The sustainability of digital services in the third sector

Harry Harrold

Fundamentally, it’s about engineering digital services to be as lean as possible, because that means inexpensive to maintain

Economic sustainability (not the green-type) has been a big theme of third sector digital project funding for some years. I always say there’s three ways of managing it:

1) Make your service so cheap to run, it just ticks over.

2) Make a service that can be sold to others, so it’s funded by profit.

3) Make a service that’s so core to your activities that your organisation funds it to continue.

If you can’t manage any of those, plan for the service to end gracefully.

Neontribe has been involved in all of the above.

A service that’s cheap to run

We’ve been involved in Toilet Map for several of its iterations. It aims to be a complete, up-to-date, sustainable source of toilet locations. It’s the UK’s largest database of publicly-accessible toilets with over 14,000 facilities.

It started with grant funding and a little corporate sponsorship. Eventually, we spawned a company – Public Convenience Ltd – with Gail Ramster and Professor Jo-Anne Birchard from the Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre to look after it.  Its hosting is currently sponsored by Vercel so that’s free. Its upkeep is done by volunteers – mostly ex-Neontribe employees, and information about toilets is added by the public

We’ve not had the budget to do a really considered job on metrics. How do you measure success in helping folk find a toilet? Effectively, I mean? That said – since 2021, it’s had a million visits, and 3 million page views.

Toilet Map is sustainable as long as it attracts folk with time on their hands to update the code that runs it, and update the data it needs. 

A service that’s profitable

We’re intensely proud of our work for Mind of my Own. They provide simple and inclusive digital services that help children’s views to be heard and their safety and best interests preserved. We’ve helped them for over a decade, to develop new products, iterate and maintain them, and get them to ISO27001 certification.

Their first project was a grant-funded self-advocacy site to help young people speak for themselves to the social care professionals who had responsibility for them. We researched, designed and built that, then helped them expand it into a service that local authorities could use to receive and manage those statements – and now 40% of the local authorities in the UK use their products. In fact, tens of thousands of statements have been sent to more than 300 customers worldwide using software we’ve built for them, and when they decided to recruit an in-house team, we handled the transition.

In our experience, this is rare. For this funding model to work, you need to follow the money outside of the charity sector. Something Mind of my Own did really well. 

A service that’s core

The Alexandra Rose charity met us at an event run by Nesta. Their work gets fresh fruit and vegetables to families at risk of food poverty by providing vouchers that they can spend at local street markets. We’ve been helping them digitise their voucher scheme since their first Comic Relief funded project.

We started small, doing what would make the most difference to them within that first budget. Since then, the work we’ve done has been key to their explosive growth. They started in 2014, hit one million vouchers spent in 2021 and reached two million vouchers spent by mid 2023.

That would not have been possible with the manual process they had when we met, and we’ve helped not only operationally, but also with their reporting. The systems we built export data to their reporting system, helping prove the effectiveness of their work to potential funders. This has helped them respond to the change in the funding landscape: digital is not a separate activity for them, it’s business as usual. 

The one that could have been a star

Docready came out of a run of Innovation labs we helped facilitate in 2012. A consortium of funders – the Paul Hamlyn Foundation,  the Mental Health Foundation, Comic Relief and the Nominet Trust – wanted to see if young people themselves could come up with ideas to help them with their mental health. And, of course, they could. 

We took them through a cut-down user-centred design process and then worked on the ideas they felt would be most help. Key to the success of Docready was that lived experience, and the space we had to iterate on those first rough ideas. 

The first incarnation of Docready was a “universal translator” that taught doctors how to speak “teenager”. Neat, impracticable. So they flipped that into a “universal translator” that taught teenagers how to speak “doctor”. Neat, impracticable. So we boiled that down into the core issue, what they needed was to be able to get their point across to the doctor as efficiently as possible. Hence, Docready, which launched in 2012

We worked with a group in Brighton to really hone down the problems we aimed to solve. In the end, there were two. What might help when the doctor asks me “So, what brings you here today?” and I freeze? What might help when I take the first step out the surgery door, and I remember something I wish I’d told them? The answers which make up Docready are “Make a list of what you want to say, before you go to that appointment”.

What we couldn’t do is make it economically sustainable.  We tried to get GPs to fund it. We tried to get it on the NHS app store. But we couldn’t fund the primary research we needed to show it worked. 

However, Docready is still active and I still get messages on LinkedIn praising it, and saying it has saved lives. It was engineered for low maintenance. There’s no user accounts, for example, and that means less to look after. A user can save their list and use it without a net connection. Docready counts as sustainable because it’s cheap to run.

Of course, some services have ended

But by my count, two thirds of our third sector work is still live and working as intended. That is something to be proud of. Fundamentally, it’s about engineering digital services to be as lean as possible, because that means inexpensive to maintain.

It’s my belief that this also makes them use less energy, so they’re better for the planet too.