Sweet Charity

A fifth of America's smallest not for profit outfits spend not a brass razoo on information technology. Most not for profits say they are starved of IT support. IT staff at these organizations are paid less than their peers in corporations and governments. Although there is no comparable survey of the local not for profit sector, the US results probably will not be much of a surprise to Australians working in local charities and used to performing miracles on the sniff of an oily rag.

Charities increasingly rely on information systems to support staff, manage fundraising drives and communicate with their stakeholders who may be spread over vast distances. However, it can be tough for a CIO to argue for 10 grand to upgrade the network when that money might buy a child a wheelchair. This is a sector where "Do more with less" is much more than an analyst sound bite.

I continue to believe that this is not just a charity but a business and we need to invest, and we won't get away with it running on the smell of an oily ragPaul Bunker amp;#8212 CIO Vision Australia

When the US-based Non Profit Technology Network published its first IT staffing survey profiling the sector late last year it revealed that the average CIO in the sector claimed a salary of about $US95,900 mdash; significantly less than peers in the corporate sector. This year the organization plans to conduct further research on whether job satisfaction, different workload and work/life balance compensates for the lack of remuneration.

Certainly the information systems managers in three of Australia's leading charities demonstrate that sometimes there are rewards greater than the folding stuff.

Ease of Access

Passion and politics are often acute in Australia's charitable organizations where normal rules of expectation and accountability can go astray as individuals or groups fight for what they believe in. "My CEO tells me that everyone is cooperating as hard as they can," Vision Australia CIO Paul Bunker says. "There is never any ill intent, but there is a lot of relationship management required."

With a board comprised of at least three-quarters blind or vision impaired people, the passion is understandable and sometimes that can bubble over. "There is always going to be a suspicion of sighted people," says Bunker. "I haven't experienced politics like this before but when you get down to it one on one, it can generally be resolved. Our CEO does his job at that level to keep staff on track. Blindness politics are very interesting but this organization since it merged has moved a long, long way."

Vision Australia formed in 2004 as the result of a merger between the Royal Blind Society, the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind and Vision Australia Foundation. The organization provides services to 41,000 Australian children and adults who are blind or vision impaired and also operates a national information library service. When the three agencies merged Bunker was presented with "a multiplicity of differing applications, network environments, ages of hardware and software". There seemed, he says, an almost deliberate intent on the part of the three agencies to set up completely different systems.

Many to One

Bunker's first task was to create a single information system to support Vision's 950 staff plus its volunteer workforce of about 2500. By November last year the first phase of the information systems integration was completed. This involved modernizing and consolidating information systems onto a single network, and upgrading one in four of the organization's desktops. Bunker will still have more integration to do following the December decision that the Royal Blind Foundation Queensland would also merge with Vision Australia.

Integrating disparate information systems is all in a day's work for most CIOs, but what few CIOs have to consider are the issues associated with information access by blind or vision impaired users. "A core part of our business is providing access to information, so one of the flagship areas is the library," says Bunker. "We are at the beginning of a complete digitization of the entire library."

Vision Australia has adopted the Digital Audio Information System (Daisy) standard for this project. Daisy is an internationally acknowledged standard for producing accessible and navigable multimedia such as digital talking books. "We, as sighted people, tend to flick through a book and look at the contents pages or chapter headings," Bunker explains. His challenge is to deliver that level of information accessibility to Vision Australia's community. "We structure information, so that if I'm a student and blind and the lecturer says summarize pages 400 to 404 of the text book, then the only way to get there if the information is not in Daisy is to fast forward through the material. Since January of this year all new material is in the Daisy format," he adds.

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Propagating Daisy

By creating a structured text file that is integrated with a narrated audio file it is possible for people accessing the information to examine digital books by page, section, chapter or through the table of contents or index. Daisy also permits an electronic text file to be synchronized with an audio file, electronic Braille files to be generated from electronic text and a digital text-only document to be read with a Daisy software player in combination with a Braille display or speech synthesizer.

"I've had a dual role in this project and worked with the general manager for business development who is responsible for library systems," says Bunker. One of the issues associated with running the library is managing the massive amounts of computer storage. At present Vision Australia has a 40-terabyte library that can be scaled to 100 terabytes. Ultimately the organization's goal is to have its library available as online downloads for its community. "The big impediment is copyright, but the general manager is working with the Attorney-General's [department] on that," says Bunker.

Besides meeting the information needs of its community, Bunker has to provide information systems for Vision Australia's own staff, 12 percent of whom are vision impaired. "This is the differentiating challenge," he explains. "The board said: 'The one thing we expect is that every application will be accessible'. So our mission really is that everything must be accessible."

Because of the board's directive, any upgrade mdash; however minor mdash; has to be assessed in terms of its impact on accessibility, which significantly reshapes traditional sourcing techniques. No longer are products selected purely on function and cost, but on accessibility.

