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Salvation Army CIO uses IT to support nonprofit

o Todd R. Weiss
30.04.2008 kl 00:11 |

Nonprofit doesn't mean low-tech at the Salvation Army.

 

Nonprofit doesn't mean low-tech at the Salvation Army.

As the CIO of the Salvation Army's USA Western Territory since 1997, Clarence White is responsible for running IT operations for chapters in 13 western states that are linked together in a cohesive operation to provide social services to millions of needy people.

But if all you know about the Salvation Army is the red kettles and the bell ringers during the holidays or the familiar chain of thrift stores run by the agency, then you're missing a lot. Inside the Western Territory's IT department, there are innovative projects going on as the nonprofit agency seeks to do the most it can with the fewest dollars so that it can put most of its money into its core mission.

White, 45, was previously CIO for the Salvation Army in Canada for nine years. He also worked in IT for PricewaterhouseCoopers Information Technology Consulting practice and at the global chemical manufacturer ERCO Worldwide (USA) Inc. in Toronto.

His 75-person IT staff supports about 6,000 employees. White, a 2008 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders honoree, recently spoke about how his department stays on the cutting-edge of technology to serve its users.

Are IT needs different for nonprofits like the Salvation Army or are they basically the same as in for-profit businesses? They're very similar, other than the fact that we have so many diverse activities.

In our business, one of the key differences is that we do end up developing a lot of our own software rather than purchasing it. Our business is different. We're not manufacturing a product and selling it. And we don't have the same levels of regulations and scrutiny that for-profits sometimes have. So therefore the off-the-shelf products sometimes just don't fit what we do. They'll be bloated in certain areas and not applicable in certain areas.

The second reason is because we found it to be more cost-effective. When we develop it ourselves, we don't have to pay license fees per seat. Obviously, we're very cost-sensitive. It would only work if we were good at developing software, and we are.

Does that mean you are also using open-source software to save money? No, we do not use much open source because we're a very old organization, founded in 1865. We were well into technology before the open-source craze, and we had a big investment in Microsoft technologies for quite some time. They give us excellent deals, excellent support. They're very generous with us. And with that level of investment, it would be more costly for us to jump ship and put all our efforts into open source than it would be to continue on this path we're on.

That could change at some point in time and when it does, we'll always go where that value is. We're seeking more than lower cost, we're seeking better value. Right now, we have a large investment in Microsoft and IBM because we're a Lotus Notes user. Our investment is too big to jump ship on that, and for so-called free software.

What do you have to support in IT at your agency? The retail stores are a very small part of what we do. In the stores, we have point-of-sale terminals and data collection and the credit cards are processed every day.

But behind that, we have the whole infrastructure that collects the items that we sell in those stores. Really, that's more of a technical challenge than the point-of-sale part of it. We have call centers and a matching Web site where donors will call or go online and tell us that they have goods that they want us to pick up. We have operators to schedule that and we have trucks that will pick up the items. We have systems that automate that whole process and that's all available online as well. That is the same database that our agents in our call centers use.

When those goods are collected, they go to one of 25 warehouses, where they're sorted and priced and sent to any one of our 160-some stores where they're sold and tracked. That whole line of business only exists to support our rehabilitation industry, that's all it's for. The proceeds go straight back into our adult rehabilitation program, which is a residential program for men and women who are suffering from substance abuse. There's literally dozens of other programs, all the way from food banks to hostels, to hospitals and to church congregations.

And all of these activities are supported by your IT department? Every one of these things has an IT infrastructure behind it. The bell ringers -- we capture incredible data about those bell ringers, believe it or not.

It looks like a pretty unsophisticated operation, but we know how productive each of our kettles are, how productive our bell ringers are. We capture all the demographics about who's ringing the bell at a particular kettle, where the kettle is, what time of day, how much income it brings in. It's pretty simple. We take the kettles down on a periodic basis and count the money that's in them. We know who stood at the kettle at that particular time. We capture that in the database. Therefore we have all these statistics on how much income per hour or per person, then we can compare demographics on how productive kettles are in one location or one store, say in front of a Wal-Mart or a Target, and we can best deploy our labor and get the maximum returns.

What are some of the software applications that you have to build for yourselves? We have our own social services case management system. There were things out there, but they're generally geared for chapter-based organizations where you might have software installed in a local office and you might have several hundreds or even thousands of social services clients and the data entry for that.

