For service delivery charities, data is becoming an increasingly vital commodity to demonstrate to both stakeholders and funders that they are hitting goals and achieving desired outcomes.
As Kate Stephens, chief executive of Smart Works, a UK charity that provides clothing and coaching services for unemployed women to help them back into the workplace, points out:
The sector is having to become more professional and efficient in how it organises and runs things, but it’s particularly important for organisations that want to scale up and become bigger. You need systems and processes to help you do it and help to manage the risk, or the danger is it’ll all fall in on you.
Stephens took over the reins of Smart Works about three years ago in a bid to move the charity onto the next level. It had previously been a franchise of a US non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Dress for Success, but the decision was made to go independent in order to grow nationally rather than remain a London-based hub.
More than 50% of the charity’s customer base comprises women, ranging in age from 16 to 75, who have been unemployed for a year or more. However, what they all have in common is a desire to get back to work while lacking the confidence in themselves and their own abilities to do so without support.
As a result, Smart Works’ 130 or so volunteers help to dress, style and coach the women in order to help them have more faith in themselves. They have access to a wardrobe of clothes donated both by retailers and professional women and are coached in how to get it right at interview.
Should they get the job they are being prepared for, it is also possible to book up to five additional clothing and coaching sessions in order to obtain the necessary support to deal with the early stages of employment.
But as Smart Works started growing outside its two locations in north and west London, it found that running its operations efficiently was becoming an increasing challenge. Stephens explains:
We were finding it very difficult to keep the same grasp on, and overview of, the organisation so we needed a credible and reliable system to help. We’d been using a Microsoft Access database as it’s very important as a charity to be able to prove the impact of what you’re doing and show that you’re making a difference.
Everyone who supports us, whether we’re talking about funders or volunteers, need to know the money’s being spent properly and who it’s helping. So data is always a very important aspect of what we do. It’s important to track clients and we’re lucky because the outcome is very tangible – they either get the job or they don’t.
But as it became clear that the Access database was no longer fit-for-purpose, the decision was taken to introduce Microsoft’s Dynamics 365 cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) applications and Sharepoint-based document-sharing software instead, not least because both were “accessible from anywhere”.
The systems went live at all of the NGO’s locations in Edinburgh, Manchester and Reading – it has also more recently added Birmingham to the list too – on 1 April 2016 and the CRM software is now the central means for Smart Works to manage its client interactions. Stephens points out:
Clients visit us on the hour each day, but you can’t book them in if you don’t enter their details into the system. It’s about complete data capture as the client record is the key point of the database. You can see who referred them to us, the details they gave and who their volunteer was. Clients are also asked to fill in a questionnaire with additional information. It’s done amazing things to help make us more efficient and give us the data we need.
For instance, in terms of boosting efficiency, clients are now automatically sent an email after booking in for a Smart Works appointment. A reminder text message also follows the day before the meeting. If news about the result of the interview is not received within a month, customers are sent a further text and a final one two days later. Stephens says:
I now know in real time what our success rate is – in the last financial year, it about 60%. But the system is also a really rich source of data in other ways too. For example, we can break information down by ethnic background, where people live and the like. It means we can be very confident about what we’re saying as we can prove it and show the impact. It’s a great management tool – otherwise we’d just be relying on spreadsheets.
Stephens is also certain that without the “really slick service” the system helps the NGO provide, it would not have been possible to achieve such a high success rate. She explains:
Part of our ethic is to make women feel cared for. Many of them are on benefits and are pushed from pillar to post so we need to have a very professional approach and show that we’re taking them seriously so that they take themselves seriously. Therefore, it’s important to have a proper system behind it all as we need to be very efficient. It also helps to have a client record we can trust so we always know what’s going on and can look things up if there are any issues.
Another nice touch is that, while in the past it was necessary to search through three separate files to let volunteers know whether a client had got the job or not, they now automatically receive an email – an approach that is undoubtedly positive in engagement and motivation terms. Stephens concludes:
I’m a big fan of having systems and processes in place. I’ve worked in the private sector in the past, where it’s much more usual, and I believe the only way for charities going forward is to have a sustainable platform that they can build on.
Smart Work’s aim is to continue expanding into areas of the UK in which it currently has no presence. The next potential candidate is Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north east of England, but other possible areas in future include the south west, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland.
But as Stephens points out, in order to support such growth, it is simply imperative these days to have “good infrastructure” in place. Living on just a wing and a prayer will no longer cut it – for the third sector or anyone else.
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