Digital Transformation for Non-Profits

Siva Balu


Learning Objectives

Please Join the VP & CIO of YMCA, Siva Balu in this Executive Interview where he will discuss how Digital Transformation looks for non-profit organizations and how Artificial Intelligence plays a role.

"Another mistake that can happen is thinking of your digital transformation as a project. A project by nature has a start and end and defined deliverables. Digital transformation is really continual."

Siva Balu



Hello, everyone and welcome to the CIO visions leadership virtual summit hosted on quartz network. My name is Britt Erler QN executive correspondent, thank you so much for joining us. I would like to welcome our executive speaker, Siva Balu, VP, and CIO of YMCA of the USA. Welcome. Thank you for having me. Great. Pleasure to have you here and really excited to dive into the conversation today to discuss this digital transformation landscape and what it looks like for nonprofit organizations. But before we do so, if you wouldn’t mind giving this the audience some context about your professional background. Sure.

I said, I’m the CIO for YMCA of the USA. I’ve been in this role for actually nine months today. And this is BlueCross BlueShield. In healthcare for over 20 years. I started lacrosse as an intern, I ended up in a CIO level, and led various initiatives anywhere from large game systems to large data warehouses to consumer engagement products. So a lot of healthcare. In my personal life, I serve nonprofits. So I’m involved right now in nonprofit, both in my day job and outside work also.

Fantastic. And with all of your extensive background that you have specifically in it, and technology. Talk to me a little bit more about that, and how that’s going to help you walk us through the conversation today.

Sure. So even though I started in technology, over the last 21 years, I have had other responsibilities that actually helped me learn, as an example Information Security data, consumer engagement products, data warehouses, and then recently for the last six, seven years, artificial intelligence, blockchain RPA. So I have a lot of experience leading initiatives anywhere from pilot prototype, to launching to scaling. So I’m hoping that I can share some of my experiences with audience here.

Absolutely. And let’s go ahead and dive right in, you know, digital transformation, we have seen a major shift in all industries, all departments across the board. But I want to talk about specifically what this means for nonprofits, because I feel like this is really a new venture that many organizations are just getting started with.

That is true, that is true. In fact, nonprofits are at this pivotal point, after 2020, when COVID actually impacted almost all of them, right? No matter what the sizes, what service they provide, what demographics they provide service to, everybody is now compelled to think about digital in a new way. And I think this transformation is here to stay, every nonprofit or for profit will be forced to rethink their digital strategy. So it’s a very pivotal point before 2020. And 2020 has taught us quite a bit of lessons, lead disruption can happen any time. And you want to make sure your constituents are engaged with your entity.

And for companies that, as you mentioned, are just beginning this journey are really looking to pivot and adapt in this new landscape. What do you believe are some of the key areas that they should really focus on or even begin with?

Sure, I would say there are three or four key things that leaders and companies that are starting to think about digital has to think about. Number one is define what digital means to you, your business, your organization, to your service, what is digital, number two would be create a strategy that fits your needs to grow your business, to engage your customers to service your customers. And number three would be create a roadmap next two to five years old is going to look for look like if you invest in digital, how is your business going to improve? And number four, and the most important thing is get the buy in from the stakeholders. Typically, the digital transformation gets buy into the board and execute to leadership. But also, it’s very important to get the buy in from your staff and employees. It is worth it to have a few town halls or roadshows to explain to your staff what this means to them, how this will enhance the ability of your organization to deliver. So those are some of the key things I would say as a starting point for somebody thinking about digital transformation.

And that leads perfectly into the question that you mentioned of buy in which is obviously so critical getting that for digital transformation. What are some things strategies that you have to make sure that you get it.

Sure. So typically it starts in the boardroom, I would say because any transformation is a few things. One is funding the transformation, managing change management, making sure you can measure the results. So the executive leadership, including the CEO, along with the board members, or the board of directors have to make some critical decisions, which is very impactful to their business, I would say that it’s top down. And then there’s a bottom up where the buy in, as I mentioned earlier from your employees, and you will also want to share this with your vendor partners and any other agency you might be working with. So that everybody understands what the vision is, what the strategy is, and how long the roadmap is. So it is a process. And also it’s a culture change. So it will be very important for the key stakeholders to identify certain product owners or product leads, like executive sponsors, who will lead the initiative, but at the same time, be inclusive of all parties, all stakeholders, all constituents of your organization. I’m using optimization business interchangeably. But I think you get the point that it’s important to get a 360 buy in. Before even you start any projects as part of the digital transformation.

