Our History

The History of Three Rings

Since 2002, Three Rings has worked 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!

Early Innovation and Adoption

The Niris Logo
The Niris logo. (The elephant is called ‘Dumpling’). Image retrieved from web.archive.org, 12/07/2015

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.

An ancient Rota list from the pre-Three Rings days
Not only did you have to walk up a steep hill to sign up for a shift, you’d often have to decipher terrible handwriting once you got there!

Back then, 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 more than the annual budget of the entire organisation.

It was a big disappointment for a lot of Nightlines, 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!

And as it happened, one of the Nightliners in Aberystwyth – Dan – had already had an idea that could help those other volunteers…

The core of our philosophy

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 our belief that professional software for third sector organisations shouldn’t force charities to choose between effective volunteer management and essential upkeep and publicity.

Three Rings Rota in 2003
Believe it or not, this was once so cutting edge people often didn’t believe they could get it free!

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.

The old 'Red Phone' logo of Three Rings Ltd
Our first logo was very tightly focused on our Helpline-based clients

That’s how, in 2009, Three Rings Limited came to be formed, so that we could begin to sell Three Rings – at the lowest prices we could manage – to more and more organisations, starting out with three pilot Samaritans branches in Wales.

Conversion to a CIC

It’s also why – as part of our 10th anniversary celebrations in 2012, Three Rings Ltd was converted into a Community Interest Company, and we became a formal not-for-profit as Three Rings CIC.

Under this arrangement, 75% of our annual profits are re-invested in the company,  5% are given to open-source projects (in recognition of our debt to the Open Source community which creates many of the trusted, powerful tools and languages that make Three Rings such a stable and affordable choice for so many organisations around the world), and 20% are given to charities reflects and re-affirms our commitment to supporting the work of volunteers and charities.

But, even if our core mission has stayed the same – delivering the best possible software to worthy causes as cheaply as possible –Three Rings itself is always evolving.

Three Rings CIC Logo
Our current logo was very kindly created for us pro bono by graphic designer Philip English

Back when Three Rings was only helping a handful of Nightlines – back in what we now call the ‘Jukebox Class’ of releases, we released a new version of the system two or three times a year, in line with the University holidays.

We maintained that schedule through the early years of the Elemental Class, but as the range of organisations we supported kept growing, and Samarians, refuges, and community centres began to use Three Rings to for their Rota and Volunteer management, mapping releases to University terms made less and less sense.

So, after Milestone: Krypton was released in June 2013 we moved to a fixed release schedule of four updates per year – roughly one per season, with each ‘winter’ release designed to focus more on maintenance than on new features.

Because Three Rings is an online service, there’s never anything for our users to install – all of that happens at our end, and everyone gets the new features immediately after the release is complete: users can just log in to find the system’s been upgraded (although we recommend you read the system news message that pops up so you know what’s changed!).

Where we’ve come from

For us, it’s also quite nice to look back on where Three Rings used to be.

An old 'Spring' theme from Three Rings 1
Very early versions of Three Rings changed appearance with the season – a butterfly in Spring, bright sun in Summer, a falling leaf in Autumn, and a pair of snowflakes in Winter. Now we have clients as far afield as Australia and New Zealand, that wouldn’t work so well!

The challenge to make Three Rings suit the operational needs of such varied clients across the third sector is part of what makes volunteering with Three Rings so rewarding, but back then we thought we’d support around 40 people at one organisation – which explains some early designs that now seem totally bizarre: like only having a single rota, with a single shift per day, and a maximum of two slots for volunteers to sign up!

As the oldest volunteer management system of our type, we’re proud of how Three Rings has evolved over the years – particularly since most of the changes we’ve introduced have been suggestions or requests from our users! We’re always happy for you to get in touch with a feature suggestion for the future – but it’s nice to look back on where we’ve come from too.

It would take far, far too long for us to list every single change we’ve ever made to Three Rings, but – if you’d like to get a small idea of some of the ways we’ve evolved over the years, you can click on the Accordion tabs for each ‘Class’ of releases below, and learn what the ‘headline’ feature of each version of Three Rings was.

Past Milestones of Three Rings

The current generation of Three Rings releases – the River Class – began with the release of Milestone: Amain in 2017.

  • Milestone: Amain  – June 2017

The Three Rings Help pages are re-integrated into Three Rings itself for the first time since Milestone: Jukebox

The ‘Elemental Class’ of Three Rings releases was the first to follow a predictable alphabetic pattern – although that did require some creativity from time to time, since there are no known elements whose names start with J, Q, or W!

As a result, Milestone: Jethrik was named after a fictional element from Doctor WhoQuintessence after the ancient Greek theory of five elements, and Milestone: Watson because all the other milestone names of this class were ‘elementary’…

  • Milestone: Zirconium – February 2017

A new Stats report that lists changes to shifts (signups, pullouts, confirmations and swap requests) over a date range, by volunteer.

  • Milestone: Yttrium – November 2016

Role-Based visibility gives organisations the ability to ‘group’ volunteers together using core Roles, and then set limits on which groups can see other groups.

  • Milestone: Xenon – August 2016

Longer shifts can now run for up to a week, replacing the old limit of 23 hours 55 minutes.

  • Milestone: Watson – May 2016

Comms overhaul means users can now type into an auto-completing field to specify which Volunteers or Roles a message should go to (in place of the old process of clicking a checkbox for every volunteer to include.

