Reach Volunteering

This case study is a great example of employing the principle:

Build digital services, not websites

Reach Volunteering run a hugely successful matching platform which brings together skilled volunteers with charities who need support.

In 2015 they launched a digital platform which has dramatically increased their ability to reach new audiences and make more matches. Part of Reach Volunteering’s success is their ability to effectively harness the principle build digital services not websites.

Before launching the new platform, the team were running a successful offline matching service. But they were limited by the number of matches they could make. In order to scale up their impact, they wanted to develop a digital solution  but realised they needed one that was rooted in a strong service design process so they could ensure they got the most value from the digital platform.

Firstly, the team undertook user research with charities and volunteers to really dig into the processes behind charity volunteering. This meant the team could get an in-depth understanding of their users’ context and goals. Despite the team’s years of experience, they found some surprising and very helpful results.

It would have been easy to jump straight to a solution based on their initial insights. But instead the team recognised they would benefit from some external support to objectively reflect on the research. They obtained pro-bono support from IBM and distilled the research into a coherent set of user needs.

Doing this meant they were able to really understand what their users needed at different stages in the journey. For example, they saw how language and tone played an important role in setting expectations for the relationship charities and volunteers initiated on the site. This deep understanding meant that they could design a better service and have an informed debate with their technical supplier about what features should or shouldn’t be included in the build. Where there was discussion, the team could point to evidence from their research to prioritise certain features over others.

At Reach, we’ve found that if you are designing or delivering digital services, conventional methods won’t work. You need to approach things differently, so it’s really useful to have a set of clear, jargon-free principles that spell out what ‘good’ looks like so that everyone, including staff, trustees and funders, understand the approach and can pull in the same direction.

Janet Thorne, CEO of Reach Volunteering


After the site was launched, it would have been easy to just move on to other work. But instead, Reach Volunteering CEO Janet Thorne  brought service design agency Snook in to train the team in service design thinking. Over the course of 6 months the team learned how to conduct user research, evaluate user needs, prioritise features and prototype solutions.

Having this understanding means that for everyone at Reach Volunteering, the website isn’t only a place where volunteers and charities meet. Instead, it’s part of a much broader journey for charities and volunteers. This has allowed the team to spot new ways they can improve the volunteering experience, for instance helping charities to better understand what they need from volunteers before they start the recruitment process.

The building of the digital service has had a huge social impact. In their first full year online they increased their matches by 32%. In 2017 they made 1,052 placements and are on target to hit 1,200 in 2018 – almost doubling their results in 4 years. Crucially, this is being achieved without needing to increase their cost base.

Beyond this growth they’ve seen a positive response from charities and volunteers. Charities like the ability to proactively target promising volunteers, and both charities and volunteers appreciate the increased communication and control they have over their recruitment. The platform has also attracted new types of users, such as volunteers from digital industries or charities looking for remote volunteers.

About the Principle
Build digital services, not websites
How does this apply to the case study?

A website never exists in isolation. A person visiting a site always has a goal, and your website is just part of the journey they are on to achieve that goal. Always think about how the website fits into with the wider journey your user is on.