Make-A-Wish America Leverages Data to Grant More Wishes

Make-A-Wish America Leverages Data to Grant More Wishes

The Chief Information Officer at Make-A-Wish America Teresa Duran Shares her Approach to Data and Insight That is Modernising Operations at the Non-Profit

Make-A-Wish America is a beacon of hope for young children across the US. Best known for its mission to create life-changing wishes for children battling critical illnesses, Make-A-Wish America has evolved significantly in recent years from an organisational perspective. This transformation, deeply rooted in technological advancements and data-driven strategies, has not only enhanced the organisation's operational efficiency but also amplified its impact on young lives across the nation.

The non-profit is dedicated to granting the heartfelt wishes of children battling critical illnesses up until the age of 18-years-old. Teresa Duran, a key figure in the organisation, describes the wish-granting process as a therapeutic intervention that goes beyond traditional medical treatments. It's a journey that brings hope, strength, and joy to children and their families during one of the most challenging times in their lives. 

As the Chief Information Officer for Make-A-Wish America, Duran is responsible for all functions of technology, including leading the largest business transformation during Make-A-Wish’s 43-year history. The transformation involved consolidating systems and databases from 59 local chapters and National into a single enterprise system to manage donor, volunteer, medical professional, and wish information. As a result of the transformation, Make-A-Wish has a holistic view of data, a major key to unlocking necessary revenue growth to meet the demand of critically ill children waiting for wishes.

This transformation aims to provide more efficiency for its teams, resulting in more wishes granted to its most precious stakeholders—the children and families that benefit from its service. This aspect of its work created a gravitational pull, enveloping Duran and her desire to change lives for the better. 

The Technological Revolution in Non-profit Operations

Since October 2021, Make-A-Wish America has been on its own journey to evolve into a data-driven organisation. “We had a connected vision, yet our data and systems were disparate in managing donor, wish, and volunteer data. We had limited data standards and processes due to our fragmented systems.”

Make-A-Wish embarked on a transformation journey, unifying its data, process, and systems to reflect our core business and mission. This transformation, akin to an "extreme makeover", has revolutionised how the organisation manages wish data, donor engagement, and operational efficiencies across National and local offices.

Highlighting the result of previous digitisation efforts, Duran says: “Going through this business transformation has been truly game changing for the organisation. The core business has changed.

“Data that couldn't be put together, or would take weeks, can now be done in a split second to manage the wish process. We had this connected vision, yet our systems and data did not reflect this. So, the ability to see a huge change—think of an extreme makeover—that's where Make-A-Wish evolved.” 

Appointing Duran to the organisation brought its benefits. Having noticed a lack of data maturity, which further emphasised the need for a CIO, she wasted no time addressing the fundamental problems—working on data and analytics necessary for the growth and management of its operations.

A significant component of Duran's role was to educate teams on the core, modern capabilities and competencies that allow an enterprise to thrive in the digital world. She addressed the need to manage data better to visualise the abundance already at play within Make-A-Wish systems. 

Data-Driven Approach: The Heart of the Transformation

Being ‘data-driven’ means leveraging data and insights for decision-making and predicting and measuring performance. For Make-A-Wish America, this approach has been pivotal, enabling the charity to understand the complex dependencies across different chapters and streamline processes from wish data management to donor engagement and financial auditing.

“You should always look at the end state with data and leveraging data to make or predict informed decisions. What will we do now with the data and opportunities we have? Where can we automate to drive efficiencies, improve decision-making, and make predictions with data?” stated Duran. “When I think of a data-driven organisation, it’s not just about making decisions, but it’s tightly coupled within the strategy and digital. Through this connected vision, I also think that we must be sure we’re making the right decisions at the right time.” 

Duran asks, "What are we doing to help predict and measure performance?”. She swiftly explains that Make-A-Wish was historically unprepared for this, with minimal access to performance analytics without the consolidated view of data the organisation has today.

“We didn’t have a comprehensive way to analyse. Our chief revenue officer didn’t even have a simple means of measuring performance, not just for his people, but the performance of different revenue insights. Maturing our data strategy is crucial to enable us to be proactive and agile with our investments and growth strategy. Data maturity is a journey, and we are well on our way.

