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Charity App Development 101: A Complete Guide

There are several things charities need to consider when developing an app. Read more to find out our top tips!

4 min read


WRI – Charity

For the last 12 years, we have been designing and developing mobile apps with charities to change millions of lives for the better and we’ve learnt a lot of valuable lessons in that time.

It’s important to share learnings in the hope that good can come from them.  Whilst we have articles that talk about how much it costs to build an app, and how long it takes, designing and building an app for a charity can differ slightly. And that’s what brings me here, to share my top 10 tips for charities thinking about embarking on the venture of creating their own mobile app!

1. If users don’t love it, it simply won’t work

If you are designing and building bespoke tech, whether it is an app, website or voice skill, you really need to communicate the value you can offer to the users because if it doesn’t add enough value, then they simply won’t download it on their phone. It’s as simple as that. It’s one of the biggest barriers we see when it comes to mobile apps.

Most of us have mobile phones now, and on our phones, we probably have lots of different apps, but perhaps up to 5 apps that we use regularly. To get real estate on someone’s mobile phone is competitive, and you have to compete with well-known apps that have had millions spent on designing and developing them. 

Expectations of what apps do now are extremely high so users really do need to love it. To get to this point you need to ensure that you put your users at the heart of the design and development process to delight them. You need to involve them through every stage (see tip 4).  If you don’t, there’s a lot of risk involved and you could be designing and building something that isn’t wanted or needed. 

2. Define your measure of success

Too often, organisations dive straight into designing and building a solution without defining what the measure of success for that project should be. If you do this, then when you launch it how do you know if the project has been successful? How will you be able to go for more funding or build a business case to advance the project?

Before you build anything, measures of success should be set, not only for the organisation but for the users as well. Because let’s be honest, they will be different. 

And a little tip for you, it very rarely should be about the number of downloads or users...engagement and actions should be the focus in most cases.

3. An app is for life, not just for a campaign…

When building a piece of software, you need to be mindful that it’s not just a one-off cost. The product will need hosting, support and may even need to be continuously improved over time.  

Unfortunately, we don’t know what Apple and Google have planned for their operating systems, or hardware, but we can tell you there is likely to be at least one big software update every year, so in an ideal world we’d recommend updating at least once a year if possible or once every two years as a minimum. 

For charities that are reliant on grants, be aware that it’s not a one-off cost. There are ongoing costs associated with the development of a mobile app and you’ll need to have a plan around how you’ll manage that moving forward.  Any reputable agency should be able to share informed estimates for what those ongoing costs can be.

4. 3 key stages

Whilst I’ve been working in tech for over a decade now, I wouldn’t describe myself as a very technical person. I need to have things explained simply and the way we do this is by breaking down the development process into 3 key stages

Stage 1 – Discover & Define

Arguably the most important stage, but it’s during this stage that we ideate, prototype, user test and then define what exactly we are building. We have 5 steps in this stage, and each step is heavily tailored to the charity depending on where they are at in the process. But really this first stage is planning. 

I’ll use the analogy of building a house, if you wanted to build one you wouldn’t just rush out and get a builder, you’d speak to an architect and have blueprints drawn up so you know what exactly you are building and how it all works together. It’s exactly the same with software development. We need to ensure the team (designers, developers, testers, project manager and client strategist) are all aligned and confident with what we’re setting out to build, and more importantly, why. This reduces the risk of curve balls when you get into development, and that’s why we insist on this initial stage, to reduce the risk as much as possible when you get into development. 

The more thorough your planning stage, the more you reduce your risk later down the line. Typically this first phase can take around 4 weeks, and tends to involve a team of 6 people on the agency side (Project Manager, Client Strategist, Creative Lead, UX Lead, Mobile Lead, Backend Lead).

Stage 2 – Design & Development

Once the first stage has been done, we have a very thorough understanding of what it is we are building. Which makes this stage relatively straight forward. Typically we would allow 4 – 5 months for a build. But there are always exceptions. Our quickest was delivered in 6 weeks, and one of the bigger projects has taken up to a year…so timings can vary depending on what the functionality is and perhaps how many stakeholders we have to manage. 

Stage 3 – Continuous improvement

It’s not mandatory, but you should have a plan in place for stage 3 so you all know what you’re working towards and what life looks like after the app is live in the app stores.  Too often I hear people not talking about stage 3 in the early conversations, so charities, please note that ongoing improvements are often needed, so some consideration should be given. 

5. Know your stakeholders

The size of the charity will often impact the amount of project stakeholders. Stakeholder management in charities can be tough and take time. It’s important you know who your project stakeholders are, how they work and what their optimum communication channels are. 

6. Do the team care?!

If you’re having to outsource your app development to a third party, are the team as invested in the project as you? For the best possible outcome, I find that the team has to be bought into what you’re trying to achieve and focused on the measures of success. They have to care about the project they are working on. Speak to the team that will be working on the project and make sure they give a shit. 

If they don’t, the design and development will be average.

7. Have the team worked with a charity before?

If you’re working with a third party to deliver the app then make sure they are familiar with ways of working and timelines, especially if you’re a large charity or INGO. This will make the process much more efficient and ensure relationships are kept in a good place!

8. Keep it simple

If you can’t explain the concept to your Mum easily then it’s probably too complicated. The more simple the solution, the more chance it has of success.

9. Be honest

If something doesn’t feel right,  then speak up and have a transparent and honest relationship with your team. If you don’t the process will not be efficient or effective and there will be unnecessary friction. Designing and developing new solutions isn’t easy, but you will get the best results if you have an honest and open relationship with your team.

10. Have fun!

Doing something new is scary! There’s always a lot of risk at the start, but if you can work with a team to reduce that risk as much as possible then there’s no reason why you have a bit of fun whilst going through the process. It should be enjoyable, and you should work with a team who are as devoted as you to the cause!

Keep all these Puff top tips (I really need to patent that!) in mind and your app will be off to a great start! It really is all about the impact. Without keeping that at the core of your project, it won’t get far. This is why we are so laser-focused on tech for good and our mission of changing millions of lives for the better. So get in touch so we can start changing the world together!

Published on April 28, 2021, last updated on March 15, 2023

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