Information technology: A day in the life

For some charities, ICT silently underpins other functions, but for others it is a key catalyst for growth. Gary Flood speaks to three ICT chiefs about their roles.

Ask yourself what a head of fundraising does or why you need a marketing manager, and there's no mystery in the answers. But why does a charity need a head of ICT, often grandly titled the chief information officer? What do they do all day?

The answer is that any modern professional organisation relies on information and communications technology, or ICT, to run its infrastructure, manage its records and money, and communicate with fellow staff and the outside world through a website.

Although ICT is vital to most charities, the place in the pecking order of the head of ICT is sometimes vague. "ICT should be a key catalyst for business growth, but too often it's perceived as a constraint," says Phil Durbin, head of ICT at Unicef UK. "Sometimes getting that positive message out to colleagues can be a challenge."

At Unicef UK, Durbin has tried to change that by promoting the link between ICT and the charity's achievements. "We must align business and ICT goals as closely as possible," he says. "My job is to ensure that every penny we put into ICT returns a 'profit' that the entire organisation can take advantage of, to help the cause we're here to serve."

But how do the role and duties of a head of ICT vary in charities of different sizes and types? We asked three what they do to earn their livings, and how they help their charities to operate successfully.

PHIL DURBIN, HEAD OF ICT, UNICEF UK

Annual income of organisation: In 2004, $2bn (£1.13bn) worldwide and £36.2m in the UK

Number of staff: 130 at Unicef UK

ICT budget: "Less than 1.5 per cent of annual expenditure"

Unicef has a special United Nations mandate and is the world's leading organisation working specifically for children. "It's very important to me to work in a job that makes a real impact," Durbin says. "So I see ICT strictly as a tool to improve the lives of children all over the world."

However, he didn't start out in the voluntary sector. He trained as an electronics engineer and then worked as a technology consultant for major ICT firms. "I made the move because I have a passion for the cause of children and their position in the world," he says.

His work in the private sector has given him extra insight into the place of ICT in an organisation. He says it is about getting the balance right between technology for technology's sake, throwing money at the problem until you get a solution and making the most of what you've got and have already invested in.

Durbin's day-to-day role is varied, from making sure all staff have access to email to maintaining networks and servers and purchasing databases. But don't expect someone at Durbin's level to spend his day writing programmes or playing Doom. He concentrates more on the macro than the micro, which means strategic planning and monitoring, and improving the infrastructure that helps the charity run.

"I deal with questions at the top level, such as whether we should outsource," he says. "I look at issues involving the cost of equipment purchase, software licences and support, and I also need to worry about user and staff ICT training. So purchasing is a big factor in my life." Unicef UK runs its website separately from its ICT function, he adds.

Supporting staff is one of Durbin's major priorities. "I see my job as an ICT leader as coaching," he says. "I need to manage by encouraging my staff to think of the wider picture and get the benefit of my experience, both here and in my other roles. I probably say 'have you thought about ...?' more than any other phrase."

This includes ensuring that the contribution of his staff is valued. "When I arrived here in 1994, ICT people were seen more as slaves," he says. "That's wrong. We provide a service function, but when things go wrong and ICT isn't working, it's unfair to barrack us. It's better to be asked to do things, not have things demanded of you."

Durbin enjoys his job, but what would improve it? "I'd like to reduce the number of interruptions, whether they are cold calls from ICT salesmen or the 40 emails a day," he says. "Either that, or find a way to speed up my thinking process by a factor of four."

BAREND VELLEMAN, DEPUTY CHIEF EXECUTIVE, NATIONAL CHILDMINDING ASSOCIATION

Annual income of organisation: £16m

Number of staff: 450, including an ICT manager who reports to Velleman

ICT budget: "Between 1 and 2 per cent of income at the moment, but I want to increase that to support our long-term ICT strategy"

ICT is only part of Velleman's job; his responsibilities also include running the finances, facilities, HR and member services. But it has always been an important part. "It was my vision of what ICT could do here that helped me get the job," he says. "Epecially as I had to convince a panel member who turned out to be head of computer science at Cambridge University."

