Embracing Agile at a Non-Profit: How Social Finance Adopted a Product-Mindset

September 5, 2019 Danielle Burrow

This post was co-written by Eleanor Ereira and Aly Blenkin 

Social Finance is a non-profit organization that wants to improve the experience and outcomes of young people as they transition out of the UK’s social welfare system. Young people who have been in care often experience a "cliff-edge" of support when they turn 18, and are more likely to be unemployed, out of work, homeless, and experience mental health problems. Social Finance is working to change this.

To do so, Social Finance’s team set out to improve and iterate on a software application called Leaving Well. The Leaving Well app allows young people in the care system to connect with their support workers and other resources so that they get the information and support they need, when they need it. It also allows their support workers to meet the statutory requirements of care while removing duplicative and labor-intensive reporting so they can spend more time with young people.

Like many established non-profit organizations, Social Finance has deep domain knowledge but less experience and fewer resources dedicated to developing software. According to Kaj Siebert, CIO for Social Finance and CTO for Social Finance Digital Labs, the in-house development process had room for improvement. “We would iterate pretty quickly, but this led to an inconsistent user experience and the feeling of a patched-together product” recalled Siebert. After 18 months spent developing and prototyping the Leaving Well app, Social Finance’s Digital Labs sought outside expertise to help the team focus and create a more robust development process. 

Social Finance engaged with Pivotal Act, a program that brings developers, designers, and engineers from Pivotal Labs to humanitarian organizations and charities. Building and learning collaboratively with clients, Pivotal Act practitioners apply the methodology used in other Pivotal Labs engagements but tailored to the needs of the humanitarian and social impact sectors. These modern development practices include pair programming, people-centered design, service design, speculative thinking and lean product management.

Co-designing with young people in the care system 

Shifting From Project Mindset to Product Mindset   

During the five-month-long engagement with Social Finance, Pivotal Act practitioners worked alongside the Leaving Well team to teach this methodology while simultaneously helping build the application. Pivotal Act helped Social Finance establish a user-centered, test-driven approach that includes continuously testing and iterating the product. 

“Pivotal coming in with quite an opinionated way [of working] was really interesting for us,” said Siebert. “We really liked the approach of the Pivotal ‘balanced team’ of having a designer, a product manager, and then engineering,” added Emma McGowan, Head of Leaving Well at Social Finance. “The team were working to kind of conflicting processes before, whereas the things that we've taken forward from working with Pivotal is that we're trying to work with a balanced team,” McGowan said. 

“The team are now starting to act more like a product organization rather than a company that's trying to do product."

The first few months of the engagement focused on understanding the core problems the Leaving Well team was trying to solve and for whom. The Pivotal Act practitioners also helped to add tests to the existing product and make the Leaving Well app more robust and focused around user needs through extensive research. The Social Finance team conducted research with professionals in social care teams, and with young people themselves to learn more about their needs--a research environment requiring deep sensitivity. The Pivotal Act team spent time working with Social Finance to develop user research methods that could draw out what is important without triggering young people who have experienced trauma.

The additions of built-in testing and in-depth user feedback to validate product decisions allowed the Leaving Well team to add features and make changes with confidence. The team began designing and building an updated version of the existing tool, and even released several new features during the engagement with Pivotal Act.

“The team are now starting to act more like a product organization rather than a company that's trying to do product,” said McGowan. 

Research with social workers to better understand how they support young people in a crisis

Applying Agile Practices to the Business

The methodologies and processes that Social Finance adopted from Pivotal Act are also spreading into other areas of the organization. The Leaving Well team has started conducting design sessions with Social Finance’s senior management on the importance of agile beyond product development. “You can bring these processes into other pieces of work as well,” McGowan said. “As leaders and managers in an organization...you just have to get on board. It's not good enough in 2019 to not know that these processes and methodologies exist.” 

Applying Pivotal’s user research methods has proven valuable to the business side of Social Finance too. Currently, the product is being used by six local authorities with support from philanthropic foundations.

“We've even applied user-centered design and agile processes to testing the product's operating model. The team has learned how to test small ideas using things like paper prototyping and card sorting which has proved so valuable in shaping our strategy and ultimately gaining our customers’ trust," said McGowan.

Mapping out the end-to-end service of Leaving Well 

Sticking With a Balanced Team Approach

Adopting an agile and balanced team approach is a sea change for the Leaving Well team at Social Finance and they are sticking with it. Now, they follow set processes with a weekly rhythm and communicate regularly about the product road map. “[This] whole team approach where everybody's clear about what their responsibilities are, but working together to deliver those, I think that change has been visible while the project's been ongoing and it's remained in the team,” said Siebert. 

With Leaving Well “we are constantly checking-in on [the] feedback we’re  hearing [and] how we are adapting our plan.,” McGowan said. Not only that but the team’s research shows that people like using Leaving Well. According to Meg Brodie the Product Manager on the Leaving Well team, “Personal Advisors and Social Workers tell us that using Leaving Well saves them time on administrative work, giving them more time to support young people directly.”

“I personally count success if I see that the team is happy. I think working with Pivotal Act has caused the team to be empowered and feel much more confident in what we're doing,” Siebert said. “It's been a fantastic experience. I've really, really enjoyed it. I think everybody who has worked on the team really enjoyed it.”

Humanitarian and social impact organizations interested in engaging with Pivotal Act can contact us to learn more.

About the Author

Danielle Burrow

Danielle Burrow leads product marketing for VMware Tanzu Labs, the software consulting services branch of VMware Tanzu. Prior to VMware, Danielle worked in product marketing at Pivotal Software and in sales and digital marketing at Google. Danielle also has a background in the non-profit and healthcare sectors. Danielle has a BA in Art History from UCLA and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Santa Clara University.

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