by Mark Chillingworth

A source of much relief for charity CIO Marcus East

Dec 29, 20117 mins
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMedia and Entertainment Industry

As the nation looks to cut its deficit, it must also operate efficiently otherwise we will slip backwards towards further financial hardship, and nowhere is the pressure greater than in the public sector.

The pages of CIO have been filled with analysis and comment on the demands placed on public sector IT and also the wastage of funds through inefficiency in procurement, poor sharing and collaboration.

CIO columnist Jerry Fishenden, for instance, was involved in a government IT inquest, and now leads public-sector IT change in the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group.

The charity sector, sometimes dubbed the third sector, is often cited for its similarities to the public sector.

Charities need to ensure that the greater part of their income, which comes from donations, goes to the cause people are donating for, whether it be to relieve pain and suffering or protect wildlife and the environment. So the back office operation of charities has to be ultra-efficient and as small as possible.

One charity that is achieving this balance is Comic Relief and its CIO Marcus East shared with us how that is being achieved.

Golden rule It’s hard to believe, but Comic Relief has been with us since 1985 when it was founded by Four Weddings and a Funeral writer Richard Curtis and comedian Lenny Henry in response to the famine in Ethiopia.

Famed for its biennial Red Nose Day and the alternating Sport Relief spin-off (which kicked off in 2002), the charity is notable for its principle that every pound donated is a pound spent on charitable relief in the UK and overseas: this is known as the Golden Pound Principle.

As a result all operating costs such as salaries and IT operations are paid for by the charity’s corporate sponsors or by the interest earned on its banked funds.

Supporters of Comic Relief include national institutions like the BBC, BT and Sainsbury’s, but the charity has been criticised for these relationships because some feel that the power of BBC support in particular denies other charities publicity.

The next Sport Relief event takes place from March 23 to March 25 next year, and as East explains, the challenge for the organisation is that over this short period there will be masses of individual fund-raising events taking place, and all will need the support of the Comic Relief organisation and with it its IT infrastructure.

East reveals that Comic Relief has a diverse and complex IT team and infrastructure to support its goals.

The IT facility consists of a platforms division for its BI, CRM and financial systems, a team of architects, web developers, a web donations technology team to support transactions, and the future media and technology team.

“There are 76 people in IT in total across the five teams. It is large and that is because we are dependent on IT,” says East.

Comic Relief has learnt valuable lessons from the commercial world with East playing a part in the senior leadership team of the organisation and reporting to the COO. As IT leader he is part of the senior management team and its operational meetings. As a charity there is no executive board, as charities must by law have an independent board of trustees.

“The team here is dynamic and has a lot of different skills. There are 300 users of the IT systems these five teams provide. The finance director sees the potential of technology and that as an organisation you have to some ownership and direction of it for yourselves.”

Give and take That sense of ownership presents itself to the organisation as an ability to rapidly offer support to volunteers in their fundraising events and in the collection of funds for the charity.

East explains that as worthy as collecting buckets of change is, for the charities it adds a large level of process and therefore cost to the organisation.

“At the last Sport Relief there were 175,000 people taking part and I expect that will rise for next year’s event,” he explains.

“That fundraising will be in waves over the course of the weekend as people watch the TV show on the Friday night and then take part in or donate to local events taking place throughout the following weekend.

“When people donate a pound, a pound is spent on charitable action, so we are dependent on our technology to be efficient. All our applications and infrastructure are paid for from intellectual property licensing deals and Gift Aid donations, which is made clear in the selection of Gift Aid,” he says.

The monkey in the current PG Tips TV ads, for instance, is a piece of Comic Relief intellectual property.

With a bigger and better Sport Relief than ever before planned for the Olympic year of 2012, Comic Relief needed a new web platform to provide online registration, event management and fundraising facilities.

The web platform is the core application for the organisation, providing end-to-end information, registration, advertising, fundraising, fund collection and analytics.

“Our goal was to provide a self-service portal for participants to safely organise and collect sponsorship donations,” East says. He and his team didn’t just seek a new platform, they took the opportunity to reappraise their view on the IT they would use and decided that open source software best fitted the Golden Pound Principles of the organisation.

“The project began in November 2010. We explored the marketplace for a platform. We needed something that offered the best possible user experience,” East explains.

“We wanted to go open source to minimise the total cost of ownership to the charity and to not be tied to one technology and its roadmap.”

East was surprised to learn that the charitable sector is not a major user of open source software, mainly because bodies have often relied on direct support from technology providers for their campaigns.

This, he says, has led to charities’ IT ending up in what he describes as a series of technology cul-de-sacs.

“At Comic Relief we try to be long-term in our views and this project has a five- to seven-year plan to it. We wanted to avoid high licence costs for the charity, but also have a system that provided access to data as it was ongoing.”

Frost’s reports Comic Relief partnered with ibuildings, a specialist open source web development provider that specialises in bespoke applications. Knowing the dangers inherent in custom software development, East was up-front about timescales and mutual trust.

“Normally bespoke development adds a high level of risk and we cannot move the date of the event. So it was important that the relationships were honest,” East says.

The result is Frost, a platform for managing every part of a fundraising event that also provides BI reports back to the charity so that those involved know what type of events are the most popular and also which are the most successful at fundraising.

“One of the key things is that fundraisers can create their own events and add them to the Sport Relief website. The user experience was something fundamental to us. You create the fundraising event, submit it and then raise the funds through it.”

As head of future media and technology, East was also looking ahead and ensuring that the Frost platform would enable Comic Relief to add new methods of fundraising and communicating to this platform and not to have to go back out to the market for a new technology again.

“Two years ago fundraising was just beginning through a web page. There has been a shift to mobile devices and social media already and we have to be ready for the two-screen fundraising experience, where people watch the Sport Relief TV show, are inspired to do something and, using whatever device is in their hand, can search, enter or donate.”