Velleman typifies the sort of executive who has picked ICT up along the way. His experiences prove that you don't have to be able to dismantle and rebuild a PC with your eyes closed to be a good ICT leader. His approach is to apply it in a business sense.

"I am not a techie - I can't write a programme," he says. "But what I can do is see the potential. Here, that means leading a drive to get the most modern, well-run organisation, using its resources effectively and delivering the best service to our members. This means using ICT to the limit."

Velleman started out as an accountant in the early 1970s before acquiring a degree in social work and an MA in economics and social policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1980s. He has combined high-level accountancy and ICT consultancy with social work throughout his career.

His current employer, the National Childminding Association, was established in the 1970s as the support network for people working in the area and has now grown to supervise training and control standards for all registered childminders in England and Wales.

Velleman was hired to increase the charity's effectiveness through day-to-day management and the implementation of a new ICT strategy. The latter includes plans for a new intranet site, a nationwide broadband network linking all the charity's offices and a new technology development platform.

"At NCMA, ICT is a strategic issue, not a tactical one," he says. "It isn't a separate department but underpins all the other work. Communications and connectivity to support our home workers is a given."

Velleman says one of the clearest differences between working in any sort of role in a charity and a commercial organisation is that "everyone who works here has to subscribe to the goals and values the charity underwrites".

But he also finds that working in the voluntary sector has its drawbacks. "The thing I lack is thinking time," he says. "I have very full days, and what I sometimes miss the most is the chance to really step back and think things through.

"At the moment, I have a serious bid in for much greater ICT funding. If that passes and our plans can move ahead, I will be much more relaxed."

JONATHAN MAZOWER, RESEARCH DIRECTOR, SURVIVAL INTERNATIONAL

Annual income of organisation: £1m

Number of staff: 29 in the UK and abroad, including one full-time ICT staffer

ICT budget: "A few thousand pounds a year - a very small percentage of our overall budget"

Desite his job title, Jonathan Mazower is in charge of ICT at Survival International, which campaigns to help tribal people defend their lives and homelands and safeguard their futures. Unusually for a charity ICT chief, he's never worked anywhere else.

"My degree was in zoology, but I soon realised people were more interesting than animals," he says. "I heard of Survival International while at university, and started working here as a volunteer immediately after graduating. After a couple of years I got a job here - that was 15 years ago."

Despite never having worked in the corporate sector, Mazower is aware of the challenges charities face that companies do not. "Charities such as ours have minuscule budgets for ICT work compared with most firms - we rarely have the budget to employ specialists," he says. "The most obvious challenges in a charity, which other ICT people don't face, is simply a lack of resources. At Survival, we have to weigh up the fact that every pound we spend on computers or software could be spent on our campaigning work. On the other hand, it's also the case that investing in technology, which is something Survival has always done, enormously increases the effectiveness of our work."

Getting that balance right is exactly what Mazower's role involves. "I have to ensure we spend our ICT budget on only the bare essentials - in the main, new hardware and, occasionally, software," he says. "This year, for the first time, we have contracted a software developer, Babelfix, to design us a new press database - although most of its work has been done for free."

Mazower's job, as is the case in many smaller organisations, involves much more than ICT alone. "I am primarily a researcher and campaigner, so a typical day involves relatively little ICT work," he says.

Ensuring that other staff are involved in ICT helps lighten the burden. "We try to keep our systems as simple as possible so that most people have some understanding of what might be wrong and how they could fix it," he says.

As the main port of call for ICT issues, Mazower finds his involvement is varied. "On any given day, my job might involve installing a new machine and software, fixing any problems that have arisen and ensuring that back-up systems, for example, are running smoothly," he says. "I also work with other managers."

Getting the chief executive and trustees to understand the value of ICT has never been a problem, according to Mazower, but there is one thing that could improve his job. "If there was any one thing that would make my job easier or better, I'd have to say more money," he admits. "That would allow us to devote more resources not just to ICT, but to our work in general."

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