UNICEF USA implemented a technology strategy to create a consistent donor experience and put the supporter at the center of their operations. Their technology work meant that during a crisis like COVID, the nonprofit could quickly adapt their operations, workforce and donor relations. Andy Rhodes, CIO for UNICEF USA, shares details of their digital journey, how it has helped increase their social impact and tips for executives leading transformation efforts.
Karen Dumville: Hello, and welcome to Pragmatism in Practice, a podcast from Thoughtworks, where we share stories of practical approaches to becoming a modern digital business. I'm your host, Karen Dumville. If you're familiar with Thoughtworks, you know that striving for positive social change is at the heart of our purpose, culture, and work. When we learned about the impact of digital transformation at one of the world's most prolific nonprofit organizations, we wanted to dive more into the story for our listeners.
The United Nations Children's Fund, also known as UNICEF, works in over 190 countries to deliver the essentials that give every child an equitable chance in life. UNICEF USA advances the global mission by rallying the American public through fundraising, advocacy, and education. I'm thrilled today to introduce Andy Rhodes, CIO for UNICEF USA. Andy is responsible for the organization's technology, digital, and data strategy, which includes creating and enforcing technology, governance, security, and policy.
Andy joins us to share more about the organization's transformation and his insights for fellow digital leaders, given his prior leadership experience at enterprises like the USGA, Publicis, and Mattel. Welcome, Andy.
Andy Rhodes: Well, thank you, Karen, for having me. I love talking about the work that we do at UNICEF. UNICEF has been around for about 75 years, working tirelessly for the rights and well-being of every child. We work in 190 countries and territories. 13,000 people working hard every day to make sure kids have the best possible outcomes. We participate in providing healthcare, immunization, safe waters, sanitation, nutrition, education, as well as emergency relief, and respond to nearly 300 emergencies every year around the world. I came to UNICEF USA via one of those phone calls that changes your life.
I was a CIO at the USGA and a recruiter reached out to me and told me about UNICEF and their need for a CIO to lead a digital transformation. I've been familiar with UNICEF. I trick or treated for UNICEF with the little orange boxes as a kid, but when I began to understand the scope of the organization and the mission and all the work that they do, it became a journey that I wanted to go on, to take up the leadership of this organization. It's been incredibly rewarding to have this opportunity at this point in my career, 30 years in the commercial sector to be able to do this work. It's just a real thrill.
Karen: What specifically do you do in your role, Andy?
Andy: As the CIO for UNICEF USA, I have several accountabilities. One is to establish the computing footprint for the organization. The things you think about that make an organization run, finance systems, HR systems, laptops, computers, networks, and all those sorts of things, but we're also going through a digital transformation. I lead the digital transformation and the data transformation for the organization, which entails giving our staff the opportunity to use the best available technologies to engage with our supporters and our donors and gather data about those interactions and all the work that we do and use that to ensure that we are doing the very best we can to improve the outcomes for kids.
Karen: Just talking about that transformation, what prompted the organization to kick that off and undergo the transformation and how did it begin? Did the plans change along the way at all?
Andy: The plans always change. That's the great thing about plans. You have a plan and it gives you an opportunity to adjust as conditions change. It got started with the board recognizing that as a nonprofit, and a lot of nonprofits, I think, go through this is they haven't invested at a pace to keep up with current trends and technology. It's always a challenge. Do you spend a dollar on yourself or a dollar on the mission, but I think they recognize that the organization was at an inflection point and time to make those investments.
The position of the CIO was created, it was a new position for the organization. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to lead the organization through that. The way we've executed has certainly changed as business conditions have changed. COVID certainly had an impact on how we engage with our supporters and donors. We had to adjust to that and how we work. Even as we've gone through it, we've learned things about our strengths and our weaknesses as we've gone through the transformation projects, and so we've adjusted plans as necessary to meet those changes.
Karen: Can you talk a little bit about some of the high-level initiatives that are part of the digital transformation?
