Chapter 25: Case Studies

Case Studies - using this part

This part contains four detailed case studies, which look at each organisation or initiative in terms of the strategy, structure, systems etc. model used throughout the book. At the end of each case study, we set out lessons learned for other not-for-profit organisations. We believe that these case studies should be useful and interesting to most readers. Indeed, we'd like to take this opportunity to repeat our introductory plea to readers to come forward with interesting case studies for the second edition of this book.  Please contact authors by e-mail at or through our website if you wish to volunteer your (or another) organisation for a case study.

This part also contains an epilogue in which we revisit the themes set out in chapter 1 and encourage the reader to learn to love IT. 

Case Study City Parochial Foundation

IT strategy

City Parochial Foundation is a grant-making organisation based in the City of London.  It has about 14 staff.  It makes about 400 to 500 fresh awards each year, with about 3000 to 4000 grant payments being made each year.  City Parochial first embraced computing around 1986 with a Unix-based system, primarily for word-processing.  It also took on some Apple MACs to try to reduce the out-of-house costs it was racking up for its publications etc.  Around 1990 City Parochial moved office and concurrently chose to change IT as well.  It chose to go exclusively Apple MAC based, primarily because its publications are core to its business and publishing houses at that time tended to be exclusively MAC-based. 

More recent arrivals, such as Head of Finance Carol Harrison (ex Children's Society) and Clerk to the Trustees (Chief Executive equivalent) Bharat Mehta (ex National Schizophrenia Fellowship) questioned this strategy.  However, they found that the use of IT at City Parochial was fit for purpose and popular with staff.  After Carol's arrival, she set up an IT group, which consisted of the IT manager, the accounts assistant and herself.  This group organised a refresh of IT equipment in May 1999, continuing the inherited strategy.  "Most staff here are not screaming for IT change", Carol says, although people appreciated the improvements from the upgrades.  "We're sort of a publishing house", says Bharat.  "We've kept pace with the funding world", he says, while quickly caveating "although the funding world is moving slowly.  One of our main constraints is that other agencies are not progressing in their use of IT as perhaps they should".

The strategy continues to be one of "keep it simple", which seems to work well for City Parochial.  One person commented that "IT people often need to come down from Mount Olympus", inferring that we humans are capable of making IT deliver the goods without excessive technology and without impenetrable jargon.  The current author agrees.

IT structure

The only PC in the organisation is the file serverm which helps make the network of iMacs talk to one another, with the help of Category 5 cabling, carrying voice and data, 100 Mbit Ethernet and TCP/IP protocols. The May 1999 refresh iliminated the one or two "Year 2000 jitters" City Parochial had.  Printing is networked and staff take a co-operative approach to it.

Aspirations include portable computers and projectors for the field staff, if budgets and needs permit/demand. 

IT systems

Office toolkits are mostly MAC-based versions of Microsoft Word and Excel, although some users still use Macwrite Pro.  The accounting system is Astra Premier, one of a few MAC-based accounting systems suitable for organisations of City Parochial's size and scale.  Carol, who previously used CMG Fact 2000 and more latterly Great Plains Dynamics, describes the accounting system as "basic but adequate.  It interacts with Excel, so I can manipulate data for reports as much as I need to".

City Parochial's grants database was developed in house some 10 years ago using Filemaker Pro.  It is basic, but again fit for purpose and well liked by the staff, including the newer arrivals.  As Bharat points out, "we do not use the current database to its full extent.  We could extract more report and interrogate the current system more".   The grants system is not integrated with the accounts system, but the amount of posting required between the two systems is small, so the users are not sure that integrating the two systems would "pay back" adequately.  (On cursory inspection, the current author concurred with the view that integration of the two systems is unlikely to be worth the effort at this time). 

Aspirations include trying out voice recognition software, which a few users have identified as having potential benefits.

