Technology Helps Save the World

 
 
By Nick Wreden  |  Posted 2009-10-28
 
 
 

Giving kids the keys to the Internet without exposing them to malware and other dangers that lurk on the Web. Making sure relief teams can stay in touch during disasters. Communicating effectively with donors and other supporters.

These are just a few of the challenges facing the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), the Salvation Army and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). These nonprofit organizations must deal with many of the same technology challenges facing for-profit enterprises, but they don’t have the same resources available to them.

So how do they meet these challenges? With help from corporate benefactors, by making the same equipment serve double-duty and by using technology to cut costs.

Take the BGCA, which is headquartered in Atlanta. It provides everything from homework help and nutritional tips to sports and other recreational activities, primarily to at-risk kids. Almost all of the more than 4,300 BGCA clubs nationwide, run by 1,100-plus organizations, have computers with Web access for research, communications and games.

At a time when even sophisticated corporate staffs strain to maintain barricades against Web threats, the BGCA was challenged to ensure Internet protection and safety with club staffers who were more skilled at working with kids than with computers. Compounding the challenge was an extremely heterogeneous environment comprising more than 60,000 workstations, with autonomous locations making their own hardware and software selections—including those that affect security.

Additionally, the 4,300 BGCA clubs represent a patchwork of network environments. Some are networked as part of larger organizations that have at least some IT staff, while others are standalone clubs.

“We needed an automated solution that could work well within a fragmented environment where there might not be much computer expertise on-site,” says John Goslin, CTO of the BGCA. “The kids aren’t always Internet savvy, so a best-of-breed automated solution was needed to protect equipment and provide a safe online environment, without requiring a lot of time, attention or expertise.”

Any solution to what Goslin calls a “Heinz 57” environment had to meet three criteria. First, it had to be easily updated to meet shifting digital threats. Second, it had to work on individual PCs or among WANs. Finally, it had to be financially palatable to the clubs, which struggle to raise adequate funds to accomplish their mission.

To achieve these goals, the BGCA relied on a partnership with CA, which included more than $4.6 million in donations. The three-year partnership provides the clubs with CA Internet Security Suite and technical consulting, which deliver sophisticated network and PC protection.

“It took about a year to correlate the number of PCs with the number of licenses; develop simple instructions for the local staff to load the software with the appropriate license onto each PC; automate software distribution to the clubs; and then ensure that once software was downloaded, each PC could be updated in the background, regardless of whether it resided on a network or an individual PC,” says Goslin.

About half the clubs have now been automated, and the BGCA is aggressively pushing implementation into the remaining clubs.

The BGCA also relied on CA to improve business continuity. Previously, backup had been a manual, time-consuming process that included off-site storage. “The system was rudimentary, subject to human error,” Goslin recalls. “It would have taken a long time to get a data center up and running after a disaster.”

To avoid that scenario, BGCA automated backups using CA NSM. It also created a warm disaster recovery center in an existing warehouse in Atlanta.

“We now can quickly come online with e-mail for employees and other critical tier 1 applications,” Goslin reports. “The relationship with CA helps our organization operate better and frees up resources that we can use to work with the kids.”

Helping With Disasters

As the BGCA works to prevent security-related problems that can harm children, the Salvation Army’s Southern Territory prepares to help people during hurricanes and other natural disasters. During those challenging times, communications are often difficult—and sometimes impossible. Cell phone towers and telephone lines may be out of commission, complicating the urgent need to summon resources and coordinate relief efforts.

To ensure that relief teams can stay in touch, the Salvation Army, founded in 1865 and now operating in 118 countries, depends on mobile communications units that enable the teams to allocate resources and coordinate activities among volunteers and organizations via e-mail, phones and even video conferencing.

“While the Salvation Army is famous for its thrift stores and Christmastime efforts, we are also heavily involved in disaster relief,” says Rod Parks, information technology director and CIO at the Salvation Army’s USA Southern Territory, which is headquartered in Atlanta. “After Hurricane Katrina, we made a large investment in mobile communications and other technology to improve effectiveness.”

