Why the charitable space needs your digital skills to end poverty

10 Qs with Compassion Canada's Director of Digital & Technology
  • By: Compassion Canada
Computer and Coffee

Michael Carmody is the Executive Director of Digital and Technology for Compassion Canada. Michael has been active in the digital and technology fields for over 20 years, bringing a depth of experience in both the for profit and not-for-profit sectors.  His passion is to see organizations align their marketing, digital and operations together to be not only efficient in the here and now, but in 7-10 years as well. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario with his wife of 21 years and four children (18, 16, 13 and 11).

He recently spoke with our Content Editor, Andrew Kooman, about the technological challenges charities face, why he joined Compassion and the importance of transformation in the digital space. 

Mike Carmody, Executive Director of Digital and Technology, Compassion Canada

Compassion Canada: Tell us a little about your background and how you ended up as the Executive Director of Technology at Compassion Canada.

Mike Carmody: I have spent the bulk of my career intentionally focusing on three areas:  Digital and Technology, Marketing and Operations.  Why?  Because I am convinced these three areas are really one and to drive real transformation will take a passionate, patient effort in all three.

That means both as a consultant and employee the last 20+ years have been an opportunity to learn, fail and grow as the world around us has changed.  I would say the last 10 years, give or take, have been focused on the charitable space globally.

As a longtime supporter of Compassion Canada, when an opportunity came along to play a role in this new season, I was more than excited to explore and see where that would lead.  Under Allison’s leadership, it is clear big things are in store for Compassion, and I am thrilled to play a part for as long as I can.

CC: What does a day-in-the-life of your job look like?

MC: As a leader in this space, you learn that your days look incredibly different from one to the other.  I spend a lot of time in conversation with our team managers (IT, Customer Relationship Management and Data, Development and Digital) making sure they are equipped but also gleaning from their expertise and experience.

Then there is time with other senior leaders in the organization.  As we are just starting out on an intentional digital transformation, it is important that it is ‘owned’ by all the organization, not just the digital and tech team.

CC: In your view, what are some of the most exciting technological challenges that charities face today?

MC: I think the most exciting challenges for technology are all directly related to trying to figure out how to be digitally relevant today.  Implementing technology for the sake of technology is often the temptation; however, technology needs to respond to one pursuit:  how do we deliver a compelling, engaging and frictionless digital experience to our two main stakeholder groups–those being our internal stakeholders and our external supporters.

Said another way – how do we leverage and use technology (that’s what digital is) to make us more efficient and effective in telling our story? And how do we show the impact of our work so, in Compassion’s case, we can release more children from poverty in Jesus’ name.  Hard work to be sure, but such an exciting opportunity.

CC: You speak often about agile management. Why is this approach to projects and systems important for the charitable sector?

MC: Agile is all about a culture change in an organization.  Far too often we assume being agile means going faster, as if speed is an input to becoming agile.  It quite simply is not.  Speed is an output of being agile.

For the charitable sector, as the digital space changes and evolves, what we have to do is become more collaborative (internally and with our peers), embrace risk, and have an uncomfortable patience as we learn to work more iteratively in new digital spaces.  To do this well, we need a culture shift.  The good news for charities is once you start living in this more agile, innovative space, you unleash a new excitement among not only staff, but supporters as well.  The charities in Canada that solve this agile challenge will be the ones that not only are engaging more Canadians in their work, but also are attracting the new, fresh talent that is out there who are hungry to join work that is meaningful and life changing.

Children at a Compassion centre in Honduras who had never interacted with a computer before learn new tech skills

CC: Digital Transformation is a bit of a buzz word for organizations. How do you define Digital Transformation and why is it important for a charity like Compassion to embrace it?

MC: A few years back, Boston Consulting Group talked about the need for organizations in general to drive up their digital maturity and they also provided a methodology to do so.  I love that language – digital maturity.  Digital transformation should be about supporting and driving this increase in digital maturity (technology will follow) while also creating the environment to try new things, be risky, but not reckless, in doing all we can to achieve our mission.  Again, the charities that understand and embrace this are the ones that will lead the way.

Too often digital transformations become simply technology project lists.   Maybe those are all good projects to do but it is not going to create the culture and environment to remain relevant in the charitable landscape.  I am inspired by the digital leaders I rub shoulders with who get this, embrace this and are willing to do that hard work to create these new digital cultures across their organizations.  It will require senior leadership buy-in and, more importantly, commitment.  I always say, this all sounds great and inspiriting on a PowerPoint in the board room, but the reality is it is hard.  You will need to slow down in areas and the revenue growth may also slow.  Here is the rub – digital transformations lead organizations into being relevant for the next 7-10 years.  The question leaders need to ask is if that means a slower growth in the next 1-2 years, are you still excited?  Thankfully Compassion Canada’s leadership gets this.  We are ready and willing to do that hard work now, to ensure we can continue to do the important work of releasing more and more children from poverty in the many years to come.