IT staff, skills and style

The main IT person is Tina Stiff, who started as an administrator in 1984 and "acquired the role of IT support after showing some ability to sort out printing on the MACs".  Tina shows great enthusiasm and composure when describing her work.  She has good moral support and additional skills input from Bharat, Carol and others.  She can cope with most issues that arise herself, only very occasionally needing to call on third parties for additional help on an ad hoc basis.  City Parochial has chosen not to have maintenance contracts on machines, but to pay for repairs or buy replacements when necessary (it rarely is).  

City Parochial has chosen to outsource some of its functions, such as investment management and estates management, but has been relentless in its use of in-house resources for IT.  This approach seems to have worked well for City Parochial for many years.  Readers should note that City Parochial has been unusual in having for so many years the continuity of in-house IT skills which Tina brings.

IT shared values

Without burrowing deeply into City Parochial's data protection, security and safety environment, the set up came across as efficient, competent and safe. City Parochial aspires to progress quickly with external e-mail, a web site etc., which (at the time of writing) it has only recently started to explore.  The trustees have accepted this need and are now keen for City Parochial to develop these aspects.  This development will test City Parochial's self-sufficiency, especially in the data protection and information security areas.  City Parochial is also keen to support other agencies to progress in the sensible use of IT, for example it is currently providing financial support for a funder/finder database CD-ROM project.

Lessons for other not-for-profit organisations

  • It is possible to be reasonably self-sufficient and have an impressive IT set up.
  • Focussing on running core systems well can enable not-for-profit organisations to then develop into new areas of IT activity from a position of strength.
  • It helps to have continuity of staff (as long as the staff are good, of course) to maintain a stable IT platform.
  • It is possible to run a not-for-profit organisation using Apple MACs.

Case Study: BEN

IT strategy

BEN is the occupational benevolent fund for employees past and present (and their dependants) from the motor, cycle, and associated trades.  BEN's mission is "to help the strong in our industries to care for colleagues and dependants in time of need".  BEN achieves this mainly through running care homes & day centres, and by providing grants & loans to eligible people in need.  

BEN might be seen as a reasonably typical medium-sized not-for-profit organisation.  It has about 40 IT users at its headquarters in Ascot, plus a further 30 or so users spread amongst regional offices, care centres and home workers.  BEN's IT strategy, formulated with Z/Yen in 1998, hinged on improving the sharing of information between its disparate systems and becoming increasingly self sufficient. 

IT structure

BEN's IT structure is based around Hewlett Packard fileservers and Windows NT4 as the network operating system at headquarters.  PCs are reasonably standard throughout the organisation, following a programme of upgrading and replacing machines, together with a rationalisation of IT support, in 1999. 

At the time of writing, BEN is planning on expanding its network to encompass regional sites and care centres, using Citrix Metaframe to enable wide-area-networking for applications and Windows NT Remote Access Services to enable e-mail and Internet access.  The extent to which and speed at which this expansion occurs will be determined in part by budget constraints and the cost/benefit balance of each element of that expansion.  As many not-for-profit organisations find, the capital cost of this type of expansion is only part of the story - the ongoing costs of maintenance and line charges are a significant consideration for cash-strapped not-for-profit organisations like BEN.

IT systems

BEN has standardised on Microsoft Windows 95 and Office 97 as its basic systems toolkit.  It uses SunAccount for its financials, APS for payroll, Raiser's Edge for fundraising, Coldharbour for residential care administration and Visual Alms for grant making (the later system having been selected in 1999 and implemented in 1999/2000).  BEN, unusually, runs a payroll-giving agency, for which it has a bespoke system based on Retrieve 4GL.  The bespoke system, which was built by BEN's in-house IT person in the mid 1990's, was carefully checked for Year 2000 compliance and is now supported by  Retrieve 4GL experts, Uniq systems.

In order to improve the sharing of information between systems, BEN is working on devising common coding structures between systems, rather than fully-blown electronic integration.  This approach will enable BEN to pull information together from disparate systems.  For example, BEN is keen to be able to tell a motor manufacturer how much money the manufacturer has donated and how much has been contributed by its staff through payroll giving.  Also, how much care has been provided and how much money has been shelled out in grants and loans to that same manufacturer's employees, former employees and their dependants, etc.

