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Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland – Aid applications process

Diaconia fund
 is the church’s joint aid fund. It assists families and individuals in Finland who have encountered unexpected financial difficulties or emergency situations.

The purpose of the fund is to help overcome a difficult financial situation, after which the recipient of the aid will survive either on their own or with the help of society and the support of local church workers.

During 2021, a total of 612 applications were processed for a grant totaling 1,419,973 €. A positive decision was made on 525 applications and a total of 772,380 € in grants were paid through the parishes.

Previous process & tools

In collaboration with the applicants, applications are filled and submitted by the church diaconal workers. In total, there are more than a thousand diaconal workers in Finland.

Old way of working involved collecting the data into a PDF form which contained more than a hundred fields. Overall the process involved a lot of manual work involving PDF & Excel files and lots of email based collaboration. Especially reporting and monitoring the process was cumbersome.

Modernization of the process using Dataverse for Teams

The new implementation had clear primary goals

  • To get rid of laborious manual work steps
  • Improved & automated monitoring and reporting of the whole aid applications process
  • Increased security and better auditing functionalities

After collecting and documenting the business requirements, Forward Forever suggested possible implementation approaches based on Microsoft Power Platform low-code tools.

Low-code based implementation would allow Church IT to maintain and further develop the solution based on new requirements which might appear over time.

Implementation was started with a rapid Proof-of-Concept (PoC) phase after which it was decided that the solution would be built using the recently introduced addition to the Power Platform family: Dataverse for Teams

Key factors supporting this decision

  • The whole process could be implemented within Teams enabling usage of standard Teams features as well including discussions and document management. End users did not need to learn a totally new system.
  • Amount of data handled in the process Too much data and too extensive data model for using e.g. SharePoint as data storage
  • Security & user permissions requirements Different stakeholders have different access rights. E.g. diaconal workers only see their own data.
  • Backup, auditing & data archiving requirements including GDPR policies
  • Reporting requirements Power BI reports can be updated even real time when using Dataverse as database
  • User interface functionality requirements We needed a highly optimized user experience which was achieved using Canvas Apps
  • Amount of users & licensing There are more than a thousand end users for the solution and because Dataverse for Teams is included in the basic Microsoft 365 licenses, all the end users were already licensed.

The new solution

Aid applications are filled and managed within a dedicated Teams tab. Filling the form is a step by step process. There are many helping functionalities like commenting and automatic calculations.
Applications overview tabs lists all applications and their statuses.
Picture above illustrates the simplified overall architecture. Solution consists of multiple Teams groups serving the different stakeholders. Data access is granted throughout the solution using Teams based security groups which are easy to manage. Permissions approval process and auditing it was part of the implementation.

Reporting features were implemented using Power BI and reports were also embedded directly to Teams for easy access and consumption.

Security audit

Church IT takes security very seriously and as for them this was the first implementation built with Dataverse for Teams, they wanted to audit the security aspects of the solution. Second Nature Security was chosen as the auditor and they did a terrific job in deep diving to both technical and process related security aspects. Summary report pointed out a few improvement items and these were taken into account. Audit involved “end to end” aspects so Church IT also got valuable feedback related to identity & access management, device management and Microsoft 365 & Azure management as a whole.

The result

New solution was taken into use this spring and users have immediately seen the benefits.

Comments from Tiina Saarela, Diaconal work specialist at the Church Council: 

From the very beginning, the new system has worked according to plan. There are plenty of improvements compared to the previous system. The assistance process has been speeded up and the meaningfulness of the work has significantly increased. Now the employee’s time is freed up for thinking about the solution for the client’s financial problems and consulting, as unnecessary routine work has been eliminated.

The fund’s board members can easily access the original applications and see the discussion related to the preparation. The data security and data protection of the aid applicant has been improved, as data is no longer transferred manually from one document to another. Reporting can only be done by pressing a button on the required variables.

Through the process, we have learned a lot about the possibilities of Power Platform in general, and we have also taken these opportunities into use in our work. One of the goals of the project was to save the costs of one person per year. Previously, the Church Diaconia Fund had 3.5 employees. During three months’ time we had only 1,5 employees and we coped well with the work.

Deacons in congregations make applications and they have had to switch to a completely new system from a traditional pdf form to a Power Platform-based system. In 10 months 600 applications have been received from 500 deacons. The feedback has been positive throughout. “Great system! It’s great when the information comes instantly!”

Our experiences with Forward Forever have exceeded expectations. At the very beginning, our idea of reforming the system was correctly understood and Forward Forever quickly formed a demo of the new system. We have been able to participate in the development and our employees have been listened to carefully. The necessary changes have been quickly implemented. We have given the key expert who served us a nickname “Timo the magician”.

(Referring to Timo Turunen)

Project manager Nicky Ylen-Julin representing Church Council IT department is also happy about the end result: 

We at Church Council had our strategy updated in 2020, which supported experimentation culture in developing new solutions and processes. With Diaconia Fund application we wanted to find a low-code or no-code and also low-cost solution without compromising security. Luckily when all the remaining parishes finally transitioned to Teams in 2019 when Covid hit, we knew Microsoft’s Cloud services were viable solutions to experiment on.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland has been using Microsoft’s cloud services for years and the transition from SharePoint to Power Apps only felt natural, given the limitations of SharePoint. What struck us most as a positive side note was the customizability and how fast you can deliver proof-of-concept solutions with the Canvas App. The collaboration with Forward Forever has been more than a breeze, which gave our IT department a huge ease of mind being in the middle of Microsoft’s ever-changing, hard-to-interpret-guidelines.

At Forward Forever, one of our core values is to aim for impact and prioritize meaningful applications which have an impact on society, customer’s business operations and/or workforce well-being. Therefore this implementation and collaboration with Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland is very special for us and we were extremely happy to be able to succeed.

Related links (In Finnish)