The Salvation Army’s technology investments include four mobile communications units that enable voice, data and other communications. One unit is a mobile truck featuring a 1.2-meter satellite dish, while the other units have .9-meter dishes. These portable 4-by-7-foot units are usually transported in customized, ruggedized trailers, but they can be carried in if access is blocked.

All the self-supporting units include diesel generators, and have computing and communications capabilities. Laptops contain Lotus Notes databases and other applications, while BlackBerrys, satellite links, video conferencing and ham (amateur) radio capabilities ensure reliable contact even in the hardest-hit areas.

The mobile communications units are prepositioned in Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Tampa, Fla.; and Jackson, Miss. Each one serves as the hub of a 10-person incident response team and a two-person technical support team. All the units are ready to roll when a disaster threatens and can stay in place as long as necessary. For example, some units have remained in place for weeks or even months at a time when hurricanes hit.

The Salvation Army will also leverage LifeSize video conferencing capability to facilitate regional meetings and the training of officers, employees and volunteers. “It not only helps us improve disaster coordination, but it also saves us an enormous amount of money through lower travel costs, while ensuring that we meet our ongoing educational and communications requirements,” says Parks. “As a nonprofit, stewardship is a high priority.”

Managing Donors

In addition to managing resources, nonprofits must also manage their donors and other supporters. The task is complicated because the lifeblood of many nonprofits consists not of the big checks written by a few, but rather the small donations from the many.

Direct mail is the lifeline to these donors, but postage, printing and production get expensive. Also, solicitations can get lost amid the glossy brochures that crowd every mailbox. As a result, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) walks the same tightrope as other nonprofits: It must minimize mailing costs so resources can be applied to its mission, while still maximizing donors and donations.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the WWF has been protecting nature and wildlife for more than 45 years. As the world’s leading conservation organization, the WWF works in 100 countries with support from 1.2 million members in the United States and almost 5 million globally.

To increase the return from direct-mail appeals, the WWF has depended on sophisticated statistical analysis software from SAS for about five years. By combining analysis of the attributes of existing donors with insight into the characteristics of consumers on purchased lists, the fund can produce mailing lists designed to optimize response. Additionally, the same software allows the WWF to analyze what impact variables such as photos, copy and special offers have on response and donations.

The result: better segmentation, more accurate targeting and fewer mailings with greater returns. The analysis also builds a foundation for improved messaging and mailings in the future.

For example, the World Wildlife Fund allows its donors to “adopt” an animal, such as a penguin, tiger, pygmy elephant or any of 100 endangered, threatened or vulnerable animals for as little as $25 in exchange for photos, certificates and other mementos. By analyzing the profiles of those who respond to adoption appeals, the WWF can better tailor future appeals.

“When I first arrived, I thought success depended on regular mailings to all current and potential donors,” says Phil Redmond, the WWF’s director of e-business. “But with millions of such prospects, the costs of such a shotgun approach rise rapidly.

“It is more efficient and effective to segment mailings, and hopefully get a larger response rate at a lower cost. The goal is to target those individuals most likely to respond to a campaign, based on their previous donation history and profile.”

In addition to increasing response, nonprofits seek to eliminate duplicate mailings, which increase costs and have a negative impact on a nonprofit’s image. Who wants to donate to an organization that appears so wasteful?

To avoid this issue, the WWF uses the SAS dfPower Studio, a data-cleansing software system. The software goes beyond the routine task of scrubbing duplicate entries and compares all fields in a donor record. That means that an existing donor is not re-entered as a new donor even if he or she has moved or changed other attributes. This capability also gives the WWF’s management a more accurate picture of donors.

In addition, the WWF scientists in the Conservation Strategy & Science department use JMP statistical analysis software from SAS to analyze species data and track animal migrations across regions to determine factors that may be affecting their movement.

While for-profit organizations have a business mission, nonprofits are on a mission to make the world a better place, whether that’s by improving the lives of children, getting disaster victims back on their feet or preserving endangered species for future generations.

For nonprofits, IT is about much more than just saving data or money. It’s about saving the world.