Slide 1

Don Portlouis, Cancer Research UK
Iain Dalgleish Cancer Research UK
Mike Smith, Z/Yen Limited

Cancer Research UK’s field administration system

756 words

"Charity begins at home". This proverb, unpopular in the charity world, is often used by potential donors as an excuse not to support charities. "Strategy begins at home", if it were proverb, would be equally unpopular amongst many charity people working in the field. When a charity head office strategies, the field is so often ignored or marginalised.

This article is the tale of a different type of strategy and how that strategy is now becoming a reality. In mid-1995, Cancer Research UK’s (CR UK) Appeals Department undertook an information technology (IT) strategy. CR UK staff took the lead roles in developing the strategy; while Z/Yen Ltd supported and quality assured the work. CR UK, which fights cancer on all fronts, is one of the largest medical charities in the UK with headquarters in London, 8 regional offices, 21 area bases and over two hundred shops. Z/Yen specialises in risk/reward management, an innovative approach to improving organisational performance in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.


CR UK’s nation-wide field workers (regional, area and shop) commented that they need to spend too much time doing administration and paperwork (perhaps 20% of field staff time). Field staff felt that information technology (IT) could halve the time they spend on administration. The time saved could be re-deployed to fundraising activities. Many field officers had already informally planned or implemented partial IT solutions to reduce paperwork.

The financial benefits to CR UK of reducing their field administration and paperwork burden through IT by a modest 10% could lead to almost £1m per year in increased revenues and contained costs. Other benefits would be elimination of reporting transcription errors, faster management report availability and avoidance of incompatible local software developments. The cost of developing a field administration and paperwork system (FAPS) was estimated to be approximately £100,000, including CR UK staff costs and training costs.

The IT Strategy also found that CR UK field staff were uniformly eager for electronic mail (email) and data transmission among themselves and with headquarters (for example, regions wanted to coordinate fundraising activities). It was not possible to assign financial benefits to electronic messaging, but the universal demand, clear non-quantifiable benefits, synergy with FAPS and modest investment required (under £25,000) were considered adequate justification by CRC’s IT Steering Group, who approved the messaging project along with FAPS in December 1995.


The CR UK messaging project began almost immediately after its approval. For now, 14.4K baud dial up modems and voice telephone lines have been employed. Higher speed, faster connecting integrated service digital network (ISDN) lines might be used later if need be. CR UK acquired and installed a communications server in the London headquarters. Headquarters staff travelled to every region to install modems and software and to instruct users. The roll-out programme is now complete. 12 modems have been installed UK-wide.

The more complex FAPS project was divided into design, beta development, design evaluation and alpha development phases.

The initial design phase, carried out by CR UK and Z/Yen technical staff, is now complete. The result is a preliminary database design and recommendations for a robust, economical, technical architecture for FAPS. Some early prototyping has also been carried out as a means of selecting a database management system. FAPS is currently under budget and on time (expected to complete within one year).

CR UK’s Scottish region has been selected as the beta development site; all regions will be involved in the alpha phase. Both development phases depend heavily on software prototyping. Prototyping has been selected as the software development approach most likely to deliver what users need, maintain enthusiasm, reduce problems of a geographically dispersed user base and give early benefits to CR UK. Early prototyping with the beta users has confirmed their continued enthusiasm for FAPS and the selected development approach.

Lessons learned and next steps

We intend to write a follow up article once the project is complete. The lessons learned so far are as follows:

  • consultative IT strategies can reveal genuine user demand and enthusiasm for new systems, especially where there are clear, tangible benefits;
  • field systems lend themselves well to the prototyping development approach, given the geographical dispersion and the need for a common core with the flexibility for local variations;
  • "strategy begins at home", i.e. headquarters, is no longer good enough for charities. The larger charities which are doing well tend to have sophisticated strategies for decentralised fundraising which should be supported by thoughtful (although not necessarily leading edge) IT systems.