As one of a team of eight corporate graduate volunteers partnered with a small charity to develop a mobile app, Rachel Short reflects on her first 'real' experience of the charity sector.
Like many graduates I had done the usual whimsical fundraising for charities at university, but it wasn’t until I took part in the Pilotlight graduate scheme that I got a real insight into the work small charities do and the challenges they face on a daily basis. The project Pilotlight runs sees employees from large companies placed with small, local charities to tackle a specific challenge to help them develop and grow. As part of a team of eight graduates from RBS I was assigned to the charity Reading Quest, which helps disadvantaged children improve their literacy and numeracy skills.
As I walked into the charity’s office in Oxford for the first time I was amazed by how much the charity does from such a small shared office. Brightly-coloured books and games, stacked to the ceiling, are crammed around a pair of desks. One belongs to chief executive Jayne Lacny.
Talking to Jayne on that first day it was immediately clear she has ambitions for the charity to grow and increase the positive impact it has on the local community, and further afield as well. Yet limited funds mean she’s short-staffed and has to devote every penny to keeping the charity running. Coming from a large corporation I was immediately struck by how tightly small charities are constrained by their finances and how dependent they can be on one stream of grant funding.
Jayne instantly had us with her enthusiasm and drive, not to mention the fun, challenging brief – developing and launching a tablet and smartphone app to raise money and provide a learning aid for children who have fallen behind with their numeracy skills.
Creating the app was a much bigger task than any of us had anticipated. Over the months we got involved in market analysis, price/revenue modelling, and spoke to graphic designers, game designers and many more in order to conceive, evolve and produce the app. Working hands-on with a charity in this way I was soon very aware of how much charities rely on goodwill and personal connections. As socially-networked young people, we used a vast number of personal contacts from a huge range of specialist professions to find the people needed to get the job done, pro bono. But it wasn’t easy and I can understand why so many charity chief executives never get the time to develop new ideas/programmes. There were eight of us working on this project and even then it was a tough challenge.
The experience uncovered hidden talents and passions within all of us that may have otherwise lain dormant for years. Everyone was involved, communication was easy and informal, we learnt to coerce, compromise, confront and consult. But the intense environment led to fallouts and sometimes irreconcilable differences of opinion – it was testing in more ways than one.
Some might question how newly-qualified graduates who’ve never set foot in a charity before can bring value to an organisation. But I believe we brought new ideas and enthusiasm to the charity as well as essential manpower, something that Jayne herself has highlighted. She recently told me how inspired she has been by the work we have done and how much the project has delivered above and beyond her expectations.
So, in a few weeks ‘Numbugs’, as the app is now called, will be launched and will hopefully be liked by the many 5 to 9-year-olds we’ve aimed it at. For Reading Quest, hopefully, this will be the first of many apps produced by their new trading arm which will bring a new strand of funding for their work and make them less reliant on grants. For myself, I know the experience of working so closely with a charity will stay with me and certainly make me question my giving decisions (in both time and money) in the future.
Six charities benefited from Pilotlight's partnering service this year, which saw RBS offer teams of graduates to volunteer for a multitude of tasks.