But for us, since we run a network of social services operations across 13 states, we have millions of social services clients and the tens or even hundreds of millions of transactions with those clients, so typically, the things that are out there, just aren't scalable to that kind of volume. Whereas maybe in some other organizations they might install something locally, we do run our social services application from our data center and our social services caseworkers access it over a network, and all of our casework information is stored in a central database. That gives us lots of opportunity to better serve those people who come into contact with us.

For example, if somebody comes in and they need a basic food basket or something, they might come to one of our outfits that does that, and we give them a food basket and we track some basic information about it. Let's say later they need some kind of substance abuse rehabilitation or something like that, well, we have a record for them now and they're connected and we can see a whole case history for them. And we're better positioned to provide them a higher level of service, and the flip side of that -- let's say you have an opportunist out there who wants to go from one office to another getting vouchers for food or whatever -- we have the ability to track or identify that as we keep all this information in a coordinated way. It gives us the ability to identify people who would try to take advantage of the system and to provide those who need the most help a higher level of help.

We didn't see anything in the market that could do that, so we developed our own. At any given time, there are literally hundreds of users using that concurrently, hundreds of caseworkers and millions of individuals.

Has IT become more important to the mission of your agency in the last few years or have you always kept track of this information in the past? Yes, it's much more so today. Generating money, the fundraising, has become more complex, more sophisticated, more difficult, more competitive.

There's a huge IT investment in that activity, as well as the numbers of people who we serve in various different ways, just to track the information concerning their treatment and the cost of running our various outfits. It seems to have grown substantially over the last 20 years or more and the only way I can think of to keep track of it is through sophisticated information technology. And when you've grown like we have, over a period of more than 100 years, sometimes different parts of the organization will continue on under their own inertia unless you have the ability to critically look at those businesses and see how effective they are.

And IT has been a terrific help with that, in using data mining and business intelligence to determine our effectiveness in various areas of our ministries. And you couldn't do that without IT. Only by pruning those areas that are weak and identifying the areas of strength and encouraging those, that's how the organization stays vital. We've got some great applications that do that.

We've been gathering statistics and financial information about our various organizations for decades and decades, and we never really did that much with it. But with the availability of business intelligence technologies, we developed some really good applications, and because we are a certain size -- we have over 1,000 centers of service -- we can compare our units with ourselves. We have a basis of comparison to know how effective a ministry in a particular location is. We've developed formulas that compare the services that go on in our different locations with the others around the territory, and we can determine what units are not doing well, where we need to put our efforts in to and where we need to prune.

We can't rely on profit and loss to see how effective we are. It's a lot easier in a for-profit company, where they look at shareholder value and return on equity. We don't have any of that. We have to look at what we do and how much it costs. And pretty much that'll tell you how effective we are.

So we developed our own formulas. And the inspiration for that came from some unusual places, like I read Michael Lewis' book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. It's a book about baseball -- the Oakland As. They identified in the Oakland As some undervalued statistics to help them find Major League ballplayers who would help them put a winning team out with low cost. So we said, wow, we have all the statistics that we could apply to that same kind of logic using our statistics in our business to identify who's doing the best with the resources they have. And we did that.

We developed algorithms that try and sort through all of the statistics that we have and try to identify the most valuable. That's a really effective use and innovative use of technology, which is to some degree game-changing, I think, for a nonprofit.

We have a long history of interest in technology. Even in our earliest days, the founder of the Salvation Army, his name was William Booth, in the mid-1800s, he was one of the first people to use an automobile to travel around and visit the troops and spread the good word. So even back in those days, we were kind of progressive on technology and that's been our history.

Are you looking at new technologies, including streaming media and other Web 2.0 features, for use by the Salvation Army? Look at one of our Web sites. It's called Saytunes.com.

We built this because we have a large ministry to youth. Youth are interested these days in MP3s, and make their own music, so we created this site where young people can come and post music they create or record in some way. It's been hugely popular. All developed in-house.

Hundreds of people come from all over the world, you can see where they're from because we have band trackers ... to show you on the globe where they all are and they post their songs and people comment about them. You can download them or ... you can listen to them on the site, all original music. You can vote on them.

We'll use our Web sites and IT infrastructure to continue to encourage and attract a new generation of people who support us and who want to volunteer to help us.

Keywords: Internet  Software  IT Management  
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