IT staff, skills and style

BEN has worked hard to use self-help where possible.  IT support contracts are in place for the networks, machines and systems applications.  However, BEN has moved away from the model of having a full time in-house IT person, which it used for several years until just before its 1998 IT review.  Subsequently, BEN has moved successfully to a model based on in-house "owner / supporters" for major systems, "superusers" to help support users of the office tool kits and several part time network administrators to manage the day-to-day use of the network.  BEN tends to use Z/Yen sporadically for specific projects and on a  low-usage basis to help oversee the new model.  This way of working has significantly reduced ongoing costs for BEN and improved the quality of its IT provision. BEN was keen to embrace the self-help model, which is not a universal style in the not-for-profit sector.

IT shared values

Because of its occupational links, BEN has been able to find help in some areas of its expansion, for example its neat and efficient web site which was designed and is supported by Motortrak.  Nevertheless, BEN has had to grapple with the issues most not-for-profit organisations face, which is to realise that the management of the web site content is BEN's problem, not Motortrak's, and is probably the larger task.  BEN is not overly ambitious in its use of IT, but has progressed considerably in past two to three years despite significant budget constraints.

Lessons for other not-for-profit organisations

  • It is possible to move from a "largely managed" to a "largely self-help" model if you try.
  • You need a lucky break if you are able to persevere with a bespoke system after its developer withdraws support.
  • Standardising PCs reduces ongoing support and maintenance costs.
  • Common coding structures are a good alternative to full blown integration to start information sharing between fundraising and service provision systems, but you still need to do the hard thinking.

Case Study Three: The Children's Society MART (co-author Nigel Hinks)


The Children’s Society (The Society) is committed to tackling the root causes of problems faced by children and young people, especially those whose circumstances make them particularly vulnerable.  It has an annual income of c£30M.  The Society runs about 100 social work projects for children and young people.  It employs c1100 full time equivalent staff. 

The Social Work Performance Measurement and Recording Initiative (MART Initiative) was designed to equip social work projects and units with the knowledge and ability to undertake performance measurement and recording in a harmonised way. The benefits sought from the Initiative, originally set out in July 1998, are aligned with the Society’s Corporate Plan.  Those benefits include encouraging good practice, improving the quality of information, evaluating the effectiveness of practice and providing the ability to measure and learn from information shared between groups of project and units.


The IT structure required for this initiative was very straightforward.  The Society already had established PCs in each project with Microsoft Office (including Microsoft Access) available, together with modem links into a remote access e-mail service through headquarters.  In a few larger projects, the Society has needed to implement small peer-to-peer networks to enable project workers to use MART efficiently and effectively.  However,  in the most part, this initiative "piggy-backed" on existing IT infrastructure, enabling the initiative team to concentrate their attention on the specific tools and methodologies needed to see through the initiative vision.


The objectives and benefits are focussed on skills more than tools.  However, the Society, in its Corporate Plan, sought to "develop the necessary internal tools to align the organisation to our external aims".  The tools designed to support the Initiative are:

  • MART: the Measurement and Recording Template, which has been developed over the past year by the Society's IT department specifically to support this work.  MART is a configurable Microsoft Access database, which provides a common data structure while enabling projects/units to meet local information needs safely, securely & flexibly.
  • SMART: Several "MARTs", allowing data from several MART sites to be consolidated for reporting, comparison and shared learning.  SMART should help the Social Work Division and other divisions (e.g. fundraising, communications, finance).

The Society used a "stage gate" or phased approach, to reduce uncertainty through relatively short phases of work until the concepts and tools were proven.  At the end of the first "proof of concept phase", working with three projects, The Society defined nine key benefits for the initiative against all of which qualitative and quantitative measures could be set and evaluated.  Technical developments were run as separate phases of work.  At the end of each phase of work, The Society devised a project plan for the next phase.  An Initiative Board provided management for the MART Initiative; the Social Work Divisional Management Team provided governance, signing off each key phase.  At the end of the pilot, The Society undertook a comprehensive evaluation of the MART Initiative.

