Building GoVolunteering – some reflections

As we move into the week that we launch our new GoVolunteering software, I thought I’d reflect on our adventure into building community technology.

It’s been a long journey. There have been some days where it has felt too long, but that’s what building something innovative, ground-breaking and next generation is. That said, we possibly made it harder for ourselves than we needed to. We could have done it a different way, a more commercial way, a more aggressive way. However, we always knew, from the outset, that we wanted to build with the community, for the community and by the community – a unique approach and value proposition in its own right.

Let’s start with some context, its always useful to ground these things to provide a deeper understanding. Way back in 2018, Our Plymouth was set up to co-ordinate city wide volunteering. It used some third-party software which, after a few months, increasingly became apparent was not working well for the city. Cumbersome user experience, lack of data and difficult to use were common complaints from customers and volunteers. Complaints that frustrated and eventually became intolerable.

In a haze of braveness, stupidity or just quiet determination, with the Douglas Adams quote at the forefront of my mind, “We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works,” we challenged ourselves to build our own. A business case was presented, supported and we marched off into the sunset, to build our own volunteering platform. At least that’s how I remember it. 

In tandem, Engaged Communities C.I.C. was set up to be the tech partner, the commercialisation arm, get it working in Plymouth, then grow customers across both the UK and beyond. 

All was going to plan, well the discovery phase was, until a certain large ripple in the universe occurred and the pandemic hit. We paced the floor for a few days, wondering how we could respond, how best to support our amazing city. Out of the blue, £5000 became available and we were asked; can you build something to help co-ordinate the increase in people furloughed who what to volunteer? I, of course, said yes – without knowing how!

We quickly assembled a team (a good example of who you know, not what you know) including an interaction designer and tech developer and built, in 7 days, a platform that could recruit and match volunteers to volunteer opportunities, on Wordpress. We did it quickly, using a requirements document we had already pulled together with users. It’s had a few iterations since then, but that platform has done more than we dared to imagine in that long week of seven challenging days. To provide some perspective it has delivered;

  • 6500 volunteer matches
  • Co-ordinated over 350 000 volunteer hours across Plymouth and Exeter
  • 152 organisations are using it to recruit volunteers
  • £3.5m worth of volunteer activity (based on Power to Change 2020 model)

Even we believe it has gone above and beyond. However, we wanted to do more, at scale and overcome some of the inevitable limitations the Wordpress software was presenting as more people used it and their expectations and needs grew. 

In parallel with all of this, Engaged Communities continued to raise investment, build its governance, convened a Board, as well as developing further tech requirements. In 2022 we achieved the following;

  • Raised £275 000 from The Rank Foundation and Inspiras plus, our first Founder Investor.
  • We built the tech requirements and subsequently, started the build of the product in late October.
  • Identified and gained commitment for our first three paying customers
  • And are exploring some exciting initiatives in both the private and healthcare sector

We soft launch over the next few weeks, with the first early adopter customers being onboarded. It’s been well received by those we have showcased to. We have three product offerings that provide an end-to-end experience for volunteers and managers;

A Volunteer Marketplace – offers organisation’s access to motivated, passionate volunteers who are actively searching for opportunities. 

A Volunteer Management Hub – where Volunteer Managers can unite their entire volunteering team within one system and improve productivity, improve manager output and reduce time on disconnected processes.

An Employer Hub – helps organisations align profit and purpose. An intuitive software that supports a business in the deployment of their employee volunteering schemes

It’s easy to reflect on the challenges, look back and wonder how the hell did we get through that. We did, and the product, GoVolunteering, and Engaged Communities are better for it. 

Many have asked me what we have learnt. There have been many lessons, some easier than others to take. There have been some tough hits, but many joyful wins. Building community software is not easy, creating a social enterprise isn’t either, there are smoother paths – but, with our chins up, we did some fabulous learning along the way:

  • Find the right senior partners, ones who get the product straight away even when you are still trying to shape it. We spent far too much time explaining the concept to people who were never going to be early adopters. The Rank Foundation have been fantastic at not just getting it but supporting us immensely.
  • Build with the user in mind. We’ve spent an enormous amount of energy understanding users, both volunteers and managers, as well as organisations. We identify as a tech for good organisation and have set principles for our design approach.
  • Build a great product/service that you can ship. Don’t tolerate anything less than world class. Use the best in the world as a steer, a standard, a way to design and develop things. This small C.I.C. has explored, talked to and looked to Salesforce, Amazon, PwC, Mercedes, Oracle and more to help us. Yes, we’ve got a deep understanding of volunteering software competition, but the others have pushed us to be innovative.
  • Design for scale. A lot of what early adopters will see, using our software, isn’t where the cash has been spent. We’ve worked closely with our developers to build strong foundations and scalability in the back end so we can continually upgrade. We have built for the long term.
  • Talking of technology partners, and this goes for any suppliers, engage with the best. We have been very fortunate to have Core Blue on board. They have challenged us, filled the gaps and helped us build a better product, with huge potential.
  • Manage expectations. Many people think building technology is like building cars. You build a model in the factory, it goes into mass production, the finished product ends up on the roads and every five years it gets a little face lift. That’s not true here. What we have built is just the beginning, with major upgrades, continuously based on user feedback, our own needs and to make sure we can incorporate the latest developments in technology advancement.
  • Get investment ready as soon as possible. We’ve worked hard at this and have some way to go before I could say we are experts. The Rank Foundation, Inspiras and Una Group have been solid advisers and supporters. Its simple, we would not have got this far without them.

It’s been hard work, at a pace and, all encompassing. But that’s what happens when you’re committed and passionate about building community technology that will have social impact. The potential of this software is immense, I would say that wouldn’t I, but it keeps us inspired, motivated and fired up.

With our tech partners, Core Blue, we will have built the product in 16 weeks and it’s only the beginning. There are significant upgrades to features and functionality already planned for the next phase. We will roll out to the rest of the UK in a controlled manner, building a customer base and experience along the way.

I think the greatest messages I could share, in the experience of building GoVolunteering, are these; there is always a solution to the problem, learn to get back up again relatively unscathed and surround yourself with the best people.

At the end of the day, the technology you create is nothing if its doesn’t create an exceptional experience for the user.

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About the Author

Ann Holman

Ann is currently leading the Engaged Communities' Executive Team. Previous to joining EC, Ann has experience managing significant digital projects across complex environments within the utilities, water and local government sectors.

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