Three Rings: bringing volunteers together

New Feature: Groups

The biggest change you can expect to see when Milestone: Yttrium goes live on November 19th is the introduction of something we’ve been calling Groups.

Groups is the next plank of our commitment to support End-to-End volunteering, following on from the development of Individual Accounts, and Core Roles. Essentially, its an expansion of core roles which means that for the very first time you can now have some Core Roles which are invisible to other Roles.

As a concept, this is pretty straightforward – for many organisations using Three Rings, you probably already have some volunteers whose role means they don’t get to see everything that goes on. At many Helplines, for example, new volunteers undergoing training aren’t introduced to everybody right away: they probably know other trainees, and your Training Team, but they won’t be introduced to every other volunteer.

Groups means you can now set Three Rings up so that it works the same way, if you’ve got multiple Core Roles (and remember – you don’t have to have multiple Core Roles! You need to have at least one, but if that single core role works for your organisation, you can keep on using it on it’s own without any trouble).

If your organisation has more than one Core Role, Milestone: Yttrium is going to give you extra tools: you’ll now be able to say which Core Roles can View or Manage other Core Roles.

Let’s look at a fictional organisation that’s already making use of Core Roles in their Three Rings account. Right now, Linminster Linkline has three Core Roles: Everyone, Support Volunteer, and Trainee. They also have a few regular roles: Listening Volunteer, Rota Manager, Training Team, and Administrator.

Their three Core Roles reflect the different major duties of their volunteers: Trainees are just starting their journey to be Listening Volunteers, volunteers with the Support Core Role help keep the building tidy, maintain the garden, and organise fundraising. Everybody else runs the actual Helpline, either as a Listener, part of the Training Team, or as a Manager or Admin.

Here’s a diagram to show those roles mapped out – note that, while the Trainee and Support Volunteer Core Roles are separate, the Roles ‘Listening Volunteer, Rota Manager, Training Team, and Administrator’ all fall under the default ‘Everyone’ Core Role – it’s never been necessary for anyone at Linminster to separate them out with any more than three Core Roles.


Diagram mapping the old Roles structure at Linminster Linkline
Click to view fullsize


Although the Core Roles bring a different basic set of Permissions, there’s still limits to what they can do. At Linminster, any volunteer with the Core Role “Everyone” automatically gets permission to View the Rota, which doesn’t apply to either of the other two Core Roles. But, even though a Support Volunteer isn’t granted permission to View the Rota, they can still see everyone in the Directory.

That’s necessary, because Support Volunteers need to know who their fellow Support Volunteers are… but it’s also not perfect, because the policy at Linminster is that you shouldn’t know who’s a Listening Volunteer unless you’ve completed your Listener Training, and Support Volunteers haven’t (and, often, don’t want to!).

On top of that, the Admins at Linminster are concerned, because while they really want to get new trainees onto Three Rings as soon as possible, they’re also not meant to see who’s a Listening Volunteer until they’ve successfully completed their Training. The solution to that is a bit better than it is for Support Volunteers, at least: the Trainee Core Role doesn’t grant Directory View permissions. So a volunteer with the New Trainee Role can log into Three Rings, but they don’t have permission to View the Directory… even though everyone else can see them. And that’s a bit unfair, too.

Let’s map out the situation again, using red shading to indicate when a Role is visible to people who – according to policy at Linminster – shouldn’t be able to see it:

Diagram plotting which Roles are incorrectly visible to other Roles at Linminster Linkline
Click to view fullsize version

That’s a lot more red than we’d like to see!


Now, it’s true that this is a slightly artificial example – the vast majority of organisations that are benefiting from Three Rings don’t have such a ‘silo’ approach to volunteer management! But there are some organisations, just like the fictional Linminster Linkline, which have legitimate reasons for wanting to keep their different Roles separate from one another. Whether that’s for security reasons, or because they want to keep their former volunteers informed through Three Rings, or whether it’s because they want to get trainees onto Three Rings as soon as possible – it’s something we need to do more to support. Because, as the example of Linminster Linkline shows, there are cases out there where the limits of Core Roles mean Three Rings isn’t properly reflecting the way those organisations work, and that’s something we always want to fix.

That’s where ‘Groups’ comes in.

Because, once Milestone: Yttrium goes live on November 19th, Linminster Linkline can make some improvements.

Now, they can say that Admins can see absolutely everyone, but only Admins, or members of the Training Team can see New Volunteers. And they can say that volunteers with the Support Core Role can only see each other (even though Admins will also be able to see them).

Let’s see an updated version of the diagram we saw before, showing how Linminster Linkline’s Roles and View permissions can work after Milestone: Yttrium introduces the improved ‘Group’ controls over Core Role visibility:

Diagram plotting which Roles are visible to other Roles at Linminster Linkline under the new 'Groups' system
Click to view fullsize version

This time – no red! And that means no more awkward clashes between what Three Rings can do, and what Linminster Linkline need it to do, if it’s going to properly match the way they work. That’s a massive step forward.


As we said, though, the way Linminster Linkline works is a bit unusual. There are organisations using Three Rings in exactly that way, so the development of Groups is great news for them.

There are also organisations whose policies don’t demand as much separation of teams as Linminster Linkline, but who do still want to keep some users on Three Rings ‘fenced off’ from the majority of their volunteers. In particular, there are organisations out there who want to keep in touch with former volunteers using Three Rings, but who can’t expose current volunteers’ data to them. In fact, this is common enough that we’ve got several organisations paying for two Three Rings accounts (albeit with a heavy discount on the Alumni account).

