Cris Downey of Rotary: Providing Philanthropy via Technology

Cris Downey of Rotary: Providing Philanthropy via Technology

Cris Downey, Director of Technology of Rotary International, talks tech and progress at the largest philanthropic grassroots organisation in the world

Cris Downey is the director of technology services at Rotary International, the oldest and potentially largest, most far-reaching grassroots service organisation in the world. He joined Rotary in November of 2019, after spending 18 years working in healthcare and pharma in the northern suburbs of Chicago. 

“After having various roles and working on several projects up there, I was looking for a change,” he says. “I wanted to move out of the corporate world and be able to give back, to do something more as part of the community.” 

He then spoke to the chief information officer (CIO) of Rotary at the time, the infrastructure of which was severely outdated and highly unstable. The then-CIO was looking for someone to come in and partner with him. “He was very application-focused,” says Downey. “He wanted someone to help modernise and transform Rotary's infrastructure and core technologies.” 

Downey saw this as “an opportunity” – as he puts it – “to be able to help transform an organisation that is itself a transformative organisation on the world stage”. 

“You don't get too many opportunities like that in your life and career, so I went for it. We've since made a lot of progress and have done a lot of great work, especially in the last two and a half years.”

The technology services team that Downey heads encompasses traditional infrastructure technologies, which include things like datacentre, network, server storage, as well as their cloud and online tech, and collaboration technologies. For those cloud technologies, Downey tells us that Rotary uses Azure and Office 365. 

Also included in the tech services organisation are enterprise IT security – which includes security analysts, incident response and overall security awareness – and an operations team that's responsible for the run portions of the organisation, as well as the platform operations.  These platform operations cover the company’s network server and storage, in addition to the application operations, which controls the next-level application support for their critical enterprise technologies, their DevOps, and change management. 

Big tools for a big organisation, with a big vision.

People form the foundation of Rotary - and so it should be

Rotary is a philanthropic organisation, and so as you’d expect, people form the foundation of its work.

Downey says: “The great thing about Rotary is the people that work for them, and since we are a non-profit, the people that want to join Rotary have a philanthropic or a ‘give-back’ mindset, just like I had. 

“Rotary is also a very collaborative organisation. People want to work together and make a difference here, and they are really working towards the mission that Rotary has, as a whole. I also find that the people at Rotary are very appreciative. If you take IT for example, especially infrastructure – the part I'm involved in – often we can be perceived as the plumbers, and most people don't really care about the plumbers until the water stops running or the sewer gets clogged up. 

But Rotary is different in that, since appreciation is part of its organisational culture, they very much value the work that infrastructure, and Rotary Technology, is doing as a whole, and the people are just really great to work with, sharing in that common cause and purpose.”

From Family Values to Organisational Ethos

When asked about his proudest achievement, Downey prefaces his answer by stating that “it's not necessarily a technology related one”, yet interestingly, it is. 

“Raising two strong, successful and smart teenage daughters,” he says. “I have one daughter that's graduating college and one that's about to graduate from high school – and they are both looking to work within typically-male-dominated fields. My older daughter is in astrophysics and does machine learning, big data analysis and AI; she's looking to potentially go into the gaming industry.  My younger daughter is looking at film and media production, and both of these fields are traditionally male-dominated. 

Having members of my family who are trying to work, to get their voices heard, to be able to stand up in those spaces is a point of pride for me. I've  guided them to be strong and stand up for what they do; to show their value.”

And this is where the connection forms, fittingly. Technology is nothing but the tools that we use, culturally transmitted, for the betterment and advancement of society. Rotary is a philanthropic organisation, remember, and people are its bedrock – and Cris Downey is its Director of Technology Services. His proudest achievement, his daughters, and their vision is categorically a technology-related one. 

He adds: “It makes me then reflect on how I do my work on a daily basis, right? It makes me think of the advantage of building diverse teams. Focusing on bringing in  people from different backgrounds, and different areas, encouraging team members to share different ideas.  That really helps you build bigger, better and stronger teams. That, in turn, is what endows the organisation with vision, which is what an organisation needs if it is to be successful.”

Rotary’s reach: facilitating progress and areas of focus

What Rotary does is unite people from all continents and cultures to take action, to deliver real, long-term solutions to the world's biggest problems. 

“We have about 1.4mn members across the globe, in 46,000 community-based clubs in 200 countries and territories,” Downey says. “The power of Rotary is really the people that are its participants. 

“We help facilitate the work that people are doing as part of their volunteering. We do that by connecting people for the service projects that they do, working with local organisations to facilitate that volunteer work. We provide grants, funding, travel and access so that participants can do the work, in order to make the world a better place. 

“We are really here as part of Rotary to support those people of action, to achieve that work throughout the globe across our seven different areas of focus, which are: Peace Building; Disease Prevention; Water and Sanitation; Maternal and Child Health; Education and Literacy; Community and Economic Development; and Protecting the Environment.”

Rotary's digital transformation and partnership with Mindsight

The work that Cris Downey performed for the first couple of years at Rotary was concerned with what he describes as “shoring up the foundation of Rotary Technology as a whole”.

At the time, Rotary had a lot of outdated systems, and to be able to solve this problem, they worked with ‘Mindsight’, who was one of their key partners in helping them to modernise some of those legacy systems. Mindsight focused a lot of their energies on Rotary’s Network – especially on their voice systems. 

“At the time, we had a completely out-of-support voice system,” says Downey. “So Mindsight was a great partner that worked with us to do a complete overhaul of our end-of-life, Cisco Unified Communications system. We replaced all of our phone systems for people that were on-prem and now have the ability to provide enhanced capabilities for those that are working remotely via soft phones. This is facilitating that communication, and our ability to continue working remotely when we need to do so, in a more stable and reliable way.”

Since then, Rotary has been prioritising a participant-focused digital product model, where they are now looking at the entire organisation and reorganising based on their product teams, and the products that they provide to the organisation. Those product teams will then be able provide a greater user experience and increase participant focus within those individual products. These will be anything from business owners, all the way down to people that are delivering that portion of Technology. 

“Having that product focus and utilising technology, they'll be more agile and be able to respond more to those emerging participants’ needs, as well as global needs,” says Downey. “Now, they're really seeing the intersection of Technology as an enabler and embracing that as a core component of what Rotary does on a daily basis to make sure that we’re able to modernise and optimise our operations, which helps Rotary to stay relevant and effective in its overall mission.”

People and Technology at Rotary: A Recipe for Success

There are really two arms to Rotary. 

First, there's ‘The Secretariat’, which Cris Downey is a part of and that has products to help Rotary members with their service projects. They help with funding, grants, and providing their clubs with the ability to manage their members, while also providing new leads into the organisation – including being able to showcase the work that those individuals are doing and what the clubs themselves are doing. 

And then there’s ‘The Rotary Foundation’, which provides funding and services that could include anything from grants to help build a community park down the street – or even the building of a hospital in Guatemala. 

“What the Secretariat does is really help support those people of action that are doing that work via funds, connections and technology, and working with local organisations to empower them to achieve their philanthropic aims,” Downey says.

“From an infrastructure standpoint, we’re building that strong and stable foundation to allow us to deliver those products utilising cloud technology, which enables us to be more agile as an organisation. If we need to expand a service or provide a new service, by utilising cloud technology, we can respond much quicker than we may have been able to do before. We can adjust based on what those product teams feel they need, based on their user experience specialists, and by looking at the data.”

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