The Grill: Rotary CIO Peter Markos

Measuring the impact of his nonprofit's giving could help extend its reach.

Few technology leaders have the reach that Peter Markos does. As CIO for Rotary International, based in Evanston, Ill., Markos oversees technology for a nonprofit organization that boasts 1.2 million members from 34,000 clubs in 200 countries. So it's not surprising that Markos and his 130-member IT team contend with challenges ranging from authenticating a constantly changing list of users who need to access Rotary's systems to enabling applications that work for a vastly diverse membership. Markos also serves as Rotary's general manager. Here he talks about how he handles the challenges and successfully manages his dual positions.

What is your key objective as Rotary's CIO? It boils down to one word: enablement. You implement technology to achieve some sort of objective. If you look at how the organization uses technology, up until four or five years ago, we thought of it as how it enabled the staff to help clubs or to lower costs. But five years ago we flipped it on its head and asked, "How do we leverage our greatest asset -- our members?" They're the movers and shakers in their communities, and we have a lot of CIOs and others with strong technology skills. And giving is more than just giving money. Rotary is about giving time and expertise, and we found there is huge demand from our membership to create websites, mobile apps and functionalities to allow other members and clubs to be more effective, efficient and to do more. That's been our focus here: How do we enable our membership and partners to do more?

How are you using analytics? Where business intelligence comes into play is around measuring the worldwide impact of Rotary. What we have found is that many people know the name [Rotary] but don't know what we do. We also found that when we talk about NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], the way most people measure the impact of an NGO is how much money you give away, which is great if you're the Gates Foundation.

We do have a foundation and give away approximately $200 million annually, but we are a different model. We have clubs in communities that do work that we don't track. And when we're advocating for additional funding, the size and stature of the organization matters. So we've been using business intelligence to gather data and drive analytics about what is our global impact. We know about the $200 million we give away, but we started gathering data about what our local clubs are doing in their communities. They might clean up a park or provide meals for a local homeless shelter. When you gather that, you can start to aggregate what is the impact of Rotary. We're in the beginning stages of this, but we anticipate that we can get to a credible number where we can walk in and say, "We are confident saying that Rotary's impact on an annual basis is $1 billion." There are very few NGOs internationally that have that kind of impact, and it allows you to open doors.

How's this project progressing? We're gathering the data as best we can, asking how much money went into it, how many hours, and the estimate of the beneficial impact, and then we're getting into true analytics. Some of what I'm describing isn't that difficult to find in a for-profit, but at an NGO, emotion plays a more prominent role than data. People tend to overestimate the [economic benefit], so that cultural transition is a challenge we have to deal with.

Is it your job as CIO to help that cultural transition? Yes, absolutely. I don't think of myself as a CIO. I think of myself as a member of the executive team tasked with making the organization as successful as possible and reaching its full potential. The CIO is a more tactical, day-to-day thing I deal with. I think business first, and technology is one of the tools on the tool belt to get it done.

You've talked about your work in building culturally diverse, results-oriented teams. Why is that important? Our staff, our members, if given an opportunity to share their input into a process, you can get a much better outcome. That matters, and it also helps with buy-in because by getting their input and by being involved, they're more committed to making it successful. And cultural diversity is important because we are a global organization. We don't want to end up with a U.S.-centric set of solutions that won't work in Europe or Asia. We look at the center in India [Rotary's Information Technology Development Center in Pune, India] and encourage them to have a say. We made a significant investment when we opened that, that the culture would be open and collaborative, and when people share an opinion that they'd be respected. That made a difference in results. We get better solutions that meet the needs of our global constituents.

How do you ensure it? I saw in our first few hires that we had people who wouldn't fit that model. So I had a conversation with a colleague who I thought could ensure that open and collaborative environment and I asked if he wanted to go to India, and he did. He was able to draw out employees. He made a world of difference. And I take trips, and I personally talk to every employee. At the end of the day, the most important thing is really about relationships. If you want people to be open and collaborative and really feel a part of the team, there's a personal connection that has to be made. We invested in that.

-- Interview by Computerworld contributing writer Mary K. Pratt (marykpratt@verizon.net)

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