Groups means they don’t have to do that any more! Instead, they can set up a Core Role for their former volunteers, and use the new feature to isolate it from their other Core Roles – imagine the ‘Support Volunteers’ group at Linminster Linkline, but for “Former Volunteers” instead – as long as the former volunteers were happy to have their login credentials kept open, Admins, or Alumni Officers could store their details on Three Rings, and keep them updated about goings-on in the organisation, or major fundraising events they needed help with.


In fact, if you cast your mind back, that was a major goal of ours when we announced our plan to introduce End-to-End Volunteering. Here’s the graphic we used to show where we were, and where we wanted to be:

Plan showing the 'volunteer journey' in Three Rings in 2012, compared with the ideal journey after the introduction of 'End-to-End volunteering
Click to view fullsize version

Since then, we’ve had some major breakthroughs. Milestone Promethium converted that last step to a yellow “Off 3R?” in July 2014, because the introduction of Individual Accounts meant that leaving an organisation didn’t mean the end to a volunteer’s Three Rings account. If they wanted, they could take their personal account with them, ready to have it linked in by the next organisation they volunteered with.

Milestone: Strontium flipped the second step to green in April 2015 when it introduced Core Roles – making it possible to assign different sets of permissions to different types of volunteers (as long as you were happy with the broad-brush visibility permissions).

Now, Milestone: Yttrium is introducing ‘group’ visibility. Some Core Roles can be hidden from other roles based on your organisation’s permission settings. That turns that last step to full green: a volunteer who’s left can have their account changed to what, in 2012, we called ‘Alumni’ status – essentially, a limited-visibility Core Role for volunteers who want to stay in the loop. And, at the same time, Yttrium is turning the first step yellow: once a volunteer’s applied to train with your organisation, you now have the option to open a Three Rings account for them right away, using Core Roles to limit who else can see it, and which other volunteers they can see.

Which brings our roadmap of End-to-End Volunteering to here:

Diagram showing how using 'Groups' to adjust visibility of Core Roles make it possible for Three Rings to help a volunteer throughout their time at an organisation

And that’s very exciting.

Because in 2017, we’re hoping our journey to support End-to-End volunteering will be complete.

As it is now, ‘Groups’ supports a good number of ways of working, but we’re not done yet. Next year we’re planning to use this to expand Three Rings even further – making it possible for potential volunteers to apply to join your organisation through Three Rings, allowing you to manage their application progress from within the system. It’s one of the biggest organisational headaches that Three Rings can’t yet cope with, but we’re working hard to fix that, and bring that managerial overhead down.

In the meantime, if you’re volunteering at an organisation which has been paying for a second ‘Alumni’ account, you need to get in touch with us – once Milestone: Yttrium goes live, we can save you the cost of that subscription fee!

Return of the Roadshow

The Three Rings Roadshow is back!


It’s been a while since the last Roadshow – Manchester, 2013 – and this time we’re moving it South, thanks to ThoughtWorks!

If you’re already using Three Rings, it’s a great opportunity to meet other organisations and share tips and best practice with each other.

If you’re not using Three Rings yet, we’d really encourage you to come along and find out what makes Three Rings special – and why over 300 organisations trust us to manage more than 25,000 volunteers in the UK and abroad.

As well as live demonstrations, a chance to meet the team We’re also going to be running a workshop on new features, so you can help to shape the future of what Three Rings can do.


RSVP now to book your free place – and we’ll see you in London!

Why I Volunteer with Three Rings – Beverley’s story

In this blog post, our Head of Welcome, Beverley, reflects on what she gets out of volunteering with Three Ringsand what the experience has taught her.


Photo of Beverley
Beverley has been a part of the Three Rings team for a little over three years.

I’m Beverley and I’ve been volunteering with Three Rings for three years now! I’ve been on the support team for the full near three years, the Docs team for the past few months, and I’ve just taken on a new role as head of the Welcome Team – organising demos and free trials for organisations that want to use Three Rings to help their volunteers.

I used to be a Nightliner at my university, and when I went on my year abroad, I was really sad about leaving this behind. Back then, I didn’t really know how big Three Rings was, just that it was connected to the Nightline I volunteered at, but I filled out the contact form expressing an interest in volunteering with them and Dan rang me back and got me on the support team within a few hours! I’ve been involved ever since.

Over the years, I’ve come to value the experience that I’ve gained from Three Rings more and more. During this time, I’ve transitioned from student to full-time working Londoner, and had the chance to try out whatever I’ve wanted in Three Rings. It’s an incredibly welcoming organisation, and I’ve always felt very able to just try whatever I wanted. That’s been really valuable experience, particularly at this stage in my life where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do with myself!

The relaxed and supportive atmosphere of Three Rings has also encouraged me to take on the Head of Welcome team role, an Exec position in the company, helping with the day-to-day management to keep everything running smoothly for our users. This is a daunting challenge, but one I feel very well supported in.
The experience I gained has also been very useful in my day job. When I went for my interview for the job that I now have, with a tech start-up, I had no idea what to say after one question – so I started rambling about the work I’ve been doing on the support team and the processes involved. Whether or not that had a correlation with me getting the job I don’t know, but either way having something to talk about made me feel better!

More recently I’ve joined the Documentation team, and the WordPress and writing skills that I learnt with JTA have proven really useful at work. One of my tasks at work is to write documentation, and now I feel very comfortable with this.

As well as being a highly professional organisation, Three Rings is also made up of a team of lovely, kind and sincere people.

