by Myles F. Suer

How the American Cancer Society is navigating its digital transformation journey

Apr 04, 2019
Digital TransformationIT Leadership

Blake Sanders, the ACS CIO, discusses how digital transformation starts with people and process, and requires business and IT leaders to envision more than just the past, but the future as well.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Blake Sanders, the CIO of American Cancer Society (ACS). After hearing Blake’s story about digital transformation at ACS — an organization that acts both as a charity and healthcare organization — I felt it would be a valuable story to share with other CIOs embarking on their own digital transformation journeys.

The starting point for digital transformation

In our weekly #CIOChat, we have discussed many times how the starting point for digital transformation is people and process. This was certainly the case at ACS.

Before their digital transformation, ACS consisted of 13 separate organizations, each with its own IT structure, financial operations and leadership. To improve coordination and efficiency, ACS had to undertake a business transformation before attempting digital transformation. The management team consolidated ACS into one corporate entity. They rationalized all their business processes, associated technical support, and processes enablement.

Once unified, management could figure out how to transform ACS digitally. This process began with a lot of collaboration and communication, then moved to enablement of the business across multiple digital channels, including web, mobile and social. 

How has digital transformation changed ACS’ business mission?

According to Blake, digital transformation has acted as an enabler of their existing business and business models, but it has, also, become “an uplift and enabler” of new ways of doing business.

Referring to the Deloitte CIO Leadership Model, Blake says that he works as a co-creator wherever possible. Sometimes a CIO must lead the transformation process. When this happens, IT needs to find a business partner. IT often knows what is possible technically. For this reason, IT can start the process before the business thinks about the opportunity for transformation. Other times, the business will come to IT and identify barriers preventing them from delivering on their mission.

Blake says that the more social media they did, the more it changed their existing business model. Being able to dynamically deliver on their mission has made ACS more efficient at event donation.

At the same time, digitization has transformed how they deliver services to customers and made them more effective with caregivers and patients. For example, ‘Service Match’ is a digital business service that wasn’t possible prior to ACS’s digital transformation. Service Match’s aim is to connect cancer patients with potential drivers, since patients cannot drive back from their appointments. Just like Uber, this service requires location and presence to work. Attempts at delivering this service before digital transformation never got off the ground. ACS had tried staffing a phone bank to connect patients needing rides with drivers. But that manual approach wouldn’t scale. And the organization found itself with more cancer patients than drivers. To remedy this problem, ACS linked to Uber and Lyft. This way they pay for drivers when driver demand exceeds volunteer driver supply.

How was your organization’s start for its transformation journey?

Getting started with digital transformation was not that hard, Blake says. Current systems were insufficient: This was clear to everyone in IT and the business. Their systems were not loading with appropriate times. Workflows were hard to use. Everyone knew that it was the time to modernize.

But even with consensus, Blake says, there was genuine anxiety about fundamentally changing how people work. Some people had been using legacy business processes for many years. “The reality is, they were changing the company and what people do,” says Blake.

What needed fixing before transformation could occur?

ACS had many foundational elements in place. They had already made themselves the single source for information on cancer research with The site is the authoritative source for curated cancer articles.

But Blake and his team saw the opportunity for ACS to do even more. If they connected a CRM to curate cancer articles, they could move away from unintelligent search. Why should someone have to enter the same information every time they returned for more information? Why couldn’t ACS offer a digital customer experience? Their goal was to alter the experience of volunteers, caregivers, and patients. To do this, they wanted the system to remember who is searching and what types of information they are looking for. With this information collected, they could deliver an intelligent experience through any channel. This is like what Nordstrom has done in retail. The trick is to use CRM to create context. The next step in ACS’ journey is to use AI to suggest content derived from learning.

Do-it-yourself fundraising?

At the same time, ACS wanted to offer more flexibility for its donors. They wanted to enable donors to change how funds are raised. They wanted to enable, in particular, new fundraising models and approaches. In the past, they had two major events, “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer” and “Relay for Life.” But donors want to engage them with different models. Yet they needed to connect them to their systems. Their system now allows them to build their own event—for example, a pub crawl.

What innovations have you been able to deliver as a result of their investment?

One of the biggest things Blake’s team has delivered is mobile enablement of their revenue generating events, such as Relay for Life and Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, which had no real mobile presence before. They also created the digital platform for connecting volunteers to people who needed assistance getting to and from their cancer treatment center. Service Match enabled their overarching “Road to Recovery Program” to extend to volunteers around the country and now fuels thousands of patient/volunteer interactions annually. 

How have your investments changed how you interact and support cancer patients?

For their mission programs, Blake says that they are creating connections that otherwise did not have existed before:

“From peer-to-peer and team-based fundraising events, we have been able to increase their capability in digital channels rather than relying on offline donations (checks, cash, etc.), which is reducing barriers of entry for our constituents. This then adds fuel to allow for those constituents to engage with ACS in ways that are more personal to them.  These DIY efforts have taken root on their own and have grown over time to become a sizeable portion of our event portfolio.”

