Charities have a number of choices for their IT procurement and deployments. Do they go direct to a technology supplier or indirect through the IT channel using a value added reseller, and do they consider a cloud solution via a vendor or a reseller. They may also look for an established managed service provider (MSP) who has clout with the technology vendors, including telecoms and data connectivity firms. Charities also have to consider cybersecurity and reliable data connectivity with service level agreements (SLAs).
Solutions provider Unit4 works with more than 100 large NGOs and not-for-profit associations and foundations around the world, including Save The Children, Trócaire, The Salvation Army and Heifer International. Helen Crisostomo, Unit4 not-for-profit account manager, says: “We understand that proactive and forward looking not-for-profit organisations are nearly three times more likely to include technology in their strategic plans compared with their less dynamic counterparts.
“That said, selecting the ‘right’ technology is important to keep costs in check. Indeed, research indicates that not-for-profits who consider themselves ‘struggling’ with technology adoption spend nearly twice their operating budget on technology compared to the sector’s average.”
To help avoid the pitfalls, says Crisostomo, organisations are replacing more traditional back-office systems with solutions that require little coding when it comes to making changes, avoiding the usual costs and delays associated with upgrades to systems. As a result, information stays fully integrated so that every update automatically populates through the software. “The IT bottleneck disappears, users are no longer frustrated, and systems can evolve with their programmes and missions, enabling new levels of performance. And all the while keeping the total cost of ownership down,” Crisostomo says.
She also believes vendors need to help charities by providing pre-configured installation scripts for both cloud-based and on-premises installations, and that organisations should be demanding more role-based and industry specific best practice solutions that can be implemented right “out-of-the-box”. As a result, vendors can help organisations achieve faster time to value.
Internal or external
Carr Gomm is a Scottish-based charity that supports vulnerable people in the community. Kevin Calder, Carr Gomm IT manager compliance, admin and IT, says: “Following a period of rapid growth, where we relied on a single member of staff to support the entire IT environment, we realised that this in-house approach was no longer sustainable. To keep pace with our growth objectives, it was clear that we needed more help to deliver effective, user support services on a daily basis.”
Calder says the organisation also wanted to free up time to work on more strategic, business transformation projects. It determined that the best route forward was to opt for a third party, IT helpdesk-style offering, providing IT support and managed services.
“We envisaged that all aspects of our IT environment would be supported via phone, email and remote access, so that a swift resolution to software or hardware problems, internet faults and general ‘how-to’ staff queries could be achieved,” Calder says.
Carr Gomm chose MCSA to provide end-to-end IT support across all office locations directly from its Glasgow-based service centre. An initial two year contract was awarded in 2013 following an open tender process. MCSA retained the contract for a further three years when it went back out to tender in 2015. The service includes remote network monitoring, server maintenance, product supply, procurement, system building and deployments.
Calder says: “My advice for other charities on choosing an IT partner is to fully investigate the company behind the sales and marketing façade, and make sure they possess the appropriate technical expertise to support their claims. Look for testimonials to prove this. Examine a provider’s ability to meet the SLAs you have in mind, and establish how flexible they are prepared to be – are they happy to make extra site visits, for instance - when their assistance is required?
“And investing in time to visit the service provider’s HQ and its engineering offices will help you get a real feel for the company and its people.”
The cloud is increasingly seen as the way to address the flexible IT needs of organisations, while also meeting their data security needs. Joseph Blass, CEO of cloud service provider WorkPlaceLive, says: “From a cybercrime and physical security perspective, charities have the option of putting all their IT in the cloud, but only with a company that is ISO 27001 certified [the most demanding data security processes standard for providers to meet], stores all the data and information in the UK and backs it up in the UK, and provides corporate grade firewalls.”
He says the provider - a VAR (value added reseller) or a cloud service provider (CSP), or the two working together - should ideally have numerous charity case studies to show, including a history of satisfaction with their stated SLAs.
For a fixed monthly cost, Blass says, charities working via the cloud can save “up to 30 per cent” when compared to a non-cloud approach to IT. Benefits can include:
1. A physically secure environment for their apps and data
2. State of the art online security
3. Strict data back-up processes to support business continuity
3. UK-based data centres, making the data and information held more secure
4. A greatly reduced need to upgrade or buy new machines
5. Hosted “desktops”, allowing staff and volunteers to work whenever and wherever, whether on their smartphones, thin client computers, tablets, laptops or desktops
6. Cloud-based telephony if required to save money and provide greater flexibility for mobile working
While the benefits of the cloud are increasingly clear to the third sector, there can still be pitfalls to overcome. Joe Murray, business director at managed service provider GCI, says: “Many charities are ahead of their contemporaries in the business world when it comes to using technology, and in particular when embracing the cloud. They’ve had no choice but to run their operations via the most efficient means possible and have understood that maintaining expensive, on premises equipment is no longer desirable or necessary when the cloud offers more flexibility.”
But when charities come to decide whether to buy direct from a vendor or via a managed service provider, it is very important to look at the total cost of ownership when making the decision, Murray says. Up front, per seat pricing might initially look more attractive when approaching a vendor directly, but when factoring in the costs of implementation and training it can potentially become less attractive.
The size and complexity of the charity is a key factor, Murray says. “While there are a few resellers that are capable of large complex deployments, the IT channel has been generically strong in delivering volumes of small standardised services. Larger deployments usually mean the channel relies more heavily on assistance from its technology suppliers – negating much of the value the channel can add.”
And while cloud deployments tend to be simpler than traditional “on premise” deployments, that doesn’t mean they are straightforward. Very few deployments are “greenfield” – there will normally be elements of integrating new technology with old systems to make sure the project runs seamlessly. There’s also an added risk that going “solo” without external specialist knowledge can mean the solution doesn’t work as well as it should, or that staff aren’t aware of all the features they can benefit from, meaning some cloud benefits go to waste.
After taking into account all these issues and accessing the right third sector case studies from vendors, resellers and managed service providers being considered, charities will be better able to implement the optimum IT strategy for their organisation.
Antony Savvas is a freelance journalist