We’ve all been helpline volunteers at some point. We normally chat in e-mails and in our Slack channel, but we all get to meet up several times a year to have an in-person catch up. The Support Team away day is really good fun, hand-signing the Christmas cards we send every organisation at Christmas is always a good laugh, and the Docs week where JTA and I rewrote the help documentation this year was so much fun – the new help pages were largely fuelled by adorable hippo gifs and country music! I’m very fond of everyone at Three Rings, and over the years, I’ve come to see them as an online family and I can’t imagine ever leaving.

A photo of Beverley & JTA at Docs Camp earlier this year
Beverley and JTA work on updating the Three Rings Help Pages earlier this year (hippo gifs and country music not shown)

Lastly, the work that Three Rings does is invaluable. Our user base is huge – 25,000 users! The work that we do allows volunteers to spend more time volunteering, and the low cost of the software also means that they get to focus their money on what they do. I no longer have the time to volunteer with helplines myself, but it is nice to know that my volunteering contributes to the running of Samaritans, Nightlines and other groups doing amazing work all over the country – and beyond!

In short, I highly recommend volunteering with Three Rings! If you have any questions about it, let us know and we’d be happy to talk!

Inspired? For more information about volunteering with Three Rings, take a look at our Volunteering Page!

Help Pages – and where Milestone: Watson gets its name

Our new Help Pages

Over the past few months some of our volunteers have been working hard to update the Three Rings Help pages.

The old Documentation Website had got very out of date (a downside of always adding in new features!), and we know it wasn’t helping people as much as it should. It’s now been replaced by the Help Pages, available on this site.

In addition to being more up-to date, we think they’ll also be a little easier to navigate: we’ve broken down the Help so that each section of the site focuses on a particular part of the system, from the Overview, to the Admin tab – it should make it easier to drill down and get help with whatever you need.

We’re going to keep working on the Help pages, of course! If you’ve got any suggestions for how they can be improved, get in touch to let us know!

In future, we’ll be including information about each release’s New Features on the Help Pages as well, starting with Milestone: Watson. And speaking of Watson…


Why are we calling Milestone: Watson ‘Watson’?

One or two of the Three Rings users who volunteer on our test team have asked why ‘Watson’, when all the other Three Rings Milestones have been named after elements*.

Unfortunately, there isn’t an element whose name starts with W and ‘wolfram’ as the alternative name for Tungsten is already heavily associated with Wolfram Computing, so it wasn’t really suitable for a Three Rings release.

Instead, we’re opting for Watson – because all the other Milestones have been elementary.

Photo of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Doctor Watson



After Watson, we’ll be back to the usual element-based names (at least for another three Milestones…): Milestone: Xenon is due in Autumn 2016.

*Milestone: Jethrik was named after a fictional element; G-124 was an interim release whose name was based on an isotope of Gallium.

Why we don’t do business with big business (part 2)

This is the second part of a two-part blog post. The first part is here.

As we saw last week, there’s lots of reasons why a business would want to take advantage of systems like Three Rings to manage their employees: there’s a huge business need out there, and although plenty of commercial services exist to meet that need, the fact that we aim to sell to social enterprises means we deliver incredible value. But when business ask to start using Three Rings, we tell them we can’t help. Why is that?

What’s the problem with us selling to big businesses?

We began to explain last week that the biggest thing stopping us wanting to offer Three Rings to for-profit companies is that we’re a not-for-profit company, run entirely by volunteers.

Our team give up their time and their expertise to develop and support Three Rings so that our customers can reap the rewards – and we don’t have a problem with that: we want to make life easier for charities and voluntary organisations!

But we’re less keen to give our time and energy for free in order to help someone else make lots of money.

Right now, all our clients exist to help people in one way or another, and we’re happy to support them: knowing we’re helping is all the reward we need.

If we started taking on private enterprises as customers we’d be asking our volunteers to give their skills to help line someone else’s pocket, and that’s not at all fair on them (it’s especially not fair on our developers: some of them are worth quite a lot of money as freelance software engineers in their own right!).

Photo of a chalked sign pointing to a community cafe
We’ve got absolutely no problem selling Three Rings to any business with a clear social mission to fulfil, or which turns a profit in order to support community goals. Image by oatsy40 on Flickr

And, of course, because Three Rings CIC is a not-for-profit company, run by volunteers, there’s a limit to how much use “more money” we need. Of course we have expenses – so do all companies! – but we work hard to keep those costs low. Partly, we do this by using the sorts of trusted, open-source technologies favoured by tech giants like Google, Amazon and Twitter. That, combined with the scalable nature of Three Rings itself means we don’t run the risk of spending customer money on expensive third-party software to keep the system going.

After our running costs are met – including the annual Christmas Card! –  any profit the company makes gets donated to charities (plus some to support the kinds of open-source technology projects that make Three Rings possible: charities are nominated by our own volunteers, and we’ll be explaining more about this process soon, too).

It would be lovely to be able to give more, but doing so doesn’t directly help either Three Rings or the organisations we support, so there isn’t a particular incentive for us to take on rich businesses as clients – especially since that would be a major conflict with our core value of being a volunteer-focused organisation in our own right!

How could we make that less of a problem?

But there is one way in which having more money could be really useful: we could offer a higher subscription charge for a ‘Commercial Edition’ of Three Rings, and use the income from that to subsidise all of our existing clients! The business would get the system they wanted, and everybody else would get Three Rings for a lower cost, safeguarding even more of their budget.

Under this system, everyone’s a winner: businesses get to use Three Rings to help maximise their efficiency, so they’re happy. Our not-for-profit customers have their subscriptions to Three Rings subsidised by the businesses using the system on a Commercial Edition pricing plan, so they save money, and are happy. And our volunteers are giving their time and expertise in a way that helps businesses turn a profit, but know that by doing so they’re also saving our volunteer organisations money, and they’re happy too.

