Charity Digital News recently caught up with Vincent Richardson, CIO of Concern Worldwide, the charity fighting hunger and poverty in the world’s poorest countries. Here he talks about how up-to-date technology is instrumental to the charity’s mission
Could you provide some background information about Concern Worldwide and how it all began?
Concern Worldwide is an international humanitarian agency focusing on fighting hunger and poverty in the world’s poorest countries. We started back in 1968 when a group of concerned and dedicated people in Ireland responded to pleas for help from missionaries working in war-torn Biafra (now Nigeria).
They ran an appeal and raised enough money to send a ship filled with food and medical supplies and Africa Concern, as it was originally known, was born. In 1970, a huge cyclone hit East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the public were again asked to respond. Africa Concern then simply became Concern.
Since then our work has taken us to over 50 countries, responding to major emergencies, as well as working on long-term development programmes – our main areas of focus are education, health and nutrition. Most recently, we have been responding to the crisis in Syria, setting up operations in Lebanon in support of those who have sought refuge there.
Today, we have more than 3,500 staff of 50 nationalities operating in 25 countries on 4 continents, delivering programmes that, last year, directly benefited 8.5 million people.
How does the use of up-to-date technology benefit your charity?
ICT is a very important tool for us and is critical to help us get the job done. Its importance is such that in 2011 when we were developing our five-year strategy, for the first time ever ICT was completely embedded into the organisation’s strategic plan. The role of ICT is to help make the working lives of our staff easier, but also to benefit our programme participants, partners and others.
We are already big users of Office 365 and also tools like Yammer but Vidyo’s video conferencing technology is relatively new to the fold. Being geographically dispersed, collaboration tools like video conferencing are absolutely crucial to helping us achieve our strategic objectives; with a 2,500 user-base spread over 80 different sites, it is essential to stay in touch and work closely together.
Travelling to meetings is not always practical or efficient – flying from the remote and often unpredictable locations we work in can be time consuming and costly. The technology is not just for meetings either, but used for HR interviews, discussions with the Council and the Board, as well as senior management meetings. Since we started using Vidyo, we have saved 100,000 Euros in less than a year – money that can now be put to use in other ways.
How instrumental is this technology to the charity’s mission?
Tools like video conferencing are integral to everything we do today. We have the same concerns as many other organisations that are geographically dispersed with a large remote workforce. However, we have the added challenges of staff working in extremely hazardous and insecure environments where clear, fast, efficient visual communication is vital, especially when it comes to personal safety and making quick, often life-saving decisions.
And, as mentioned, the costs of flying around the world and to very remote locations can be prohibitive. It’s interesting because the way we communicate as a charity has changed dramatically over the years. Just 20 years ago, effective communication could mean a four hour drive in a Land Cruiser to send a fax or make a phone call.
Today, video conferencing allows us to communicate in the most obscure, remote and poorest locations on the planet – and that is deeply powerful. Above all, the technology has helped to stimulate collaboration organisation-wide like never before and represents a paradigm shift in the way we do business. It is being used across multiple platforms – PCs, laptops, tablets and smartphones – and in multiple locations, so from airports to living rooms, and from remote field locations to our head office in Dublin.
Improved connectivity, even in developing countries, has massively helped speed up adoption on mobile devices in particular, although it can still be a problem in some rural areas. However, even on low bandwidth connections, the quality is excellent. We had a call recently with two people working off 3G dongles in Dublin, our IT person in Haiti and another in Uganda and we had broadcast quality throughout the call!
Deciding to work with a company like Vidyo was based on all of these factors, but also from a practical perspective, the technology had to integrate with third party systems in an affordable way. Vidyo does all of this, and is not hardware-intensive like many other legacy systems.
What does the future hold for Concern Worldwide?
We are still rolling out the technology in some countries, so that will continue. We also have some work to do on training staff, mostly on how you behave on a video call, etiquette and so on – although staff training is minimal because the technology is so intuitive. And while Vidyo enables us to work with our colleagues within the organisation, we are increasingly using it to communicate with a diverse set of partners and we expect this to include others in the future – whether that’s fundraisers, people from governments in the countries we work in, or other NGOs.
As Vidyo is scalable and can be virtualised, we can deploy it across our virtual infrastructure quickly, easily and cost-effectively. As an international humanitarian organisation, good communications is key to help us do what we do, so it will continue to evolve. As far as video conferencing is concerned, we are seeing the benefits every single day, from saving money to saving lives.