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CIO interview: Billie Laidlaw, RSPCA

RSPCA CIO Billie Laidlaw explains how the charity's cloud-first approach to IT procurement benefits the animals in its care

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: How cloud technology helps kittens

Billie Laidlaw, the CIO of animal welfare charity the RSPCA, has a novel way of working out what to spend her IT budget on that involves quantifying prospective purchases in terms of how much kitten food she could get for the same money.

While it might sound like an off-the-wall way of making IT buying decisions, it’s a thought process that is steeped in reality, as every technology purchase the charity makes takes up funds that could potentially go towards the rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming of the animals in its care.

“I’m always mindful of cost. Is it the right thing to do? Can we really spend any money on anything other than the animals? We are considering this all the time,” says Laidlaw.

And with the organisation largely dependent on donations, she’s acutely aware that supporters are motivated by animal welfare concerns, not the state of the charity’s IT systems, when it comes to parting with their cash.

“When they put a pound in a collecting tin, they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, wow, that’ll go towards the cost of a new customer relationship management [CRM] system or reporting suite’, they’re thinking about how their contribution will make a difference to a kitten or dog in our care,” says Laidlaw.

“I consider it a big part of my job to make sure everything we do is done with that in mind, because the money I have to spend isn’t really mine – it belongs to the public and our supporters.”

Moving to a cloud-first world

It’s this way of thinking that influenced her decision three years ago to implement a cloud-first procurement strategy at the RSPCA, where she oversees the IT operations of the charity’s national centres.

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This change in approach saw the organisation ditch its on-premise, Novell-based email system several years ago and replace it with Google’s suite of communication and collaboration tools, after securing a favourable price on the licensing.

It has also enabled Laidlaw to free up members of her 45-strong IT team to work on other projects, who might otherwise have spent their time maintaining the health of the old on-premise email servers at the RSPCA's national HQ.

“I don’t want people working endlessly on nursing servers and hosting platforms. I want them to focus on areas where we can make the maximum difference to animal welfare, and that’s where cloud comes in,” she says.

More recently, the organisation has been working with the Saleforce Foundation – the cloud CRM giant’s philanthropic arm – on the next phase of its journey off-premise that it hopes will transform the way it engages with its supporters.

Joining up the dots

In the world of the RSPCA, a supporter can be one of three things: a volunteer, a campaigner or someone who contributes financially to the charity. But the computer systems the charity currently uses makes it difficult to see if a volunteer also donates to the charity or is actively involved in any of its campaigns.

This can cause upset, admits Laidlaw, if a volunteer is approached to make a financial contribution when they’re already giving up their free time to work on the charity’s behalf, for example.

“We are nothing without our supporters. We rely mostly on the money people give to us. And as a result, we need to have an informed and personalised conversation with these people who are good enough to up their time and hard-earned cash for us,” she says.

To resolve this issue, the charity is working with Saleforce to create a supporter relationship management (SRM) system based on the cloud firm’s NGO Connect app, which is designed specifically for not-for-profit organisations.

The app will effectively provide Laidlaw and her team with a centralised hub that pulls in data about the RSPCA’s supporters, volunteers and campaigners so the charity gets a complete view of the individual contributions they make to its causes.

The system is going to be delivered in phases, with the first set to go live in July 2015.

Re-imagining the RSPCA's IT

The SRM deployment is one of several initiatives the organisation is working on as part of its overarching Pheonix project, so-called because its represents a “rebirth” of the fundamental systems that underpin the work the RSPCA does.

They include the roll-out of an information-sharing service for the people working in the chairty’s wildlife centres. This is also based on Salesforce technology and took two months to create and deploy.

“Our team are just blown away by the reporting they’re now getting, as it’s joined up our four wildlife centres and enabled them to share a lot more information, so they can get an overall picture of what’s going on in the wildlife portion of our business,” says Laidlaw.

The third project the organisation has in the works is a mobile app that takes its name from one of the charity’s co-founders, William Wilberforce. This will be used by its crew of inspectors to locate animals in distress with greater ease, based on the reports that come in from members of the public.

To accompany this, the RSPCA is also working with Salesforce partner BrightGen on a replacement for its Tails callcentre software, which has seen the organisation embrace an agile approach to software development.

“It’s been a really interesting experience for our inspectors, as they’ve been working in rooms with the BrightGen team to develop this app together,” Laidlaw says.

At present, the organisation is on the fourth of five software development sprints it’s planning to embark on with this portion of the project, with a view to going live later in 2015.

Without the 78% discount on Salesforce tools and services the RSPCA gets – on account of its charitable status – none of these projects would have been possible.

“Getting that discount opens up a completely new world for us because we wouldn’t be able to justify the cost otherwise. We might have had the experience and the willing, but we wouldn’t have the budget,” says Laidlaw.

Looking to the future

Next on the technology agenda is the development of an online system to aid the rehoming of the animals in the charity’s care, which will build on the success it has already had with its Pet Search web portal.

"We want to tell the whole story of an animal when it’s in one of our centres – where it has come from, where it’s going, the treatment it receives and when it’s ready to be rehomed"

Billie Laidlaw, RSPCA

This latter service lets users search through an online database of pets available for rehoming, and filter the results based on animal types and their location, but Laidlaw wants to offer adoptees a more comprehensive and interactive view.

“In the rescue, we rehabilitate and rehome, but we want to tell the whole story of an animal when it’s in one of our centres – where it has come from, where it’s going, the treatment it receives and when it’s ready to be rehomed,” she says.

“We need to offer that with a fantastic user interface for people who want to rehome animals.”

Another priority for Laidlaw is developing the charity’s omni-channel strategy so the RSPCA is able to engage with its supporters in as many ways as possible, and draw on its social media presence to get even closer to them.

In the meantime, she’ll be pushing ahead with the organisation’s cloud-first policy, while championing the use of off-premise technology as a force for good in animal welfare.

The move is clearly paying off in the RSPCA’s national centres, but Laidlaw says there are signs the organisation’s regional centres – which are responsible for running their own IT systems – are joining the cloud bandwagon too.

“We are seeing more of our branch networks coming onto Google, independent of the national HQ. People are spinning up project and internal communication sites, and all of this stuff is helping us connect as an organisation. It’s having a really big cultural effect,” she says.

“It’s naturally helping us become a more horizontal organisation with really good communication. We’re not quite there yet, but it looks like the start of a very interesting journey for us all.” 

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Nice article. I am curious as to how long it takes to find suitable software needs that meet your cloud requirements. Do you still develop any custom code?? I find it hard to believe from my experience that any pre-packaged business software for a large corporation goes unchanged.
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