The Fred Hollows Foundation is an Australian not-for-profit organisation with a core mission to treat and prevent avoidable blindness in the poorest communities around the world.

Luke van Leeuwen, Associate Director of Technology & Business Services tells Which-50 that expanding into a global organisation has required a digital transformation that has not been without its challenges.

The foundation operates in 30 countries around the world, and has staff in about 18 different nations, all focused on training and empowering partner health organisations to create a sustainable system of care.

It therefore requires comprehensive, easy-to-use communications tools, and has, since 2015, relied on BlueJeans’ cloud-based video conferencing service to connect its staff with partner organisations — including the Helen Keller Foundation and the World Health Organisation — as well as governments, hospitals and health systems around the world.

Since the beginning of the year it has been using BlueJeans’ Events tool for education and awareness sessions to larger groups of employees and partners.

“For us the real key was the question of geography,” he says. “The foundation works globally. We have staff in 18 countries at this point in time, working with partners in even more. The conferencing system we were previously using really didn’t help in that sense.

“We work in countries that are not necessarily the national home of cloud-based anything. Infrastructure is a challenge. That was really the key for us.”

The challenges of running a global not-for-profit

Van Leeuwen says a lot of the barriers facing the foundation were a combination of technical and human.

“Going back a few years, we were essentially a small, Australian-based charity with an office of about a dozen people that ran programs and projects in a number of countries,” he says. “These countries were not exactly left to themselves, but it was a much different experience. We couldn’t afford servers, infrastructure and all that stuff that makes traditional IT work.”

He says cloud technology enabled the foundation to move towards a model that everyone could use.

“We were using Office 365 for email, we were relying on broadcast and text based apps. We replaced file servers with ShareFile and now we are using Windows 10 and Azure to give us IDs and sign ins, so we don’t have to run domain control in lots of different places. That gives us a really flexible platform for people to work and collaborate. BlueJeans is a key part of that. Altogether, the new approach to technology is proving to be really beneficial.”

The Associate Director of Technology & Business Services says video conferencing often becomes unnecessarily complicated, especially for people who find themselves in a meeting room with 10 other people, trying to figure out what button to click, or what has gone wrong.

He says part of the reason it decided to use BlueJeans is that it offered the foundation a lot of options in terms of connectivity, operating across PCs, laptop, mobile, apps, in-room conferencing and ordinary phone systems.

“The simplicity of getting people to understand how to use it, particularly for overseas operations, their capacity is very stretched,” he says. “Local staff don’t necessarily have the long technological background people here are starting to develop when things don’t go quite right. That has been of great importance to us.”

The foundation runs education and town hall meetings across organisations with more than 100 different endpoints.

However, he says device manufacturers can too often stand in the way of the potential offered by even the most seamless video conferencing software.

“What causes problems is not the platforms themselves, they are great at this stuff. But PCs are just not very good pieces of conferencing equipment,” he says. “They often come with terrible microphones, people get confused about what mic they’re using. A host of problems can occur that the platform itself cannot compensate for. That’s where the education experience comes in. Having a very simple interface is therefore very important.”

“I’ve often said it would be really nice if a certain, very large software corporation that provides desktop operating systems could get to a stage where it can resolve problems like, even though my PC only has one camera, it gives me three options, two of which don’t work. While I can work that out, it confuses a lot of people. There must be some way around that problem. It is an unnecessary and really annoying coal face issue that bites people all the time.”

The foundation has had about 45 different countries involved in video conferences over the last 90 days, many of which are developing nations, including Kenya, Rwanda, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

BlueJeans also provides a layer of encryption for its users, so that people who are in on the call cannot see where other participants are located.

“Privacy is increasingly a concern for everybody,” says van Leeuwen. “Generally speaking, our employees will go in with a username. But you don’t need to be logged in to use the service, which is why it works so well with external partners. Participants may well choose to put a name in at start of the call, but otherwise all that would be displayed is an IP address.

“Across the board, especially with increases in privacy legislation in Europe and elsewhere, we guard privacy and security with ongoing concern and vigilance.”

He says the foundation doesn’t specifically encourage the use of VPNs because its use is frowned upon in some of the countries it operates out of. In some areas it is outright illegal.

“It is difficult to work out where the grey areas are that people might tread in those cases, so we are reluctant to make any broad recommendations on that front,” he says. 

Van Leeuwen says the technology aspect is critical, though the foundation is not a technology organisation.

“Tech is an enabler, not a focus,” he says. “With about 500 people operating around the world, we have the footprint of a large multinational but the budget of a small, cost conscious not-for-profit. Technology is the only thing that can make that work, I believe.”

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