Partnerships & stories

The Wildlife Trusts x Outlandish

Alice Kershaw, Head of Digital Transformation at the Wildlife Trusts, shares her experience of finding a partner to help develop a data strategy.
Screenshot of The Wildlife Trusts website

What did you need external support for?

To help us think about a strategy around our data and a road map of where we wanted to get to technologically. We needed some new data infrastructure, but didn’t really know where to start.

We thought we needed a data strategy that related to technical products and what we needed to build to support our ambitions. We have a strategy to be data-informed and which relies upon data, but we didn't have a practical side to that across the federation of 47 Trusts. So we knew we were going to need a partner to help us take that forward.

We had a budget of £30k from an external funder including VAT. This is the original brief, which we don’t think is perfect.

What kind of organisation were you looking for?

We were looking for a partner who had the credibility to be able to support our conversations about data and insights and who would understand the kind of things we were dealing with and us as a federation.

We didn't need a partner to understood the specifics of some of our specialist data, such as species data or habitat data. We understand that. We needed someone who understood what a good data strategy looks like and how we might implement it.

We didn't know if our approach was the right approach, so we also wanted a partner who would challenge our assumptions. It's not quite phrased like that in the brief. So someone who would come back on our brief and be like, oh, ‘we’re not sure you actually do need this, or maybe you should think about this?’

We were also looking for some specific things. For example, facilitation skills. That was important because any work to deliver our collective strategy needs to be co developed with the wider federation. The additional benefit was that it would increase our understanding of digital ways of working.

What was your role in finding a partner?

My role was to find the partner.

My job was to support Trusts across the federation on our strategy around data, as part of a road map for one of our what are called ‘Strategic Transformations’ which is a ‘root and branch’ digital transformation.

What did you use Dovetail for?

Initially to do some rough searches around data and data strategy.

We had a look at not just the skills but who each partner had worked with. That was useful. For example Outlandish had worked with Greenpeace. That was interesting as they have similar values to us.

We used Dovetail to check day rates. That's important. I know what my budget is and it is important I get best value with anything I buy. So having a rough idea how many days we might we get for the budget was pretty handy.

I think we went out to maybe 8 or 10 suppliers. We went through and just looked at who was on there and did some soft market testing of speaking to people. It was Outlandish that were successful.

Everyone we sent something to came from Dovetail or via their contacts. That was our primary source of finding contacts.

Why is it important to find a partner that fits?

It's absolutely critical.

You're going to have to feel like one team. You're going to have to have a good fit, otherwise it's not going to work. I think that is the difference between suppliers we've had that are partners, and suppliers we've had that are contractors.

I've worked with five or six tech partners so far whilst working at The Wildlife Trusts, seeing varying approaches to how they work. I think finding that fit and setting up ways of working early on has helped to build trust and deliver the best projects.

The approach that partners like Outlandish take, with things like checkins and retrospectives builds shared understanding and trust. At the end of the project we did a retrospective where we all scored what we thought of different parts of the project and they were really open to feedback from us and we got feedback from them we can use going forward.

For us, trust was important. In our last retrospective, we all scored trust anonymously and it came out as 9 out of 10. This meant we trusted Outlandish when they challenged us. For example, we did not end up with a roadmap, quite like we thought we would. We ended up with a process for co-creating data products, which is a much better outcome. A repeatable process of how we reach agreement on how we deal with our data. We did get the roadmap we needed, just not the one we originally wanted, and we did get the outcome of a successful funding bid for some data infrastructure using it.

Every context at a charity is different. There will be a good partner for different charities that has different values and different ways of working.

What are your top 3 tips to people at charities who are looking to bring in a partner?

1. Engage early with partners

Ensure your team are involved, too. It's not about me and what I think. Encourage staff to come and see demos, talk to potential partners, see the brief, get a sense of what it is that we're trying to do.

Whilst I was responsible for the overall project, there are a lot of people who deal with data at The Wildlife Trusts. So we wanted them to get engaged, tying into other projects that were running across the federation. It was important for me to think about who would be using this once we developed the data strategy. Those people needed to be involved early.

2. They need to be true partners

Check their values. Trust is important. Try and get a sense of their ways of working. Outlandish were interesting because we did an introductory call and they did a checkin. That was really useful. Framing the space in a way that no one else did. It started to demonstrate their ways of working in an authentic way.

3. Make sure they challenge you

Are you getting good questions back from your brief? Are they interrogating the brief? Are they asking intelligent questions? You don't need to tell me if you think my brief is good. I want to know what your questions are.

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