How did you go about architecting a digital ACS?

“Everything obviously needed to start with application rationalization,” Blake says.

They started by modernizing the organization’s CRM and then financial systems. They had been on a 15-year-old instance of Siebel. For this reason, Blake says their infrastructure and architecture needed to move away from an offline batch model to a more real-time enterprise model with Salesforce at the center of their relationship management platforms.

To do this, they deployed multiple modules including donor management, event management, case management, customer management, and account management all within one enterprise platform. In addition, they tied these into this their financial services and support by integrating the NetSuite enterprise resource management system to Salesforce, along with Coupa and Concur for source to pay and expense management respectively. 

ACS tied all these systems together through a single integration platform – Dell Boomi – while also integrating with 3rd party event platforms such as Blackbaud, PledgeIT, CrowdRise, and Classy. All inbound event participant activity and associated transactions flows now pass through a single unified vendor interface via Boomi that normalizes the various external transactional values to a single set of enterprise coding standards, so that all sources effectively speak the same business language. This data is then stored in Salesforce and NetSuite as a set of normalized transactions.

What has been realized to date on the transformational agenda?

The transformation to a single enterprise from a technology standpoint was realized over the last five years, which included unifying the corporate back office under Office 365. The Mobile Application for event fundraising, as well as the Service Match tool to connect patients to volunteer drivers, was similarly released during the same timeframe. 

Since then, ACS has been working on completing the digital transformation of their core technology (the Salesforce and NetSuite project mentioned before) to migrate from Siebel. This three-year project ended in March, with all systems going live simultaneously.

What elements could be applied elsewhere in healthcare or for other charitable organizations?

Nearly everything mentioned to this point could be used by other providers. Blake says that they used Salesforce’s framework for non-profit organizations. He says that they tried creating something as close as possible to an out-of-the-box solution as they could, but there was still plenty that they had to build custom. Blake indicates that this process of customizing on the Salesforce platform plays to its strength. They tried as much as they could to find partner to create the service (SaaS) solutions they needed and integrate them with their enterprise architecture, instead of trying to build their own. 

“Building solutions from scratch is not our core competency,” says Blake. “There’s no reason for us to try to become a software company when we need to be devoting as much of our time and resources as possible to fulfill our lifesaving mission.”

What lessons could you share on getting management behind the undertaking?

“For us, it was a little bit easier, since the entire company was straining under the old solution,” Blake says. “It was a simpler business case to make, given that the solution was so old.  Barring that, the best advice I would give readers is make the case in a business context rather than a technical context.  No amount of ‘but-it’s-a-modern-platform’ thinking will help you build consensus across the organization. You need to be speaking in terms of business enablement, utilizing guiding principles that speak to the enterprise strategy. For us, that included guiding principles aligned to provide a simplified, standardized, secure, efficient, and effective enterprise.  These translate to increased business effectiveness while reducing operational cost, ultimately leading to a higher percentage of donor dollars to be utilized for mission.”

How often do you share progress and updates with key stakeholders?

“It differs, based on the stakeholder,” Blake says. “Early on, updates were monthly as we were generating current state assessments and future state vision. This increased as the project continued, and now that status is weekly direct to the CEO, and bi-weekly to executive leadership across the company. As you go down the chain, that information exchange differs based on the stakeholder.  We shared company-wide updates via live webinar on a quarterly basis, and now at the end of the project we’ve gone to near real-time communication with our corporate intranet, which includes a discussion board. (We’re using Yammer.)”

What is next when this is completed?

“What we’re building, as big as it sounds,” Blake says, “is still a foundational product. We intend to increase our digital footprint by connecting that foundation to all of our information delivery channels, which include our website (  We also intend to create digital communities, the first being our Volunteer Community so that volunteers across the country can connect with the Society and provide help where they can.  This includes a method by which they maintain an ‘interest’ profile and search volunteer opportunities that match not only the times they are available, but their own skillset. This will then extend beyond just the volunteer experience to include communities connecting caregivers and survivors to ensure patients receive the best information they can along their journey. We’re also releasing a collaborative community of researchers so that we can build connections among the research community to force multiply their efforts.”

Any lessons worth sharing with other CIOs?

“For a project of this magnitude, it’s important to participate at all levels,” Blake says. “You need to be able to go from a high-level board discussion to a low-level tactical discussion within the project to ensure success across the entire program. This was also too big for just one executive sponsor. On this project, the executive sponsors included himself, our Senior Executive VP of Field Operations, and our Chief Administrative Officer.”

Without this partnership, Blake believes the project would have taken much longer and may not have provided the impact the business needs. This was much more than just a digital overlay of current process. “We literally changed the way we do things at a business process level throughout the entire company, so participation at the sponsor level from multiple executive leaders was key.”

It is clear from Blake that transformation is a journey. It comes in steps starting with people and process. It requires alignment with the business and a willingness of business and IT leaders to envision more than just the past but the future together. This is what Blake and his team has demonstrated at ACS.