CIO interview: Comic Relief regains IT edge with new strategy

Comic Relief's head of new media and technology, Marcus East, tells Computer Weekly about his plans to put technology at the heart of the charity's operations

Comic Relief's head of new media and technology, Marcus East, tells Computer Weekly about his plans to put technology at the heart of the charity's operations

High-profile charity Comic Relief is sharpening the focus on its technology strategy, which is becoming crucial to attract donations, engage supporters and reduce operating costs.

More effective support for the organisation's activities was a priority set by its trustees for 2010, so a plan to reform the charity's IT function began last summer and Marcus East joined in late 2009 as head of new media and technology to lead the process.

East is now integrating previously independent IT areas and driving long-term plans to support an operation that handles vast amounts of data. During last year's Red Nose Day, Comic Relief processed 116 contributions a second at its peak - almost five times Amazon's traffic during Christmas - as it raised more than £83m.

"When integrating different parts of a technology function, it is important to have a shared vision in terms of the overall strategy, and we have that," says East. "We want to ensure we have a first-class platform that is cost-effective, secure and provides the scale that Comic Relief needs.

"People in the IT industry know that projects don't always go according to time or to budget, but that is not possible for us. Red Nose Day takes place on a particular day and that won't change, so if any core system isn't working, then it is a disaster.

"That means we work to deadlines that can't be shifted and are also looking at what we are doing on an ongoing basis to ensure we are ready for the events, which are getting bigger each time."

Key milestones

Key milestones this year include a string of back-end and customer-facing projects around the charity's core events Sports Relief and Red Nose Day. Because of cash shortages to fund internal projects, Comic Relief works closely with a pool of suppliers to be sure to meet the growing IT demands underpinning the events.

Pressure on IT at Comic Relief varies according to the type of event. For example, a fundraising system based on an Oracle and Java stack which is considered one of the world's most scalable donations platforms is used heavily for Red Nose Day, while an event management platform is added for Sports Relief.

"A lot of the campaign work we do sees the real traffic for a very short period over the events, yet we have to build this massive infrastructure with highly secure and scalable systems," says East. "That is a unique challenge."

East says the fundraising platform is bespoke because third-party providers, such as Just Giving, would not be able to handle fully the increasing complexity of the charity's needs.

"Our requirements are so sophisticated and specialised that no other platform is able to do that for us. While external partners still have a role to play, there is a difficulty related to the scale of what we do."

East's team is currently working towards delivering a new grants management system to determine money allocation for projects. The bespoke platform, based on Microsoft Sharepoint and Dynamics CRM, will replace a legacy platform as the charity's core system and will go live at year-end.

Business intelligence

Comic Relief is also introducing additional business intelligence functionality provided by Oracle and hosted by Carrenza, to gain more insight from supporters' data and improve engagement with them.

Another imminent project is the upgrade of its network to a full gigabit ethernet, as well as a new unified communications platform provided by Cisco and BT. This is expected to provide flexibility for high volumes of phone traffic, reduce the cost of telephony and the charity's carbon footprint.

Web and mobile technologies are seen as crucial for Comic Relief's activities and are another key focus area for East. For example, the organisation is looking at ways to move donations and fundraising processes to a mobile platform. Use of social media is also high up the agenda (see below).

East has worked in senior IT roles at firms such as IBM, and was this year elected as a Tory councillor in the London borough of Enfield. He says his motivation to move into the third sector arose from a keen interest in how technology could help create opportunities within a charity.

He considers his current job a long-term opportunity and says he is fortunate not to have the restrictions on IT teams at some other charities, where they are considered a cost centre.

But although the integration of IT teams at Comic Relief has been successful so far, East says his main challenge in the next year will be to ensure a tight rein on IT spend.

"My priority is to drive a proper IT strategy over a four to five-year horizon to ensure we can support Comic Relief's huge ambitions," he adds. "We want to do many things differently in a range of platforms and environments, but cost has to be managed."

Boosting supporter interaction and donations with social media

Comic Relief is a strong supporter of social networking platforms to drive more interaction within its supporter base and attract donations.

The charity is looking to take advantage of new resources announced by Facebook, such as social plug-ins, which enable sites to embed widgets on their own pages with direct access to what is going on in the social media environment in relation to the external website.

"The new Facebook web services are very exciting - they will allow us to build an even stronger community online than we already have," says East.

He plans to continue driving use of Twitter and is looking at ways to explore it further. The same goes for other platforms, such as MySpace and LinkedIn, but East says integrating all these platforms and ensuring security is in place will be challenging.

"Our supporters want tools to help them raise more money and that is where our focus is, but we want to ensure that our supporters' data is safe," he says.

"We want to be at the leading edge, but we have to consider a range of different regulations. It is an interesting balancing act."

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