Fund-Raising on the Fast Track

By Osman Mazhar  |  Posted 2009-04-10

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which depends on donations to fund its research, was experiencing a major shift in its fund-raising volume from offline to online channels. That put a strain on the organization’s existing fund-raising systems and infrastructure, prompting LLS to look for an alternative.

Osman Mazhar, chief architect for the society, played a key role in transforming the IT systems from one-off applications to a common services-based architecture. He architected a state-of-the-art online fund-raising system that was built in-house. It included a rich user interface and a series of front-end applications that would allow program participants to register themselves and manage their own fund-raising. On the back end, IT created a set of reusable services to feed the front-end interface.

As the world’s largest voluntary health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research, education and patient services, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, headquartered in White Plains, NY., aims to cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, as well as improve the quality of life for patients and their families. Since its founding in 1949, LLS has invested more than $600 million in research alone.

To achieve our goals, we depend on donations, both large and small, and over the years, we’ve developed a number of creative ways to raise money, particularly through event-oriented fund-raising. Programs such as Team in Training, Light the Night and the Leukemia Cup Regatta are among our most successful events.

Our flagship program, Team in Training, is responsible for raising more than $850 million since its beginning in 1988. The program, which offers amateur endurance athletes personalized fitness training in exchange for their individual fund-raising efforts, has grown to become the largest sports-endurance training program in the world.

During the past several years, thanks to promotion and word of mouth, we’ve seen a real spike in participation for Team in Training. Simultaneously, there’s been a massive shift of fund-raising volume from offline to online channels, mainly because of improvements in e-commerce and fund-raising technology. These two trends merged and put a real strain on our existing fund-raising systems and infrastructure, prompting us to look for an alternative.

Previously, we relied on an outsourced online donation service, which provided a personalized fund-raising Web site for each program participant. Donations were collected by the service provider and transmitted monthly to LLS. This system worked well for some time, as we were able to access the online channel relatively quickly and focus our efforts on other projects. Over time, though, as donations accelerated, the system couldn’t scale to meet the demand.

As a result, the outsourced application began to experience frequent outages and performance issues. Users were seeing their donation transactions fail or were mistakenly making duplicate donations. These performance problems were compounded by organizational issues because there were multiple owners of the IT infrastructure. The LLS IT group was burdened with managing customer support calls, often for issues that stemmed from the outsourced solution. Weak integration between the outsourced application and our internal systems led to problems with functionality and higher maintenance costs.

As the percentage of online donations increased, we were paying ever higher fees to the outsourced provider—a whopping 7 percent of every online donation. Because the provider held donations until the end of the month, we were losing valuable interest on those funds. Finally, we decided that our fund-raising costs had become prohibitively high with this partner.

We needed to regain control of the infrastructure from end to end. As we started our search, we kept in mind that donors were entrusting their critical financial data to us and were making important transactions, so our system had to be highly reliable. We needed a solution with robust exception strategies and an active/passive failover architecture that would provide full redundancy and would keep us from losing any messages.

This was something we couldn’t ignore: The last thing we wanted was for contributors to get frustrated with the donation process or to worry that their financial data was at risk.

To deal with these issues, we developed a rich user interface, using Adobe Flex technology, and built a series of front-end applications that would allow program participants to register themselves and manage their own fund-raising. We also created a set of tools for individual Team in Training chapters to administer their organizations at the local level. On the back end, we created a core set of reusable services to feed the front-end interface—a combination of newly developed applications and repurposed legacy systems.

To integrate the front-end applications with the back-end services, we evaluated a handful of enterprise service bus technologies and chose Mule, an open source ESB. Our primary concern was to find a flexible choice that could adapt to the existing infrastructure—specifically broad support for multiple protocols and strong integration with the Spring framework, which is used throughout LLS.

LLS has an IT policy of using open source technology where possible, to get the best bang for the buck. With strong user adoption and a robust developer community, along with industry analyst recommendations, Mule was the clear choice.

With our commitment to open source technologies, we find that having subscription-based support for those products is essential because we’re using mission-critical systems to handle significant amounts of money.

Given our performance and reliability requirements, our team chose to develop on Mule Enterprise, the MuleSource-supported version of Mule, which includes features for enterprise production deployment, along with an additional layer of professional quality assurance. The subscription to Mule Enterprise also includes 24/7 access to MuleSource’s technical support services and monitoring tool Mule HQ, which helps us maximize productivity and minimize downtime.

We had an aggressive three-month timeline to complete our project, so we had to make sure that the architecture and design was right the first time. To ensure that we were applying architectural best practices and to lower our technical risks, we decided to bring in MuleSource consulting as an extension of the LLS team, helping us perform a full design review with architectural recommendations over a two-week period. Working with the consultants, we focused only on high-value activities, learning about exception handling and failover, performance tuning and testing.

Since changing to the new architecture, LLS has seen a tremendous boost in site performance and user satisfaction. We regained control of the infrastructure and reduced fees from 7 percent to 2 percent per transaction. This is significant because every dollar we save on fund-raising costs means more that can be spent on research and patient services.

We have tested the infrastructure to handle more than 24,000 messages per hour—well beyond our requirements—and with 100 percent uptime to date, we have not experienced any message loss whatsoever. The increased system reliability and enhanced interface have contributed to overall user experience and satisfaction, and user feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. As a result, in less than two months, the new application helped drive more than $10 million in donations. And the new stability has freed the IT team to spend more time on innovation, rather than fielding support calls.

We plan to fully leverage this new infrastructure platform, developing and integrating additional value-added community features, such as blogs, discussion boards and forums, to continue enhancing the user experience and to encourage donors to return to our site—all with the goal of increasing our fund-raising abilities while minimizing costs. For our beneficiaries, this ROI can literally mean the difference between life and death.