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A huge challenge, a compelling objective

MAW-logo-400When Make-A-Wish Foundation’s John Sullivan and Daryl Biggar sat down with managing director Brian Todd to discuss using donorflex to manage the organisation’s wish-granting process, it didn’t take long for them all to grasp a couple of basic truths – that this would be the ultimate test of the system’s flexibility, and how vital the complex development would be to the families whose lives it would eventually touch.

When you consider that John and Daryl had already debated the need internally for a year before asking Brian to join the conversation, the critical need for a successful outcome is even easier to understand. And so is the increasing part that chocolate and sleepless nights would play in everyone’s lives for the months to come.

donorflex client development consultant Patrick O’Donnell was soon brought into the discussions and was quickly brought up-to-speed with what had driven the Make-A-Wish project that far. This is what they told him.

The charity’s referrals team had been using a bespoke Access system that was creaking at the seams. Although it did the job it was designed to do, John’s view as IT and Database Manager was that recording information about the children and their very clear needs in two unconnected databases wasn’t the right way to achieve the charity’s objective of increasing referrals and making more wishes come true.

After researching other potential solutions, John approached his then chief executive, Peter Jacobs, with this recommendation: “We’ve got donorflex, we need to invest in it and start making everybody use the system more.”

The old Access-based system held information harvested during the referral process when a parent, relative or friend called with a request for a magical wish on behalf of a child or young person aged from three to 17 living with a life-threatening condition.

The wish-child’s record included their personal and medical details, as well as information about their parents or guardians and all associated medical professionals.

On the up side was the fact that the recorded data was all in one place, under one tab or another. The down side was that it couldn’t hold all the data they needed, meaning an individual child’s wish also involved increasingly expanding paper files that often meant a time-consuming search – and frequently more than one phone call – to answer a simple query or to co-ordinate input from doctors and other specialists, for example.

Tuned to the need for speed, time and clarity

In a world where time is unavoidably of the essence, with dozens of children either at that initial referral stage, or on their way to becoming an approved wish, or about to have their wish granted, the need for a system in tune with the charity’s growth strategy was clear.

It wasn’t a decision driven by pragmatism and looking after the pennies alone.

Although only a couple of the team members used donorflex at that stage, John was intimate enough with the system – thanks to his experience, his instinctively curious nature, and from attending countless donorflex user events – to see that it contained the basic functionality required.

What he needed to know next was how it should be configured to carry Make-A-Wish’s mission forward.

John and Wish-granting Manager Daryl believed that the ABC of donorflex – Attributes, Biography, Cross-references and Communications – could be harnessed to take the operation to new heights. And their initial discussions with Brian Todd confirmed what they anticipated, that the project would be challenging on many levels – not just in developing the protocols and configuring the system to manage the process from beginning to end, but also in bringing more users on to donorflex and dealing with the inevitable anxiety that comes with change.

That’s when client development consultant Patrick was invited to join the project and given responsibility for the detailed analysis. He started from scratch and immersed himself in the people and the process.

The work was methodical. With John Sullivan’s small Make-A-Wish project team scrutinising and testing each new stage of the process as Patrick developed it, some days brought an encouraging advance, and others more questions than answers. But, day by day, light emerged at the end of the tunnel.

MAW’s internal project team in Camberley – meeting for a few minutes each day away from the hurly-burly of normal office pressures – was key to shaping the solution. Not only did it provide instant feedback to the work going on here at donorflex’s Lakeside Centre headquarters, it helped to turn the understandable doubts of those whose working lives had been glued to the old system for years.

It’s true to say that, compared with the former system, some tasks were initially slower, John says. That affected the team’s capacity to process wishes at the desired rate, since more staff also needed to learn the new system. But they’re things of the past.

“Now their process is rigid,” he adds. “It’s set in stone. They can’t see it changing from donorflex to any other system now.”

Solutions that benefit every donorflex user

As the Make-A-Wish project progressed, donorflex’s Patrick O’Donnell became increasingly impressed and moved by the ethos of the charity and the people who make it tick.

“The biggest thing I’ll have with me for the rest of my days is the amazing work Make-A-Wish do,” he says. “The single moment that brought this home to me was in the depths of the project, when I asked where they wanted the budget field for the wish to go. They replied that they didn’t need one. They don’t have a financial cap on any wish.”

That’s changed, though not for the purpose of limiting spending.

“We have that in now,” John says. “We’re bringing in systems where we’re a little bit more controlled, but it’s not restricting anyone from going out and delivering.”

From where John sees the project, one moment he picks out is the part the project played in delivering the contact record’s ‘subject contact’ field to thousands of donorflex users across the country.

The spread and diversity of individuals and outside agencies that need to receive a communication from Make-A-Wish about a wish-child is often large. The ‘subject contact’ – which was first aired and moulded as a potential new feature at a Regional User Group meeting – provides a vital way of identifying the youngster to all concerned.

