Kunal Marwaha

Dec 2018 technology audit for Rebuilding Together - East Bay North

I. License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

II. Background

Rebuilding Together is a national organization that repairs homes with community volunteers. It operates on a model similar to Habitat for Humanity.

Rebuilding Together - East Bay North is a local chapter, focused on projects in Berkeley and Emeryville (where they have current grant money). There is a board of directors, and two staff members (George and Athena) who work on day-to-day operations.

The process of a project often follows this timeline:

  1. Homeowners often call for help repairing things in their home. These are referred to as “leads”. The staff encourage the homeowner to apply, often mailing an application.
  2. Homeowners apply for projects, and staff members follow up to ensure all documents are submitted.
  3. When everything is submitted, the board of directors meets with the homeowner to determine a Scope Of Work (SOW) of what can be done.
  4. The SOW must be approved by the city (typically, Berkeley).
  5. Once approved, staff members find a House Captain willing to coordinate the project.
  6. The House Captain will work with the homeowner to find a date (or dates) to complete the work.
  7. The staff members find volunteers (with specific skillsets, if applicable) who can participate on the date set for the project.
  8. The work is done, and staff members follow up to collect photos, send thank yous, any see if there is future work.

Volunteers typically donate or subsidize their time. Some professions are especially handy, including electricians and contractors.

Grant money for materials often comes from the cities of Berkeley and Emeryville, which requires that a certain number of projects get completed each year. So, there is a yearly “cycle” of work (most projects get planned in fall and completed in spring).

There are several systems to manage projects and volunteers, including paper, spreadsheets, and a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool. The need is to simplify the tools to better manage day-to-day project operations for the staff members.

III. Working principles

When consulting for small groups on data management, I tend towards these principles:

  1. Store things once. If there’s only one place for information, that’s the source of truth. Backups are ok, but always have a master copy.
  2. Use existing tools. You might not need a shiny new system to meet your needs. Try tweaking existing tools before retraining people on something new.
  3. Do what works. “What technology should I use?” has no perfect answer. The best solution is one that people use well to meet their needs.

IV. Systems used to store information

  1. Dropbox. This is a cloud storage system that the board and staff members use to share common files (primarily Excel documents) of the organization. They pay a small recurring fee for the storage space, but usually are running low on space. It’s important that very personal data (for example, a Social Security number) does not get stored in this system.
  2. Salesforce. This is a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool that staff members use to maintain contacts and volunteers. It can be clunky to enter or update data as it’s not designed for Rebuilding Together’s volunteer-focused business model.
  3. File cabinet. This stores archives of old projects, including photos, project applications, and homeowner information.
  4. Whiteboard. There is a semi-permanent table marking the stage of each current project. It is not always updated.
  5. Papers. Staff members keep and update papers about the status of current projects and lists of skilled contacts that are likely to volunteer on an upcoming project.
  6. External hard drive and CDs. A hard drive stores useful large files, like photos from this year. Some old photos are stored on CDs in a storage room.

V. Recommendations

A. Project Pipeline

This refers to the management of current status and updates for each project. It needs to be visible, easy to understand, and have a single source of truth.

  1. Use an Excel document as the source of truth. Excel is a familiar tool to people in the organization. It’s not too clunky or high-tech. It’s can be stored on Dropbox, so it’s accessible from anywhere.
  2. Only store one document. If there are multiple, it will be hard to stay in sync. If different people have different needs, use filters or custom views within the same spreadsheet. This means clearing the whiteboard and removing staff-member-specific versions of the pipeline. (If you must have multiple documents, pick one as the source of truth.)
  3. Add a “Project Status” column to the document. This column should be derived via formula from the rest of the document. There should be an enumeration of possible values for “Project Status” with definitions in the document. You can use data validation in Excel to color-code the rows based on this field.
  4. Create an “At a glance” view of projects. This can be done with a pivot table in Excel with both Project Status and a project identifier (homeowner, project ID, etc.) as “Rows” on the pivot table. (Ensure the pivot table refreshes automatically.) This is as close as I could get a Kanban-like view in Excel (as opposed to in a Google Spreadsheet).
  5. Remove columns that are stored elsewhere. Every column should have a purpose, otherwise remove it. If it’s stored somewhere else, only keep a link or identifier (like a project ID or homeowner name).
  6. Store the current Scope of Work (SOW) on this document. This should be the source of truth for the SOW as the project changes over time. (If there is a better place to store this information, then remove the column for SOW.)
  7. Ensure everyone updates the document. All staff members and the board of directors should use a single document, and agree to update it as the official answer to “Where are projects right now?”.
  8. Keep completed projects in spreadsheet. This data should be kept to refer to old project IDs or homeowners. If it’s a hindrance to keep the old projects in the same list as new projects, make a new worksheet in the same document for “Completed projects”.

See Supplement A for a sample Excel document displaying the project pipeline, implementing some of the above recommendations.

B. Contact List and Logs

This refers to the list of contacts (both unskilled and specialized) that may help or have helped on projects, call history from the organization, and projects associated these contacts. Some of these lists are in Salesforce, but a staff member often has more reliable data on paper.

  1. Try out Excel. Salesforce data is not kept up-to-date, and the paper documents aren’t easily shareable. Export the Salesforce data and transfer paper contact lists into Excel. Check that the personal information in Salesforce is appropriate for Dropbox.
  2. Record call logs on a digital tool, not on paper. With most digital tools (even Excel), you can quickly search for the last time you called someone.
  3. There is no perfect solution, but pick one tool. With multiple places to store data, it can be hard to keep all documents up-to-date.
  4. Add “date added” and/or “date modified” columns. This will remind you of the last time a contact’s information was updated. These can be automatically calculated with an Excel formula.

See Supplement B for a sample Excel document representing a volunteer spreadsheet.

C. Application Info

This refers to homeowner application documents, scope of work, and related information about a project.

  1. Use the existing process. The phone calls & applications-by-mail are working! (One staff member mentioned that 75% of leads submit an application.)
  2. Stick to paper. Very sensitive documents cannot be stored electronically.
  3. Progress should be tracked on the project pipeline document. Current updates and project status can be managed digitally, but it should be in one place.
  4. As soon as a lead is generated, give it an ID. Then, you can track a lead in the project pipeline document and refer to it clearly.

D. Other Recommendations

  1. Try living without Salesforce. If you can manage projects well without the tool, don’t keep it around. (More technology does not mean better outcomes.) If you do keep Salesforce, decide exactly what you will use it for.
  2. Try erasing the whiteboard. The whiteboard might be useful to “this week’s TODOs”. It should not substitute for the full project pipeline document (even if it looks impressive). It can also be used for scratch space to share phone numbers or draw out ideas during day-to-day operations.

VI. Supplements

A. Project Pipeline Sample

File attached here.

This sample document implements some recommendations for managing open applications and upcoming projects. It uses Excel features (including pivot tables and data validation), and shows both a Project Status and an “At a glance” view.

B. Volunteer Spreadsheet Sample

File attached here.

This sample document implements some recommendations for managing volunteer lists, volunteer attendance at projects, and call history from the organization.

While this information can be stored in another database system, spreadsheets are familiar to members of the organization and have much of the same functionality.