CEO Blog: Tech

Preeti - Upshot CEO

Welcome to Upshot Systems CIC second CEO Blog! We will be publishing these quarterly, with our CEO Preeti Shetty giving her insights into challenges and opportunities in the third sector, deep diving into areas such as impact, digital & tech, sport & non-sport sectors and MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning) trends. 

In the second of these, she explores the ever changing landscape of technology and what that means for us as a system provider, especially exploring the "buy vs build" question.  

Hello and welcome to my second CEO blog! As we hurtle through our second year as a CIC (how is it July already?!), I've been reflecting quite a lot on what we would do differently if we were starting from scratch. If we were just starting our impact measurement journey, looking at how quickly technology is moving, would we even build a system?

Over the years, we have asked ourselves and supported several other charities to answer the age old ‘Build or Buy’ debate. As we know, there are pros and cons to both but the key drivers are usually cost, capability, time and resource as well as having the right tech partner. Our experience has been that if you:

  • need functionality that does not currently exist elsewhere 
  • have the money to build a bespoke solution (even when costs spiral) 
  • you have people within your team who have the expertise to manage a tech project

...then you should certainly consider it. Building can be a game changer for an organisation if you get it right.

“It's worth considering that one in six IT projects exceeds its estimated timeline and the overrun average cost goes up to 200%.” 

Source: Harvard Business Review

Technology is so advanced right now that you don't even need to build completely from scratch - you can just customise an off-the-shelf product. But as with MEL, you have to do the thinking and planning first. What do you want? How will it work with your other tools? What is the problem you are trying to solve and for whom? Does it exist in the marketplace already? Who will lead this and how will you maintain it? And most importantly, what will it help you know or do that you don’t currently know or do?

The biggest challenge with building is everyone within the organisation ends up getting sucked in and they all become IT people for a while. This obviously has an impact on core delivery and also means everyone’s expectations are sky high. So if something then doesn't work, the consequences feel graver and people lose faith.

When we built Upshot at the Football Foundation, it was because there was very little choice in the market for an end-to-end MEL tool. We had the capital to build, maintain and develop it so it grew with us and we had the right team of dedicated and committed people whose core job it was to make this work - nobody was doing this as a side project. Importantly, we picked the right partner who knew what they were doing. 

Tips on choosing the right tech partner: 

  • Speak to other orgs and get recommendations
  • Make sure they have relevant expertise 
  • Find a partner who is willing to say no and challenge your demands 
  • Make sure they feel ownership and accountability
  • Develop good tools to measure progress 
  • Try and find developers you actually like - you will be spending a lot of time with them!

Massive shout out to Torchbox, our tech partner - 10 years later and they are still supporting us, challenging us and making sure our product is the best it can be.

For the vast majority of charities, buying is the answer. Why reinvent something that someone has already done all the hard work for? Unlike building something you have to maintain and develop for years, buying means you get what you need but you can always leave if it isn't working and it won’t break the bank. There are cons to this of course - buying means you have to compromise sometimes, find workarounds, change the way you do things - you won't always find the exact thing you dreamt of. But most off-the-shelf solutions nowadays will come close.

The benefit of buying is you just do the thinking and someone else does the initial work. You outline your requirements and let the system providers show you what they can do. At Upshot, having gone through a large build ourselves, we wanted to ensure that we make it easy for everyone else - we handle all the setting up, configuration, training and then we continue to provide technical support throughout. Meaning staff don’t need to be IT experts, they can focus their time on doing what they do best - delivering their work.

The other thing to look out for is what funders want. Different funders want different reports and some will mandate the use of a system. Having come from a funder ourselves and working with several funders in the sector, we constantly try and build in consistency - allowing our organisations to easily cut and query data and put it into bespoke reporting templates for funders.

So back to my reflection then … if we were doing this again, would we build? Probably not if it was just for ourselves. The reason Upshot works so well is that it is not just being used by a single organisation. Over 1000 organisations are using the system, feeding in their requests, telling us what is working and what isn’t, enabling us to continuously improve the product.

The downside to this of course is that every organisation is different with different needs so finding the balance between keeping Upshot generic enough that any charity can use but also bespoke enough that organisations can tailor it to suit their specific needs is a constant battle. That sometimes means we can’t do what seems like a simple tweak to the system just because someone requests it. The fact that we are a non-profit organisation ourselves also means we don't have unlimited capital to pump into the system, the way that a tech company could. We need to live within our means and spend money on features and functionality we think will have the most impact for all.

This balancing act is especially hard when we start to look forward and predict where technology is headed. What emerging tech could we use to make data collection and impact measurement easier? Will machine learning replace some of the insights we currently painfully gather? Will blockchain technology replace how we document things like qualifications and people’s identity? Will AI replace volunteers who so diligently and empathetically ask survey questions? (I hope not!)

We don't have the answers to all this. But what we do know is we will continue to work with our organisations and the wider third sector to ensure that charities are not getting left behind in this big digital revolution. We will do our best to keep Upshot relevant for anyone who uses it. And most importantly, we, the team, will always be on hand to help, support and discuss all these interesting challenges.