Finding a better way

Various mottos have been associated with the United Way. To name a few: “Unlock the potential.” “The best way to help the most people.” “Together We Get To The Heart Of What Matters.”

Of course these mottos weren’t created with the IT organization in mind, nonetheless they fit so well that they wouldn’t look out of place on the letterhead of the United Way’s various Canadian CIOs. Working together, they are unlocking the power of IT to ensure that the United Way, both locally and nationally, finds the best way of helping the most people.

For nearly two years, the heads of IT at five of the six largest United Ways in Canada have joined forces to look at the organization’s business processes and the technologies that support them. Their aim is to bring the best practices of the private sector into the not-for-profit sector. Their vision is of a world where people get the information that they need more easily and more cost-effectively – a world in which the United Way’s processes aren’t focussed inwardly on managing and manipulating the data, but externally, enabling support workers and agencies to get the information that they need easily, allowing them to focus on creating a positive impact in the community.

And many private sector CIOs would do well to take note of how these IT execs went about garnering support from the business and spearheading real business change in their organization. It’s an excellent example of that elusive “alignment” that is the Holy Grail of so many IT shops.

finding his dream job

David Cook has been a passionate supporter of the United Way for 22 years. He started as a volunteer with the Ajax Pickering branch and served on every committee of the board, ultimately holding the post of president and board chair for two consecutive terms. In the spring of 2002 Cook had a once in a lifetime opportunity – to bring his career in IT together with the charitable organization that he so ardently supported. And so he left his job as VP, Information Services and Technology for McGraw-Hill Ryerson in Whitby to become VP, Information Services & e-Business for the United Way of Greater Toronto (UWGT), the second largest United Way branch in North America in terms of dollars raised.

Newly arrived from the world of business, Cook made it his mission to find ways of applying the rigor and best practices of private-sector IT to the not-for-profit sector.

“The challenge is in finding ways of capitalizing on the learnings in the private sector. You can’t just drop them in. It’s a different sector; it behaves differently; it works differently,” said Cook.

Within a month of joining UWGT, Cook attended a meeting with four of his peers that would prove to be the launch pad for meeting that challenge head on.

beginnings of the business transformation coalition

In Canada the United Way is comosed of 126 autonomous and distinct organizations – some quite large and some small – headed by United Way Canada, which provides more of a support role than an overall governing role.

When Cook arrived in his new job, there had already been various small collaborative IT initiatives undertaken by various branches. And at the time, there was an initiative coming out of United Way Canada recognizing that the organization might benefit from looking at technology Canada-wide. With these things in mind – and with some specific issues that needed to be discussed among them – the CIOs of five of the six largest United Ways in Canada (Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Toronto) gathered in Winnipeg in May 2002 to explore what could be done with a more concerted effort among the larger branches. This was the beginning of what was to become known as the business transformation coalition, a group devoted to improving efficiencies in United Ways of all sizes across Canada.

“We basically positioned ourselves as the group that would leverage technology for all of the United Ways,” noted Cook. “Initially we were very focussed on how we could do this all at once. But we eventually realized that it was going to be a lot easier to get the collaboration required for five United Ways to move forward than it would be for all 126 at the same time. So we put our focus on the five large United Ways, while keeping an eye on what needed to be done to support the much smaller branches.

“We started off with what we called the strategic alignment of technology,” added Cook. “How could we leverage further cost reduction and efficiency in such things as the number of servers we have, the infrastructure, and the collaborative tools we have in place? We also looked at whether or not there was an opportunity to do bulk purchasing and leverage economies of scale.”

Realizing that there were many opportunities to capitalize on, the group began exploring its options in detail. But the realization quickly came that much of this was pretty routine and that this was not where they should be starting. Much greater opportunity would come from analyzing the organization’s core competencies and all of the support processes surrounding them – analyzing and really understanding how those processes could be streamlined so that they became quite similar at all Canadian branches.

“We were starting to get feedback from our large corporate customers that they wanted their workplace donors to have a common experience with the United Way, which is quite difficult if all of the processes in different cities are separate,” said Cook. “That led us to analyzing all of the processes supporting our core competencies and determining which ones we could harmonize.”

going to the top

When the five CIOs finally felt that they had worked out a compelling case for their approach, they went straight to the top, eliciting the support of their CEOs or presidents. These executives quickly saw that there were significant business benefits to be gained from the proposed initiatives and that this was something that needed to be done, not only for their own individual United Ways but also in support of the movement across Canada. So the CEOs themselves became quite passionate about the potential for the project.

In fact the CEOs continue to meet face to face about once a quarter in sessions that are facilitated by the project team that grew out of the proposals.

“We are helping the CEOs to wrestle with not so much the technology and process issues but with the governance issues,” said Cook. “If you have five separate corporate entities with their own boards of directors, how do you structure yourselves and how do you have the right governance in place to make sure that you can move together in a unified way, and in a way that enables the vendors to deal with a single voice? That is the area that the CEOs are working on.”

