TeenServe Increases Productivity and Reduces Costs with Software I Developed

TeenServe is a non-profit organization which plans, organizes and hosts youth group missions to perform home repair and improvements in communities through the mid-west.  The mountain of data that is associated with each mission trip was being recorded on paper and managed with spreadsheets.  This was very time consuming, costly, and only allowed them to operate two mission trips per year.

I designed and developed a custom software system that delivers a powerful set of robust tools to significantly decrease the difficulty, time, and cost of operations.  Using this system they are now able to operate six or more mission trips per year, each involving hundreds of job sites, thousands of volunteer workers from different locations, as well as tools and materials.

At A Glance

All of the work of planning and hosting a mission trip was being done by hand and this was limiting how much TeenServe could do in a year.

I worked with TeenServe to design and develop a custom software application to expand their capabilities, automate complex tasks, and improve overall productivity while reducing cost.

The software helped TeenServe:

  • Increase their ability to serve by allowing them to host six or more mission trips per year instead of just two.
  • Greatly reduce administrative labor overhead and costs.
  • Provide a feature-rich online portal for all participants.
  • Automate complex processes reducing time required from months to weeks.
  • Take on more work sites and participants for each mission trip.
  • Improve communication with participants, volunteers, and staff.

What goes into hosting a mission trip?

The planning, organizing, and execution of a mission trip is no small undertaking and can require hundreds of hours of labor.  There is a tremendous amount of effort that goes into gathering, analyzing, sorting, and storing release forms, work site analysis forms, photos, drawings, material estimates, participant assessment forms, and personnel information.  A single mission trip typically involves dozens of work sites, hundreds of partcipants from multiple cities, volunteer workers, and staff.  In addition to the human resources there are also materials such as lumber, paint, ladders, and tools.

The first stage of the process, long before the mission trips begins, is to select the work sites from the hundreds of applicants.  This requires a team of volunteer workers to visit each work site to review and document the site and the work requested.  Each worksite requires a site review form, a release form, and a seperate detail form for each specific task requested.  The volunteer worker must also take photos of, or create drawings of, specific job related areas on the property.  A material estimate must also be created for the work to be done at the site.  This information must then be submitted for administrative review during the work site selection process.

While the work site review and selection process is occurring the youth group leaders are also submitting their applications to participate in the mission trip.  After the application has been approved the youth group leader must then begin to gather and submit the necessary forms for each participant that will be part of their group.  These participants are made up of adults, college students, and high school students as well as vehicles that the youth group participants will be offering for use during the mission trip.  Each participant must complete a personal information form and a skills assessment form to ensure that any special needs are met and that the participants are assigned to a work site that matches their skill level.  Additionally, each adult must pass a background check and proof of this must be provided.  The driver of each vehicle volunteered for the mission trip must have a clean driving record and proof of this, too, must be provided.

When all of the necessary information has been gathered; it is time to start processing that data.  This involves budget planning, validating all of the forms submitted, creating a final materials list for each work site, organizing the participants into crews, generating material orders, and coordinating hundreds of volunteers.  The materials are sourced from multiple vendors so the various materials from each work site must be grouped into orders for each vendor and delivery instructions must be provided.  The work sites are each assigned varying skill level requirements for the work to be performed at the site.  The participants then needed to be assigned to the work sites based on the particular skills of the participant, taking into account any special needs.  The vehicles must also be assigned to carry these crews and, in some cases, the vehicles may be able to carry multiple crews so the vehicles must be intelligently assigned to reduce unnecessary travel between the work sites.  Meals and lodging must also be planned and organized for all of the participants, volunteers, and staff members during the mission trip.

There are also a number of documents and training materials that must be made available to the volunteers and participants before, during, and after the mission trip.  These documents, videos, and other materials outline policies and procedures, provide instructions, and provide information to ensure an enjoyable experience for the participants, volunteers, and work site residents.  This information may change from time to time and new information is added frequently so it is important to ensure that everyone involved has the most up to date information possible.

None of this information will do any good if you can't get to it.  The information must be prepared, assembled, and printed so that the participants know which crew they are, the drivers know who should be in their vehicle, the vendors know where to deliver the materials, and the crews know what work they need to be doing.

