CDO interview: Mary O’Callaghan, director of technology engagement, British Heart Foundation

Implementing a new data strategy sits at the heart of the charity’s digital transformation as it looks to build on its status as the UK’s largest charity retailer and the highest-grossing charity on eBay globally

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Mary O’Callaghan is a charity sector pioneer. As director of technology engagement at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), she helps the organisation embrace data-led business transformation through what she describes as a new kind of digital leadership role.

O’Callaghan manages three teams: business relationship managers who interface with different parts of the charity; training and learning specialists who provide technology-based education; and data and analytics experts who help the business use its information.

She’s been in her current position for three years. While she holds a relatively unique leadership position for a charitable organisation, O’Callaghan says business relationship management is a growing discipline. Directors of technology engagement like herself tend to focus on building internal connections and external partnerships.

“I’m like a bridge between technology and the rest of the organisation,” she says. “I make sure we’ve got a team of people who translate the benefits of digital and data. I’ve started seeing other charities building up engagement within technology roles, but I think we were one of the first to create a director-level position.”

Building strong partnerships

O’Callaghan joined BHF in 2016 as a senior business analyst. She helped build the charity’s analyst function and her role began to grow as she started looking at processes, people and technology. She started considering how digitisation could be used to help the charity run more effectively, and then moved into education and engagement.

“That was about giving people training and mentoring and all those good things to help them get better at how they use tech and how they do their jobs,” she says. “And that’s grown into the business partnering side of things. We really believe that good use of technology is how we’ll achieve our mission faster and better.”

“We really believe that good use of technology is how we’ll achieve our mission faster and better”
Mary O’Callaghan, British Heart Foundation

O’Callaghan says digital-led business transformation is far from straightforward. People across the charity need to understand how to make the most of technology, and her team needs to comprehend what the rest of the business wants to achieve with digital and data.

“We need to build those plans together,” she says. “Rather than someone coming to us out of the blue and saying they need a new function on the website, we need to have worked with them beforehand to think about what they want our supporters to be able to do and the best way to reach that goal.”

As part of her engagement role, O’Callaghan also manages the charity’s external strategic partnerships. While BHF is lucky that many suppliers want to work with the organisation without only thinking about profit, she says it’s also important that BHF doesn’t take and implement systems and services blindly.

“Once again, it’s about how we can work with them,” she says. “So we might go back and say to a provider that we need their help, for example, to look at supporter data. And we’ve been very lucky to work with some partners who’ve helped us make better decisions when it comes to digital and data.”

Establishing a data strategy

One of O’Callaghan’s recent achievements is to get the senior executive team at BHF to sign off a data strategy. Research suggests it’s an accomplishment that shouldn’t be underplayed.

Consultant Carruthers and Jackson’s Data maturity index suggests three-quarters of businesses either have a data strategy that sits outside the organisational operating model or they don’t have a data strategy at all. O’Callaghan says she wanted to bring structure and rigour to the charity’s information management.

“Creating our data strategy was about taking a joined-up approach to technology and business and saying, ‘We’re not using data properly, we’re not being efficient and we’re not getting good value for money’. What I quickly recognised was that it wasn’t anyone else’s job to solve this data problem, so I made it mine.”

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Carruthers and Jackson’s research also identifies that it’s not unusual for organisations to not have a senior executive in charge of data. Almost a third of organisations (31%) have either unclear data responsibilities or no formalised data roles at all. Close to two-thirds (64%) of data leaders believe most of the employees in their organisation are not data literate.

O’Callaghan gives an example of how her team is enacting the data strategy and creating an integrated approach to information management: “We’re doing a lot of work on how we look after our supporter data, how we get more efficient, more secure – and that’s a joint initiative between technology and the rest of the organisation.”

She views this joined-up approach as a significant step change. In the past, the business might have set up its own systems and services, and only darkened the doors of the technology department once it recognised something was broken. Today, the watchword is engagement. “The fact that we’re now working together on data is a big achievement,” she says.