Graphic showing trade-offs of a "commercial" 3R balancing against each other
We might not mind using our volunteers’ unpaid efforts to maximise a business’s profits if we could use higher “commercial” subscription rates to subsidise the cost to our voluntary organisations – as long as the balance doesn’t shift.

This seems like it would be a really great way to strike a balance that suits everyone: it’s pretty clearly a win-win! Only…

Why isn’t that solution good enough?

There’s a big problem with that solution. Although it looks good on the surface, the “balanced” model above would introduce a serious vulnerability: the even-lower cost to our regular not-for-profit organisations would be completely dependent on retaining Commercial Edition clients.

If we went down that route, and then a major for-profit company suddenly decided to cancel their Three Rings subscription, there’d be no “Higher business prices fund subsidies” under the Commercial Edition side of the balance. In effect, we’d be holding ourselves hostage, dependent on keeping our Commercial clients at all costs.

We’ve described our feature planning process before and, with the exception of ‘Best Tester’ features that get to jump the queue as a thank you to our volunteer test team for helping to make Three Rings better, we plan new features based on what will help the largest number of people. With a steady stream of users getting in touch to suggest new ways Three Rings could help them, that’s the best way for us to keep the system evolving in a way that’s fair to everyone.

Right now, that works fine, and everyone knows where they stand. But if we adopted that model, and then a business wanted a feature that would only help them, we’d have a problem.

All our regular customers could be clamouring for a great new feature, but what if a Commercial Edition customer demanded we introduce a complicated Purchase Order Tracking System, and threatened to drop their subscription if we didn’t?

Graphic highlights how a commercial edition customer leaving would be a "loose/loose" scenario for voluntary organisations
There would be no winners in this scenario – something we want to avoid!

With day jobs on top of their Three Rings work, our volunteers simply couldn’t satisfy both demands, so they’d be in a difficult position: either let down our primary user group by prioritising the commercial feature ahead of what they need, instead of working on new features that could help lots more people…or else disappoint the Commerical Edition customer, leaving them to come good on their threat and drop Three Rings entirely.

If the Commercial Edition customer did just up and leave, we’d lose the extra revenue we’d been using to subsidise our social enterprise customers. The see-saw would give a sudden lurch the other way and everybody would suddenly face an unexpected jump in their subscription rates!

Now, it’s important to remember that we’ve just described a ‘worst-case’ scenario – perhaps the hypothetical business customer would decide they could live without that feature after all – but it’s a risk we don’t feel we can take: too many people rely on Three Rings for us to be able to gamble with the quality of service we’ve committed to delivering.

So what does that mean for Three Rings?

Years ago, we looked at all those points – the positives, the negatives, the various risks and pitfalls they opened up – and we decided we had to say “no” to any big businesses that came along: the benefits weren’t worth the risk.

More than that, the benefits were barely worth the benefits: compared to other enterprise software, Three Rings offers incredible value for money as it is!

So Three Rings CIC doesn’t do business with Big Business. It’s not what we’re here for.

What we’re here for is to help and support charities and social enterprises, businesses that exist to meet a social goal, not just to create profit. That’s what our volunteers are giving their time to do.

That’s why we turn major businesses away when they ask if they can start using Three Rings. Because we’re guided by our core values, using our efforts to deliver enterprise-grade software at the best prices we can offer, to bring volunteers together around the world.

Milestone: Technetium is here!

We’ve just released the latest version of Three Rings: Milestone: Technetium! Here’s a full list of the new features that are available:

My Account: set ‘Primary’ Organisation

If you volunteer at more than one organisation using your own Individual Account, you can now choose to nominate one of your organisations as your ‘primary’: when you first log in, your primary organisation will be automatically selected. (Your other accounts will still be accessible from the ‘My Account’ page.)

This is useful if you volunteer in more than one place, but find that you’re mostly logging in to one of them.

Shift history

The whole history of a shift, including who signed up, when they signed up, and who’s pulled out, can now be viewed from the shift tab in the rota.

Screenshot of the new shift history panell
The new Shift History panel

Permissions of who can view the shift history can be controlled on a per rota basis from the rota permissions. (For everyone already using Three Rings, the permissions have been set to restrict access to roles with permission to access Admin > Logs, because they already have access to all that information in a less-pretty form!)

We’ve also added a new Stats report that will show shift histories for multiple rotas and dates in stats.

News: Add images from the Filestore

When you’ve uploaded images to the filestore in a web-safe format like .jpg or .png, you can now insert them into News Items by clicking the new “Image from Filestore” button in the toolbar. Select the image you want to use and it’ll appear in your news item.

(Make sure the image is uploaded to a part of the filestore that all our volunteers have permission to view, or anyone without the right permissions will just see an empty blank space in the News Item, instead!)

Wiki: WYSIWYG and enhancements

We’ve made big changes to the wiki feature. Wikis now have a ‘What You See is What You Get’ (or WYSIWYG) editor just like the one we introduced for News items in Milestone: Promethium.

This means it’s now easier to edit content, and means you can now add tables, images, and different formatting styles to your wiki pages.

Comms: Copy to Me

You’ll now see a new checkbox at the bottom of your message in the Comms tab: tick it to send a copy of your message to the primary email address listed in your Directory page.

View Invoices

You can now view details of all your organisation’s invoices via the Admin -> Invoices panel, including whether or not they’ve been paid. (While you’re there, make sure you’ve accurately declared your organisation’s turnover – that’s how we work out what pricing band you should be paying!)

Stats -> Shift Closures and Shift Gaps

We’ve made it easier to interpret the stats reports for Shift Closures and Shift Gaps, but including the background colour of rotas in them, so it’s easier for you to see what’s happening at a glance.

