Making the case for investment — turning data and insight into a compelling strategy

Since December I’ve been sharing our experience of developing a new digital strategy at NCVO, through mapping our digital ecology, learning about user needs and behaviours, and developing a vision for a radical new technical architecture.

We’re nearly at the end of this particular story. In this post I want to talk about how I took everything we’d learned and turned it into a business case that convinced NCVO’s board to invest financially and my colleagues across NCVO’s leadership and management teams to get behind our vision and roadmap.

When is a digital strategy needed?

Earlier this year I was asked to speak at a conference on digital transformation. One topic I was asked to cover was when it is appropriate to write a digital strategy.

I really like this quote from Kay Boycott, CEO of Asthma UK, from 2015.

Having a digital strategy will soon look as ridiculous as having an electricity strategy.

It never fails to get people thinking, as shown by the number of people taking pictures of the slide. It communicates how digital is shaping needs, behaviours and expectations across all aspects of our lives, and therefore is central to all aspects of an organisation’s work. But if Kay was anticipating organisations ‘soon’ being ready to integrate an understanding of the impact of digital across organisational strategies then I think the evidence shows that we’re not there yet.

At the conference I invited participants to discuss whether they had a standalone digital strategy, or had managed to integrate it into their organisation’s strategy, and why. The feedback was fairly consistent— the digital maturity, culture and leadership in their organisations wasn’t there yet. Driving change right now often requires separate strategies. Perhaps the scale and pace of plans require something different. Or maybe planning and budgeting processes in organisations don’t yet align with digital best practice (iterative, user-centred, etc).

At NCVO we also have a separate technology strategy. In this case, the key driver was the scale of the investment we were seeking, which at NCVO requires a business case that can be interrogated separately to the organisation’s business plan.

So, how did I go about writing this business case?

Telling the story

We had come out of our digital strategy project with lots of data, principles, ideas and some high level plans. There were many different things that we wanted to change — some technical, some to do with ways of working, some to do with capacity and capability. The challenge was to craft this into a concise, compelling and convincing strategy and business case.

I approached this by storyboarding different narratives and playing around with the key hooks and the flow of the story that we wanted to tell. Feedback along the way was incredibly helpful (with particular thanks to Karl Wilding, Sue Cordingley, Chris Thorpe and Dan Sutch).

The first people I needed to convince were my SMT and then our board. SMT needed to be convinced in order to agree that the business case should go to the board. The board needed to be convinced in order to provide the investment that would make it all possible.

I needed a clear message with the right hooks. I arrived at a double hitter: increasing our impact, and ensuring financial sustainability — both key concerns for boards. This was crystallised in one sentence as a vision:

We want to support more people in more organisations. And we want to do this without increasing our cost base.

And again in the title of the document:

Scaling our impact, building a sustainable model

Clive Gardiner of the NSPCC has written about how they used risk management to frame a programme of digital initiatives and gain visibility, support and buy-in, pointing out that:

Managing organisational risk of all kinds at charities is part of ongoing governance and for many is a legal obligation.

Like Clive, whilst presenting a positive vision in our technology strategy, I also wanted to highlight the pace of change and the risks of not responding to it. In this case the risk of being unable to support more people, and the risk of not responding to their changing needs.

Where to start? I experimented with different ways of making the case, but eventually landed on the following flow:

  1. Our vision
  2. Where we’ve come from (the history) and where we are now
  3. Our ‘burning platform’ and where that blocks the vision
  4. How to fix it
  5. How much it will cost and how long it will take.

It was Chris Thorpe that convinced me of this sequence, pointing out that it was a tried and tested emotional journey (used by many startup pitch decks) and describing it fantastically as ‘a gentle emotional rollercoaster’:

  1. They’re excited by the vision
  2. They feel comfortable that their view of the history matches where things are
  3. Then there’s an emotional drop about the problems…
  4. … and then it’s into the sunlit uplands of “we can fix it, we know how”…
  5. …by which point they’ll feel that the plan is good and tackles problems.

I kept the argument as punchy as I could, and included detail in appendices to show that the our proposal was backed up by the right level of research and planning.

The board meeting

With the business case written and dispatched with the board papers, all that was left was to make a convincing case at the meeting itself.

I had only five minutes within the agenda to present. I knew that they would all have read the business case document, so I focused on telling a story that would engage them.

I flipped the order around and started by comparing the NCVO of 20 years ago with NCVO in 2018. My objective was to make an important point about the pace of change, but also to engage them (and make them laugh!).

It went like this.

If you could travel back to NCVO in 1998 you would find:

  • Only one computer connected to the internet, in a corner
  • One external NCVO email address (, checked twice a day by Karl Wilding (who is now our Director of Public Policy and Volunteering)
  • The details of our 800 members stored in a shoe box
  • Fax machines used to send most communications to members
  • NCVO’s first website, launched in 1998.

Fast forward to 2018 and the world of work and of communication has been transformed. Today:

  • All staff use a range of digital tools, including our CRM (rolled out in 2014)
  • In a typical three months we sent 467,949 emails, to 56,000 people, related to 60 different campaigns
  • We publish high quality content, and are now also building digital services
  • People can log into our websites to access member content, and they can purchase some services online.
An image comparing NCVO’s use of digital tech and tools in 1998 to 2018
An image showing NCVO’s first website in 1998 and NCVO’s many websites in 2018

During these 20 years, our membership has increased from 800 to 13,000, but the size of our staff team has remained the same.

So now the vision:

We want to support more people in more organisations. And we want to do this without increasing our cost base.

Why not double our membership in the next ten years?

Graphs showing the growth in NCVO’s membership, and the stable size of NCVO’s staff team

Onto the challenges that were blocking the vision. There were two main messages I wanted to get across.

  1. Our users don’t know about the breadth of what NCVO offers and aren’t finding the content or services that they need.
  2. Staff spend many hundreds of hours each month on manual processes that we struggle to automate with our existing set up.
These pictures of Hollie, then a membership assistant at NCVO, helped communicate the very real impact of our technology on our staff.

And onto the solution.

We need to build self-serve digital services that allow people to find, purchase and use NCVO resources with an almost friction free process.

We need to make some fundamental changes to our technology. We need to create a leaner system that allows us to scale our impact in a sustainable way.

We need to change the architecture of our technology — the tasks that individual digital services perform, how they work together in an efficient and secure way, and the specific coding languages and framework that they are built on.

To make the point that this was radical and brave, not tinkering around the edges, I used the term Revolution not evolution’, quoting Martha-Lane Fox’s 2010 recommendations to government following her strategic review of Directgov commissioned by Francis Maude, which led to the establishment of GDS.

I then referred them to the document for an outline of the investment we were seeking, and took questions and comments.

The business case was approved, and the feedback was very positive.

In my next post I plan to wrap up this series by reflecting on some of the key things that made the strategy process a success, and what I would do differently.

Strategy, digital and change consultant working with UK charities and social sector organisations