Using technology for good: Make-A-Wish UK’s digital journey

Using technology for good: Make-A-Wish UK’s digital journey

As Make-A-Wish UK continues to support ill children and their families, Sarah Watson explains how tech will drive the mission forward

Around the world, an incomprehensible number of children are suffering from illnesses that, in one way or another, significantly affect their lives and those of their families. 

In the UK alone, there are around tens of thousands of children living with life-limiting or life-threatening conditions, with their loved ones having to face the almost impossible task of adapting to this new normal while maintaining a sense of positivity.

For many of these children, their childhood looks drastically different to how it did before.. But, through the work of its significant volunteer base, Make-A-Wish UK seeks to offer a moment of respite and happiness to both children and their families. Make-A-Wish UK is determined to put issues associated with childhood illness aside and empower children with the opportunity to choose a wish that's unique to them.

This is a particularly powerful thing as the lives of many of these children are wholly dictated by their health needs; the wish creates hope, with the culmination inspiring happiness and positive memories for the whole family to cherish.

“We've got more than 43,000 volunteers around the world, and we've granted over 520,000 wishes worldwide,” says Sarah Watson, Director of Finance and Technology at Make-A-Wish UK.

Right now, more than 63,000 children in the UK are eligible for a wish because they have a life-limiting or life-threatening condition, and the charity is dedicated to supporting as many of these children as possible, but sadly, as Watson explains, “the reality at the moment is that we can't reach all of the children that we need to”.

Dedicated both to her role and the families Make-A-Wish UK supports, Watson and her team are sharply focused on how technology can enable the charity to deliver more wishes in an efficient and cost-effective way.

“We are quite unique because, if every wish is as unique as the child that wishes for it, that's actually really quite hard for planning. 

“From a tech point of view, the key thing for us is to really think about that real-time information – we need to look at how we make sure that the minute that a child wishes, we have the technology and digital products in place that can really send that ‘beacon’ out into the community to attract the resources needed to grant it, because as soon as that's in place, we can do that,” notes Watson.

“This is why things like gifts-in-kind are really important to us because, as a registered charity, when we commit to grant a child’s wish, we’re making a financial commitment to the cash cost of funding that wish. So, if we don't have a strategy that allows us to access partner funding or gifts-in-kind, we're always limited by the amount of reserves that we hold,” she adds.

Gifts-in-kind are a kind of charitable giving in which, instead of giving money to buy needed goods and services, the goods and services themselves are given. For Make-A-Wish UK, this could be anything from virtual reality equipment and costumes to specialist cars and gaming consoles.

On top of gifts-in-kind, Make-A-Wish UK also receives funding from the general public and partners, enabling them to purchase different thingsto make a wish a reality.

Like all organisations, Make-A-Wish UK relies on money to fund projects but faces challenges like many not-for-profit organisations around fundraising, and as Watson notes, because of this the charity is limited by what it can do.

“That's really where finance, governance, data and tech come together. It's about acknowledging the barriers that are there, making sure we've got the frameworks that keep us safe and secure from a governance perspective so that we do all the right things and record things in the right way,” says Watson.

To help with this, Salesforce provides Make-A-Wish with its main service delivery platform, giving the charity a 360-view of a wish.

“We also use that for our fundraising – it's the platform that we're really actively developing to get that real-time marketplace environment, which will allow us to connect our wishes directly to the resource that's required to put them together,” Watson explains.

Technology-enabled wishes to meet the changing needs of children

To marry its technology with its mission, Make-A-Wish UK applied to be part of JP Morgan’s Force for Good programme, which aims to use resources and technology skills to create sustainable solutions for non-profit organisations.

The JP Morgan team helped the charity create technology and a user experience that is magical, inclusive and inspiring, aligning with the values of the organisation.

“With JP Morgan, we were able to utilise tech to help with the replacement of cash for gifts-in-kind with the help of an app. So, rather than asking donors to give us cash to fund a wish, they could instead donate a gift of absolutely anything – from a car to balloons to food, to all of the things that make up the component parts of a wish. Once the wish story is uploaded in Salesforce and we know what's needed to grant it through the creation of a wish design, that requirement is pushed out through a stock management system to the app to our donors and asks them to contribute,” says Watson.

“Strategically, it is just fantastic because, if you imagine it's almost this virtual promise into a pledge matched to a wish and the donor can see exactly which wish they're supporting, the condition of the child, why it's important. It's a really unique giving experience. It allows us to focus on the magic – not the admin – of a wish, so that's really important to us,” she adds.

By adding this technological solution to Make-A-Wish UK’s roster, Watson shares that JP Morgan is supporting the organisation in the best way possible: helping the not-for-profit to deliver on those promises made to children more effectively and with ease.

Technology is critical for all points of the wish-granting experience. One famously memorable wish was for a young boy called George who wanted to be a member of the Ghostbusters – a wish that went viral on social media.