The IT development was a fairly low-key matter, with one Society Access expert working part time on the initiative for eighteen months or so, under the supervision of Z/Yen.  In the later stages, other Society staff were involved in the testing and brainstorming on improvements to the tool.  The emphasis from the outset was on skills transfer to ensure that the Society would be self-sufficient once the initiative was implemented.

Staff, skills and style

The pilot was undertaken and evaluated in collaboration with Z/Yen.  The process of engagement between the Initiative Team and individual projects/units involved 10 to 12 days of direct contact over a three to four month period. The process involved:

  • planning: prioritisation, resource allocation, and communication.  The methodology has a checklist to help plan a viable implementation strategy at each site.
  • design: direct work with local teams to analyse information needs, using workshops, iterative preparation and agreement of data capture sheets, "building" a local version of MART.
  • implementation: install MART, materials and initial training, start capturing data, top up training and support, sometimes working in groups with other projects/units.
  • review: through telephone and visits to help the project/unit progress and to evaluate the achievement of each project/unit's benefits.

These results have been very encouraging, enabling the Society to proceed with full-scale rollout to projects and units across the country.  The feedback from pilot participants has enabled the Society further to improve the MART Initiative for the full-scale rollout.  The Society has now built a team of four facilitator/implementers who travel the country helping individual projects to implement the initiative.

The collaborative nature of the MART Initiative (between the Society’s Social Work Division, its IT Department, its projects/units and Z/Yen) has maintained an environment of co-operation, ideas generation and continuous improvement.  It is a model example of inter-departmental and inter-organisation co-operation achieving excellent results.

The enthusiasm for the MART Initiative within most projects and units involved has been refreshing.  People in projects especially like the skills transfer, which enables them to learn to look after themselves.  They also like the fact that some benefits flow early (eg. the information needs stage gets people to challenge the way that they do things, often leading to quick, indirect benefits from the MART Initiative).

Shared values

The knowledge learned from the pilot is being used throughout the rollout to over 120 projects and units during 2000 to 2002.  The Society is already using knowledge obtained through this Initiative on other Society Initiatives (e.g. planning and project management of IT projects, information models used for liaison between departments, MART potentially being used as a tool in other Society departments).  The Society is already liaising with other similar organisations (e.g. Barnardo's), starting to share the learning and intending to publish appropriate papers on the Initiative to benefit the charity sector as a whole. The methods, tools and lessons learned should be readily adaptable to benefit almost any charity involved with service provision, large or small.

Lessons for other not-for-profit organisations

  • Most Children's Society projects are nearly all quite small, so the model shown in the case study is valid for individual, small operational not-for-profits or collections of small project-based activities.
  • The database tool is far less important than the thinking the projects do about their work flows, recording requirements and information needs.
  • When taking on ambitious projects the stage gate approach - i.e. to pilot, prototype, test, then roll-out - minimises risk (you can bail out early) and maximises the chances of success (you can refine and improve as you go).
  • Trickling down skills (e.g. using third parties to train your key people who then train the rest of your people) can keep costs down to manageable levels and encourage ownership of the initiative.

Case Study: Youthnet

IT strategy

Youthnet began as a spin-off idea from the 1995 hit book "Go For It" by Martin Lewis.  The book was a directory interspersed with inspirational writings to encourage young people to get involved in good things.  The initial idea was simple enough; the information contained in "Go For It" should be available on a web site.  This idea was a little ahead of its time but practicable in 1995/96.  A small team used minimal technology to replicate the book's content on a web site as quickly and easily as possible.  Anastasia Williams, Chief Executive of Youthnet at the time, reckons that the first pass cost about £200.  "We used shovelware", she boasts, "the simplest tools to shovel the data onto the web as quickly and easily as possible".