Andy: Yes, absolutely. In partnership with our Chief Marketing Officer, Shelley Diamond, we've created a strategy to really become a customer-centric or supporter-centric organization, put the supporter at the center of the way we engage with them, and allow them to engage with us on their terms. Part of that was implementation of a marketing platform that would allow us to measure all of those engagements in real-time, which gives us a very precise level of targeting that we can do to find our best supporters, understand the profile of those best supporters and find more like them and give them opportunities to engage with our organization.
That's led to increases in engagement as well as increases in fundraising. The great thing about UNICEF is it's such a great brand that it's more a matter of reminding people that you're here and reminding them what we do and the American public has really responded.
Karen: Now, I don't know if you've completed the transformation. I guess transformations are always ongoing, but what are some of the bigger points of value that you're seeing come out of that, maybe from the business side, and then what have been some of the challenges you faced along the way?
Andy: Well, on a business side, from a marketing and fundraising standpoint, we had a record year last year, which I think is partly a result of the American public responding to the causes of needy people all over the world and certainly recognizing that the UNICEF has a role to play. In fact, UNICEF is leading the COVAX vaccine acquisition and distribution network in the low and middle-income countries, which is something that we do regularly. We vaccinate about half of the world's children every year. We have the supply chain and the distribution network set up to distribute the vaccines.
I think the American public recognize that nobody's safe unless we're all safe and with UNICEF playing a central role in that really responded and then using the tools and using the processes we put in place and using the data that we have to understand who our supporters are and who would be interested in those causes, we've been able to really drive a high level of precise targeting. That's, again, has paid off because we've been able to help more kids this year than we ever have.
Karen: Some of the challenges?
Andy: Well, I think each time you go through a transformation and I've done many of these, the biggest challenges are the organizational change that's required. There are going to be new roles and new capabilities that are going to be required, and some roles and some capabilities aren't going to be as important, maybe not even necessary, so driving the organizational change is probably the most important success factor.
It may sound silly as a CIO to say the technology is the easy part, but it is certainly easier in a lot of cases than driving the organizational change. We spent a lot of time on that and spent a lot of time defining what those roles and processes would need to look like and how we would evolve them and how we would help our staff be able to find a path to some of those new opportunities.
Karen: I don't think that's unusual at all. I think a lot of our clients would say the technology is probably the easy part. I know even internally, we say that ourselves. It's the people and the processes that are sometimes the trickier pieces. Just to that point, what changes have you seen within your organization around the people and processes and how are the people utilizing some of the new tools and the feedback you're getting from them?
Andy: Well, to give you an example, we replaced a multitude of email systems, methods, and processes with a single one through our marketing cloud, and so that gave us the opportunity to really ensure that we were sending the right message at the right time. Prior to this, support of UNICEF might have gotten multiple messages in a day. They might have had different look and feel different fonts, even different language. We wanted to create that consistent donor experience or enquiring experience, and so we consolidated all those email systems into our marketing cloud, which gives us the ability to ensure that we're sending the right message at the right time.
In order to do that, we had to have conversations about the prioritization of content and what goes out and on what cadence and make sure that we were still able to allow our individual business units to accomplish the goals that they have set for them and that they want to achieve. It's just a lot of conversation and a lot of coordination, but it's resulted in a very streamlined process for email campaign management and engagement with our supporters.
Karen: Have you found had there been any other large shifts in the organization in the way you've thought about the people or the process and what has had to change during this time?
Andy: We're also working on our internal operations as well. We've implemented a new financial system, which will provide a lot more transparency into our financials for folks who own P&L and home budgets. At the same time, we've implemented a data warehouse and a data lake to aggregate all this great data that you get out of these interactions and to be able to tie things together type programs together and really understand how one program impacts another.
We've gone through an internal resetting, if you will, of priorities and operations that has helped us really align around our strategic plan and understand where technology is going to help fuel that strategic plan. That's been a lot of conversation operationally. Again, processes changed, tools change, we went from an Excel-heavy organization to one that uses now cloud-based financial systems.
There's a learning curve there for every organization to just in the technology, but also an understanding of what the new processes are going to be. It may sound simple, but the process of processing an invoice is a critical part, we need to pay our vendors on time, and when you put new tools in place, and then you will then have the data available to measure the effectiveness of all those processes. It just takes some time to settle in with that but a lot of internal work going on as well.