“Originally, we tried to capture the information and pull it out in a slightly different way,” John explains. “Writing template letters and pulling that information out was a little bit more difficult, then. The development around having the subject field has just opened up a whole list of things that are going on. It’s not only talking to the consultant. I’m talking to the family member, we’re talking about events, we’re talking about the child in the event.

“That’s one of the key developments where you can really understand how it will impact all the other users. Although we had a requirement, Patrick promoted it for incorporation as a standard feature of donorflex and could see it would be a tool that all users would use.”

People and partnerships are the foundations of success

Among all the achievements of a complex and successful project, it would be easy to overlook the most important ingredient of all – the people involved and the working partnership they developed.

John Sullivan’s approach to working with donorflex as a supplier is straight-forward. He’s never slow to engage and he’s rarely anything other than direct in his conversation when he does. You know what he wants, and why. It’s how we like it. As a result, the 130-mile gap between donorflex’s Birmingham base and Make-A-Wish’s Camberley nerve-centre has never been more than a statistical fact of life.

He absorbed himself in Make-A-Wish and how to make the development work. He delivered. He absolutely delivered on the system

Just as the donorflex team appreciate how critically important John’s been to the successful delivery of the project, so he’s quick to acknowledge the impact that Patrick made on the outcome.

“It’s been hugely important,” he nods. “He learnt what the client wanted, what the team wanted. I almost took a back seat. I was playing Devil’s Advocate between him and the team, because they’re saying they wanted it this way, and Patrick’s saying, ‘well, let’s do it this way’.

“You could phone him up in a development meeting and mention something and he’d say ‘I can see why, that would make sense’ and then he’d say ‘here’s the latest version’. He absorbed himself in Make-A-Wish and how to make the development work. He delivered. He absolutely delivered on the system.

“His ability to come in and completely understand Make-A-Wish was fantastic. I’ve never really known anyone really come in and grasp it so quickly. It was fundamental to the outcome of the system.”

Delivering is the only option

If you ask Patrick O’Donnell to summarise the purpose of the Make-A-Wish project, he can give you the cool, factual account of what John Sullivan and Daryl Biggar articulated in their original specifications. But it isn’t long before the not-so-cool and the not-so-hard facts are woven through the fabric of his answer.

Cool and hard first, then. The project was to assess the viability of, and then implement, the entire wish-granting process for a child into donorflex.

“The wish-granting process centred on the Biographical structure in donorflex and required several new – exciting, useful – developments to be built into donorflex that other clients have now also benefited from,” Patrick explains.

“Because the whole wish-granting process is attached to a child’s record in donorflex, the system’s security can be configured to restrict access to just those staff members who should see the wish-child data.

“The project required us to look at their existing, bespoke Microsoft Access database, understand the data, and then try to model that in donorflex. We went through several stages of this, including having to go back to the technical team to make various tweaks and changes to donorflex. Finally, a biographical structure was agreed and the actual migration could be implemented.”

This is how it works

Here’s a flavour of the donorflex process that replaced Access database tabs and filing cabinets in the Make-A-Wish team’s day-to-day lives:

A wish-child’s record holds details of the child, their parents or guardians and all associated medical professionals. The Wish-granting team’s volunteers who are assigned the wish visit – to meet the families and discuss the wishes the child would like – are also part of the record.

Then a linear process kicks in, working through around 300 biographical items. When one is complete, the child’s application moves to the next.

It’s easy to see, then, how details of the request – the child’s wishes, medical requirements, care staff required, siblings and family members to accompany, and so on – systematically add to the richness of the overall picture.

But it doesn’t stop there. Cross-references to hospital records are also set up – from which the details of medical consultants are pulled in as contacts on the wish-child record, for instance – and each wish-child record has its own folder on the network. All relevant paperwork is scanned and saved here alongside all donorflex-generated documentation.

After the application stage comes the wish-delivery stage.

Once the wish is approved, the wish-child record is changed to a new record Type, which brings forward some of the relevant biography items and introduces a further set of biography items.

Here’s an example. In the list of contacts on a wish-child’s record you’ll have Mum. You can write to Mum – with a letter addressed to her – and you can also pull in the name of the child, who’s identified as the ‘Subject Contact’ on that record. There’s also the ability to define the relationship between each contact and the Subject Contact.

So, you can write to Mum as:

Dear Mrs Tomkins,

I’m writing to you about your daughter Jane . . . (merging the relationship ‘daughter’ and child’s name ‘Jane’).

On the same wish-child record, you could also write to their oncology specialist:

Dear Dr Richards,

I’m writing to you regarding your patient Jane Tomkins … (again merging the wish-child details and the relationship between the specialist and Jane ‘patient’).

That’s the cool, hard version…

… but it’s easy to see why the Make-A-Wish referral and wish-granting teams are no strangers to sleepless nights, and why the consumption of chocolate in their Camberley office has grown in recent years – especially when you consider that, for some wish-children, the medical prognosis means there’s no time to lose in making a wish come true.

