Grant Powell MBCS talks to RSPCA Assistant Director, Nicholas George, Senior Programme Manager, Donna Nichols, and Technology Programme Manager, Laura Edwards to learn how digital transformation has improved animal welfare processes while also presenting new opportunities for IT talent.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, better known as the RSPCA, plays an invaluable role in protecting animals across England and Wales. Yet behind the scenes, the charity had been reliant on siloed legacy driven technologies. Rising overheads and an increasing need for collaboration and cohesion across growing teams meant that a significant change was critical to support the RSPCA in achieving its goals.

How did the digital transformation journey begin?

Nick: As a charitable organisation, the RSPCA was using a broad range of technologies to support the many diverse facets of the business. We have fundraising, we have legacies, we have campaigning and so forth. On top of this we have our vital animal welfare operations, which includes the contact centre, frontline inspectors and animal rescue officers, animal centres, wildlife centres and hospitals. Then there are all of the teams directly involved in dealing with the legal side of animal welfare, such as investigation, intelligence and prosecution case management. Technology was introduced piecemeal and resulted in solutions being siloed over time, so we knew things needed to change.

Donna: When we took the decision to implement a digital transformation, it was quite challenging to bring the siloed solutions together. We knew they needed modernising, but we were cautious to not just rush ahead. It needed a proper thought process in line with our decision to move to the Salesforce platform, and this is where the transformation programme came in. I started by conducting a complete audit of our systems and then spent a lot of time with our IT and digital teams coming up with three core guiding principles for the transformation; control, drive and scale. It took a lot of reengineering to move our core services to the cloud, but it has been well worth it and has left us in a much stronger position to face our challenges in 2024 — our 200th year — and beyond. 

How have you overcome the challenges associated with migration?

Nick: We had many bespoke solutions that couldn’t be adapted, enhanced or future proofed. We were also at the time looking to sell our old HQ. The fact that we were physically leaving a premises and the resultant need to downscale our on site infrastructure was another key factor in terms of getting buy in from our executive team. The long standing culture was about separate business units wanting a new system, and IT going off to build it, whereas we wanted to create a much more integrated method of working, utilising technology that could be scaled and updated to help us better meet our future objectives.

Donna: Embracing digital transformation and cloud technology has saved us a huge amount of money and greatly reduced our dependency on on-premises services. Introducing control with governance over our technical landscape has also marked a move away from the technology department being viewed purely as a service: ‘I want, you give’. Now, technology is seen as an integral part of the business. We can't do our job without technology as an enabler, and that's a real mindset shift for a lot of our people, but one that our leadership are eagerly embracing.

How does the new system improve customer and stakeholder engagement?

Nick: We're pretty much out of the initial foundation stage now and 2024 is going to see us focusing on some major deliverables for the frontline — in what is already an historic 200th year for the charity. We are making a lot of changes around the way that we manage what we call the animal journey. Animals come into our care through our inspectorate, where cases of cruelty or neglect are picked up, and go through the processes of rehabilitation and finding their forever home. And historically, all of those processes have been managed through separate systems. Having that single view of animals that go through all our touch points is really a vitally important part of what we do, and opens up opportunities for better interoperability with partner organisations. We are not the only animal welfare organisation, so having technology that facilitates collaboration is absolutely crucial, as we can achieve so much more together for animal welfare.

Donna: We are working on ‘single sources of the truth’ for all of our stakeholders. We've got customers, supporters, volunteers, branches and varying levels of partners, and so a single view of our people and a single view of our knowledge is vital. We always want to be world leaders in animal welfare, so it’s important for us to be able to clarify all aspects of animal welfare and cruelty prevention, and to make this information available and easy to find. If we can place information and pointers on our website, we can direct people there to create a self service element. Increasing education at an early stage and weaving prevention messages throughout our content is critical in helping people understand and advocate for good animal welfare.

What does your digital transformation mean from a talent attraction and retention perspective?

Donna: One of the things that we want to achieve, when it comes to recruitment and retention, is for people to be excited about what we're doing and to want to be a part of it. There is sometimes an unfairly negative view of charities when it comes to their systems and infrastructure, but we're now working with cutting edge systems and we've got some extremely clever people that have a great vision for its use moving forward. It's something that might not be apparent to an outsider looking in, but we are in a privileged position in that we're larger than a lot of other charities, so we are able to have a substantial IT department. We want people to come and work for us, not only because they will play a vital role in championing the cause of animal welfare, but because we are at the start of an incredibly exciting journey with many rewarding career opportunities.

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Nick: We have people here who have moved from junior developer to senior developer to solutions architect, all while working on some fantastic projects. That’s a great example of the sort of growth that’s possible. This is exactly what the RSPCA is crying out for — people who want to develop their career and work with great technology such as Salesforce and the Google Cloud Platform. Across the board, the whole organisation is striving to make the RSPCA a great place to work and volunteer, one that attracts and retains the best people — quite simply without our dedicated staff and volunteers we wouldn’t achieve all that we do for animals, and we see that as crucial in our IT teams too. From a retention perspective the digital transformation process has also helped some of our longer-serving team members to move into new areas. We have an inspector, for example, who has been able to jump across into a test analyst role. There is a real feeling of growth and freedom to do that sort of thing now. We have great training opportunities for the right candidates and we’re also very keen advocates of the apprenticeship scheme, taking people on their career journey right up to degree level.

Laura: With the new system enabling everyone to work together, it’s really empowering and absolutely instrumental for building a really strong culture. We now have strong, joined up approaches and coherent messages. As a relative newcomer to the charity myself, I think the one thing that's truly inspirational is the shared passion among all teams for what we do. And that's not just on the frontline, it's behind the scenes as well. We know what we’re delivering, we know what the outcomes should be, and we have the technology to help deliver it. We are much more capable of making joined up, accurate decisions that can support the wellbeing and save the lives of so many animals. As we turn 200, it’s a fantastic time for people to join the RSPCA and help us make a real difference, as we aim to create a better world for every animal.

The RSPCA is a BCS organisational member partner. Organisational membership supports professionalism for your digital teams, providing CPD tools, recognition and registration to validate their credentials in a fast paced digital world. Accelerate career paths, understand potential and recognises your organisation’s commitment to advancing technology.