Three reflections on ten years in charity product management

I’ve been doing product management in the charity sector for ten years. So, as I leave the sector, I thought I’d reflect on that time. I’ve been lucky enough to work on products that changed lives, made millions of pounds, and that failed. I met amazing people, and I hope I helped a few of them. I definitely learned from them. And I certainly had a lot of fun along the way.

When I started working in charities, I worked on ecommerce products. It was a great introduction to managing products because I had a lot of responsibility for making the business successful. I didn’t only manage the ecommerce website, I did market research, sourced merchandise, answered customer service queries, recruited new team members, managed the relationship with the warehouse, and liaised with the marketing team. I had responsibility for the end-to-end value stream. I was lucky to be given the autonomy many charity product managers dream of.

Since then I’ve worked on all kinds of products; websites, customer service and logistics, fundraising, health behaviour change, volunteering, chatbots, and learning products. Looking back at these different products at different charities, I can see some of the same patterns occurring.

No one knows what product managers do

Even product managers struggle to explain what they do, so it’s understandable that others aren’t clear. This lack definition is good and bad. It can allow for flexibility in the role to meet organisational needs but often means products don’t get managed as well as they could.

To be effective in charities, product managers have to be the ultimate generalists. It isn’t enough to know agile methodologies and how to write requirements for developers. PMs have to know about laws and regulations, psychology and behaviour change, charity finance, design, commercial and fundraising, finance and budgeting, marketing, software testing and release management, delivery management, leading teams, user research, market analysis, supplier relationship management, strategy, security, data protection, and most importantly developing internet-era business models. They need to know about all these things to work with the experts in those areas, and to fill the gap if there’s no expert available. That’s the good thing about not having a single clear definition that is applied consistently across all charities. It’s good for charities because they can hire someone with the skills they need. And it’s good for product managers because they can work on all kinds of different products and develop a broad set of skills.

I’ve seen leaders, who feel responsibility for a product, acting as product managers. They make the strategic decisions (often without the rigor a PM would bring) and tell others what to build. This is the bad thing about the lack of definition. It makes the role of the actual product manager too much about implementing technology to achieve someone else’s vision and strategy, just because that’s one of their skill sets that no one else on the team has. This is the usual issue of product managers working as project managers or tech support. If leaders understood what product managers can bring and how to work more collaboratively with them to set goals, explore problems and define solutions, the charity would get better products which achieve better outcomes and more impact.

Too much looking inward

Connected to no one knowing what product managers do, is product managers focusing too much on process within the organisation. When we do this (and I’ve done plenty of it myself), we set ourselves up as being internal-facing rather than focused on the people we’re trying to help and what the change we create could look like.

It’s hard to claim PMs can bring more value if we aren’t doing the things that bring that value. It’s hard to help others understand how technology at scale can create change or what internet-era business models for a charity could look like if we spend too much time on low value activities like what the roadmap should look like or what prioritisation framework should we use.

In more mature product organisations, the ‘product trio’ of product manager, tech and ux/design is a good way to structure a team. In less product-oriented organisations like charities, I think the duo of product and delivery works better. Product management focuses on outward looking things like market analysis, user adoption, etc., and delivery management focuses on internal things like helping the team work better together, stakeholder involvement, etc.

When product managers aren’t spending their time on internal facing activities, they can bring the value of looking outwards. More experiments. More speaking to users. More understanding the wider context and the forces that affect the people with the problems you’re trying to tackle. More developing internet-era business models. More focus on outcomes and impact.

Wicked problem solvers

Charities tackle wicked problems. But they haven’t yet figured out how to use technology to tackle them. We know from numerous examples in the commercial sector that tech at scale can have a profound effect on our society. But charities haven’t realised they can too, so instead they rely on the tried and tested methods of campaigning and advocacy to create change.

This means that charities tend to look at digital products as merely more modern ways of doing what they’ve always done. Things like taking donations, applying for jobs or volunteering opportunities, communicating, etc., can be done using technology, and so charities focus their product managers on these. This means product managers act as a conduit between stakeholders and developers, collecting requirements and project managing changes to the systems. Marty Cagan wrote about this ‘IT mindset’ back in 2014 (when I was getting started) and it’s still mostly true in charities in 2024.

But product managers and digital technologies have so much more to offer. Figuring out how to use tech and data in responsible ways to intervene in complex social systems to create intentional change is a far better use of the product manager’s skill set and mindset. If Uber can use technology to change how we travel and Spotify can change how we listen to music, then charities can use technology to make the world a better place.

What I hope the next ten years looks like

I firmly believe technology has the potential to create change at scale for all kinds of wicked problems affecting the world, and I hope charities embrace the opportunities it provides. And I hope product managers are instrumental in helping charities understand this opportunity and make the most of it. To do so, the value product managers bring will need better definition, product managers will have to develop their outward-facing knowledge and skills, and charities will have to explore and experiment ways of using technology.