“When we talk about getting that message out about how people can help us, social media is a really powerful tool, and the wish with George is a great example of that. It shows people what we do, but also encourages more support from the public. Also, by focusing on the gifts-in-kind, we really open up what's possible to absolutely everybody via social media. We want all of our children to benefit from the opportunity for people to donate in whatever way they might be able to,” explains Watson.

Equally, technology supports the execution of wishes, too, as Watson notes: “Many of our children are not able to participate in the world as other children are. They're not connected in the same way. Some of them aren’t at school and technology is their only window to the outside world, this is how they connect. They connect to their friends, and they connect to the outside world.”

“Often, their wishes are linked to technology because that is where their happy place is. That's the thing that gives them the escape from the treatment or whatever critical illness. And it takes away the barriers, they can be anything in that online space,” she continues.

Ultimately, Make-A-Wish UK knows that it needs to adapt to the changing, digitally-driven world we live in. Both in school and at home, children are exposed to the wonders of digital daily and are growing up increasingly fascinated by the world of technology.

“We need to stay relevant, and we can only do that by connecting with companies that are operating in this space and can help us to properly offer all that technology has to grant wishes. As a charity, we are always hugely grateful for additional support, and would encourage anyone interested in helping grant wishes through effective tech partnerships to get in touch,” comments Watson.

Selecting a partner for success

When it comes to selecting partner companies, Watson explains that Make-A-Wish UK is focused on ensuring partners are aligned with the organisations’ visions and values.

But it’s equally as important that Make-A-Wish is completely candid with partners regarding finances, as the not-for-profit company “doesn’t have the budget of organisations”, according to Watson. 

“Value exchange – what's invested for what we achieve – is important for both parties because, very often, organisations will partner with us on a kind of corporate social responsibility basis or they'll offer discounted rates. 

“The other thing we found, particularly with the partnership with JP Morgan, is that we need to be a good partner. If somebody working with us is on tight margins, or in the case of JPMorgan free of charge/pro-bono we need to be respectful of their time because, otherwise they're not going to continue to work with us,” she continues.

Another key player in Make-A-Wish UK’s partner ecosystem is Totem, an events technology company that enables organisations to build inclusive digital communities and deliver engaging in-person and virtual experiences.

“In 2021, as a response to COVID-19 preventing our children from being able to be granted Disney wishes, A Disney Wish UK was created by Disney and Make-A-Wish UK Create,” explains Watson.

“This wish ran over a number of weeks, with families staying for a rotation within this. The admin for this – booking activities and meals, for example – was a highly manual activity and, this year, we partnered with Totem to support us in building an app to make this not only an admin start option, but, more importantly, a real enhancement for our wish children and families. They can book activities and meals on the app, be sent reminders, build excitement through the use of video and QR codes at the wish book, and collect rewards.”

“Totem turned the app around in a really short time frame, and their attention to detail, including making families aware of the sensory impact of activities, has been something that we have been incredibly impressed with,” she surmises.

Additionally, Watson has to ensure that technology protects the families that share such sensitive information with them with the help from OwnBackup. The company has helped Make-A-Wish UK protect its data and safeguard itself from potential breaches or losses.

This is particularly important as the organisation has stringent GDPR processes in place.

“We take our responsibilities incredibly seriously in terms of the data that we can and we can't share. Also, the permissions that are given to us by wish families, because not every family wants any story shared actually, and that's fine. So being able to record all of that and make sure we treat our data as we need to and as we should, is incredibly important and OwnBackup help us with that,” explains Watson.

“They've been an amazing partner. They've allowed us to integrate their backup solution into our Salesforce environment, which means we have full visibility over our data and ensure we regularly audit and back up the data stored in our Salesforce system.”

“That wasn't something that was possible before we began to work with OwnBackup. I mean, that's all you can say about when partnerships work, you make something possible that wasn't, before you entered into that. And that's what we've been able to do with them,” she adds.

Securing the future of Make-A-Wish UK with more investment in tech

As each year passes, the Make-A-Wish UK team know how important it is to keep up with the changing world of business as well as childrens’ wishes. Watson notes how important technology continues to be as the organisation improves its operations.

“My technology manager's catchphrase is #automateallthethings. But, in all seriousness, the more we can do with that, the more it allows us to increase our operational efficiency,” explains Watson.

Concluding, she adds: “We want to focus on how we build frugality, not rigidity. So, if we want to flip this to a marketplace environment, we need to create a vibrant community of activity that's centred around wishes and making sure that real-time information draws those resources to wishes.”

“That will enable us to grow the number of wishes that we grant, the community that supports them – whether that's active supporters and donors, whether that's through cash or gifts-in-kind – and, equally, partners.”

George's with to be a Ghostbuster
Amber's with to be a princess
Aiden's with to be an austronaut
Amanpreet's with to go to Disney UK
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