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October 26, 2020updated 21 Jun 2022 12:27pm

CTO Ursula Dolton on the British Heart Foundation’s accelerated digital strategy

How merging IT and digital product teams helped the BHF to pivot quickly during lockdown.

By Claudia Glover

Ursula Dolton, CIO at the British Heart Foundation

Ursula Dolton, CTO at the British Heart Foundation. (Photo courtesy of BHF)

Before Covid-19 struck the UK in March, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) had embarked on a strategy to digitise its services and bring its high street stores into the 21st century. But, as CTO Ursula Dolton explains to Tech Monitor, when the pandemic forced its shops to close the charity hit the accelerator.

This digital transformation has allowed the charity to maintain support for high-risk patients despite lockdown and has revolutionised its approach to fundraising.

Laying the foundations 

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the BHF had acknowledged its approach to technology needed a revamp. “Harnessing technology and innovation and using that as an accelerator… meant that we had to take digitisation seriously. That’s why we came up with our 2030 strategy, saying ‘let’s really get ourselves ready for this future, the fourth industrial revolution’.”

This realisation prompted the charity to integrate its technology capabilities, including back-office IT staff and front-office digital product teams, into a new, single directorate.

“With a massive restructuring and the introduction of all these new processes, it’s a huge change,” Dolton explains. The transformation included the creation of her role, which has oversight of everything related to technology. “The BHF as an organisation decided that we need to give technology a voice at the executive table.”

With this all-encompassing remit, Dolton and her team were able to pinpoint what investment was needed to ensure they had the right technology. “We have invested massively in the infrastructure,” Dolton says, “from the cloud providers to the networks to the Wi-Fi.”

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A key pillar of this technology refresh was upgrading the BHF’s retail operations. The charity owns and operates 750 shops across the UK, Dolton explains. “Our point-of-sale (POS) system was quite old. It wasn’t fit for purpose, let alone Covid-19”.

Dolton invested millions of pounds into a POS upgrade, which included introducing tablets in all stores. “In changing the whole retail estate, we very much brought the shops into the 21st century,” says Dolton. Other investments included implementing Microsoft Office 365 and a new HR and payroll system from Workday.

Overnight digital transformation

Digitising the BHF was given new urgency in March 2020, when the UK’s lockdown forced the charity to close its shops for three months.

With its brick-and-mortar shops out of action, the BHF shifted focus to its online channels, which include eBayShopiago and Gumtree, as well as smaller boutique applications such as vintage clothes app Depop. “We’ve done amazingly with Depop. To date, we have generated about £17,000 just in sales,” says Dolton. It also pivoted to digital fundraising activities, such as home marathons and sponsored detoxes.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic triggered a spike in demand for support among people affected by heart disease. “We as a charity provide support and advice to people with heart and circulatory diseases and their families,” explains Dolton.

“When Covid-19 hit, the people who were contacting us were very much in the high-risk category, so all that demand for information just skyrocketed. We had to organise and expand our Heart Helpline. It used to operate nine to five, Monday to Friday, and we had to make sure it was there seven days a week with increased hours. We increased the number of personnel… and quickly created online tools internally so the people working on the phones could really work.”

To innovate quickly in response to lockdown restrictions, the BHF hosted a series of hackathons, with the support of technology partners including Amazon, Microsoft, Rackspace, Dell and Cisco. “We put forward some problem statements, and it was amazing because it really bought various people across the organisation together, not just in technology, but across the business”.

The future of fundraising

The challenge of responding to the pandemic has not only validated the BHF’s digitisation strategy, but it has also clarified the path forward. “I think what Covid-19 has done is to bring a bit more structure to our online implementation process, as well as accelerating it, but such positive results are fantastic”.

For Dolton, it has also revealed the need to get customer data in better shape. “One of the key things I identified was that we needed to get our customer data right, to provide that seamless internet experience,” she explains.

“We need to have that 360-degree view of our customers to give them that seamless experience, whether they actually walk into one of our shops, take part in an event or contact us on the heart-related health line,” Dolton adds. She is now embarking on a project to replace the BHF’s customer data platform and customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Perhaps most importantly, the shift to digital fundraising has broadened the BHF’s horizons as to how and where it raises the funds to deliver on its mission. “We are talking to various industry partners about gaming opportunities, to see how we can team up with others to figure out creation possibilities for online fundraising. I think that is where the future is”.

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