Once the mission trip has begun the staff and volunteers must be able to ensure that the participants are all getting to where they need to be and have the tools and materials to complete their assigned tasks.  In order to do this the staff has to be able to know where every single participant, volunteer, vehicle, material, and tool is at all times.  The staff also has to know the on-going progress of each work site to ensure that schedules, and budgets, are being met.  As with any such undertaking, things are inevitably going to change during the trip.  More materials may be needed, the work may take longer than estimated, weather delays may occur, and so on.  In order to keep up with this it is crucial that the staff can make quick, on the fly, adjustments as needed to suit the conditions.  Any time such a change is made that change must then be communicated to all the necessary individuals to ensure that everyone involved knows what is happening.

The work continues even after the mission trip has concluded.  There may be some tasks that could not be completed, unused materials, tools and equipment to return, and work site follow-ups to perform.  This means that there are still going to be volunteers at the sites after all the participants have gone home and preparations are being made for the next mission trip.  This means that there will be some overlap between the mission trips and the staff must be able to handle multiple trips at one time.

Historically, all of the necessary forms had to be filled out by hand and then faxed or mailed to TeenServe.  Once the forms were received they had to be manually reviewed, the data was manually entered into a spreadsheet, and the paper forms had to be archived.  The staff then had to follow-up with the volunteers or youth groups to request any missing information or additional details that may be needed.  The staff also had to review all of the material lists for each work site and manually prepare the material orders to be submitted to the vendors.  When it came time to assign the participants and vehicles to the work site crews it required days, or weeks, of manually reviewing each work site and participant to match up the needed skills and determine which crews would be riding in which vehicles.

All of this manual labor required many months of work from a large number of volunteers and staff members.  This not only required a significant amount of time and labor but also cost.  There was just no way they could operate more than two mission trips a year and still be able to keep it all straight.  The sheer volume of information to be gathered and processed coupled with the adminstrative cost of this labor was limiting TeenServe's ability to fulfill their goal of helping communities in need.

How I Made This Process Easier and More Managable for TeenServe

TeenServe had looked around and had not been able to find a product that provided the features they needed.  In fact, there was no software on the market at all for their type of services.  That is when they came to me to develop a custom application for their business.  I started by sitting down with TeenServe owners Jeff and Lori LaBelle to get to know their business and learn what they needed from a software package.  We discussed their mission and goals for the business as well as the details of their operations.  We examined the workflow and the special requirements of each phase of the process.  We also reviewed the security and confidentiality requirements associated with the type of data that they had to collect from those involved in the execution of the mission trip.  I then set to work designing a software system that would meet their needs, reduce the time and cost needed to host a mission trip, and enable them to serve more communities than ever before.

The software I designed brought nearly every aspect of their operation online, automated many of the workflows, and has significantly reduced the overhead associated with the each mission trip.  All of the many forms, photos, material lists, and other information is now entered directly into the system and can be easily managed from an administrative control panel.  The software also includes a robust reporting system to enable easy generation of work site status reports, crew assignment sheets, material orders, work site project outlines, and more.  All of the participants have access to an online portal that allows them to view and manage their own information to distribute this workload and reduce the administrative time required to collect and collate the information.

The software allows youth group leaders to apply for the mission trip(s) online by filling out a short application.  Once approved the applicants is automatically emailed all of the information they need to access the online portal where they can manage all aspects of their youth group.  Through this portal the youth group leader can add new participants and vehicles, upload required forms and documents, update their information, and access a library of documents and resources to help them get the most out of their participation in the mission trip.

Every work site is entered into the system by a member of the volunteer team that is assigned to the mission trip.  Once the work site has been entered into the system the volunteers and staff members can easily add, edit, and print any of the various work detail forms that are associated with each project requested at the work site.  Photos and drawings can be easily uploaded directly into the system meaning there is no longer a need to store all the physical photos and take the risk of losing them.  Adding materials to a work site is just as easy.  The materials can be added by simply selecting some choices from a few drop-down boxes and clicking a button.  The software even supports adding custom, "one-off", materials by simply filling in a couple boxes and clicking the "add" button.  When everything is entered and it's time to get started it takes only seconds to generate the work site documentation.  With the click of a button the software generates a rich, detailed, work site project binder that includes all of the pertinent work site information, project instruction sheets, materials list, and work site photo gallery.  This project binder can also be updated just as easily by editing the details in the system and clicking the print button again.