As you mentioned, this is not just a journey for the tech or IT department, this is really a journey for the whole organization, and how it’s going to impact them in their day to day jobs. Based on your experience, what you’ve seen work, what hasn’t worked? What are some of the challenges that nonprofits face specifically when dealing with digital transformation?

Sure. I would say it’s a misconception that if you think digital technology change, it’s really a delivery change. It’s a consumer engagement change. So I think the biggest challenge for nonprofits, if I had to just generically give an answer it would be to ask the question, how we invested in technology and technology enhancements in the last 10 years. With my own personal experience, I sit on three nonprofit boards. And I’m also working for the largest nonprofit, many times the investment has not been done either in the skill set, or the infrastructure and other adjoining products. So as good starting point would be to start asking some of those questions and to define what digital means to you. Another mistake that can happen is thinking of your digital transformation as a project, a project by nature has a start and end and defined deliverables. digital transformation is really continue. So let’s say you have a two year roadmap, you complete all the target deliverables for the two years. After that, what happens is you’ll have another two years. So the technology as your customer experiences will change. The easiest way I can say is, think about your personal life today. at my home, anything I do is on my mobile device, right anywhere from buying groceries to hailing a ride to, you know, booking tickets when there’s travel is common when travel used to be a common Do we have a similar experience for your customers interacting with your business? That is some of those questions to ask. And some of the misconception is, like I said, not investing enough, not having a clear strategy, and most importantly, thinking of digital as a project and not as an ongoing transformation. And then there are few things that we follow like not managing change management. It is definitely a culture change. You want to make sure that you educate your constituents what it means to them. And it has to be equally The time has to be equally invested in that to educate your constituents while you’re going in this journey.

Absolutely. And now no one could have predicted the pandemic that we’ve had last year and all of the shifts that we’ve seen in every industry across the board. But when it comes to digital transformation, and some of the challenges and lessons learned that you just mentioned for the company as a whole. Have you seen this become more difficult with this new virtual environment that we’re experiencing?

In our case actually it has become easier. The reason is because organically over the years we have invested in staff and others working remotely connecting through video conference calls. So the collaboration aspect actually did not take a bigger impact. There are other things that we are focusing on. As an example after the after COVID we shouldn’t among COVID but there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is vaccine out. We are focusing on three things. Number one is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as we saw 2020 is not only for COVID, it also brought up a lot of systemic racism issues that was reciting. So we are focusing on that. And number two is digital transformation. And number three is financial sustainability and growth. Speaking of digital transformation, how it helps each one of this is, it’s not some fancy project or a product. It’s also enabling every community, every demographic, every underprivileged, society or community with what they need, is it Wi Fi, is it laptops is an access to internet, if you think about it, the COVID vaccine is out. But to get an appointment, you need access to a computer and Wi Fi, because it’s all electronic, right? So we are trying to think about these things and create ways and reduce barriers for our communities to reach what they need to do through digital.

And I think that is so incredible, you know, I can speak from a personal term, when I went into look at the process for signing up for an appointment for the vaccine. To be honest, it was not simple. And it did require Wi Fi my laptop, sometimes my phone was not even good enough to actually enter in half the details. And I was sitting there thinking to myself, if people don’t have access to this, what is their option? How are they still able to get this vaccine and have just the opportunity as everybody else. So I think it’s really incredible that they have people like yourself and your organization on the frontlines making sure that they have equal access to all of this. So so thank you so much for doing that. And now I want to dive into a topic you mentioned at the very beginning in regards to artificial intelligence and its role when it comes to digital transformation. Talk to me a little bit more about that.

