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Digital Transformation: How A Bright Digital Future Starts with a Strong Foundation

Cris Downey

Cris Downey

Director of Technology Services at Rotary International

Cris Downey Rotary International

For nonprofit and charitable organizations, helping the world overcome struggle is the cornerstone of their existence.

Unfortunately, many of these organizations struggle themselves as they have not prioritized the modernization of their systems and applications. While their digital transformation stalls, new technology continues to push forward and these organizations become incredibly vulnerable and inefficient. This puts their core missions at risk.

At charitable organizations, budget constraints, staff prioritization, and a lack of project focus have created an abundance of legacy systems that negatively impact modernization and digital transformation. To put it bluntly, charitable organizations can become a hotbed of IT issues that are dreaded within the IT industry.

Rotary International’s Race to Modernize its Digital Transformation

As the Director of Technology Services at Rotary International, I am more than aware of these challenges, and it is my mission to lead Rotary into a bright future.

Rotary is upgrading its efforts to connect through an ongoing digital modernization initiative. I know that solving real problems takes real commitment and vision, especially when it comes to helping an over 115-year-old nonprofit embrace technology. I hope my experiences will teach you a thing or two.

Defining a Digital Strategy

If your organization is not defining a digital transformation strategy, it should be! You’ll need this strong foundation in place well before any sort of broader organizational or allocation change occurs. Timelines will depend on the budget and the overall health of the legacy environment. At Rotary, we’ve been on a 2-year journey to prepare our systems for a Digital Transformation with at least 1-2 more years to go.

Just focusing on the ‘bright and shiny’ applications that make stakeholders happy can limit the full realization of these technologies.

Cris Downey, Director of Technology Services at Rotary International

For us, focusing on a comprehensive digital transformation strategy, with an emphasis on cloud and an integrated SaaS application suite, removed a lot of dependency on legacy systems and allowed for a more agile, scalable, and sustainable environment that helped current systems improve. However, just focusing on new, “bright and shiny” applications and systems that made stakeholders happy, without considering the foundation of those systems, can limit the full realization of these technologies.

To gain traction on these initiatives, we needed to show value to the organization with quick wins, and foster an environment where commitments are met. This helped build trust among stakeholders who became increasingly supportive of our new initiatives.

5 Strategies to Succeed

Throughout our modernization process, I identified 5 Strategies that I believe will help any organization that is planning to, or going through, its own digital transformation journey:

1. Build Trust

Focus on the core issues that impact the business the most. If you can’t keep the internet running, no one is going to care you have patched the services this month! Also, deliver Quick Wins. I found that providing streamlined collaboration tools that directly improved how people worked was the quickest way to win the hearts and minds of our users.

2. Set the Vision

Define the overall direction and future state of where you want the team to go, then break that down into digestible chunks. At Rotary, we created the “izes” which include maximize the value of investments, standardize tool process, modernize tech, minimizing security risks, and optimize by streamlining processes. Every action and project was valued on how it aligned to how many “ize” boxes we could check.

3. Strengthen Processes

The main thing is to define the need and set expectations for your staff. Think big but start small! Set the expectations of where the process needs to go but get something of achievable value done early to build confidence. Remember to train the team on the new process framework and constantly re-enforce the benefits of following it through effective communication.

4. Build the Team

Often, a new leader comes in and re-organizes the team which is destined to fail as they do not have a strong team or a clear idea of processes. You should focus on the teams but focus more on the horizontal interactions between teams. This is where the strong process foundation is key.

5. Shore Up Core Technologies

Any digital initiative needs a strong foundation in network, security and hosting. Focus on adopting the cloud as moving legacy systems to the cloud can provide the isolation and automation to allow product development teams to make the changes they need to support their participants while not impacting other critical operations.


The cost of core technology modernization is not cheap. Trying to justify the cost of modernizing systems can be hard but aligning it to the business needs is necessary for a much-needed digital transformation. More facts and data that can be shared on the benefits to the organization and the agility that a strong foundation can provide are key. Show that the costs will drive innovation and provide a strong return on investment, not just outage avoidance.

Every organization will need to go through a “Digital Awakening” eventually and a nonprofit is no exception. Preparing the organization for change through a strong foundation helps employees grow their careers into new technologies and areas of IT that the business may not be aware of. Without giving employees the opportunity to grow their skills and take on new challenges, the good ones will leave-, especially when one considers the current hiring environment that we find ourselves in.

Developing a great digital transformation strategy takes time and a lot of skill. But with a clear strategy, changes can come quickly. Step by step, our organization and yours can start heading towards a brighter and stronger future.

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