Nonprofit doesn't mean low-tech at the Salvation Army.
As the CIO of the Salvation Army's USA Western Territory since 1997, Clarence White is responsible for running IT operations for chapters in 13 western states that are linked together in a cohesive operation to provide social services to millions of needy people.
But if all you know about the Salvation Army is the red kettles and the bell ringers during the holidays or the familiar chain of thrift stores run by the agency, then you're missing a lot. Inside the Western Territory's IT department, there are innovative projects going on as the nonprofit agency seeks to do the most it can with the fewest dollars so that it can put most of its money into its core mission.
White, 45, was previously CIO for the Salvation Army in Canada for nine years. He also worked in IT for PricewaterhouseCoopers Information Technology Consulting practice and at the global chemical manufacturer ERCO Worldwide (USA) in Toronto.
His 75-person IT staff supports about 6,000 employees. White recently spoke about how his department stays on the cutting-edge of technology to serve its users.
Are IT needs different for nonprofits like the Salvation Army or are they basically the same as in for-profit businesses?
They're very similar, other than the fact that we have so many diverse activities.
In our business, one of the key differences is that we do end up developing a lot of our own software rather than purchasing it. Our business is different. We're not manufacturing a product and selling it. And we don't have the same levels of regulations and scrutiny that for-profits sometimes have. So therefore the off-the-shelf products sometimes just don't fit what we do. They'll be bloated in certain areas and not applicable in certain areas.
The second reason is because we found it to be more cost-effective. When we develop it ourselves, we don't have to pay license fees per seat. Obviously, we're very cost-sensitive. It would only work if we were good at developing software, and we are.
Does that mean you are also using open-source software to save money?
No, we do not use much open source because we're a very old organization, founded in 1865. We were well into technology before the open-source craze, and we had a big investment in Microsoft technologies for quite some time. They give us excellent deals, excellent support. They're very generous with us. And with that level of investment, it would be more costly for us to jump ship and put all our efforts into open source than it would be to continue on this path we're on.
That could change at some point in time and when it does, we'll always go where that value is. We're seeking more than lower cost, we're seeking better value. Right now, we have a large investment in Microsoft and IBM because we're a Lotus Notes user. Our investment is too big to jump ship on that, and for so-called free software.