Not-for-profits' future is IT-enabled and IT-dependent

Oxfam's CIO David Horner spoke about the technology delivering NFPs greater transparency, accountability, and community engagement.
Written by Tim Lohman, Contributor

Think the not-for-profit (NFP) sector is a cushy place where competition, the need to survive, fickle customers, and scarce resources don't exist? You'd be wrong.

NFPs may not be driven by the need to turn a profit, but they have been under no less pressure than enterprises to change, evolve, and stay relevant.

In the midst of this competition, donors are becoming more discerning, demanding greater transparency and information on just how their money is spent.

Limited dollars also mean that better collaboration between staff and other aid providers is now required to maximise the value of NFP activities.

Given that NFP staff often work in disaster zones and other harsh and unforgiving environments, greater connectivity and security make sure they can carry out their important aid work.

It's no surprise, then, that NFPs are increasingly turning to IT to help them transform and stay on top of shifting organisational drivers and sector-wide trends.

Take Oxfam Australia as a case in point.

A few years back, the NFP created a CIO role and appointed ex-KMPGer, David Horner, as its new CIO. Horner was given a mandate to modernise Oxfam and help it better respond to change and new organisational drivers.

Not long after, Oxfam partnered with Thomas Duryea Consulting to begin a journey to the cloud.

In 2009, it completed a server virtualisation project, and this year has begun moving to the hybrid cloud through a refresh of its primary datacentre, using EMC hardware and taking on DR as a service and backup as a service. The project is expected to provide a 20 percent cost reduction in IT systems and better handle Oxfam's storage needs.

As part of the cloud journey, Oxfam has also begun using Amazon Web Services to provide a safe environment for the organisation to carry out test and development work on new website elements and features that support fundraising.

To better support its fundraising efforts, Oxfam is also about to replace its ageing 20-year-old Raiser's Edge CRM system. The NFP is considering commercial systems such as Salesforce.com and SAP, as well as open-source offerings such as CiviCRM and Sugar.

"Australia a very competitive fundraising environment, so our web and CRM systems need to be top notch," he explained. "In that web space, we have to be quite creative ... we need to be quite fast to market with stuff. Seventy percent of all donations come through the website, so it is critical that it stays up and that it is scalable, as well."

Maintaining donor engagement is another factor influencing Oxfam's use of IT. To this aim, it is leveraging its SAP ERP system to provide greater transparency on how the NFP spends donations.

"Not for profits will continue to need very high levels of financial transparency," he said.

"We have to be able to account for every dollar we get from our donors. We have to be transparent about where that money is being spent so our financial systems are very important and will continue to be."

Unsurprisingly, Oxfam is also turning to social media tools to help boost engagement between the donors, the organisation, and those it helps.

"Social is important, and our challenge is engaging our supporters and keeping them engaged with us," Horner said. "One of the big challenges for us and any not for profit is to close the gap between supporters and the people we are working for. Social media technologies provide ways for us to do that, so we have to leverage them."

Increasing collaboration between staff so as to maximise aid efforts is also a focus. To that end, Oxfam has been piloting a SharePoint deployment to allow staff working in developing countries to better access, edit, and share documents.

Oxfam Australia is also working with its global colleagues to help roll out a new organisation-wide platform called FC3 (Find, Connect, Collaborate, and Consolidate). The platform will function as a people directory, a global file sharing tool, a unified communications tool and intranet.

Better securing data held on smartphones and devices of staff working in the developing world, desktop virtualisation, a BYOD approach to personal computing, and greater use of mobility computing will round out Oxfam's road map and give it the NFP the tools that it needs to respond to sector-wide change .

"There is a growing professionalism within the sector in general, and within Oxfam," Horner said. "There is a growing recognition that we need to have professional operational systems in place. That's a sectoral trend that's coming across."

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