Red Cross uses custom software to funnel funds

Scott Duperron was visiting his family in Montreal over Christmas when his BlackBerry started going off. Before it hit the news — and the world’s attention – the Canadian Red Cross’s CIO already knew about the tsunami in Asia and was on his way back to headquarters in Ottawa.

The amount of attention

the tsunami received was unprecedented, as donations poured in from around the world. In Canada, the non-profit organization already had a system in place to manage this process, called The International Programs System (TIPS). TIPS was rolled out in 2003 to streamline and automate the way the Canadian Red Cross Society processes relief appeals, in Canada or around the world. Whether dealing with a disaster on the scale of the tsunami or providing ongoing humanitarian assistance, the administrative complexities associated with managing the appeals process are enormous.

There is a Red Cross in almost every nation on earth. Each national body has an international department that deals with the international federation in Geneva. When a crisis occurs, national bodies offer what help they can to the international federation. For example, if there are mudslides in Honduras and an entire village is wiped out, the Honduran Red Cross will quickly become overwhelmed, says Duperron. Aid to the country is co-ordinated through Geneva; Canada might offer to provide a portion of the aid, such as housing or transportation. The Canadian Red Cross then makes an appeal to the Canadian International Development Agency, a federal agency that provides assistance to developing countries. CIDA will provide whatever financial assistance it can; the rest of the money is raised by the Canadian Red Cross. This process is called an appeals.

Logistical nightmare

“”You can imagine the logistical nightmare in terms of the workflow and paper involved,”” says Duperron. “”It’s a real area of pain for us, but as a taxpayer it’s a good thing because I also live here and pay taxes — I want the government to make sure that agencies like us are spending the money where they said they’re going to spend the money.””

In 2002, the Canadian Red Cross started looking for a partner to build a business tool that would help automate this process.

“”There’s lots of off-the-shelf document management products you can buy, no question, and that was always my first approach,”” he says. But because of the complexity of the solution, there was no generic product that met all of the organization’s needs.

TIPS was created by Qunara’s Application Development and Systems Integration Team, a division of Manitoba Telecom Services Inc., using Microsoft technology. Qunara was recently acquired by Allstream.

“”The options were open as to whether we were going to solve the problem with an off-the-shelf solution or whether it would need to be custom built,”” says Chris Figueredo, director of enterprise application solutions with Allstream, who worked with Duperron on the development of TIPS. “”The reason it went toward custom built was because the processes they have to go through when dealing with appeals were fairly complex … we didn’t feel an off-the-shelf tool would meet their needs.””

It came up with TIPS, which covers four areas: workflow, collaboration, document management, and tracking and reporting. “”It’s really to make the process more efficient and to expand their capabilities when dealing with a high volume,”” he says, “”which is timely with regards to the recent events in the world.”” It also makes submissions accessible to all team members, including senior management, at every stage of the process.

Part of this process is ensuring that donations are allocated to the appropriate trust fund. The whole world has responded to the tsunami in Asia, says Duperron, and there’s a lot of money exchanging hands. “”It’s a sacred trust,”” he says. “”It’s elevated to a religion here so everything has to be accounted for.”” This means that if a donor wants to give to a specific region, such as Sri Lanka, the Canadian Red Cross needs to make sure that donation goes into the trust fund for Sri Lanka. “”We create separate trust funds for every type of donation,”” he says. “”That means there’s a lot of governance around this, just like 9/11.””

The Catch 22 of IT

One of its biggest challenges as a non-profit, however, has nothing to do with technology, but rather public perception. “”TIPS is a tool that we use to make us deliver our services much more efficiently and economically and be completely accountable — the more efficient you are, the better you can deliver your services,”” he says, “”but if you have really cool stuff, people say, ‘Look what they’re spending their money on.'””

The project took about 10 months to roll out, starting in mid to late 2002, ending in early to mid 2003. The system was designed with three components in mind: appeals, projects and overseas delegates. At this point in time, only the appeals component has been rolled out. In the future, he adds, whenever it’s appropriate, fthe Red Cross might potentially look at implementing theprojects and overseas delegates components as well, says Figueredo.

While he says Allstream will not pursue relationships with Red Cross organizations in other countries, this is something that might be done in the future, but only in conjunction with the Canadian Red Cross.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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