CC: As big strides have been made in addressing extreme poverty around the globe, the UN has identified a few key areas where, if not addressed now, near insurmountable gaps for the poor in the future will emerge. One such gap is access to technology.  Why is access to technology so critical and how can Compassion provide solutions here?

MC: For me, this is where things get inspirational in our space of digital and technology.   Technology has the awesome potential to resolve issues in the fight against poverty.  In digital marketing we always talk about reducing friction for supporters, meaning how can we make the experience of engaging, supporting and learning about our work easier to find and engaging within the rhythms of life.  Make it part of your existing day-to-day life.

In the field, the opportunity is the same:  How do we reduce friction in the fight against poverty?  From ‘simple’ things like digital registration of beneficiaries so we can better track progress and deliver the right solution for those we serve (like Compassion has done in partnership with Microsoft) or creating solutions to deliver aid and needs faster and more efficiently…these are the ways technology will continue to play a significant role in releasing children around the globe from poverty.

When you think about newer tech like blockchain, AI, IoT — all cool, exciting technologies that can do more than just make it easier for us the developed world to order pizza, check our bank balance or watch TV.  They are the building blocks to the next great advancement in the fight against poverty.  Compassion is keenly setup to be not only the ones to deliver and test new technological advances, but also lead the innovation required to make this all a reality.

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CC: How does the way Compassion Canada adapts to technology influence the children Canadians sponsor and the local churches we partner with around the globe?

MC: First – as we continue to find ways to make the experience for Canadians to engage and support our work easier, quicker and more relevant, that means we are faster at providing children in the field with sponsors and the good work of child development will mean those kids and the local churches we partner with are getting to the work of fighting poverty quicker.  That is a huge win and an incredible opportunity for Canadians to play a significant part in that fight.

Second – as we continue to find ways to make the job of our Engagement staff, Public Relations staff, Fulfillment staff, Call Centre staff, Finance staff, and so on more efficient and enjoyable, there is more than enough research to show that as efficiency and job satisfaction increase, so does results.  Again, a huge win.

CC: What are some of the cool or unique projects that your team is focused on right now?

MC: I must say that the fact that we are focusing on cool and unique work is 100% a testament to the caliber and passion of the team that currently works on our Digital and Technology team.  They are passionate about the work of Compassion and embody the type of mindset and behaviour organizations need to drive digital transformation.  They are beyond talented!

We are focusing in on some of the key foundational areas of digital and technology right now that will be the bedrock of Compassion Canada’s digital transformation. Our IT team is focusing on a faster, frictionless infrastructure and deploying critical collaboration tools to our users.

Our development team is not only looking at key integrations between our online digital experience and internal systems but also starting to explore some of the emerging trends in development that we can innovate with.

Our digital team is taking a fresh look at the online experience of our websites and portals to ensure we are constantly improving the experience and engagement tools we provide for our supporters. Our data and insights work is focusing on democratizing our data so the entire organization can make faster and more informed business decisions on the spot.

All that and we continue to map out our overall digital transformation roadmap to ensure we are continuing that path of digital maturity growth.  Exciting times for the team!

CC: Your team is looking to fill specific roles in UX, API and Development. Why is a Tech career in the charity space worthwhile and what would you say to the qualified individual out there who’s wondering if they’d like working for Compassion?

MC: I think the first thing I would say to that individual is the charity space needs you.  Innovation in the digital and tech space requires new skill sets and new approaches to work.  While we are still learning to embrace an agile and iterative work pace in the charitable space, we are making progress and we need people who are willing to help us along.  Compassion included.

There is something exciting when you can combine your passion for digital and/or technology with an environment that is focused on helping children around the world break the cycle of poverty.

As far as joining Compassion, I would say if you have a passion in this area, and you are willing and able to help us as we continue down our path of digital transformation, we need you.  My commitment is to make sure we are constantly pushing our own boundaries of comfort and to make sure we are having fun while doing it!

CC: What are you reading right now and how do you incorporate learning into your full schedule?

Two books that are both blowing my mind right now are:

  • Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail – ‘why new organizations are ten times better, faster and cheaper than yours (and what to do about it)’
  • The Technology Fallacy by Gerald C. Kane, Anh Nguyen Phillips, Jonathan R. Copulsky and Garth R. Andrus – ‘How people are the real key to Digital Transformation’

The digital space is changing so fast – it is important to keep a posture of learning (big part of agile too).  For me it ebbs and flows how well I do at carving out time to read, watch Ted Talks, attend conferences, etc.  I am working on carving out intentional time to focus in on trends and areas of learning that will not only drive a better understanding of digital, but also make me a better leader, father, husband and overall global citizen.  Definitely an area for improvement for me.

Header photo: from Andrew Neel  Unsplash