“When I was migrating their data, I had to stop reading through the wishes as they were all so emotional,” client development consultant Patrick admits. “One example wish that sticks with me was ‘I wish my Dad would come on holiday with us’. Dad ran a busy farm and had always stayed at home while his wife and children went away.

"Make-A-Wish arranged for two experienced farm managers to run the farm so that the he was able to go on holiday with his family and the child’s wish was granted.”

Although they ask the children for three wishes, they’ve always delivered the child’s first, which is why encouraging the children to come up with realistic wishes is one of the amazing skills of the volunteers who visit them and their families.

It’s a fact that’s not lost on anyone who plays a part in the Make-A-Wish world.

Neither is this. Although ‘I want to be well’ is in the wish-list, it’s not one that Make-A-Wish can deliver.

As far as I’m concerned, this project has a far greater impact than you realise from referrals, because the whole process of development has had an impact on every department

‘It’s been a phenomenal achievement!’

John Sullivan always knew the Make-A-Wish project’s challenges would come in all shapes and sizes, and that the very human response to change would figure somewhere along the line.

First came the decision to retire the old Access-based bespoke system, beloved by some because it was as familiar as an old friend.

Then came the arrival of donorflex’s Patrick O’Donnell into the equation, with relationships to build and processes to be designed and tested – initially to do with creating a structure for the way that the charity’s wish requests are managed by the referrals team, and also the tasks handled by various staff members as the wish is granted and moves towards coming true.

Then came the time to switch from one system and process to another.

All of this unfolded while the team was coping with the demands of the economic times and handling a growing number of requests.

As a measure of the increase in workload, referrals sat at 1,203 in 2010. In 2011, that had leapt to 1,464, and 2012 closed with the total at 1,494.

If you ask John to name the low points during the project, he’ll quickly recall a particular challenge that provided one of his lights-on moments too.

“Taking the team with you on that journey was probably the hardest part,” MAW’s IT and Database Manager harks back to the days when his four-person development team was testing the new system and finding it restrictive, then realising that the reason it felt that way was because it had far more controls than the old system.

Controls, of course, mean data that’s accurate and valid.

“Of the team of four internally, there was one other that was promoting it and the other two were apprehensive.”

All that changed when the most anxious member of the team paused in a testing session and announced: “I really love it, John! I love it!”

“When did that happen? It wasn’t like that yesterday!”

That’s when he realised that everyone finally understood the key stages, what the fields all meant and what they we’re trying to achieve.

After that, the next high point came at the end of the first week after implementation. All the data was imported – around 11,000 records and 50,000 contacts, he estimates – with only a handful of minor teething troubles to address, and new wishes were starting to work. For him, at least, the feeling was ‘Relax! We’re running’.

The Referrals and Wish-granting teams didn’t share his mood so quickly.

It would be a few months before they had the time to reflect on the magnitude of what they’d achieved, and how far they’d progressed. For the time being, the donorflex system meant more clicks, more pages and more time spent processing data, because the shock of the new coincided with the busiest November they’d experienced.

“To us, I think it would be fair to say, it almost created more work implementing it,” Referrals Team Leader Jo Florey admits of the period when they were simultaneously working hard to keep the flow of wishes going and become familiar and comfortable with the new system. “However, the management data we’re able to extract is considerably better than any of the data that we were able to get out of the Access database.”

Head of Wish-granting Jo Micklewright recalls the same challenging months before the transition felt complete, and she shares Jo Florey’s view of where the project has taken both the Make-A-Wish team and, by definition, the children and families whose lives they touch.

“When we were on the old database, there were only a handful of (wish-granting) people who had access. Any questions from another department had to come to a certain group of people, which wasn’t great. By having the wish records on donorflex, any call that comes in opens up really for anyone to answer, if they know what they’re looking for…. People are amazed that we have so much information on a wish record….People want an answer, and we should be able to give them an answer.”

The most compelling reason to make it work

It’s not hard to imagine the practical and emotional impact, let’s say, of a delay for a wish-child with a life-expectancy of two months, where every minute preparing that dream visit, trip or meeting is precious. So, it doesn’t bear thinking about how dented Make-A-Wish’s reputation might have been if the new system hadn’t delivered, first time.

Ask John Sullivan about one leading to the other, hypothetically, and all he admits is that he would have been “distraught”.

“Just from the fact of knowing what was involved, and personally…. it’s like a dog with a bone. You’ve just got to see it to the end. Having it falling round your ears, it would have been just incomprehensible from that point of view.”

Instead, he reflects on a team effort, a partnership and an outcome that he describes as “a phenomenal achievement”.

“As far as I’m concerned, this project has a far greater impact than you realise from referrals, because the whole process of development has had an impact on every department. Every department is now wanting to capture more data, because they can see what they’re able to do.”