Upcoming Shifts and Gaps

This tool, which you can access Overview page, now differentiates between required shifts and optional shifts. It also allows volunteers to select swaps and gaps from multiple rotas.

New SMS provider: Nexmo

 We’ve heard that Nexmo offers a good-value text messaging service – approximately 2 pence per message to UK numbers, at current exchange rates (prices in other countries might vary). We’ve added support for them to Three Rings alongside BulkSMS and Clickatell.

(Nexmo currently offer €2 of free credit if you want to try using them).

Three new Properties

We’ve added three new Properties that you can show in your Directory, if you wish: Medical Conditions, Support Required, and (Shift) Frequency. As always, you can restrict who has permission to view any Properties based on their Role.

Improvements to standard look and feel

Continuing from work earlier this year, more parts of Three Rings have been given a more-consistent style.

The changes are subtle – so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the features you’re used to! – but we’ve improved the standard look of date and time pickers, Directory pages, and Event the creation/editing tool.

Improved Android support

Users of Android mobile phones using the stock web browser should now have a better experience of the Overview (as news administrators) and Comms sections.

Why we don’t do business with big business (part 1)

Note: this is the first of a two-part blog post. Part 2 can be read here.

In this blog post, we look at some of our philosophy and values here at Three Rings CIC, and what it means for us to focus our efforts on selling Three Rings to community enterprises, charities, and voluntary organisations, rather than to large for-profit organisations

What do we aim to do?

Three Rings exists to support volunteer and community enterprises, and we aim to do that by delivering professional enterprise software at affordable prices. That’s important to us not just because we’re all volunteers ourselves, but also because many of our longest-serving team members started their volunteering careers in organisations that had very low budgets (not just “low” in general, but often “low, even among that type of organisation”).

Back in 2002, we knew two things about Three Rings: firstly, it was an incredibly powerful tool that could make it significantly easier to run a voluntary organisation, and secondly, the organisations we worked with would benefit from it most – and we could stop using pens and paper!

Three Rings weren’t the only people working on the problem of efficient volunteer management back then – 2002 was a busy time for online rotas, and another system, NIRIS, was doing some very similar work, based on the needs of Sheffield Nightline.


The logo used by Niris back in 2002
The Niris logo. (The elephant is called ‘Dumpling’). Image retrieved from, 12/07/2015.


Thirteen years ago, Aberystwyth Nightline didn’t have a huge budget. The idea of putting the rota online was very exciting (the paper rota in those days was at the top of a pretty steep hill!) but the sad reality was that the annual cost of NIRIS was far, far beyond the budget. It was a big disappointment, but it proved there was a genuine demand for volunteers to be able to manage their shifts online, as long as it could be made affordable – we weren’t the only ones tired of the old-fashioned “sign up book” after all!

That early disappointment – the feeling of regret at finding something that could really make it easier for our volunteers to do what they do best, only to find they can’t afford it – stuck with us, and helped cement out belief that professional software for third sector organisations shouldn’t force charities to choose between effective volunteer management and essential upkeep and publicity. We’re not kidding when we say we’re genuinely passionate about what we do here: for the next 7 years, we funded Three Rings out of our own pockets to make sure Nightlines on a limited budget didn’t have to cut back to make life easier for their volunteers.

Even when Three Rings began to expand to help people working for more and more organisations, we kept our belief that quality software can be affordable right at the heart of what we do. Our growth meant it wasn’t possible to keep funding Three Rings by ourselves anymore, but we made sure to use proven, scalable, open-source technologies to power the system and avoid any situations where we’d be forced to pass unnecessary costs on to our users.

When our client base diversified further, when we started supporting community shops, theatres, and homeless shelters, we sat down and spent a long time working out the best way to restructure our prices to make sure they remained fair for everyone: we even managed to find a solution that gave the majority of our customers either a slight fall, or no change, in their annual subscription costs without being unfair towards much bigger and richer organisations.

Who do we aim to help?

Three Rings is an incredibly powerful, incredibly flexible, and incredibly good value. And that’s great! That’s exactly what we, as volunteers, have been aiming for ever since 2002: enterprise software delivered at prices charities and community organisations can pay without compromising their core goals or their budget. We’re here to support community and volunteer-run organisations as well as charities: it’s the satisfaction of supporting such groups that means volunteers are willing to give their time and skills to growing and supporting Three Rings.

But it’s not just community enterprises and charities that benefit from rota management software. Big businesses need it, too. And – if Three Rings CIC was a different sort of company – that might be the point where this blog post introduces our newest customer, MultinationalMegaBucks Inc. But of course, we’re not like other companies, and we’re pretty proud of that. So instead, this is the point where this blog post explains exactly why we often find ourselves turning large for-profit companies away when they ask to use Three Rings.

Naturally, responsible managers and business owners want to find better ways to optimise employee scheduling. And sometimes they’ll find themselves here, reading about Three Rings and (understandably!) getting excited by everything it can do.

It’s probably a big disappointment when they get in touch and we have to explain that we don’t sell Three Rings to big corporate businesses. It doesn’t happen very often, but it generally comes up a few times a year, and our response usually takes them by surprise.

Photo of a quiet ticket hall with lots of empty sales positions
Ticket halls need to balance the staffing to keep sales positions open against fluctuating customer demand. Image by Becky Snyder on Flickr.

Of course, while many of our customers are charities, many also set out to make a profit. For example, lots of community shops (such as our good friends at the Plunkett foundation) are for-profit concerns: that’s usually the nature of a shop! And that’s fine – we won’t turn away any social enterprises that want to use Three Rings: together with charities and community organisations, they’re exactly the kind of organisation that would benefit from Three Rings the most!