With the CEOs of the five original cities on board, the time was now right to ask United Way Canada to join in, and so the CIO from head office joined the CIO team and the CEO joined the senior executive group.

morphing of the project team

The stage was now set for finalizing the project team. Obviously it was better to have the business pull this kind of initiative than to have the IT side push it, so each of the five cities put forward one person from fundraising, one from allocations, and one from finance, along with their technology rep. It was soon realized, however, that this was not the right approach. If the objective was to drive towards consolidation and standardization, then it made sense to establish those common themes at the start of the process. The team had to build enough trust so that, for example, the person who represented fundraising was representing all of the United Ways. So the team morphed again, into one composed of two people from the operations side, one from fundraising, one from allocations and one from IT, the latter role being handled by David Cook.

A number of people on the original core team had had experience in doing detailed project plans. While in the private sector, Cook, for example, had been involved in large ERP and CRM implementations requiring a lot of consolidation. However, those involved in the project were doing it “from the corner of their desks”, trying to make the project happen with lots of passion but not a lot of time. Other priorities were pulling attention away from the project, and the team began struggling with timelines.

Two things happened to get the project back on track. First was the commitment of the CEOs to make the project the top priority and devote the necessary resources to it. Second was the decision to bring in a skilled facilitator who could control and focus a room full of leaders who all want to lead, as well as a project manager who could hold everyone’s feet to the fire on the deliverables.

Private consultant Dave Hawkins of Calgary came on board as the facilitator and Ben Smith, a ‘sponsored employee’ on loan from TransCanada Pipelines in Calgary, was given the job of project manager. Smith and Hawkins rounded out a seven-person team that would represent all of the functions and all of the United Ways together.

With objective third parties now in key positions, the way was clear for moving forward towards finding solutions that would provide benefits not only for the United Way as a whole, but also for the local branches. The objectives included finding ways of creating a better experience for donors, for volunteers, and for agencies of the United Way across the country.

issuing the RFI

In order to explore ways of harmonizing United Way processes, a number of subgroups were spun off to study them. For example, some people earmark their donations for a particular agency or philanthropy of their choice. The way various branches administer this type of donation is somewhat inconsistent – some charge a nominal fee for doing it, while others don’t charge a fee at all.

Most of this work on processes is now finished and the subgroups have reported their findings back to the business transformation coalition. With this information in hand, the coalition recently issued a large comprehensive request for information to 50 vendors, covering the whole gamut of the United Way’s core competencies.

“Originally we looked at going directly to a request for solution, which would have allowed us to speed up the process. But we decided that this was not the best approach for us, that in fact it would be better to do it in two phases with an RFI and an RFP, where there was clearly the opportunity for competitive bidding to take place. Transparency is very important for the United Way, so we made the process very open and transparent,” said Cook.

exploring centralization

The RFI drew some excellent responses that will allow the United Way to look at what technologies it might use and what changes it might make to its processes and organizational structures. The organization is also now in a position to look at its business models and determine whether or not they need changing.

Clearly what is emerging is the need for the United Way to look across its organizations in order to drive further economies. Towards that end, it is exploring centralized supporting mechanisms such as help-desk support, server administration, and firewall administration. More importantly, there is a need to support core competencies such as constituent relationship management.

“We are in the business of managing relationships,” said Cook. “We could have a donor who is also the CEO of a corporation and has a degree of influence from that. And that person may also serve on our board and be a volunteer, or might serve on the board of an agency. Understanding all of those relationships is critical to us because we are really in the business of leveraging that network of people to raise the resources to have the kind of impact that we need in the community.

The other side of this equation is the agencies that the United Way supports: understanding the programs that they have; understanding at the neighbourhood level what their assets are, what their challenges are; and being able to convene the right people at the community level so that neighbourhoods can address their own issues. This all underscores the need for the United Way to find the most effective ways of supporting these agencies. And again, the notion of centralization is one that makes sense for some of these activities.

Noted Cook, “We are thrilled that the responses from the RFI have shown that many of these business models do make sense. Now we need to dig into them in detail to flesh out the costs associated with them.”

the way ahead

This past December the project group and the CEOs came together to begin the creation of a memorandum of understanding on the governance of the project and how to move forward with issuing the RFPs. The five CEOs have now taken this memorandum back to their boards for approval. It is expected that in the late spring or early summer of this year, specific RFPs will be issued against the business models, technology, and consulting services that will be needed to accomplish the project’s objectives. Cook hopes that the analysis of the RFPs will be done and approval of the selected proposals obtained in time for implementation to begin in January 2006.

“What I am truly excited about is the implementation,” he admitted, “because that is the part where we start looking at our processes – what is the right process for each of our United Ways, how do we build it, how do we enable the technology, and how do we roll it out and go live with that? And ultimately all of that translates into us being better at our core competencies – the convening, the advocacy, the fundraising, creating that impact in the community – taking the United Way a giant leap forward in how we do these things, and strengthening the movement overall.”

It’s been an interesting journey for Cook since signing on with the UWGT, but in the end, he expects the results to be very worthwhile. “I suspect that by January 2006 the United Way movement will be very different than it is today. We’ll be on our way to creating processes that are more cost-effective and less onerous, so we can all focus on doing good works.” And that’s really what it’s all about. 047762

David Carey is a veteran journalist specializing in information technology and IT management. Based in Toronto, he is editor of CIO Canada.

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