  • Milestone: Vanadium – February 2016

Organisations can now choose whether to hide or display iCalendar subscription messages in the system logs.

  • Milestone: Uranium – December 2015

Volunteers can now verify the email addresses via their Directory or My Account pages to opt-in or -out of notifications including a ‘weekly digest’

  • Milestone: Technetium – July 2015

Users that volunteer at more than one organisation using the same account can now specify a ‘primary’ organisation which will be automatically selected on login.

  • Milestone: Strontium – April 2015

Organisations can now define ‘core’ replacing the mandatory ‘Everyone’, core role.

  • Milestone: Rhenium – January 2015

Volunteers can now sign-up to say they’re attending an event, and events now have an option to list both sign-ups and the maximum number of volunteers that can sign-up.

  • Milestone: Promethium – July 2014

Self-Managed Accounts: volunteers choose their own username, reset their own password, and use a single username and password to log in to all of their Three Rings.

  • Milestone: Osmium – April 2014

Roles & Experience Levels have been merged and expanded. Signup rules now allow you to model more complicated situations.

  • Milestone: Neodymium – January 2014

Administrators can ‘split’ a single shift into two shifts as needed.

  • Milestone: Magnesium – October 2013

A new a list of upcoming gaps and swap requests is available from the Overview page, tailored to the user and only including shifts they can do.

  • Milestone: Lutetium – August 2013

iCal feed allows users to import their coming shifts into Outlook, Apple Calendar, Google Calendar, or any other standard calendar software.

  • Milestone: Krypton – June 2013

All volunteers will now be able to view the content of messages they’ve sent through Three Rings’ Comms system.

  • Milestone: Jethrik – October 2012

Users can now change their Directory photo using their computer’s webcam, and have it uploaded to their Directory page immediately.

  • Milestone: Iridium – November 2011

Control over the permissions of individual Directory Properties allows Admins to restrict which Properties are visible to particular Roles.

  • Milestone: Hafnium – February 2011

Rota administrators are now able to drag-and-drop volunteers around the rota.

  • Milestone: G-124 – September 2010

Admins can now use the ‘Features’ section of the Admin page to disable parts of Three Rings that their organisation doesn’t want to use.

  • Milestone: Gallium – May 2010

It is now possible to view the Directory in either the classic “buttons” (pictures) view, or as a list of volunteer details which is suitable for printing.

  • Milestone: Fermium – September 2009

Golden rule overrides signup window: rota managers can sign people up to shifts beyond the signup window.

  • Milestone: Erbium – July 2009

It’s now possible to sign up a series of shifts in the same slot every week (or in a number of concurrent weeks).

  • Milestone: Deuterium – April 2009

Confirmable shifts – it’s now possible for volunteers to ‘confirm’ shifts which were entered for them by an Admin. Confirmed shifts are marked on the rota with a green tick.

  • Milestone: Copper – January 2009

A report on which users have done a specific shift in the past is now available from the Stats page.

  • Milestone: Boron – August 2008

Rota days now have background colour indicating satisfaction or when they are empty.

  • Milestone: Aluminium – June 2008

The starchart now shows duties happening ‘tonight’ as incomplete until tomorrow.

The Jukebox Class of Three Rings were the original milestones and were (mostly) named after either musical artists or songs the Dev team listened to during the release (as with the KLF’s 3 a.m. Eternal), or tangentally from the features they incorporated (as in Fleet Street, which introduced the News functionality for the first time.)

In the early days of the project we had no idea how popular Three Rings would become, so names were chosen based on what ‘felt right’ rather than in the set alphabetic order we moved to later.

  • Three Rings: Jukebox

First test release of what was then called ‘Three Rings 2‘ – better known as Milestone: Aluminium!

  • Three Rings: Echelon

Improved password hashing and allowed Admins to see Sleeping volunteers.

  • Three Rings: Spores!

The first detailed statistics were introduced, replacing starchart-only model

  • Three Rings: Natalis Natalis

Allowed Birthdays to be logged in the Directory and displayed

  • Three Rings: Relay

Improved support for SMS messages being sent to Nokia phones(!)

  • Three Rings: Setec Astronomy

System Logs were added to the Admin panel

  • Three Rings: Strongbox

Introduced the first secure Filestore

  • Three Rings: Pyro

Volunteers could now leave by being “Slept”

  • Three Rings: Aloha

The Wiki system was created

  • Three Rings: Perfect Storm

Weather forecasts were introduced to the Rota

  • Three Rings: Incommunicado

The first Comms system was included

  • Three Rings: Fleet Street

Introduced the News function

  • Three Rings: Now With Random

Solved a bug in the random number generator

  • Three Rings: 3am Eternal

Introduced “Off Active Duty” – a precursor to Inactivity

  • Three Rings: Easter

Support for more than two volunteers per shift

  • Three Rings: Maple

Basic statistics now exist (simple starcharts only!)

  • Three Rings: Vorpal

Development of the first Events system

  • Three Rings: Valentine

The Member Directory was created, and the first ever Testing and Documentation teams were recruited

  • Three Rings: Offhook

Support for multiple organisations was introduced

  • Three Rings: Mortarboard

Allowed a maximum of two registered users to sign up to a shift