When spreadsheets aren’t enough: data handling in a small charity

Dec 11, 2023 | Charity systems

Our charity was using spreadsheets to organize data and making mistakes in the process. Sound familiar? 

Handling sensitive, personal data of school children is part of the daily life for Quest for Learning. In 2020, becoming a Tuition Partner for the Government’s catch-up initiative, the National Tutoring Programme, meant a 175% increase in children being taught by the charity. Cue a lot more data-processing and an over-reliance of spreadsheets, resulting in confusion and duplication.  

Don’t get me wrong, I love a spreadsheet as much as the next person. Looking at a sheet with perfectly collated data in a series of rows and columns has a strangely calming effect on me. You too? No, just me then. They worked really well for us (and still do in certain areas of our charity) but when it came to managing pupil data from both schools and tutors, there were too many documents, often containing the same information. It was a bit like Life of Brian’s ‘People’s Front of Judea’ and ‘The Judean People’s Front’. (Sorry if you don’t get the reference but I’m old).  

Added to this we shared pupil data between office staff, tutors and schools. This involved emails with secure links and permissions. Completed documents were then often being sent back to us as ATTACHMENTS! No, no, no! 

Now, off-the-shelf products are available which could have done a reasonable job of weaning us off ‘sheets. (one such package was used in the second year as a Tuition Partner with varying levels of pain). However, when describing our charity, the words, ‘niche’ and ‘unique’ crop up a lot, so we decided a new bespoke information management system was needed.

Unfortunately, as soon as the word ‘bespoke’ is used in a sentence, ‘expensive’ soon follows. As a charity, raising money for big and important projects like this is no small task, but we were lucky to get a Step Change grant. No, sorry, we weren’t ‘lucky’, a very thorough, thought-through, credible bid was put to a panel of purse-string holders. The money was deserved – but a massive thank you is due to the Step Change committee at Oxfordshire Community Foundation who supported us through the application process and beyond. 

To decide who to work with for our Information Management System (IMS), we went through the tried and tested tender process. We scored each applicant on a number of criteria, using a spreadsheet of course! Ultimately, the developer was chosen because they understood the need for an intuitive system which catered to users with varying degrees of willingness to engage with tech. The result is an easy-to-use, adaptable system which users like. Delivered on time and in budget to boot. 

Three things I have learned: 

  1. Having a positive relationship with the developer is key (thank you, Tom and team).
  2. Don’t expect to have all the questions/answers at the beginning of the project. The system will evolve as you use it, hence why no. 1 is crucial.
  3. Don’t be afraid to offer a first line of tech support in-house. The most oft-asked user query is ‘can you remind me of my login?’ 

So, we are one year in with our new IMS and it has been a huge positive to the charity. We have happy tutors and schools who find the system easy to use and the administrative burden for all stakeholders has been reduced – meeting the KPI for the project 100%. Result! 

Julia Edwards is Quest for Learning’s Teaching Co-ordinator