Absolutely. So it’s also one of my passions on how to we remove barriers for entities and organizations to use artificial intelligence to enhance their mission. So now we’re talking about nonprofits and AI. And really, it’s a barrier that was in place, or that is still in place where when a nonprofit thinks about how do we improve our efficiency, or improve our data usage, or whatever it may be, they use case, ai was considered maybe correctly, maybe incorrectly, is expensive, you need a lot of high end talent, with our mission, we may not be able to afford it or we may not be able to have time to do that. What has happened in the last two years or two to three years is artificial intelligence has become AI out of a box, you know, you can actually instruct Billy, you can buy AI. Again, I’m somebody who don’t use technology for the sake of technology, you need to identify the right use case, the right problem to solve as well as the right benefit to your constituents. If you can use AI to do all that, it will be a huge success. Where I have seen from my past experiences, we have a treasure trove of data sitting in numerous data warehouses without being used, or without being properly used should I should say. So using modeling with an AI, I’m talking in general terms, but I can break it down to machine learning neural networks, and so on and so forth. Depending on what really your business needs, depending on how much data you have. It is now available and accessible to get AI models, you know, he talked about the cloud platforms, they all provide a model out of the box, you can start get started, you can see some results. And then you can start enhancing it. It takes time or models to get mature, because it has to learn over a period of time. But you got to start somewhere. And that’s what I think the nonprofits across the country have a huge opportunity that has not yet fully tapped.

Right? It’s really that willingness to be able to adapt and pivot and know that as you mentioned, it’s not going to be an overnight experience, it will take time to fully mature. And to also make sure that as you said it as well. But it’s actually beneficial for the organization as a whole really taking a look internally to see how it’s going to affect the company and what are the benefits that are going to come out of it as opposed to just saying, okay, we’re going to implement AI. Now, I think the biggest question for any organization is we’ve decided to do this, we’ve decided to jump on the bandwagon, implement digital transformation, implement all the aspects of AI, but how do we align this across our team successfully? How do we make sure that everyone is on board that they are trained sufficiently and that it actually works to our benefit? What are some recommendations that you have there?

Sure. It starts really with change management. And there are multiple schools of thought when it comes to change management many times transformations fail because Change Management was not properly made, I would say, I will pivot from that. And I will say it’s really a cultural change. Many times, what I have seen is the middle management staff get excited with the next technology. Now we’re talking about AI. 10 years ago, it was cloud four years ago, it was big data. And a giant 15 years ago, but the executive leadership, many times are not educated. And so they have to go to training, I would say the culture changes start from the leadership, the culture change should translate to the organization, your head, char is very key component of it. And this ties to the point of digital transformation is not just technology, you had to bring in your business partners with you. I will say my case, HR, legal finance sourcing, these are functional areas that I take with me in this journey from day one, I kind of give them the view into what is the vision for the next year or two years roadmap and help have them help me deliver these products, right. So some of those things is important. But all this ties down to change management, and culture. And there has to be consciously a conscious effort has to be made to move forward using digital transformation.

I couldn’t agree more. And as you mentioned, all of these leaders as a whole, it really takes the team to make sure that it’s successful. Any concluding thoughts and advice you can give for not just IT leaders, but the other leaders that you mentioned within the organization to make sure that as a whole, this journey is a success?

Yeah, sure. So number one, digital is here to stay. If you have not started, now’s a good time to get started. Many, many ways to get started, you can hire consulting partners, you can attend sessions, conferences, like this quartz network event, you can sell free the startup materials, you can call upon people like myself, so there’s so many things in your early stages of digital transformation, look for ways to exploit it. And then it’s also important, some of the things we’ve touched upon, like getting the buy in, I think many times there are concepts and ideas which roll into one team or two teams and becomes a silo effect. It might be important to have like a monthly luncheon learn or town hall to share with the larger organization, what’s happening in the in the digital space. So I would say get started. Digital is here to stay and try to expedite your journey. So that way so that you’re not left behind so that you’re not catching up to the times.

Right, exactly. It’s a very exciting time for nonprofits, especially to have this opportunity and to really jump on board and start their digital transformation journey. So, Siva, thank you so much. you’ve provided some incredible insights and really great starting points for these organizations. And I think that a lot of them will be taking these strategies and implementing them within their own companies. So thank you so much, again for being here. It’s been an absolute pleasure. If you have any further questions for Steve, there will be a discussion forum underneath this presentation. Please be safe, be healthy and enjoy the rest of the CIO visions leadership virtual summit. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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