The team immediately started planning the next version, with which it aspired to achieve a lot more and which it knew would need a lot more resource.  Its strategy was to be an updateable resource on the web.  The resource would be robust, would be able to utilise electronic information from other not-for-profit and statutory sources and would need minimal intervention and rekeying to maintain.  "Shovelware" would no longer do.  Managing to beg and/or borrow a mixture of money and gifts in kind, Version 2 cost about £500,000.  Youthnet raised about £200,000 in cash and the rest was the value of gifts in kind.  The site was launched in February 1997 and quickly started to win awards.  Anastasia describes the site as being "a bit like a dishwasher.  As soon as people started to use it they couldn't work out how they had managed without it before."  But there were gaps, particularly in the scope of the information services available and the feeds from other information services were far from the self-maintaining vision. 

Youthnet promptly started planning Version 3 to put many of those matters right.  By this time Youthnet was starting to employ its own core team and was becoming increasingly able to look after itself.  A key benefit for Version 3 was a simple database feeder system for members of the Volunteer Bureau Network (and others) to use.  Version 3 cost more, probably about £1.2M.  The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, launched the site in May 2000.  

The team is already formulating plans for Version 4, aiming for yet more self-maintenance within the system and increasingly seeking real time links, which are vital for some forms of information (e.g. current availability of hostel places on any particular night).  Youthnet has spun off  the web site,, as a trading subsidiary with Anastasia as Chief Executive.  This should enable the site to continue to develop but along more commercial lines while Youthnet can concentrate on ensuring that its charitable objectives are being furthered.

IT structure

The internal systems are quite straightforward; a small PC network using Sun Microsystems servers as the web servers.  Again, Youthnet went for industry standards and managed to get generous donations of the desired equipment at first.  Again, the current author suggests that such generosity is rare from major suppliers, but the innovation and high profile of this particular project will have helped Youthnet to get started down this path with appropriate, donated kit.

IT systems

The underlying databases are based on Oracle and Vbase. Anastasia described Version 2 as "a cheap armour plated version to see through the new vision".  For that reason, Youthnet wanted to use industry standard tools for the core databases.  Oracle generously donated licences, probably because the project was especially innovative and high profile.  Youthnet needed simple feeder databases at low/no cost for impecunious user organisations, such as members of the Volunteer Bureau Network.  Fiona Dawe, now Chief Executive of Youthnet and former head of the National Centre for Volunteering, explained why the self-maintaining databases idea was so important.  "People are willing to fund and sponsor the creative work far more readily than the ongoing maintenance.  We needed to minimise the ongoing information maintenance costs to ensure survival beyond the initial burst phases".

Anastasia summarises the approach used over the several versions as "pilot cheap, then do it well".  The current author commends this approach for innovative IT projects as a key way to minimise risks and maximise rewards.

IT staff, skills and style

Youthnet's approach to staff and skills varied considerably over the earlier versions of the project.  Version 1, the "shovelware" version, was minimal; Youthnet essentially did it in house with borrowed help.  Youthnet relied heavily on third party help for Version 2, provided in this case mainly by Web Media for the web design and Media Surface for the database integration.  By the time Version 3 was being built, Youthnet had started to build its own team sufficiently to take on most of the work in-house again, using a mixture of core staff and freelancers.  This is broadly its staff and skills position today.  Under the new structure, Youthnet employs about nine people of whom one is deemed to be the in-house IT person.  The trading subsidiary,, employs six people, two of whom might be described as technical people and two of whom might be described as web content specialists.

Youthnet's style is clearly entrepreneurial, youthful and "can-do" in ways not regularly seen in the not-for-profit sector.  Despite this, Youthnet seems to have spotted early that robustness and systems safety were going to be key to's ongoing success.

IT shared values

By the start of 1998 (less than one year in to Version 2), had some 12,000 records and was growing at 1000 records a month.  Contrast this with the total of 400 or so records contained in Version 1.  Youthnet grappled early with data protection issues and (probably more pertinently) copyright issues.   As the number, diversity and immediacy of feeds grows, Youthnet will find these issues increasingly important. 

Lessons for other not-for-profit organisations

  • You can have entrepreneurial-style not-for-profit organisations.
  • Internet-based technologies are very suitable for information resource provision projects and initiatives.
  • Start modest and then build from there.
  • Don’t be afraid to switch between outsourced and in-house provision of IT services if/when your circumstances change accordingly.
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