A framework for golden thread digital working in the third sector

A framework for golden thread digital working in the third sector

For several years, Shelter has taken a proactive approach to finding out how a voluntary sector organisation like ours can approach and use digital to meet our goals. The challenge of the housing emergency requires us to be able to use digital culture, approaches and applications successfully – at scale.  

Shelter’s digital framework came out of this need. It describes how to align multiple digital teams across the organisation, yet give those teams more autonomy to do what they’re good at, using those practices and tools in their day-to-day work – to do their jobs better and with greater impact.    

 We’re sharing the framework publicly to show how we align teams through planning and collaboration. It includes detailed guides about how we do content publishing, achieve accessibility, use video, product and service development and operate those products and services once they’re live. 


Digital teams at Shelter build and support live services and products to help millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness through advice, support, and legal services. We also use technology to engage our supporters and stay in touch with them.  

To accomplish this, we’re delivering through multiple channels, online and offline. Our ambition for digitisation is about building the capacity to look at the whole end-to-end service – aided, scaled and refined through technology in the most appropriate way. 

As a charity, Shelter is driven by a cause and there is a strong strategic focus on our purpose. What we needed was the ability to see that golden thread and act on those strategic priorities consistently over time in an efficient and adaptive way, especially when those priorities needed to change.  

A few years ago, digitisation was often ad-hoc and not aligned enough. We had multiple teams working in different ways and to different standards. The teams struggled with all the hallmark issues of legacy organisations: user need was deprioritised, considerable technical debt was not addressed, and product development followed manual processes with no clear golden thread from the organisational strategy to our opportunity selection.  

To start addressing this, we commissioned a digital maturity audit in 2018 to give us a benchmark. Throughout 2019 we ran a series of workshops with existing Shelter teams about ways of working, practices, goals and governance, which formed the basis of the operating model that was to become Shelter’s Digital Framework. We chose an approach that gives more power to teams.  

User centricity

Lived experience is core to our vision at Shelter. In digital that means we put the user and the value we deliver to them at the centre of the products and services we build.  

Through our user research function and digital business insight team, we work with a focus on creating usable insights and inclusivity by speaking directly to users.  

Through a service design approach, we map out interactions, systems, gaps and friction in user journeys, regardless of the channel through which we deliver the service.  

The digital framework defines how digital products and services are developed, tested and scaled, as well as operated, monitored and improved, and eventually retired when they stop delivering value. To close the accountability gap, services, products or pages not actively supported by a team are taken offline.  

We’ve built a robust governance structure; one of its early tasks was to locate ownership and responsibility for all services, products, websites, sections and pages and integrate them into a continuous improvement lifecycle.  

Normalising digital

Shelter is an ambitious organisation, so we needed to scale the rate at which we could build and test digital products and services. We already had multiple digital teams, so we used the digital framework to find alignment between those teams and created a rationale for how all  teams relate to each other.  

To avoid creating a digital silo, we didn’t want to centralise those teams and instead opted to try and normalise digital activities into as many departments as possible. The key enablers here are our communities of practice for different disciplines. They connect professionals of the same discipline across the organisation in a non-hierarchical way. Those CoPs are responsible for codifying best practice and meet regularly to share their experience of using their skills at Shelter. They review and create guidance – from how to write online content, to how to create accessible user journeys, to using user research, to coding best practice.   

With the right mix of insight, design, product, technology and content design expertise, we create a shared understanding and enable prioritisation and opportunity selection.  

In a cross-functional structure, we differentiate between team and function. We would refer to a function as a collection of related disciplines. A cross-functional team focuses on goals, and needs to contain all the necessary skills to start and complete the work to meet that goal. If someone is collaborating and working together daily, they should be in the same team, focused on a shared goal. If they are working in similar jobs or the same discipline, but working on different goals, they’d be in the same function or Community of Practice, but probably not in the same team.  

Technology and Infrastructure

We invested heavily into how we manage data and the way we publish content to engage our users. At the outset of the systematic digitisation of services across Shelter, our existing technology stack was out of date and holding us back: processes weren’t automated and systems performance was slow.  

Shelter’s strategy created a crucial need to scale publishing, so we built a new headless infrastructure, leveraging structured content. This lets us shift both responsibility and execution to more teams and publishers, and bring the operation of web content-based services closer to those teams that engage directly with our users. 

Moving from unstructured to structured content has been very difficult and time consuming, but it means we can now make our content work harder by re-using assets and content, publishing into multiple channels and touchpoints. We’re using the same principle of standardisation and re-use with our design elements. To do that, we’ve created a design system and pattern library to make the creation of simple things faster.  

Working in the open

The success of digitisation and service transformation depends on establishing a culture that liberates an organisation to make best use of their people, infrastructure and data to meet users’ needs and expectations. 

That takes a lot of commitment and openness from any organisation and their leadership team. But the ultimate success factor in being ready to operate in the future is the willingness of an organisation to update its business models. 

We are sharing the digital framework publicly to be open about how we intend to use technology and digital in the fight for home and in addressing the housing emergency. We’re now sharing it more widely to give charities and other organisations the chance to see what has worked for us and the chance to adapt our approaches for their own needs and causes. 

Specifically for other voluntary sector and campaigning organisations, our hope is that they can move forward without the need to start from scratch and adapt the framework for their own growth. 

In the last few years, we learned a lot from other organisations and individuals in the public, private and voluntary sector who showed their ways of working openly, so it feels right to reciprocate by sharing the framework under a Creative Commons license. 

If you would like to know more, use our contact form to get in touch. If you’re on the Shelter team, join us for one of our sessions or join the Digital Framework Teams channel.