Also, a vital part of this strategy is automation, a lucrative end goal for the organisation as it streamlines menial processes and data management, freeing up its talent to focus on delivering wishes to more and more children. Duran explains that automation and informed decisions are unavailable to teams without data and insights—it’s the critical first step to simplifying and modernising an entire organisation. 

Enhancing the Wish-Granting Experience with Data

More than 40% of wishes rely on interdependencies with more than one local chapter across the US. However, data must be visible across the board to gain a comprehensive view of the organisation’s performance and collaborate between chapters. This also interconnects the branches of Make-A-Wish to streamline the wish-making process by leveraging collaboration from different states. 

Data analytics has significantly improved the wish-granting experience. Dashboards and real-time data allow for efficient management of the wish pipeline, improving a child's wish process. This efficiency is crucial given the intricate network of vendors, volunteers, and chapters involved in fulfilling each wish.

The Role of Change Management

Implementing such vast technological changes required effective change management. Storytelling, stakeholder engagement, and preparing the organisation for a “bumpy ride” were key strategies used by Teresa Duran and her team. This approach ensured that the organisation was ready for the transformative shift toward more technologically advanced operations.

“I always say the technology part is the easiest part,” Duran explains. This is the third business transformation I've led within the last 10 years, but it’s less about technology and more about change and an organisation’s ability to embrace a learning mindset.

“There was a tremendous amount of effort, especially at Make-A-Wish, going through their first major transformation change, probably the largest change they’ll ever go through as an organisation.”

This point brings it back to technology but nestles it under the change management umbrella. Ultimately, the ability to adapt to a changing technical landscape will allow Make-A-Wish to prosper in years to come. The shift here, facilitated by Duran, is one of mindset—understanding the need for technology and the benefits before tackling the implementation. 

Financial Transparency: A Pillar of Trust

Through so much organisational change, the inherent benefit of data and insight is an element of trust, which is the cornerstone of Make-A-Wish as it works with many stakeholders on a non-profit basis. Understanding how many flows through the businesses and better visibility will allow the charity to share this with its major stakeholders that look through the enterprise lens. 

This is also an exercise of data protection as the team deals with sensitive data on external individuals and their affiliation with Make-A-Wish. 

“The ability to be transparent and do all we can to protect our employees, donors, and wish families’ data is tremendously important in this digital age. We take measures to protect their information, and our organisational assets will speak volumes to anyone who wants to engage with our mission,” Duran explains. 

We are committed to safeguarding sensitive data, protecting our brand reputation, and fostering a secure digital environment.

The Power of Partnerships

Strategic partnerships have been instrumental in Make-A-Wish America's transformation. Collaborations with Salesforce, Microsoft, TEKsystems, and others have provided the technological backbone and expertise necessary for this metamorphosis. These partners have supported data centralisation and analytics and contributed to talent sourcing and innovative solutions in AI and machine learning.

“The Salesforce product is second to none. They have an incredible developer ecosystem. Beyond having an amazing product, the partners I have worked with over the years do all they can to help achieve your company goals.,” says Duran. 

She also praises Tek Systems and Microsoft as key stakeholders in the wish-granting mission. 

“TEKsystems has been a close partner of mine for over 20 years, sourcing technology talent from across the US. It’s one of those organisations that I have trusted throughout my career, even having the same account manager in the last three positions that I’ve held. 

Microsoft offers incredible services to nonprofit organisations. We rely on Microsoft to help deliver on our mission, from Microsoft 365, cybersecurity, Azure, and machine learning capabilities. They have great partners to help us explore new areas of innovation and data. This plays a pivotal role in enabling Make-A-Wish’s growth strategy, ensuring that every eligible child’s wish is granted.

Looking Ahead: AI, Machine Learning, and beyond

The future of Make-A-Wish America is firmly rooted in advancing AI and machine learning. These technologies will enable better engagement with donors, facilitate revenue growth, and adapt to the changing landscape of donor behaviour. Emphasising digital fundraising methods and improving operational efficiencies across chapters are key focus areas.

Make-A-Wish America's journey through technological transformation is more than just an organisational upgrade. It represents a fundamental shift in how the nonprofit sector can leverage technology to enhance its humanitarian mission. By embracing data-driven strategies, innovative technologies, and strong partnerships, Make-A-Wish America is not just keeping pace with a changing world—it's setting a new standard for how technology can be harnessed to bring hope and happiness to children across the country. In doing so, it continues to fulfil its noble mission, one wish at a time.

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