Ashok Vantipalli, VP-IT, American Cancer Society
What are the key trends, challenges and opportunities for Not-For-Profit organizations and what role does technology play?
Not-For-Profits such as American Cancer Society (ACS) for over 100 years have worked relentlessly to further the Mission to save lives and create a world with less cancer. Historically, ACS has operated leveraging a high-touch, person-to-person (community/grassroots) model to further its mission and fundraising goals. However, with the advent of web, social and mobile channels, that interaction is quickly shifting from person-to-person to online& on-demand. In addition, millennials are a growing population that support ACS’s mission, however they want to do that “at their own time” and “using their own techniques – mobile”. So, the organizations that are agile and can adapt to this change in landscape and at the same time ensure most of the donor dollar goes to the underlying mission will gain competitive advantage in the marketplace.
You came to ACS from Wall Street/for profit background, what are the differences from a technology strategy and execution perspective?
At the heart of it, there are really no differences other than the fact the there is scrutiny on every donor dollar spent and usually “discretionary dollars” are hard to come by for trying new ideas. That said, having served as the CIO/CTO roles in the past, I have come to appreciate that, if technology is run like a true P&L, similar to other business functions, it could be a true business enabler and growth driver. Non-Profits that are able to leverage technology to gain operational efficiencies/savings and use those dollars as a “self funding” mechanism for Innovation will drive new revenue streams as shown in the graphic below.
What was the key motivating factor for you to join ACS and lead the Technology Transformation& Innovation?
Everyone is touched by cancer whether it is a family member or a friend and it is always very gratifying to make an impact for such a great cause. With expertise in M&A and technology transformations, I was brought in an interim leadership capacity in 2012 to help The Society with the merger from 12 independent divisions to one organization. During this time, I realized technology was a mere business enabler and had the potential to be a growth driver by engaging the constituents “when, where and how” they wanted to engage with us. When you have the “passion” for the cause, the two pillars “leadership” and “Innovation” are not only essential but also come naturally – they become part of your DNA. I realized an interim role would not do justice to that potential and came onboard to lead that journey.
What’s your view on Innovation and what was your approach at ACS?
The experience I have garnered prior to ACS has taught me the importance of innovation and the dynamics of driving it efficiently within the organization. At McKinsey& Company, we were providing expert and unique strategies for clients. At Alvarez & Marsal, another top turnaround consulting firm, we not only developed strategies, but also executed them to deliver top-line and bottom-line results.
The most important aspect of Innovation is to understand the culture and the appetite of the organization to accept that change. An innovative idea can never become a reality if it is not planned and, most importantly, executed well. When I joined ACS, the organization was already experiencing a great deal of change as a result of the transformation. The environment or the culture was not conducive for executing a ‘big bang’ innovative idea. But that did not stop us and we decided to “look in our own backyard first” – Our core Events and Fundraising capabilities.
What is theinnovation and how is it helping ACS amplify its top-line revenueand gain operational efficiencies?
In a nutshell, we created a new “revenue stream” by removing “Donation Friction” and giving the ability to Fundraisers to take donations on a Mobile device. For that, we not only studied the core fundraising processes/technology but also leveraged“ our own cooking” to raise funds for the society. It was evident that the lack of “anywhere, anytime” access to our fundraising tools and donation options not only added friction to customer donations but also made it impossible capture constituent behavior at the events to capture a 360-degree customer view.
“Identify and engage stakeholders, especially if the innovation disrupts their business process - they will give you new ideas”
In 2014, an Information Technology-led pilot and a detailed ROI showed the executive committee that a Mobile Fundraiser Event app would bring in new revenue stream, increase customer interactions, and decrease the overall fundraising costs. The solution enables fundraisers to scan credit cards and checks using a Mobile App that leverages open APIs and real-time transaction processing and reconciliations with our backend fundraising systems.
In early 2015, the solution was rolled out to our flagship event “Relay for Life” and by the end of the year will be available to all of our approximately 5000 events across the country.
What are the lessons learned for other technologists that want to innovate?
Opportunities will not be handed to you; you need to go find them and run with them:
1. Technologists always have an advantage to innovate
Identify challenges/opportunities in the core business processes
Understand the latest technology and its implications
Marry opportunities to technology – a winning hand!
2. Engage early with the business and show them something tangible
Show the concept/prototype to your co-conspirator(s)
Identify and engage stakeholders, especially if the innovation disrupts their business process - they will give you new ideas
Sell your idea with the ROI - they help you make the concept a reality
3. Start small (pilot), learn from it, and then scale
4. Hand-hold the execution in the background but let the business drive it
a. Don’t forget security, legal and compliance– Security takes time
b. Be agile to adapt to the changing needs and market feedback.