"If we are selecting a financial application, the accessibility is the most important selection criterion. We have vision impaired accountants and the expectation is that they can do their job," Bunker says. "It creates a whole series of compromises between functionality and accessibility. There is a different dynamic with the vendors."

For some vendors the costs associated with making their products more accessible are just too great mdash; so "we end up with the vendors who have a more philanthropic approach", Bunker says. Microsoft, for example, has been a key supporter, and although some smaller vendors have found the accessibility issues too challenging, Bunker says that some niche vendors, particularly those supplying library applications, have been "terrific".

As far as applications accessibility is concerned, most is provided via screen reader spoken output. This means screens have to be constructed in an appropriate way. "Assistive technology is quite an expert area," says Bunker. Vision Australia has its own assistive technology group, some of whom are blind themselves, which works for clients and also supports Bunker and his team.

One of the areas where accessibility is still a challenge is in its donor management system, where accessibility is a "work in progress". However, it is a priority as "we don't survive very well without donors", Bunker says.

"I was a bit naive. I'd read up on accessibility, but until you experience it you don't realize the difficulties involved." The challenges are compounded by the reach of the services provided by Vision Australia. "With the client services model we are very focused on delivering information out in the field, often to small regional towns, and we have to support them." This is one of the drivers for the library being developed so that it can be downloaded from the Internet at any time from anywhere. "Access to material and information is at the core of living mdash; providing people with access to a train timetable, for example, that's the real area we want to work in."

Beyond Execution

Bunker has set himself the goal of being much more than an executor of ideas. He is working with the general manager for business development to explore how technology can be harnessed to make more information accessible to blind or partially sighted Australians. "That's where we want to push forward.

"I continue to believe that this is not just a charity but a business and we need to invest, and we won't get away with it running on the smell of an oily rag. The challenge is continually to get people back to thinking that this is not just a charity but a $70 million enterprise."

One of his particular challenges is finding the right people for his team. He has "an establishment of 25.6 and I supplement that with six or seven contractors". Bunker says he wants to expand the team but he struggles to get people, especially in the Sydney office. "We pay market rates, but at the lowest quartile; it's not unreasonable. "We do try to appeal to people who want to make a difference. But I'm not foolish enough to think that puts food on the table. I've got an ad out now for an operations team leader and I've had two applications." Once he does snare staff, however, he says it is easier to retain them because the work is interesting and diverse.

Bunker confirms that securing budgets for IT spending is very challenging in charities, "but my CEO and the board have been very supportive and have realized after a couple of presentations from me the mess we were in. We do okay but I could do with more people," he says, adding that in general he has been helped out by the fact that vendors have usually been "generous in their pricing structure".

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The Road to Salvation

It was April Fool's Day 2005 when Wayne Bajema took on the role of IT manager for the Salvation Army in Sydney. It was, he notes, a unique challenge, and radically different from his previous employer, a financial management firm, where to be a client "you needed a minimum of $150,000".

Although Bajema rose to the top of the IT pile in 2005 he had first joined the Salvation Army in 2001. "I wanted a new challenge. I was looking for something different. At the financial services firm the whole purpose in life was to develop wealth. Then it went through a takeover and the new management structure was far more predatory. I thought there had to be something more.

"The Salvation Army does a huge amount of work for the Australian community. You get the feel-good factor that you are contributing to the community. It is quite sobering to see how lucky most of us are."

Although the financial institution and the Salvation Army have radically different goals mdash; the financial company is there to make money, while the Salvation Army's mission statement is to help people mdash; Bajema says the technical challenges are quite similar. Maybe, but meeting them can be particularly challenging in a charity where money is scarce and the need for computing dollars competes with the need for dollars to feed and clothe people.

However, according to Bajema the greatest difference comes from the people using the technology. He now works with people who are not trying to make money; rather, they are trying to make a difference by delivering services to the community. "The people in those functions are very different from what is expected in the corporate sector," he adds.

Not surprisingly the people he now supports with information systems are "more creative and emotionally intelligent" than people in the financial services business. "Their life is about helping others rather than accumulating wealth. It makes it more difficult to deliver IT because they don't have the business grounding.

"Trying to get them to clearly define what they want is very hard," he says. This is compounded by the often transient nature of programs that the Salvation Army is involved in. "Maybe it's a government funded project, for example to run a women's counselling service in North Sydney and the government gives a 12-month funding. It makes it more difficult because of the transient nature of the service," Bajema explains.

Anchoring the attempts to create useful information systems is the Salvation Army Mission Information Service or SAMIS system, which maintains the group's client data mdash; tracking homeless clients or those going through drug rehabilitation mdash; and also keeps tabs on supplies such as blankets and skills. A good core data system is important, says Bajema, because the nature of the people who use the Salvation Army's services can be quite transient. "They might start in Sydney and pop up in Queensland."

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