In today's digital age, embracing technology can revolutionise social impact organisations. But how do you choose the right approach to incorporating digital services? Below, we explore three strategic routes—buying, building, and integrating—and discover how a focused discovery process can unlock the full potential of digital.
So how can you make the right choice? Firstly, let’s understand each route.
Buy an off-the-shelf service
What is it? An off-the-shelf or third party digital service is typically known as a Software as a Service (SaaS). We all use SaaS products in our day-to-day lives: Gmail, Zoom, and Slack are examples of this.
Pros: Affordable, ready-to-go, no/low financial dependency, no technical expertise needed, robust support and documentation.
Cons: Typically SaaS products are built for digitally-literate and commercially-oriented customers in high-income countries, therefore not suited to social impact organisations. There's limited opportunity for adaptation or tailoring, potential language and safety limitations, and scaling can be expensive.
Integrate an existing service
What is it? An existing service or framework that allows you to customise and adapt it to fit your needs. For example, you can create a chatbot using platforms like WhatsApp or OpenAI, or build a web platform using familiar tools like Wordpress, Drupal, or Laravel.
Pros: This approach enables rapid development with ready-made design patterns without the financial burden of creating a product from scratch. This makes scaling and switching to better-supported alternatives much easier.
Cons: Even if you invest in a service, there may still be limitations and unexpected changes beyond your control that could make it unsafe or irrelevant. Integrating the service often requires technical expertise, like a developer, and the presence of tiered dependencies can add complexity to the process.
Build a bespoke service
What is it? A bespoke build involves designing and developing a new product or service tailored to meet specific needs. It's worth noting that even with this approach, the solution won't be built entirely from scratch, but will incorporate other services, often by building upon open source software.
Pros: Bespoke designs can be created to meet the specific safeguarding and cultural needs of vulnerable and marginalised people who also may have low traditional or digital literacy, for example. Additionally, a unique service/solution can stand out from others giving a competitive advantage. They can also be optimised to bespoke workflows and business requirements.
Cons: Can be expensive to build and the creators bear sole responsibility for all future maintenance and product development costs. Additionally, a team of experts are needed—such as designers and developers—a time-commitment, and long-term investment to manage.
Choosing the right route for you
At Here I Am, we run a focused Discovery process to help our partners decide which route is right for them. We evaluate the three routes against a bespoke set of criteria based on the organisation’s digital experience, resources, investment, the project’s needs and the users.
Below are some examples of criteria that we may include:
- Does this route offer a simple user experience that is suitable for low digital literacy users?
- Can this route be accessed and used in low bandwidth environments?
- Does this route have offline functionality?
- Does this route offer full functionality on a range of low cost mobile phones?
- Does this route offer the languages we require?
- Does this route offer robust data security?
- Is this route viable within budget constraints?
- Is this route operable, given the skills and availability of the team?
We also assess an organisation's capacity to determine if a build route is viable by considering factors such as:
- Experience and expertise in building and maintaining digital products/services
- Potential for improvement
- Time dedication to the project
- Available investment over three years and potential revenue generation opportunities
These questions don’t just help us to understand the organisation’s readiness for building and maintaining a product or service in-house, but it also helps the organisation to fully understand the skill, time and investment requirements of being a product owner.
At the end of this Discovery process, we can confidently provide a robust recommendation for the best approach for sustainably, safely and impactfully harnessing the value of digital in a way that meets the needs of the organisation and the user.
If you would like to learn more about the different approaches for incorporating digital into your organisation, email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a free consultation.