CIO50 2022 #15 Brett Wilson, Australian Red Cross
If there’s one thing charities really need to be able to do, yet don’t always manage to do well, is scale quickly.
With the once-in-a-century floods engulfing NSW and Queensland in 2022, The Australian Red Cross had just four days to stand up the technology to support the ‘Australia Unites’ telethon.
Broadcast live across three major TV networks, the telethon was to raise money for the thousands of people and businesses affected by the deluge, which was the second massive flood event for many.
Placing an impressive 15th in this year’s CIO50, Red Cross Australia's chief information officer, Brett Wilson and his team certainly rose the occasion with the technology handling as many as 11 donations per second, more than 30,000 calls, and the website scaled from an average of 300 concurrent visitors to over 17,000. That level of traffic was sustained until well after midnight.
On the surface, the event was completely seamless and a resounding success raking in over $25 million on the night and more than $37 million in total.
But as Wilson tells CIO Australia, behind the scenes concerns were mounting about how to manage the more than 100,000 grant applications that suddenly came in from affected communities on the night of the telethon.
Managing donations is of course an important part of the organisation’s remit, with small team dedicated to ensuring support gets to those who need, as quickly as possible, while still enabling fraud and identify checking.
“However, to ensure this could happen at this level of scale and complexity and in such a short amount of time the Red Cross IT team would need to think outside the box,” Wilson recalls.
Fortunately, earlier in 2022 prior to the telethon taking place, he and his team delivered a robotic process automation (RPA) bot to automatically verify COVID vaccination certificates with a 10-point authenticity check for 25,000 volunteers and members, saving vast amounts of time.
With the technology proven, it was then decided to test it in the cash grants department.
The result was the ‘Digital Co-Worker’, which was shown to automate eight of the 11 manual steps previously needed to process a cash grant, shaving as much as 15 minutes from each application. It will also – once fully implemented – allow for a 24/7 process, in turn allowing the grants team to focus on the final check, meaning clients got their money much faster.
Due to training requirements and various other complexities associated with deploying such a new piece of technology, Wilson and his senior colleagues at The Red Cross opted not to switch it on for the ‘Australia Unites’ telethon.
But they did manage to stand up a PowerBI dashboard and publish it on the Red Cross website. This dashboard was updated daily and provided insights into the number of donations, and how many grants had been distributed.
“This simple but powerful dashboard went a long way towards supporting and building community trust-especially within communities affected by the NSW and QLD floods,” Wilson notes.
Meanwhile, the ‘Digital Co-Worker’ is supporting several key charity programs including Family Domestic Violence, Safety Net Emergency Relief and Multicultural NSW, and will no doubt play an important role in managing the next large-scale crisis that Australia throws up, be it fire, flood or something else.
And Wilson notes that were ‘Digital Co-Worker’ in play for the telethon, it would have saved almost 17,000 manual work hours based on the almost 67,000 grants that were processed.
“The key outcome of the RPA bot is the longer-term future proofing of the grants process using automation,” he says. “This technology speeds up the process of helping those in need – a key differentiator in an industry that is not known for being technologically enabled.”
It’s also reduced the cycle cost to process new grants from 36 minutes per grant to 21 minutes with the digital knowledge worker.
Other new features are currently in development, including the ability to verify details from uploaded bank statements, along with an automated fraud checking function, further reducing the time needed to process applications.
Getting results without spending vast amounts of money is something that NFPs need to be especially focussed on. And Wilson notes that getting funding for digital investments demands that he adopt a “tailored approach” to bring the various stakeholders along with him on the journey, while ensuring everyone understands what it means for them.
“It's important to outline that for a CIO to influence effectively other c-level executives the conversation should not focus purely on technology. The focus should be on understanding the drivers of the person or teams you are attempting to influence and how you can help them achieve their organisational objectives," says Wilson.
Recently, there was a series of transformation funding requiring to be approved by the executive team.
“I spent the time in the weeks prior sharing snippets of how the approval of the funding would help each executive achieve their strategic objectives [and] I knew that before entering into the meeting where a decision was going to be made, I had enough support to get the transformation funding approved," Wilson says.
Another example was a smaller project to develop a marketing automation capability within the organisation, which in turn would increase revenue by personalising the donor journey.
“For this project, I met with the CEO taking a simple graph with me, which indicated the estimated increase in revenue from the fundraising team if the funding was approved. This showed the CEO that I had taken the time to understand how it would assist the marketing function in achieving their revenue goals. If I had approached the discussion that I wanted to introduce ‘marketing automation’ to improve revenue I would have lost the CEO in the first few minutes.
“Executives love dashboards”.