Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

What digital transformation looks like at the American Red Cross–and how it could make a difference for nonprofits across the country

December 26, 2022, 1:49 PM UTC
Disaster relief volunteers are seen at a staging area at Orlando Executive Airport on Oct. 1 in preparation for the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.
Paul Hennessy—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Digital transformation typically aims to boost both efficiency and profitability by using artificial intelligence to automate repetitive tasks, allowing human employees to focus on higher-level challenges. While these technological upgrades require an upfront investment, corporations believe they will pay off over the long term through improved performance and financial returns.

But what motivation does a nonprofit have to pursue digital transformation? By definition, a non-profit organization shouldn’t be concerned about maximizing revenues and profit margins. In theory, we should feel less urgency around pursuing some of the same technologies implemented by profit-seeking corporations.

At my organization, the American Red Cross, we’ve found that digital transformation efforts have played a huge role in our ability to deliver on our mission. While we’re not concerned about maximizing profits, our pursuit of technology, innovation, and efficiency helps us to instead maximize our stewardship of donated resources and produce better outcomes for those in need.

Streamlining fundraising

Humanitarian organizations like the American Red Cross are constantly fundraising to help those in need. However, the rates at which people donate can be unpredictable. Non-profit organizations with significant humanitarian missions will often find their donations skyrocket in response to a major disaster. And while that influx of public support is crucial to providing necessary aid, it also places immediate pressure on the nonprofit’s technology systems.

We refer to these differences in donation rates as “blue-sky” and “gray-sky” periods. During a blue-sky period, there are few major disasters requiring a humanitarian response. We see steady levels of comparatively low contributions. In gray-sky periods, which see people donating in response to one or more disasters, donations increase dramatically–as does our web traffic. The difference can be staggering: A year with several major disasters could see four to five times more donations than a blue-sky year with minimal crises.

Of course, we hope every year for blue skies and no tragedies. However, the reality of the situation is that our organization must be prepared for both extremes. A blue-sky year will be easier to handle from a bandwidth standpoint but will leave us with less financial resources to fulfill our mission. A gray-sky year will challenge our team to keep pace with humanitarian needs while keeping our online systems running smoothly. Digital transformation makes it possible to both streamline operations during blue-sky periods (ensuring that each donated dollar goes further) and predict the massive surges in traffic associated with gray-sky periods.

Our ability to facilitate donations has a direct impact on the amount of help we can administer during a crisis. If we can improve the performance of our fundraising pages, the result is more blankets, water bottles, food, and supplies for those who need it the most.

The most important aspect of our organization’s digital transformation was in preparing for sudden surges in traffic. In the immediate aftermath of a major disaster, the American Red Cross’s I.T. team could have as little as 30 minutes to prepare for a massive increase in traffic. In some cases, our traffic increases 30-fold–an entire month’s traffic in a single day.

To help manage these high-traffic events, the American Red Cross has deployed observability tools in order to monitor for increases and allocate resources accordingly. These solutions make it possible for our I.T. teams to avoid bottlenecks and improve our overall website performance, preventing outages during emergencies and delivering faster loading times when things are calmer.

Capitalizing on new opportunities

Flagship services like our Blood Donor app and the systems that mobilize millions of volunteers around the country make it possible to more quickly and efficiently deliver aid to those in need.

The American Red Cross’s investments in digital transformation have resulted in the creation of a new constituent support platform through which people affected by disasters can submit requests for financial assistance and, if eligible, receive digital payments from the American Red Cross through our Immediate Assistance program.

This platform has streamlined our business processes, allowing us to help those in need much faster, with greater privacy and security, and with a more effective transition to long-term assistance and support services.

It’s time for non-profit organizations to embrace the benefits that digital transformation has to offer. Cutting-edge technologies shouldn’t just be reserved for large corporations–we can all bring our organizations into the 21st century and deliver the best possible outcomes for those who need our support.

With world news dominated by climate change, conflict, and the global pandemic, the work of non-profit organizations has never been more important. If nonprofits can commit to digital transformation–and if leading tech companies can boost these efforts with in-kind support–we can dramatically increase the good work being done to help those who need it the most.

Matthew Cascio is the head of digital transformation at the American Red Cross.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Our new weekly Impact Report newsletter examines how ESG news and trends are shaping the roles and responsibilities of today’s executives. Subscribe here.