Working in the not-for-profit sector is one of the most fulfilling jobs one could have, says this year’s CIO of the Year in the non-profit sector, Thomas Wardman.

The CIO of the Royal Conservatory of Music boasts a unique set of skills spanning business and administration, IT, and the creative arts.

He was tasked with reshaping the conservatory’s IT strategy late 2017 and bringing it into the 21st century. But what did that mean? Three things, according to Wardman: modernizing the organization’s sales, marketing, and finance capabilities. But this is certainly easier said than done, especially in the nonprofit sector, where necessary resources, like people, are often hard to come by.

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“You have to realize that I’m doing roughly 300,000-400,000 transactions per year. So I don’t have a staff that can go run through the entire building to check every single transaction,” he said.

Thomas Wardman, vice-president of IT for the Royal Conservatory of Music.

The Royal Conservatory of Music hosts nine different businesses under one roof, meaning Wardman’s responsibilities span across various departments that have to do with both administrative tasks and creative projects. For example, Wardman has to understand the creative needs of musicians supported by the organization, as well as the fundamentals of music education. The CIO, as a result, has to be functional, strategic, creative and an innovator, as music education is transformed by technology all the time. 

“I have done this through being transparent, being a partner to my peers and having the business acumen to convince skeptics that IT really can businesses that have been around over 100 years,” he explained.

Wardman says he got some pushback when a decision was made to implement Microsoft Teams, but as the pandemic ushered in the remote work era, those decisions turned out to be the right ones. Stay the course, he says, because doing the right thing is ultimately worth it. Thanks to some of those same investments, the conservatory has been able to conduct more than 35,000 remote exams for students.

Many not-for-profits have struggled significantly to keep up with fundraising efforts as the pandemic ushered in lockdown measures, according to Helen Knight, who runs TechforSocialGood.ca as a support hub for nonprofits wanting to learn better ways to work, and is the president of the Calgary Chapter of the CIO Association of Canada.

“It’s tough for a lot of them because they can’t really reinvest any of the money they do get into technology when there is a ton of administrative costs to keep up with,” she said, pointing out how hundreds of annual fundraising galas are no more. Organizations that have managed to innovate their digital footprint in recent months have, in some cases, received more donations than ever before via virtual auctions, she explained.

“The technology has always been a secondary concern behind getting the job done because when you work for a non-profit or charity, you’re doing it because you love what you do and want to do,” Wardman said. “But I’ve talked to other CIOs in the non profit space. They’ve been able to achieve their outcomes, but it’s tough.”