Karen: Just thinking about the last 12 to 18 months, a lot of our client organizations have obviously accelerated what they're doing around their transformations to accommodate COVID and what's happened some of the byproducts of that, has that change, anything that you're doing within your operations, have you done anything with your transformations to really assist with that?
Andy: Well, one of the things that we did prior to COVID was change the dynamic of the workplace. My vision and the vision of the UNICEF team was we wanted people to be collaborative and to be out in the field. We want fundraisers to be out in the field talking to our donors, we want our advocates out in the field working with our supporters. We wanted to create a technology infrastructure that enabled that.
We embarked on a two-year journey to migrate everything from what were on-premise systems to cloud systems and to give the staff laptops, so they could collaborate as well, whether they were six feet or 6000 miles apart. The good news is, we got all of that done, quite literally, for the last thing in about a month before the pandemic hit, and we had to set everything down.
Our business resiliency plan was to take your laptop and go home, or take your computer, go home and work from your computer there but as we went through that process for the last 18 months, we've learned what worked and what didn't work in those scenarios and what do we need to continue to invest in now that we're going to be in this remote and hybrid environment.
For example, we've implemented Slack as a communication and collaboration tool on an enterprise level, to give our folks the ability to get away from the static nature of email into a more dynamic and threaded conversation is that Slack gives you the ability to do so. We have learned along the way and learn the things that we thought were going to work maybe didn't work as well, we had to pivot and adjust but the pandemic, unfortunately, has created so many challenges for folks in their personal lives has had an impact on work.
We just want to make sure that our staff had all the tools available to them to be able to manage their work in and home life successfully.
Karen: I think as you say, it's one of those things we learn and we react to the learning as we go along it's not just a one and done Is it really so?
Andy: It never is and that's my favorite thing about being a CIO, is that it's always changing. As I talk to my colleagues in the commercial sector, as well as in the NGO and nonprofit sector we're always learning and always sharing, and it's one of the beautiful things about being in the nonprofit sector is that there's an open sharing of ideas and information which helps all of us.
Karen: That's a real benefit. That's actually a good segue to my next question, which really talks a bit about your personal experience. You've obviously been on both sides of the fence, you've worked for some diverse enterprises and now an agency like UNICEF, how would you say this process in this transformation was different versus similar initiatives at previous companies?
Andy:It's a great question and there are similarities and there are indeed differences. As the CIO, I have the same challenges in the nonprofit worlds I did in the commercial sector. Too many things to do, not enough time, and not enough budget to do it. All these great ideas that are thrown at us that people want us to implement that is that they believe is the highest priority.
Managing all of that is the same. I think there are two material differences though in the nonprofit world that I've learned in the last years. Number one is you don't have the capital markets to go to necessarily that you do in the commercial sector to get additional funding for investments. We have to be really nimble and really savvy and find ways to fund our investments through savings in other places.
The business case for investment in technology has to be really well thought through so that we make sure that we're getting the most out of it. Because we don't have the buffer if you will, to make a mistake is as you might in the commercial sector. I think the second thing and probably the most important thing is that everybody that works for UNICEF and I think any other nonprofit team would tell you the same thing. We're here because we want to be here and the mission is the most important thing. When we have to make a difficult decision, the number one thing we're going to use, and the number one criteria is are we doing the best thing for the kids?
Are we doing the best things to save lives around the world? You don't have some of those other things that you end up in the commercial sector, you had a quarterly Wall Street report, or you've got an M&A, or opportunity or things like that. I say this all the time, as a leadership team, we argue all the time about what to do and that's good but we never or argue about why we're doing it. That makes those difficult decisions a little bit easier to get to.
Karen: What about your own personal experience coming from large enterprises, large conglomerates to a social impact organization? What's been your personal experience of that?
Andy: It's from been incredibly rewarding to work with a collection of people that every day come to work, excited about helping improve lives and to be part of a community not just in UNICEF, but in the nonprofit community where we have those conversations and we talk about the impacts that we've had on people's lives is really incredibly rewarding.
