United Way of Canada CEO wants citizens to GiveADamn.ca

Al Hatton is less interested in talking about Web 2.0 and social networking than he is partnership, engagement and information sharing.

The CEO of United Way Canada found himself surrounded by public sector IT professionals this week as part of Lac Carling, an annual summit produced by IT World Canada that explores the use of technology to improve government service delivery.  

VIDEO: Interview with Al Hatton, United Way of Canada CEO

Hatton, the event’s closing keynote speaker, issued a set of stern challenges to attendees about how government and the non-profit sector should be working together and building a stronger relationship with the public.

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“In first reading the agenda for your meeting this week, I was struck by the first plenary: Do Citizens care to engage? Why this question?” Hatton asked the Lac Carling crowd. “The real question is: Why have we not succeeded in truly engaging citizens? The challenge is not actually with citizens but with government and organizations’ openness, capacity and integrity to truly engage citizens.”

United we win

In an interview with ITBusiness.ca, Hatton said the government and non-profit organizations could probably achieve their individual objectives much more easily if they didn’t work in silos, but despite promises to act more in unison, there has been little progress made.

“There’s a real lack of common data sets,” he said. “There’s no real uniformity. Without that, how can you engage and relate to people?”

As an example Hatton cites 211, the three-digit telephone number that connects callers to a full range of social, health, community and government services.

Last year, United Way worked on a project with Citizenship and Immigration Canada to see how 211 data could be used for research purposes and improving services to newcomers in Canada.

While such a project could raise awareness the application of 211 data to inform policy and program decisions relevant to immigrant/refugee populations and – by extension, other populations, such as youth, seniors, the unemployed – Hatton says it’s a rarity.

“After years of lobbying for 211 we have very little results,” he told conference attendees. “Is that acceptable?”

Baby steps into Web 2.0

Almost a decade ago, according to Hatton, the voluntary sector and the federal government signed an historic accord to deepen the relationship between the two. “We need to revisit that accord and live up its principles,” he said. “It has pretty much been shelved.”

In the meantime, the United Way of Canada is taking its own baby steps into Web 2.0. Although he doesn’t see a lot of potential in Twitter at the moment, Hatton said his younger staff in particular are connecting to all the latest media, including Facebook, as a way to reach out to their communities and work with volunteers.

In Toronto, the United Way recently launched GiveADamn.ca, which uses blogs, a Flickr photo stream and user-generated videos to highlight how young volunteers are making a difference in the city.

“The Web site has been created to get individuals to engage with United Way Toronto in a way that they want to be engaged, which is why interaction is emphasized,” he said in his speech. “These channels challenge all of us to rethink what our core business or mission is. We now have to decide how we use these new tools to engage people.”

On the back end, the United Way is dealing with internal IT issues that would be familiar to many small businesses owners. One of them is IT integration – and using Web-based software to ease the pain.

“We would have one system that was Microsoft-oriented, one that was Apple-oriented. They wouldn’t be able to talk to each other very well,” he said. “The Web has really changed that . . . though (online software) may not always work 100 per cent.”

New understanding of CRM

The other issue is that the United Way is evolving from an umbrella fundraising organization to an organization that creates communities that serve people in need. That means decentralization and IT inconsistencies are hugely problematic, he said.

“Different United Ways have different platforms,” he said. “Our history is we’ve grown up from the local community and the bottom up. You’ve got some United Ways that are more like mom and pop stores, that barely have e-mail, and if you send them something sophisticated they can’t print it out.”

The United Way is also trying to make better use of business-oriented tools such as customer relationship management (CRM) software, though Hatton defines the “C” in CRM a little differently.

“For us, it’s more like constituent relationship management, because the person we’re dealing with may not be a customer,” he said. “They could be a volunteer or some other kind of stakeholder, and we have to provide the best service possible to all of them.”

The vendor community has been helpful in identifying opportunities for appropriate applications, and some of them offer technology at reduced costs or even free. That’s important, Hatton said in his Lac Carling speech, because given the scrutiny over how it spends its money, “we can’t afford to make mistakes.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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