Refuge case study

Case study: Beyond the comfort zone

This is the story of how the domestic abuse charity, Refuge, navigated organisational upheaval through agile working, resulting in more efficient project management and increased revenue. Supported by Tilt, Refuge embarked on a series of Scrum sprints in the roll-out of several initiatives. But there was pain before gain. Dubious of yet more change, staff started the journey with a collective dose of scepticism. But with each new sprint offering further evidence of success, the team were soon celebrating exceeded targets, swift project delivery, and substantial income generation. Yet arguably the biggest win was the team’s newfound confidence to continue implementing agile working in future projects.

Organisational strains

Refuge is the UK’s largest domestic abuse charity, providing a variety of services to women experiencing physical, psychological and financial abuse. 

  • Refuge merged two key teams into one directorate – Communications and Fundraising. They needed to empower teams and create a sense of individual ownership, control, and responsibility over project deliverables.
  • Complicating things further, this transition occurred while Refuge was in between organisational strategies, leading to a lack of clarity regarding project aims.
  • Leadership were often brought in to make each decision. The multiple layers of sign-off required for each activity meant that it was hard to move quickly. Teams weren’t used to owning work or making decisions without leadership.

The impact:

  • Staff felt overwhelmed by burdensome workloads.
  • Slow project progress, missed targets, and a lack of ownership and accountability.
  • Financial inefficiencies.

Addressing organisational challenges through agile working

Gabi Field, Refuge’s acting Director of Fundraising and Communications, recognised the pressing need for change. Having heard through her networks of the transformational success Tilt had helped deliver at Amnesty International UK, Gabi felt confident they could provide some answers for Refuge too.

The team at Tilt, led by Julia Begley, began by helping Gabi and colleagues to clarify their aspirations for agile working, resulting in five goals:

  • To work more efficiently within the team.
  • To simplify priorities between teams.
  • To ensure agile working would reduce workload – rather than add to it.
  • To empower teams and create a sense of individual ownership, control, and responsibility over project deliverables.
  • To foster a supportive working environment where staff felt comfortable facilitating meetings, leading on deliverables, and sharing concerns.

Turning aspiration into reality

Next, Julia supported the team to embed these overarching aims in practice, focusing on 5 major projects which the new directorate had to deliver, including online campaigns for both International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, and the creation of a whole new Digital Mobilisation Strategy.

After a brief series of onboarding sessions, the team applied agile working methods to their allocated projects, starting with…

Scrum Sprints – short periods (usually 2-4 weeks) in which a team focuses intensive activity on collaboratively delivering a particular project (or one aspect of a more complex project), or area of work. 

Tilt supported Refuge with ten sprints in total. Within each sprint, the team followed a series of rules to keep them on track:

  • Creating small but highly effective cross-functional sprint teams, by mindfully selecting staff with project-critical skills.
  • Staying focused on a single agreed goal per sprint.
  • Allocating clearly defined, actionable tasks to specific team members.
  • Ensuring regular team check-ins, with an emphasis on transparency, shared responsibility and accountability

    .…and with this
  • Recognition that agile working means being flexible by definition – teams were encouraged to have frank conversations about what success looked like, and to pivot where evidence suggested this was necessary.

No pain, no gain

This was apparent in Sprint 1, characterised by the team’s discomfort, scepticism, low engagement and lack of ownership over project activities.

An icon showing a marker floating above a map

Yet by Sprint 4, the team were starting to see real value in what they were delivering, and experimenting with new ways of working. Though most still looked to leadership for direction.

An icon showing a clock, a gear, and arrows all combined to demonstrate change happening over time

By Sprint 7, the team were reaping the benefits of experience – and evidence – gained through agile working. Activities were now being delivered faster than on previous projects, and staff felt more comfortable sharing opinions and running their own sessions.

At the point that Sprint 10 was wrapping up, the team were confidently taking ownership of tasks, and collectively making decisions on the strategic direction of future projects.

The results

Additional income
  • International Women’s Day campaign delivered 156% more income than in 2022. 
  • DIY Fundraising Initiative saw a 50%+ increase in return on advertising spend.
  • Mother’s Day campaign resulted in £22,000 being generated – 119% of March income achieved.
Leaner, faster, smarter working

Generating income on individual projects is mission-critical of course, but it is the non-tangible benefits of agile working which will ensure teams continue to hit targets long into the future:

  • Working in cross-team collaborations:
    “There is a big growth in confidence for the team adapting to and working in this way, and they are learning together.”  – Avril Wilson-George, Head Of Digital Mobilisation & Engagement
  • Project Leads now successfully leading independent sprints:
    “The project management style we have developed worked really well for IWD and Mother’s Day, and I really want to lead using this approach for our Christmas campaign!” – Beth Mullins, Individual Giving Manager
  • Projects now being delivered faster than ever before:
    “If we had done this work outside of the agile sprint, it would have taken months and months.” – Louise Rafferty, Community Fundraising Manager
  • Teams confidently pivoting on activities when evidence suggests this is required:
    “We had to re-prioritise work when new things came up, but this was made easier through regular check-ins and clear end goals for the work.” – Anna Chowcat, Digital Manager

As Tilt’s support came to end and the team continued to work in a more agile way alone, Gabi Field shared her top learnings on how to lead a team through a change similar to this:

Discomfort means you’re on the right track.

  • Support people (especially leadership) to prioritise this work and de-prioritise other things.
  • Hold space for others to share their feelings and concerns.
  • Lead with the vision of the difference that agile ways of working will make – share it often and bring conversations back to it.

Watch the fully story and Gabi’s reflections here: