."
"It's a huge leap forward," says Leeming. "The cables all over the floor and ceiling, the viruses, the incompatibility between the different computers - getting rid of all that is so liberating because it generated so much needless extra work."
Even simple things, such as a team outing to learn the mysteries of Microsoft Word and Excel, have been welcome. "Now I can see how this stuff can actually help us do our jobs better," says Holt.
Specific benefits include an ability to email members directly. "When, in 2004, we let people join directly from the website, we became victims of our own success because we couldn't cope with all the paperwork," says Vaughan.
"We have quite a transient membership, because people tend to come to us at moments of crisis or when they are facing immediate needs. That could represent as many as 600 to 1,000 contacts a month that we were struggling to process. Now we can move quicker, like with the child tax credit issue, when we were able to contact 60 per cent of the database with relevant information immediately."
Touchstone is more bullish on the mid-term impact. Adrian McNay, the company's managing director, claims 25-30 per cent of the original paper-planned improvements are already in place, although he admits that the next 30 per cent "might take a period of time".
He attributes this partly to the shock of dealing with something new.
"Gingerbread was very, very lean on resources and had to come a long way a lot quicker than other, similar-sized organisations," he says. "Its staff have worked very hard to accommodate the changes and get up to speed as quickly as they can."
So what is the message to other charities of such a complete, Changing Rooms-style makeover? "We worked with Microsoft on this project to prove that ICT has a definite part to play in improving organisational efficiencies," says McNay. "We feel the engagement is showing that charities can achieve a lot without committing to the kind of complex objectives some commercial organisations feel they need to in order to get any benefits."
So where next for the newly restyled Gingerbread? "The charity is taking stock before it goes into the next phase of exploiting ICT," says McNay.
Vaughan agrees but refuses to let momentum slip: "This is, in part, how we are creating a Gingerbread for the 21st century."
Like many small and medium-sized charities, Gingerbread was running on second and third-hand ICT equipment that was constantly breaking down.
"I wasted half a day a week just rebooting my computer," says chief executive Gwen Vaughan.
The charity was running two networks and two incompatible sorts of computer - Apple Macs and PCs - which meant that information could not be easily shared.
The charity's online membership drive had seen enrolments shoot up from 2,000 to 11,000 in little more than a year. But the charity couldn't cope because the website didn't automatically feed information into the database, so emails had to be printed off and details entered one at a time.
ICT support was being done on a voluntary basis with no relevant in-house skills. "When someone sent me a spreadsheet, I just looked at it gormlessly -
I had no idea how to manipulate one," admits the charity's membership officer, Tim Holt.
THE SYSTEM MAKEOVER
Gingerbread's technology makeover began with new hardware in the form of Hewlett-Packard PCs and networking equipment. This enabled it to install a range of new software, including the Microsoft 2003 Server and Microsoft Office 2003 desktop productivity applications, plus the Publisher desktop printing package, the Great Plains finance system and version 1.2 of Microsoft's CRM (customer relationship management) product.
The charity also received complete training for its staff members in all Microsoft software from the training consultancy InterQuad. This was backed by input from Microsoft's main technology partner for the project, Touchstone, which implemented all the systems and is acting as an ongoing ICT resource for the charity.
A new website has also been developed for the charity at www.gingerbread.org.uk.
By November, new ICT systems were in place and all staff had been trained - many for the first time - on key office software products. "I've gone from scraps of paper everywhere to having everything in one place," says Holt. "I can now organise my day much better and communicate so much more easily with other people in the team." Membership staff are no longer manually entering data into computers, and morale has gone up - a result of both the new ICT and the training.
"The fact that we all went off-site together to train has been great for team-building and communication, as well as giving everyone a feeling that they're being invested in," says Janice Leeming, the charity's head of membership.
Gingerbread's new website saves money by simplifying membership contact and registration work, and cutting down the cost of posting the quarterly newsletter, which is now sent monthly by email. The next step will be to start using the CRM database to issue targeted emails to defined segments of the database.