Taking on new responsibilities

O’Callaghan’s focus on engagement is representative of a permanent shift in the role of technology executives. While IT chiefs in the past might have been confined to the technology department, modern digital leaders spend more of their time building relationships and creating ecosystems of internal and external partners.

“If you look at any IT leadership role now, there’s little concentration on technical skill. It’s about how you bring people together to make a difference. I try to create collaboration and encourage people in our IT department to stop talking tech and start speaking English”

Mary O’Callaghan, British Heart Foundation

“If you look at any IT leadership role now, there’s little concentration on technical skill. It’s about how you bring people together to make a difference. In our charity, we’ve created a lot of specialisms – and what I try to do is create collaboration and encourage people in our IT department to stop talking tech and start speaking English.”

O’Callaghan continues to look for novel ways for BHS to bolster its technology leadership. One key element of the data strategy is the appointment of its first head of data. She says it’s a crucial appointment because this senior individual will act as a galvanising point for data use across the organisation.

“Our data strategy talks about being led by intelligence and being driven by data, but that means different things to everybody in the organisation. That’s not just because we have so many different types of data, from health data to individual sponsor data, but also within functions, where people want to do different things with information,” she says.

“We want this head of data to bring everything together and create a common language, so we’re all talking about the same thing, and then identifying opportunities to get better at how we work with data.”

O’Callaghan says effective use of data will be a differentiator, not just for the organisation, but for the people it serves.

“If we don’t treat data well, and help people to understand its value, we won’t make great decisions and we won’t raise the right amount of income. We won’t give the right information and support to patients, and we won’t be funding the right research,” she says.

“Our plan is very much to go down that use case-led approach, so we’ve started to identify specific use cases to tell the story, and we’ve tried to make sure those use cases are driven by the activities we want to do.”

Making a difference

O’Callaghan says one of her main aims during the next couple of years is to ensure the technology team becomes even more customer oriented. While BHF has a great IT team, the people within it are often focused on their specific domains.

“That means it’s not always easy for people outside of technology to understand what we’re doing,” she says. “If you’re working in our retail business, for example, it’s not easy to understand who to talk to in the technology department. We need to be much more customer-focused and more efficient.”

Engaging with internal customers’ specific requirements will mean less time is spent on operational concerns, leaving more time for the IT team to concentrate on value-adding activities. O’Callaghan says her IT team is always looking for fresh opportunities.

BHF is the largest charity retailer in the UK and the highest-grossing charity on eBay globally. “To keep working and growing, we’re reliant on amazing armies of volunteers,” she says. “Engaging with our existing team and bringing in volunteers is critical to our success.”

“I quickly recognised it wasn’t anyone else’s job to solve this data problem, so I made it mine”
Mary O’Callaghan, British Heart Foundation

O’Callaghan is also working on a data-led logistics programme that will make it easier for people to donate or buy from charity shops. She gives the example of someone buying furniture in a BHF store – they’ll be able to book a delivery time, benefit from personalised services, and then build a strong, long-term relationship with the charity.

“That kind of personalisation applies to all the people who are dealing with us as an organisation,” she says. “We want to have a much closer relationship and for it to be much more efficient, so you don’t get three letters from us about the same thing. And if you don’t want a letter, you’ll get an email, or a text, or whatever works for you.”

The aim is to use technology to make life easier for everyone connected to BHF, including those who come for support. The charity runs a helpline for 7.6 million people in the UK who are affected by heart disease. The helpline is only open at certain times. O’Callaghan wants to use technology to ensure people get quick answers and support outside of office hours.

Finally, the IT team will be using technology and data to support BHF’s research activities. O’Callaghan gives the example of CureHeart, which is the charity’s biggest ever grant. The programme aims to cure inherited heart muscle diseases. Every week, 12 people under 35 in the UK die from one of these diseases. CureHeart aims to find a cure.

“We’ve got plans to grow and diversify the research talent pipeline and we’re looking at some really exciting big bets in research terms,” she says.

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