But a social enterprise running a business in order to further it’s own, primarily community-focused goals, is a very different proposition from a business whose main objective is the profit they can use to reward shareholders. Big business is more interested in how much profit they can make than the community benefits that profit could support… and while it’s obvious to us at Three Rings that there’s a big difference, there’s still great demand for enterprise software similar to Three Rings, even in multinational businesses.

It’s not the sort of thing people think about very often, but for a lot of business models, having the right number of staff on shift at the right time is vitally important. Whether it’s a shop, a call centre, a fast-food restaurant, a post office… just about anywhere you have customer-facing staff, there are going to be busy times and quiet times. Scheduling who’s on shift at what time is a big part of management for these enterprises: if you have too few staff, customers have to wait longer and the quality of your service falls. If you have too many staff, you can provide a very fast service to everyone, but you’re paying more people than you have to… and that’s just the start of the complicated balancing act! Obviously, anything that could help to streamline that process is worth looking into!

So why, when businesses come to Three Rings and ask us to help, do we say no? Surely the extra income would be worth a bit more hassle or effort? Couldn’t we sell to big business and use that profit to offer even lower prices to the community groups and charities we already work so hard to support?

Not really – and we’ll explain our reasons for turning away large corporate customers in the blog post next week.

Milestone: Strontium is here!

Introducing Core Roles

A big change is the move to Core Role – it’s explained in lots more detail in the full blog post – but the old ‘Everyone’ role has gone (It’s been seamlessly replaced by a Core Role called ‘Everyone’ with all the same permissions you’d set for it before). Core Roles provide much more flexibility for organisations that want to have different kinds of volunteers on Three Rings in a simple and easy-to-manage way.

Unlike the old ‘Everyone’ role, you can have as many Core Roles as you like (and volunteers can have as many as you like too!). It’s particularly useful if you’ve got lots of different teams using Three Rings, or if you want to bring Trainees or Alumni onto your Three Rings account without showing them everything your full volunteers get to see.

Add description to roles

Admins can now create a description along with the name of a role. This description is displayed in the Admin>Roles table when clicking on the name of the role, making it easy to keep track of what each role is meant to do (very handy for anybody who’s recently taken over as an administrator!).

First steps in standardised look-and-feel

We’ve been making efforts to standardise the look-and-feel of Three Rings, especially the forms and tables, so that they all have consistent layout, spacing, and button styles. The first parts of these changes are now in place, and but there’ll be more to come in future releases.

New-look, ‘Drag-and-Drop’ Filestore

We’ve made some big changes to the Filestore: it now has a faster, cleaner interface including a ‘tree view’ that should make it much easier to find what you’re looking for. We’ve also made it possible to drag-and-drop files or folders within the Filestore, order everything by name, size, or description, and view images stored in the filestore without needing to download them first – meaning the Filestore can now ‘host’ photos for you to include in News items on the Overview.

Comms Improvements

As part of our efforts to standardise our look-and-feel, we’ve made some improvements to the Comms interface. The SMS character counter now behaves more-accurately when sending multi-part text messages, and admins can set a prefix to be placed before the subject of every email through the Admin>Email Options panel.

Rolling Rota Views

Two new rota views are available: Rolling Week and Rolling Month. These are similar to Week and Month views you may be used to, but they always start with the current day rather than the first day of the week or month – meaning it’s easier to see what shifts are coming up without needing to click the ‘Next >>’ link.

Inactitivity improvements

You can now delete any inactivity types you’re not using anymore. If people are still marked as having that inactivity type you can either cancel that inactivity, or transfer it to a different inactivity type. We’ve also tripled the number of icons you can use to indicate inactivity, and specify ‘upper limits’ to how long each kind of inactivity can last, giving administrators more control over who can set themselves inactive for how long.

Event list enhancements

Based on feedback since Milestone: Rhenium went live in January, we’ve added extra features to the event attendance list to make it easier to manage. Event administrators can now sign up and delete volunteers from the sign-up list, and you can now opt to make the list public so that everyone can see who’s signed up along with the event information. If there’s an error message (for example, if the list is full) these should be more helpful, and the event description now includes how many volunteers out of a possible maximum number have signed up, and a message if the if the sign-up period is now closed.

Maintenance tasks make it easier to purge volunteers

If an administrator receives the maintenance task reminding them to purge volunteers that have been sleeping for over a year, the message should now provide a link to a list of all such accounts. From here the administrator can bulk-select which sleeping accounts to purge. If all such accounts have been purged, the maintenance task will be dismissed automatically, or else admins can dismiss the tickbox manually from the bulk-selection page.

Bulk Sleeping of accounts

We’ve added an option to the Stats > Last Login report to allow you to put the multiple accounts to sleep at once – particularly useful if your Maintenance Tasks are highlighting a number of volunteers who haven’t logged in for a long time.

Export Rotas

If you’ve got access to the Stats tab, you can now export the rota in a variety of ways. The first is from the “Export Rotas” section of the Stats tab. The report displays all shifts’ start and end date and times along with the names of the volunteers on that shift. This can either be displayed as a table on the web page or saved a .csv file to open in a spreadsheet program such as Excel. The very keen can also export using the API – described at – allowing export in .json format as well as .csv.

Unique volunteer identifier added to Stats > Shifts / Hours

A number of people are keen to combine information from the Directory with information from Stats reports. We’ve introduced a matching volunteer identifier in both reports – a step in the right direction for those among you who like to do your own data processing.

Rota Selection added to Stats > Service Delivery

You can now limit the Service Delivery report so that it shows only selected rotas if you want.

