A nonprofit playbook for digital transformation

Digital transformation is a growing imperative for nonprofits

The Irish Cancer Society is a nonprofit community of patients, survivors, volunteers, supporters, health and social care professionals, and researchers. Together, we transform the experiences and outcomes of people affected by cancer through our advocacy, support services, and research. We provide free information, care, and support to 1.2 million people affected by cancer, and we also fund research to help find cures.

As the Head of Technology Transformation at the Irish Cancer Society, my responsibilities include focusing on digital modernization to improve human experiences. Nearly all funding is generated from donations, so modernizing community management is a must. We are a well-loved and trusted brand among our donors and the care community, and we strive to maintain that trust at all costs.

Digital transformation is helping us bring more services to our users, provide a better service experience to our volunteers, and a better value for our donors.

Leveraging digital to improve the human experience

According to a report by Salesforce, 67 percent of nonprofits are increasing their investment in technology to better engage constituents. Digital transformation at the Irish Cancer Society—and at all nonprofits—is a growing priority. Using digital tools to support fundraising, volunteer management, donor engagement, and program delivery can help nonprofits streamline processes and maximise their impact.

Throughout our digital transformation journey, we've gained invaluable insights that I believe can benefit others. Drawing from my experience in both public and private sector organisations, I'm eager to share the top 5 lessons I've learned:

  1. Simplify your tech stack

    Digital transformation at the Irish Cancer Society is about making us more effective in our mission, but it’s also understanding the cultural impact as a high-touch organisation where many people have skill sets that aren’t directly aligned with technology. We are mindful of the human element as we use technology to make our people and organisation more effective.

    Simplifying your tech stack is a critical step on the transformation journey. Nonprofits typically have a big tech stack to manage, and shadow IT is common. Products are often donated or acquired at very low cost. But whether “free” or “almost free,” there’s still a cost (and time) associated with making sure the technology is secure and can be integrated with the rest of the tech stack. (Don’t get me wrong, we are grateful for our technology partners and nonprofit discounts.)

    But new solutions should not have steep learning curves for our employees, volunteers, and cancer nurses. And accessing data securely shouldn’t negatively impact their productivity, either.

  2. Go cloud-first

    Moving to SaaS applications, the cloud, or cloud-based solutions can help nonprofits modernise and leave legacy tech behind faster, reduce business risk, and support sustainability.

    The Irish Cancer Society is cloud-first, and moving apps, infrastructure, and security to the cloud has improved our ability to support our mission. Cloud-first has freed up resources for strategic technology initiatives as well as caregiving, fundraising, and other work that’s directly related to our mission.

    We are now free from managing our own data center. We have reduced costs by eliminating licensing and maintenance for legacy technology and supported our sustainability efforts by reducing data center power, cooling, and space needs. We have reduced business risk by moving to cloud-based business continuity and disaster recovery and simplified ISO 27001 and SOC 2 compliance.

  3. Maintain community trust by protecting sensitive data

    There’s a perception that nonprofits are under-protected against cyberattacks. Attackers also see us as easier to target vs. large enterprises. It’s imperative for non-profits to invest in cyber security to protect sensitive donor information despite often limited in-house cyber security resources.

    We do everything we can to safeguard online donations, protect our data, and maintain the trust of our service users, volunteers, and donors. For example:

    We use Zero Trust Network Access to protect our nurses, caregivers, and staff as they access their email and apps, instead of a risky VPN, which provides them with a better digital experience as they securely access their apps from anywhere.

    With application security and performance services, we can protect our donation site during our annual Daffodil Day fundraising event. Blocking fraudulent transactions allows us to avoid chargeback fees from our payment processor—which directly translates into more available funding for nurses to provide more nights of palliative care.

    Nonprofits can also tap into community resources to protect their digital operations at the highest levels—in affordable ways. For example, we are a member of Project Galileo which protects at-risk public-interest groups for free.

  4. Collaborate with private and nonprofit peers

    Private-sector technology leaders are often surprised at the openness and collaboration among charitable organisations. Our missions may be different, but we often have similar digital transformation objectives and challenges. For example, the large nonprofits in Ireland meet quarterly to discuss issues big and small, including GenAI, cyber security, and enterprise data management. We also nurture our relationships with cancer societies in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and the UK.

    Collaboration and insight from our peers also helps us find the right-fit technology partners. So my advice is to find out what SaaS and cloud platforms other nonprofits in your area use, as that makes it easier to get local support. Look for an IT consulting partner that can help you manage your IT ecosystem long-term.

  5. Seek strategic technology partners

    Starting a digital transformation journey can be daunting for nonprofits and private sector companies alike. Whether you're just beginning digital transformation or already on your way, keep pushing forward and look to technology partners that can help you accelerate your journey.

    Our next initiative is to create a 360-degree view of our service users and donors. As we embark on a major enterprise data management project, we’re working with our internal stakeholders and collaborating with other nonprofits to glean their best practices in data architecture and data management.

    It’s a huge effort, but a vitally important one as we plan to develop an app to make it easier to connect our volunteer drivers with service users, refresh our website so people can find the information and services they need, and help volunteers on our cancer information hotline provide the right info at the right time.

Digital modernization: Worth the effort

Our digital transformation is driven by a growing need. More people in Ireland are diagnosed with cancer now than ever before—about 42,000 people a year—and more people are surviving. We provide cancer support resources and information both over the phone and in person. We coordinate 1,000 volunteer drivers who bring patients to their chemotherapy appointments as well as 300 night nurses for end-of-life care so patients can remain at home for the last days of their lives. We also provide financial aid to families of children with cancer.

Along our journey, I’ve learned many lessons about balancing innovation with practicality. Collaborating with partners such as Cloudflare makes it possible to modernise our IT systems while expanding our public-facing resources. Ultimately, all of the Irish Cancer Society’s technology initiatives must drive our mission to find better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer. For us—as with many other charities and nonprofits—digital can truly transform lives.

This article is part of a series on the latest trends and topics impacting today’s technology decision-makers.

Dive deeper into this topic.

Learn more about how to simplify critical IT and security tasks in The connectivity cloud: A way to take back IT and security control ebook.


Mark Coffey — @markacoffey
Head of Technology Transformation,
Irish Cancer Society

Key takeaways

After reading this article you will be able to understand:

  • How embracing digital transformation can help nonprofits amplify their impact

  • The top 5 lessons I’ve learned from our digital transformation journey

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