The one thing Kaden Erickson wanted more than anything else in the world was to see Australia. The 13-year-old boy from Jonesboro, Arkansas, was suffering from ETP-ALL, a rare form of leukemia.
Thanks to donations from friends and neighbors, Kaden and his family were able to visit the land of wonder—playing in the surf at Mooloolaba Beach, visiting the famed Sydney Opera House and the Australian Zoo, petting kangaroos and hugging koalas.
Kaden’s down-under adventure was one of more than 14,000 made possible that year by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which has been helping critically ill children realize their dreams since 1980.
A few weeks after his return, Kaden succumbed to the disease.
When 60 Minutes aired Kaden’s story in October 2015, viewers were so moved that they flocked to the websites of their local Make-A-Wish Foundation chapters. So many people tried to access the sites at the same time that the sites went down. People who wanted to donate money, volunteer or start a Make-A-Wish operation in their home town couldn’t do it.
This wasn’t the first time that intense media coverage had overwhelmed Make-A-Wish’s tech infrastructure. In November 2013, 5-year-old Miles Scott’s wish to be Batkid for a day captured the country’s imagination and crashed the foundation’s sites.
But these dark clouds had a silver lining, because they helped spur Make-A-Wish to rethink its technology infrastructure from the ground up, says CIO Bipin Jayaraj.
“Those two cases triggered our digital transformation journey,” he says. “Those incidents shook us, but they gave us a justification to adopt a more enterprise-wide model with state-of-the-art technologies like virtualization.”
Before 2015, each of Make-A-Wish’s more than 60 local US chapters was managing its own websites and tech infrastructure, explains Jayaraj.
Since then, Make-A-Wish has adopted a centralized enterprise model, moving from on-premises infrastructure to a hybrid cloud operated by PhoenixNAP, a VMware-certified IT services provider. The colocation site relies on a 100 percent virtualized environment running VMware vSphere®, using VMware vCloud Director® to manage and automate processes and VMware NSX® to secure the virtual network.
Having a fully virtualized data center allows Make-A-Wish to scale up or down as needed, seamlessly spinning up new virtual servers as demand increases.
“Like any other business, we have busy seasons,” Jayaraj explains. “Our biggest donation season is from October to December, but we also see a surge after school gets out for summer, when we’re able to fulfill most of our kids’ wishes. Virtualization helps us during those times by letting us scale up to take care of the loads, then ramp it down later.”
By not investing in infrastructure that would be idle for most of the year, virtualization helps save on capital expenditures, he adds.
Make-A-Wish also needed a way to ensure that valuable donor data or highly regulated health records would not be prone to accidental breaches or deliberate theft. So the organization adopted virtual desktop technology, which allows employees and volunteers to view sensitive information without transmitting the data across the Internet.
Because nonprofit organizations present tempting targets for cybercriminals, these new security measures provided welcome reassurance for the foundation’s board, corporate sponsors, donors and families.
Another of Make-A-Wish’s big challenges was getting all of its chapters to use the same technologies and procedures to collect donations and manage operations. In the past, every chapter was run as an independent entity, with its own CEO, personnel and IT staff. That resulted in 63 disparate organizations using their own email, productivity and networking tools.
Make-A-Wish centralized all of these processes and operations as well. Over the last three years, the foundation standardized on Office 365 and began rolling up its IT, HR, CRM and finance operations into a shared services model.
By managing technology centrally, the foundation has freed up the IT staff in each chapter to take on new responsibilities central to its mission, Jayaraj adds.
“We wanted to create a platform where we could take all the operational minutiae away from the chapters so they can go about doing what they do best—granting kids their wishes,” he says.
Since its inception, Make-A-Wish has fulfilled the dreams of more than 450,000 critically ill children worldwide. Today it grants a new wish every 34 minutes.
The key benefit of the foundation’s cloud-based infrastructure is that it allows more wishes to be granted in more places, faster than ever. And that’s what matters most.
“It’s very important for us to keep our mission in mind, which is to grant every eligible child their wish,” says Jayaraj. “If we can get that done even one day sooner, it would help us provide the strength, joy and hope that lives at the core of our mission.” ▪