Each individual youth group participant also has access to an online portal where they can log in to review and enter their information, upload release forms, and complete the necessary skill self-assessment worksheet.  This means that the youth group leader no longer has to spend the time contacting each individual, collecting their forms, and then mailing them to TeenServe.  This also means that there is no longer the need for a staff member to manually enter all of this information into a spreadsheet.  The system remembers this information so that if a youth group returns for another mission trip they do not have to re-enter all of that information. The participants only need to update the information that has changed.  This makes it much easier for youth group leaders and participants to return for another mission trip.

The materials and tools needed to do the work are a major part of the process.  The ability to effectively manage these resources is crucial to making sure the work can be completed and is staying on budget.  The software includes a powerful set of features to allow for end-to-end management of materials, vendors, and equipment.  The materials handling system allows TeenServe to record the contact details for each of the vendors they are working with for a mission trip and the material specifications and cost.  The materials system also provides the ability to define a "kit" which is a group of materials for a specific project.  That means you can simply add a "kit" to a work site and all the materials for that kit are automatically added to the materials list.  Material orders and material budget reports can be generated, on demand, for individual work sites or for all of the work sites for the mission trip.  This makes the material handling process a breeze and eliminates hours of time that was required to manually review and prepare the orders.

The tool management feature allows the staff to monitor the status and location of each piece of equipment at all times.  The staff can know at a glance who checked out a piece of equipment, where it is now, and when it was (or will be) returned.  This means that the staff no longer has to try to keep track of all of the equipment activity in unreliable notebooks or scaps of paper.  Knowing where the equipment is and for how long also makes it much easier to plan for the use of the equipment by various work sites.  Another effect of this system is that the chance of a tool or piece of equipment going missing or getting left behind at a work site is drastically reduced.  That, in turn, leads to reduced cost for equipment replacements.

The assignment of participants and vehicles to the work site crews is a task that involves hundreds of people and vehicles that need to be assigned to work sites appropriate for their skills.  The software I developed includes a feature which automates this process, thereby turning what was previously a weeks long job into a simple button click that takes just a few minutes to complete.  This "crew picking" process automatically selects all of the approved work sites, participants, and vehicles from the data entered for the trip.  It then analyzes the individual skills of each participant and matches them to a work site that is suitable for them.  The software also assigns all of the available vehicles to the crews to transport them to and from the work site.  In many cases there will be more crews than vehicles so the system also determines which crews can ride with other crews that are in the same vacinity to avoid drivers having to criss-cross the city.  The goal of TeenServe is to promote fellowship among the participants by creating crews that include participants from multiple youth groups, genders, and age groups.  The software takes all of these factors into account to build crews that are as diverse as possible.

This automation does not mean that there is no control over the crews.  The software provides the ability to manually assign both vehicles and participants to crews as well as modify the crews that were created by the automated process.  In the event that special circumstances need to be accounted for the software allows TeenServe to manually assign select vehicles or participants prior to running the automated crew picking process.  The software then works around these manual assignments to fill in the rest.

The software includes powerful reporting capabilities that allow the users to generate detailed reports on nearly every aspect of the system.  These reports make it very easy to view and provide the important information about the work sites, participants, materials, projects, and more.  Now reports and documents that used to take hours to prepare can be viewed and printed with just a click.

Increased Productivity and Reduced Cost

The software I developed for TeenServe has taken a job that used to require several months of manual labor and reduced it to just a few weeks.  This is due not only to the automation of long duration processes but also by enabling more timely updates and enhanced data validation to ensure that the information is complete and accurate when submitted.  This reduced overhead and increased accuracy has lead to a reduction in administrative time and cost which means that TeenServe is now able to host more mission trips and serve more communities in need.  Not only are they able to host more trips they are also able to increase the number of work sites and participants in each mission trip which means that they can serve even more people in need.  The software I developed has allowed them to achieve significant gains in output while seeing significant reductions in labor and costs.