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Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity

Charities can be potent mixes of passion, politics and penury. For CIOs working in the sector it can make for a challenging environment

A fifth of America's smallest not for profit outfits spend not a brass razoo on information technology. Most not for profits say they are starved of IT support. IT staff at these organizations are paid less than their peers in corporations and governments. Although there is no comparable survey of the local not for profit sector, the US results probably will not be much of a surprise to Australians working in local charities and used to performing miracles on the sniff of an oily rag.

Charities increasingly rely on information systems to support staff, manage fundraising drives and communicate with their stakeholders who may be spread over vast distances. However, it can be tough for a CIO to argue for 10 grand to upgrade the network when that money might buy a child a wheelchair. This is a sector where "Do more with less" is much more than an analyst sound bite.

I continue to believe that this is not just a charity but a business and we need to invest, and we won't get away with it running on the smell of an oily rag

Paul Bunker — CIO Vision Australia

When the US-based Non Profit Technology Network published its first IT staffing survey profiling the sector late last year it revealed that the average CIO in the sector claimed a salary of about $US95,900 — significantly less than peers in the corporate sector. This year the organization plans to conduct further research on whether job satisfaction, different workload and work/life balance compensates for the lack of remuneration.

Certainly the information systems managers in three of Australia's leading charities demonstrate that sometimes there are rewards greater than the folding stuff.

Ease of Access

Passion and politics are often acute in Australia's charitable organizations where normal rules of expectation and accountability can go astray as individuals or groups fight for what they believe in. "My CEO tells me that everyone is cooperating as hard as they can," Vision Australia CIO Paul Bunker says. "There is never any ill intent, but there is a lot of relationship management required."

With a board comprised of at least three-quarters blind or vision impaired people, the passion is understandable and sometimes that can bubble over. "There is always going to be a suspicion of sighted people," says Bunker. "I haven't experienced politics like this before but when you get down to it one on one, it can generally be resolved. Our CEO does his job at that level to keep staff on track. Blindness politics are very interesting but this organization since it merged has moved a long, long way."

Vision Australia formed in 2004 as the result of a merger between the Royal Blind Society, the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind and Vision Australia Foundation. The organization provides services to 41,000 Australian children and adults who are blind or vision impaired and also operates a national information library service. When the three agencies merged Bunker was presented with "a multiplicity of differing applications, network environments, ages of hardware and software". There seemed, he says, an almost deliberate intent on the part of the three agencies to set up completely different systems.

Many to One

Bunker's first task was to create a single information system to support Vision's 950 staff plus its volunteer workforce of about 2500. By November last year the first phase of the information systems integration was completed. This involved modernizing and consolidating information systems onto a single network, and upgrading one in four of the organization's desktops. Bunker will still have more integration to do following the December decision that the Royal Blind Foundation Queensland would also merge with Vision Australia.

Integrating disparate information systems is all in a day's work for most CIOs, but what few CIOs have to consider are the issues associated with information access by blind or vision impaired users. "A core part of our business is providing access to information, so one of the flagship areas is the library," says Bunker. "We are at the beginning of a complete digitization of the entire library."

Vision Australia has adopted the Digital Audio Information System (Daisy) standard for this project. Daisy is an internationally acknowledged standard for producing accessible and navigable multimedia such as digital talking books. "We, as sighted people, tend to flick through a book and look at the contents pages or chapter headings," Bunker explains. His challenge is to deliver that level of information accessibility to Vision Australia's community. "We structure information, so that if I'm a student and blind and the lecturer says summarize pages 400 to 404 of the text book, then the only way to get there if the information is not in Daisy is to fast forward through the material. Since January of this year all new material is in the Daisy format," he adds.

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