I've worked at some great companies before a lot of fun companies and did some great things and had some, just some tremendous colleagues and mentors that had a real impact on my professional career. The ability to take those learnings and take those lessons and apply them in this environment with 13,000 people that as I said every day are working hard to make sure kids have the best outcome. It's just a real treat and a real joy, and a real honor, to be able to do that.
Karen: For other executives tuning in, what advice would you give them for starting this type of transformation?
Andy: Well, I think it starts with strategy. I think it starts with really identifying why you're doing it. I think there's a lot of discussion in the media these days about transformation and about digital transformation. If you talk to 10 people, you probably get 10 different descriptions of what that actually means. I think it's really important to establish as an organization what your north star is, what it is you're trying to achieve. That could be an efficiency, it could be a revenue generation goal, it could be an impact goal, whatever it is the organization is about you really need to make sure that all of the executives are aligned on why you're going to do it.
Because I said, as we talked about the work is gonna be hard. You're going to have to change roles. You have to change working models. You may have to change compensation structures. These are all things that I've done before in leading transformation. That's only going to happen successfully is at the very beginning, you, as an organization, are clear on why you're doing it and what the measures of success are going to be. Secondarily, I think you then got to establish what those measures of success are and how you're going to measure that as you go through the process, it will be a multi-year process.
As we talked about, business conditions are going to change along the way that is going to influence what you need to do. You need to set up a facility to be able to measure that progress against those initial KPIs and maybe make adjustments to them. A digital transformation is an organizational-wide initiative, everybody has to participate in order for it to be successful. The third piece of it is I would say is don't underestimate the change management work that has to go on, and that should be a track in and of itself in a transformational project.
Karen: Do you have any tips on that side of it? I know that's often a complex part of it and something that companies don't always get right. Have you got any learnings from the change management you can share?
Andy: Yes, I think, number one, it takes visible leadership and these kinds of transformations, you have to lead from the front and be a visible leader and be authentic about your leadership and be transparent about the successes and failures. We're in the process of developing a dashboard that's going to show where we are on that journey so everybody can see and everybody can understand where we've won and lost along the way, and there will be wins and losses along the way.
I think, secondarily, it's really important to find some champions that will partner with you that will stand beside you and say, "Hey, listen, Tim, I know, this is tough, but here's why we're doing it and, it's okay, we're going to get through it together," so visible leadership, champions that will partner with you. I've had the opportunity to move a couple of times in the last decade or so.
When I take those jobs over, I spent a lot of time getting to know my business partners on a personal level because I think that's really important when we have to make those tough decisions, they understand the framework that I'm coming from or the frame of reference that I'm coming from, and why I feel it's important to make those decisions so as a leader of a transformation, you have to invest the time to find those partners build that trust and become visible leaders to the change.
Karen: oo true. You spoke a little bit before about KPIs and measurements and I guess within the realm of what you can speak to, how have you found or how is the business found this transformation has helped move the needle so far in delivering your stakeholders and becoming that customer-centric organization that you spoke about earlier? Have you been able to show significant change on that yet or is that still very much a work-in-progress?
Andy:I think it's always a work-in-progress but we're certainly seeing signs. As I mentioned earlier, we had a record year in fundraising last year, and we were able to do that through using the digital tools we have in the data we capture about those interactions, where I think we'll really start to see some acceleration is in the number of people we're able to reach here in the US and the effect we're able to have on policy in the US. In the US, UNICEF doesn't work in a disaster sense of what you think of UNICEF landing a plane with supplies around the world.
We work in partnership with city and state and at the federal level to change policy around for things that will improve kids lives and as an example, we're starting something now in pilot mode called our Child-Friendly Cities Initiative and that's designed to give cities a framework for ensuring they have a framework to invest in a child's well being in the cities with the ultimate goal of improving the outcomes of kids in their cities. That's a place where I think we'll see a lot of acceleration in the next couple of years, and then, A, the number of cities that participate in the program. We have six in our pilot now, but also the impacts we'll have in those cities.