Request swap on affected shifts when going inactive

When going inactive, users can now opt to swap out of any affected shifts, rather than just pull out of them (assuming their organisation uses swaps).

Updated My Account Page user interface

An improved design for the My Account page makes it easier for volunteers with multiple accounts to fit them all onto the screen at once, as well as showing the roles they hold in each of their organisations.

Invoice Details Page

You can now view and update the details we use to generate your annual Three Rings invoice from the Admin tab, providing a contact address and details of your turnover so we can fairly assess which pricing band your organisation comes under.

Two new properties

We’ve added two new formatted text area properties in which you can store volunteer information: ‘Comments’ provides a generic area to store volunteers in addition to ‘About Me’, and ‘Exemptions’ provides a space where you can note any special rules about shift types that they won’t be asked to do. (Remember we’re always happy to consider any suggestions for new properties that your organisation will use, and accepted suggestions are normally added in the very next release of Three Rings.)


Note that There’s no ‘Best Tester’ feature in this release: Rebecca, the Best Tester of Milestone: Quintessence, was a little late letting us know which feature she wanted to prioritise, so they’ll instead be two ‘Best Tester’ features coming in the next version of Three Rings – Milestone: Technetium, due this July!

New Feature: Core Roles

Up until now, every single organisation using Three Rings has automatically been given an ‘Everyone’ role. This role sets the minimum level of permissions your volunteers have. Of course, other roles can grant extra permissions, so in general the system has proven to be fairly flexible: you can assign roles to your volunteers matching their roles within your organisation, giving them the permissions they need. When a volunteer’s role within your organisation changes, you can change what roles they have on Three Rings: it’s one of the ways we make sure the system works around you, instead of making your organisation change to suit us.

But there’s one problem with the ‘Everyone’ role: it makes a very basic assumption – that everybody in your organisation should have the same base level of permissions – and, in the real world, that isn’t true.

Of course, for many organisations, this assumption works OK. Let’s look at this set-up for the fictional Woodhouse Victim Support line:

Graphic showing how the Everyone Role grants basic permissions to everyone at Woodhouse Support Line
Woodhouse Victim Support Line has a pretty typical roles setup (click on any image to see an enlarged version)

All five volunteers in Woodhouse volunteer there as a listening volunteer, and so the concept of an ‘Everyone’ role granting the same basic level of permissions to all of them makes a lot of sense. On top of that, three specific roles exist, which grant additional permissions, depending on what that role is.

But what if an organisation wanted to do things differently? What if, a few miles away, Odford Samaritans has five volunteers as well, only two of them didn’t take calls at all: instead of being Listening Volunteers, they’re Support Volunteers – keeping the office in order, making sure there’s a good supply of tea and biscuits, and organising the distribution and emptying of donations tins.

Good for them! But they might not need – or be entitled to access – the same information as Listening Volunteers, and in most organisations the Listening Volunteers get that at least some of their key permissions from the Everyone role. Until now the only way to fix that has been by severely limiting the power of the Everyone Role, and then giving all the listening volunteers an extra role with more permissions:

Graphic showing how the Everyone Role fails to match the needs of Odford Samaritans
Odford Samaritans have a different approach to Woodford Support Line – and the Everyone role doesn’t match their needs very well

Because Odford are trying to support two different types of volunteers, they have to use a clumsy workaround, giving the ‘Everyone’ role very few permissions, and making two new roles to represent the two kinds of volunteers they have: Listening Volunteers and Support Volunteers.

On top of this, their Listening Volunteers have additional roles (just like they would at Woodford Support Line), and so Anne, Boris and Cathy end up with three roles, one of which (the mandatory Everyone role) is really just cluttering things up! It works, but it’s messy, and if your organisation is changing from having a single type of volunteer on Three Rings to having multiple volunteers, it’s can be a very long, complicated process to have to work through.

…Which brings us to Milestone: Strontium and the introduction of Core Roles.


What’s changing?

Once Strontium goes live this Saturday (22nd April), the “Everyone” role will no longer be a default role that’s automatically applied to absolutely everybody in your organisation. It will still exist, but it will exist as a Core Role (although, unless you change the name, it will still be called ‘Everyone’).

It’s worth stressing that you don’t have to change how you’re using Three Rings if you don’t actually want to – but there are some good reasons why you might want to! For example…

The biggest difference between the old Everyone role and the new Core Roles is that your organisation can have more than one, and your volunteers can have more than one. If the Everyone role has always worked fine for your organisation in the past, that might not seem to make much difference – for example, under the new system, the way roles work at Woodhouse Victim Support line might look like this:

What everyone?
Woodhouse Support Line can keep using their old ‘Everyone’ role pretty much the same way they always have…

As you can see, almost nothing has changed! And that’s because – if your organisation has been happy working like this – there’s no real need for you to change (although if you’d like to re-name your ‘Everyone’ role to something else, you now can!).

But what about places where the ‘Everyone’ role wasn’t working so usefully? Well, with Core Roles, things are a lot more exciting at Odford Samaritans! Now, instead of having to use a clumsy work-around to make Three Rings cope with their internal structure, Odford can use Core Roles to do this:

Graphic showing Odford Samaritans now making use of two core roles
…but for Odford Samaritans, having flexible Core Roles is a massive improvement!

The most obvious change here is that, that instead of the mess of roles Odford were having to use before, they now have a much cleaner setup – something much closer to what everyone else has been using all along!


