Photo of Shelter's digtial teams on a Zoom call smiling at the camera

Photo of members of Shelter’s digital teams.

In the latest in our series of charity leaders doing great things with digital during the pandemic, we spoke to Shelter’s Head of Digital, Caspar Below about their new digital framework, and how it could help your charity.  

  1. How has Shelter’s use of digital changed during the pandemic? 

The pandemic has been a tough time for Shelter, as it has been for everyone else. At very short notice, we had to digitise many of our real-life interactions with supporters and people who come to us for help. In the first few weeks of lockdown, with considerable time pressure, we didn’t always stick to what we had learned in the years before and returned to ad-hoc decision making when it came to solution design. Once we found our feet, we were able to approach this more thoughtfully with a user-centric view. 

I’d say the lasting legacy is a greater appetite to take risks when using digital and to use a genuine test-and-learn approach. We got better at using tech and digital for what it does well, with greater willingness to consider the interactions with our audiences in a holistic way, which would cross many channels including digital.

  1. Can you tell us about your Digital Framework and how it came about? 

The digital framework came out of a need to scale the application of technology and digital to achieve our goals. In order to do that, we needed to align multiple digital teams across the organisation, yet give those teams more autonomy to do what they are good at. 

We commissioned a digital maturity audit in 2018 that gave us a benchmark. Over the course of 2019 we ran a series of workshops with existing in-house teams about ways of working, practices, goals and governance which formed the basis of the operating model that was to become Shelter’s Digital Framework for our digital services and products, for all teams and digital practitioners.

Inside the framework, you can find information about Shelter’s digital culture, how digital teams work, and how we collaborate with others – as well as a comprehensive guides section, which includes things like Shelter’s house style and an excellent set of video production guides

We chose a lean approach that gives more power to teams. It also meant that an increasing roll-out of digital tools and ways of working wouldn’t automatically create more bottlenecks through greater centralisation.  

We are sharing how we align teams through planning and collaboration. We have detailed guides about how we do content publishing, how we approach accessibility, how we use video, product and service development and how we operate those products and services once they are live.

The backbone of the framework are our communities of practice (CoPs). They connect professionals of the same discipline across the organisation in a non-hierarchical way. Those CoPs are responsible for codifying best practice and they meet regularly to share their experience of using their skills at Shelter. They review and create guidance – from how to write online content, to how to create accessible user journeys, to using user research, to coding best practice.  

In 2019 we launched the Digital Framework to small groups internally – and this week we’ve gone live to the whole organisation, and the public, with the aim of being open about how we work, and what’s important to us.

  1. What is the vision for the project and what did you learn as part of developing it and the other resources which are part of the framework?

Digital is how we live our lives and do business today, so we wanted the framework to empower the normalisation of digital and embed the practices and culture that come with it. 

For a voluntary sector organisation like Shelter, the challenge the housing emergency poses requires us to be able to use digital culture, approaches and applications successfully at scale. That can’t be achieved by a small centralised team of experts, consultants, or agencies. It needs to involve many people across the organisation using those approaches and tools in their day-to-day work, to do their jobs better and with greater impact.  

We’ve approached and developed the digital framework in an iterative way. What started as a bunch of workshop documentation post-it notes was turned into powerpoint deck. The next release was an internally available set of guides, and now as it’s grown, it’s being shared publicly. The next release planned for early next year will go into more detail about inclusive design and language, anti-racist practice, ethics and user research.

  1. Can other charities use these resources and if so, how?

We are sharing the  Digital Framework publicly to be open about how we intend to use technology and digital in the fight for home and to address the housing emergency. We had already shared the framework with a number of individuals and organisations prior, but are now sharing it more widely to give charities and other organisations the chance to see what has worked for us and the chance to adapt our approaches for their own needs and causes. Specifically for other voluntary sector and campaigning organisations, our hope is that they can move forward without the need to start from scratch and adapt the framework for their own growth.

In the last few years, we learned a lot from other organisations and individuals in the public, private and voluntary sector who showed their ways of working openly, so it feels right to reciprocate by sharing the framework under a Creative Commons license. 

We will continue to develop the framework, so the feedback from others will be crucial to that. 

  1. What can leaders do over the next three months to help their charities use digital more successfully? 

Most charities are legacy organisations. Their internal structure and ways of working would still be informed by 20th century business models. We are now in what you might call the digital age, where our audiences’ expectations have significantly shifted. Delivering value according to users’ heightened expectations means shifting internal mindsets and organisational design – which is very difficult and takes time.

Small steps in that direction are important. By building awareness of what it feels like to interact with their organisation’s services, products and touchpoints, leaders also crucially build a deep understanding and empathy. Regularly observing or speaking with users, shadowing your teams and testing your own digital user journeys can build that muscle, but it can’t be a one-off.