Getting IT Right For Disability Rights

Fay Heatley describes how she worked as an IT4Communities volunteer IT consultant and project manager on the selection of CRM database and CMS website systems for a merger of three organisations

I’d recently finished a demanding freelance engagement and realised I had a chance to do what I always wanted - some volunteering. I’d found IT4Communities which helps charities, community groups and social enterprises access free IT support from IT professional volunteers. Luckily a chance came up that matched my own interest in working with and for disabled people.

The project context was a merger of 3 disability organisations:

  • Radar
  • Disability Alliance (including Skill which had folded earlier in the year and whose services had been taken over by Disability Alliance)
  • National Centre for Independent Living (NCIL)

The organisations were some way down the road of realising an ambitious plan to merge to form Disability Rights UK and needed a solid modern IT platform. So far so good but my experience from working with Local Authorities is that it’s easier said than done…

The Brief

Our project brief was:


  • To reach more disabled people and offer scaled up services from Disability Rights UK.
  • To create a single e-identity for each customer, funder or corporate contact covering all interactions.


  • Old systems had very little automation and no integration. Any new system HAD to support modern fundraising, and an integrated customer contact system was crucial.


  • To introduce innovative ways to reach more disabled people which meant the system had to be able to segment the market, to tailor responses and to introduce on-line sales to encourage access to guides and publications.


  • The system HAD to be accessible for people with a visual impairment.

The involvement and participation of staff was also crucial: two well attended panels helped to steer the process of selecting new IT systems essential to a modern charity.

I had become part of something that was extremely well planned, well supported and well funded taking place over 3 years (2009-2012). As the engagement progressed I learned I was one of 30 ‘pro bonos’ or volunteers from different professions helping make the merger happen.

Meeting the Brief

This is what we did:

  • Immediate fix to sort out the finances with new finance system.
  • Researched big successful charities and lobbying organisations to find out what works for them.
  • Researched the market to find a partner to implement a new customer database (CRM system).
  • Encouraged to find out more about open source products (free software for charities with international user communities) - Disability Rights UK selected CiviCRM for the customer database and Drupal for the web site.

Implementation (as of early 2012) is now well underway. The challenge continues for Disability Rights UK to put it all together, align everything behind a public face, work very closely with their membership and use innovative technology.

The challenges

I discovered that working as an external project manager can throw up a dissonance about roles: you behave as if you are in the organisation, but you aren’t. This feels risky. I was able to explore the importance of roles and boundaries. I was given permission to do what I needed to do, quickly and clearly, to keep the project to time.

I have a lot of project and operational IT experience, and learned (I hope successfully) to own the project, to advise and guide, but to not be possessive about the tasks which predominantly must be done by the people inside the organisation.

We had to work at great speed: the license for the existing finance system was due to expire and while we did research the market, we worked very rapidly from long list to shortlist for a new finance system and a new customer database. This was also an advantage, and drove the project forward. I am aware of organisations taking more than a year to select systems. Disability Rights UK did it in 3 months.

Some suppliers were simply not able to respond to the deadlines and the time scales, so effectively eliminated themselves from the process.

While the project was extremely well scoped, the interface to any new website could have been discussed more. Modern customer databases (CRM’s) have large web facing elements including self service and private social networks. Deciding how these 2 things (website and customer database) fit together is a challenge.

Why it worked

This project team felt really easy to work with, as if we’d been together and in role for ages, and I had to remind myself at times that we were a ‘scratch team’ and that most of us were new to the organisation and new to the project. Why this team worked so well is difficult to define, but the following points might help to explain it:

Good skills and experience

  • Richard Gutch, the Project Manager, is a very experienced strategic operator in the choppy waters of funding, mergers and complex implementations.
  • Lesley Baliga, the interim Finance Director, is a skilled ‘Head Of’ with a lot of financial, management and IT experience in the not-for-profit sector.
  • Sarah Cosby, CRM project manager (now Commercial Manager) , and Ben Kersey, Office Relocation Manager (now Commercial Assistant), were a dream to work with: young, smart and open to advice and guidance which they would then go off to work with.

Good support and clear decision making

  • I was very well supported with easy communication access to the senior managers so that I could always check if I was on the right track/had interpreted things correctly and that my project definition suited them and suited the organisation
  • Strong flexible support and clarity on what I was asked to do
  • There was a very tight deadline which created an advantage helping to get from long list to short list in an astonishingly short time
  • I was enabled to ‘extend’ and flex into the role, which had initially been defined as a requirements analysis task, but I was encouraged to go through with the full selection of new systems
  • Drawing on the advice of excellent organisations and events whose role it is to support and innovate in the Not for Profit sector: The Institute of Fundraising, the NfP Technology Conference and IT4Communities.

Good project definition

  • I have never worked on a project with such clear definition, and with such good quality documentation. This is a result of having such high calibre paid staff and pro bono staff working on all aspects of the merger project.

But what about me?

What did I get out of the project? I think this experience will make me a better project manager. I was given a chance to meet and work with exciting organisations and people, given blush-worthy thanks and praise, updated my skills and experience - and a good feeling.

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