Core Roles support End-To-End Volunteering

Core roles, however, can be even more powerful than this: any individual volunteer can have multiple core roles, meaning you can give people a different set of ‘baseline’ permissions based on the different types of volunteer you have in your organisation. Let’s take a quick look at how Puddleworth Homeless Helpline might use multiple core roles:

Graphic showing three core roles, some shared by multiple volunteers
An advanced use of Core Roles, reflecting a variety of organisational roles.

Here in Puddleworth, they’ve got three core roles – remember, you must have one (even if it’s your old ‘everyone’ role), but you can have as many as you like – and they’re using them to reflect the different kinds of volunteers they’ve got: Listening Volunteers, Trainees, and Outreach Volunteers.

Using Core Roles in this way might not suit everyone, but it can make it easier to represent complex organisational arrangements, by providing more flexibility than the old ‘Everyone’ role.

But in particular, we want to draw attention to one specific way Puddleworth are using their Core Roles: they’ve got one exclusively for their two trainees, Janet and Keith.

Having a special Core Role to assign specific – and in Puddleworth’s case, fairly limited – permissions to Trainees is a powerful change! Previously, of course, you could put Trainees on Three Rings, but the only way to limit their permissions was to set the ‘Everyone’ role to grant very, very few permissions – just like Odford Samaritans had to before Core Roles were introduced.

Doing that was complicated to set up, a little confusing to manage, and usually not worth the bother of arranging when you could just wait for the trainees to finish training. Now, with Core Roles there to simplify things, you’ve now got the option of introducing Three Rings to your potential volunteers much earlier:

Diagram showing Three Rings only helps the volunteer as they're fulling trained, as well as during their time as an active volunteer
Core Roles supports our long-term goal of providing an accurate reflection of a volunteer’s journey through an organisation

The advantage of bringing trainees onto Three Rings with a limited-permission Core Role is that it can make it easier for them to integrate into your organisation: everyone enjoys being part of a tightly-knit group of volunteers, but if potential recruits aren’t made to feel welcome early on, they can soon be put off, and a lot of goodwill (and training effort!) can be wasted just because it’s a struggle to bring newbies up to speed on the social side of the organisation.

By getting new volunteers onto Three Rings earlier, you can start to give them a better feel for the life of your organisation (even if it’s just a news article about the latest outreach event or an upcoming tin-shaking fundraiser), helping them to feel like they’re welcome, and a part of something bigger that much sooner than you could before.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the sort of thing we were talking about in our ‘Where Do We Go From Here?’ blog posts back when we had our tenth birthday in 2012 – the flexibility provided by Core Roles offers a big step towards End-to-End volunteering.

Core Roles aren’t just making it easier to manage complicated permissions systems like the example we saw in Odford: they’re making it easier for all our organisations to bring their volunteers together, sooner.

Milestone: Rhenium is here!

The latest version of Three Rings has been released (after a very slight delay!). Here’s a quick run-down of some of the new features we’ve included

Best tester feature: “Sign-uppable” to events

This was requested by Paul, our Best Tester for Milestone: Promethium (Milestone: Quintessence didn’t have a Best Tester because it was hardware-only!)

When you create an event in Three Rings volunteers can now sign up to say they’re attending! When you create an event you can now allow it to receive sign-ups (together with extra options to let you control the maximum number of volunteers that can sign-up, and a closing date for the signups to happen by). Volunteers who’ve signed up to an event can leave a comment on that event (visible to event administrators). And event administrators can even download the sign-up list, so it can act as an attendance list to check people off once the event starts.

Keys overhaul

Major changes have been made to the Keys feature: administrators will need to reinstall all of your keys by clicking the Install button on the Admin->Keys panel. New-style keys are faster to request, easier to install, and work in more browsers. They also have additional security features (including tools to help you track where they’re installed and remotely ‘revoke’ them from specific computers if need be), and give friendlier error messages if something goes wrong.

Hiding purged sleeping volunteers

The Directory now hides sleeping volunteers whose details have been purged by default. (You can display them again by clicking a link.)

Improved calendar synchronisation

Google Calendar (and other web calendars) should now automatically update when somebody signs up to a shift alongside you (or pulls out), if you’re subscribed. We’ve also improved the user interface for subscribing to your calendar, to make it easier to choose whether you want to download a one-off snapshot or to subscribe to future updates.

Creating accounts for people with another Three Rings account elsewhere

Volunteers with Three Rings accounts at multiple organisations recently gained the ability to merge these accounts after converting them to ‘self-managed’ accounts. We’ve now extended that functionality so that, when first creating the account for a new volunteer, you can link it to their existing self-managed Three Rings account: all you need is their username (and their permission!).

Support for “emoji” characters

Previously, if you tried to use your smartphone to enter “emoji” characters (standardised graphical smileys and emoticons) into news items or comms messages, you would see an error message. We now support these special symbols so you can enter them freely (however, note that not everybody’s phone or computer can show them, or might show them differently).

Image showing various emoji
Some of the possible Emoji characters. If you want to include these in your Three Rings news and messages, you can now. (Click for a bigger version)

Fewer “Error 500s” at busy times

We’ve fixed a common (but basically harmless) “Error 500” that could happen if one or two people tried to make the same change at the exact same time (the change always went through, but one person would see an unfriendly error message).

Better support for Safari on MacOS

The visual editor used for News and Comms previously caused problems when used in some versions of Safari on MacOS; this should now be fixed.

New property

The “DBS Certificate Number” property has been added to the various properties available to show in Three Rings’ Directory. (If you have any particular properties you’d like to see in Three Rings, let us know: these can usually be added in the very next release).

Various bugfixes and performance improvements

As usual for a maintenance release, we’ve added a large number of behind-the-scenes improvements to fix bugs, enhance speed, security and stability, accelerate Three Rings, and support future development.


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