Karen: Great. What have you got coming up on your roadmap as CIO? What are some of the biggest things you've got to bite off in the next little while?
Andy: I think the thing that we're continuing to focus on is how can we use data to inform our decision-making and we've done a really good job, I think of pulling data from a variety of sources and coalescing it into our data lake and having the tools to analyze it. The thing that I'm going to be focused on in the next year or two is how do we use that data to inform not just our short-range planning, but our long-range planning and how do we use data to ensure that the outcomes and the impacts are measured.
It's moving beyond just measuring numbers, the number of donors, or the number of supporters but what is the impact of that? How many kids lives have we changed, for example, or how have we changed kids' lives in the US and around the world. That's where I think we'll spend a lot of time and we'll be able to really show the value of making the investments that we've done.
Karen: More broadly, as an organization, what are some of the bigger items or initiatives that UNICEF have got coming up?
Andy:There's so many things that we're working on right now that are really, really exciting. One of them, for example, is our Giga initiative. Giga is a program, it's a partnership with the International Telecommunications Union to ensure that there's equitable internet access around the world.
What we've seen during the pandemic is that there's huge inequities that we see the impacts of it when kids don't have access to learning and to learning tools. We're partnering with the ITU around the world to first map internet accessibility in the schools and the villages in which we work in the low to middle income countries and then enable them to work with the ITU and the local Telco's to to provide internet access to those kids. We think that's fundamental on this era it's fundamental to raising the education levels and giving kids equitable educational opportunities around the world.
Karen: That's amazing. I speak to a lot of my colleagues in India and at the moment some of those children haven't been to school for over 18 months and looks like at least another six months before they'll get back to school so that's really important.
Andy: Exactly, even in the US there are a lot of kids in the us that that don't have access to the internet from home. That's such a critical part of the educational process these days. We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to get them that access.
Karen: We have a lot of folks listen in that get involved in social impact. A lot of our clients do, it's an area that we focus on a lot. Is there anything you'd like to say to our listeners on how they could get involved at all with what you're doing?
Andy: I appreciate that opportunity. We have a number of ways in the US that's been around the world that folks can get off. We have an advocacy network, for example, that allows you to act on our behalf in your local communities. We have over 65,000 volunteers in the US that rally for us to do a variety of things, could be write a letter to a congressperson, it could be hold a bake sale to raise funds.
For those of our listeners who have kids, we have UNICEF clubs in high schools and colleges around the country that their kids can get involved with and begin to advocate for kids in their own communities as well as support the work that we do around the world. I'd say there's lots of opportunities to get involved and there's just so much work to do. We'd love to have everybody get engaged with us.
Karen: Terrific. Like you said, it doesn't sound like there's any shortage of things people can jump into and get involved with.
[00:27:06] Andy: No, really. For the technologists around the world, we believe a lot of the solutions are going to come from these public-private partnerships. Some of the best innovations come out the tech world these days. We're providing seed funding, for example, to startups who are working in artificial intelligence and machine-learning. We'll provide that seed funding to those organizations that are doing things that we believe will help the public good and help the social good. There's lots of ways that people can get involved in the organization no matter what their specialty is or what their interest is.
Karen: That's terrific. That may be of interest to some of our listeners. I guess they head over to UNICEF website to learn more about them.
Andy: Absolutely all that can be found at the unicef.org website, UNICEF USA, if you're interested in a UNICEF club unicefusa.org but either place will get you to that information.
Karen: Terrific. That was great. Thank you so much for sharing your points of view. It has been terrific speaking to you.
Andy: Thanks, Karen. It's my pleasure. As I said, I love talking about UNICEF and the work we do. I appreciate the opportunity.
Karen: Andy, thank you so much for joining us as a guest and chatting with me today. This conversation was truly insightful and UNICEF USA is a great example of leveraging technology to deliver social impact. On a related note, Thoughtworks recent social impact report provides further reflections on tech at the core of society. That concludes this episode of Pragmatism in Practice. If you'd like to listen to similar podcasts, please visit us at thoughtworks.com/podcasts and help us spread the word by rating us on your podcast platform.