We often refer to data centers as the ‘digital backbone,’ but one could argue that it is in fact the heart, and a key part of the cardiovascular system of modern organizations.

The UK charity ‘British Heart Foundation’ (BHF) was founded in 1961, and is still beating strong over 60 years later, propped up by its data centers and use of cloud computing.

A non-profit, BHF raises money for research into heart disease, with a mission to eventually eradicate it. But as a large proportion of this comes from BHF stores and shops, the non-profit’s IT needs are similar to that of any other retailer.

“We’ve got 700 shops and stores around the country, and five or six offices. We are a large retailer on our own without even taking into consideration fundraising,” says Alex Duncan, CTO at BHF. In 2023, BHF’s retail net profits were £24.9 million ($31.8m). The charity raised a total of £180.6 million ($231m) for the year.

Duncan joined BHF in 2022, having previously served in similar roles with companies such as Costa Coffee and the Ambassador Theatre Group. Fortunately for Duncan, it was not a story of joining an organization with its IT in a mess, “BHF’s technology was already in a really good position,” says Duncan. “So it’s not like there were any burning problems that needed to be fixed.”

But a lack of problems does not mean continuing the status quo, and BHF isn’t shying away from change. According to Duncan, the non-profit currently has two data centers that house around half of its operations, the rest is in the cloud.

The organization was unable to share the location of said data centers, though conceded that it is a mix of on-premise and colocation. “Our core systems are currently predominantly on-premise, but we do have a cloud-first strategy so anything new is deployed into the cloud, and we are working on getting all of our systems onto the cloud as quickly as possible,“ says Duncan.

Alex Duncan
Alex Duncan, CTO, British Heart Foundation – British Heart Foundation

The organization is currently only working with Microsoft for its cloud computing transformation, though Duncan says that they are not under an exclusivity agreement. Should a use case require it, or innovation be made, BHF would look at other providers as well. But for now, Duncan says “our needs at the moment mean we don’t really need to go beyond one provider.”

The cloud migration is a multiyear strategy and not one that will be rushed. “Anytime you do [migrate data to the cloud], it's an upheaval, so we are trying to make sure that we do it at the right time,” explains Duncan.

The charity is currently working on its cloud migration roadmap. “We are looking at all of our systems and essentially evaluating what the future is for each of them - how do we make sure that we’ve got the right foundational layers in terms of the platform data and the integration architecture?”

Once the game plan has been finalized, BHF is expecting the migration process to kick off later this year.

BHF is also looking at how it can use its data to help external organizations to influence research, and potentially policy as well. The charity assists with the collection of external data looking at the state of cardiovascular research and related issues across the UK.

“We use that to generate reports which help to influence government and policy. Some examples of that are reports on the state of cardiovascular care after Covid, the health of the research community and pipelines of talent, and health inequalities among the general population as well.”

While like any other retailer in many senses, as a non-profit organization, there is a different approach to spending. “We are very conscious of running efficiently given that we are a charity, and of every penny that we spend that doesn’t go on research,” agrees Duncan.

The charity’s accounts are publicly available for anybody to see, and BHF has to report on the percentage spent on research and charitable endeavors, versus on overhead costs.

For example, in the year ending March 2023, BHF reports spending £6.9 million ($8.84m) on Information Technology, up from £4.9m ($6.28m) the year prior. In total, BHF had £29.1m ($37.3m) of IT equipment and software under use in 2023, conversely down by more than £5m ($6.41m) from the year prior.

This keeps non-profits honest, but it is by no means a reluctance or refusal to invest in technology. Duncan instead argues that it makes BHF spend smarter.

According to the charity’s 2023 accounts, around 80 percent of its total income is available for research and medical innovation. Duncan estimates that, on average, BHF funds around £100 million (£128.1m) of research a year, and around £450 million ($576.55m) of research is happening at any one time.

“We are very conscious that every pound should be spent in the right way. But that doesn’t always mean the cheapest way, because that isn’t necessarily the best way. It's about being clear on what it is we are trying to do, and the best way of achieving that,” she says.

For example, BHF, like many for-profit companies, is exploring the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve efficiency. The organization is always gathering data, similar to that of other retailers. “We use our data for reporting insights, and we are increasingly looking at how we can use that data to personalize our communications with customers and their journey on the website,” says Duncan.

Additionally, BHF uses said data to ensure that it is operating securely, and is as “efficient and cost-effective as possible.”

Using AI internally is still very early days for BHF. During a recent talk at the Microsoft Global Non-Profit Leaders Summit 2024, Duncan spoke about how the charity is bringing AI into its logistics, including optimizing stock management, and also employee productivity.

Duncan puts BHF’s ability to explore new technologies, in part, down to the nature of a third-sector organization. “In some ways, it’s easier because the benefit of being a charity is that we are making decisions with a much longer timeline and distant horizon, whereas some publicly listed companies or retailers may need to focus on short-term results,” says Duncan.

“We can focus on the longevity of investments, and evaluate them from that perspective, which changes your decision-making paradigm.” BHF, despite the relatively recent foray into AI for internal operations, has been funding AI-based research for several years.

British Heart Foundation second image
The British Heart Foundation has 700 stores across the UK – British Heart Foundation

Professor Charalambos Antoniades’ work is an example of this.

Antoniades’ research has found an AI algorithm that can detect previously invisible changes to the fat around the arteries, enabling doctors to look up to eight years in the future and evaluate if a patient is likely to have a heart attack.

“It’s changing the way we practice medicine,” says Duncan of this research. “If you are flagged as being at risk, you can have medicine that prevents the heart attack from actually happening.” BHF and Alex Duncan believe so much in AI and data-science-based research, that the non-profit is investing around £20 million ($25.6m) over the next few years in a data science center.

“We're in a wonderful position as a not-for-profit to be able to bring together whole population data in a way that private organizations can't, and just think about what we can achieve with that when we add AI into the mix,” said Duncan at the Microsoft conference.

As for issues such as sustainability, Duncan says that BHF is currently reviewing its ESG strategy. “It’s very much top of mind, but we haven’t finished it yet.”

“Overall, we’re in pretty good shape, and in some ways, we are net positive because we contribute to sustainability by the fact that our business model is essentially recycling people's unwanted goods every day. But beyond that, we are working on a strategy to make sure our operations are as sustainable as possible.”

Ultimately, the non-profit is investing in its IT in so much as it furthers its mission. “Where we are different is that we have a wonderful purpose and mission. When our employees come to BHF to work, it’s because they believe in what we are doing. It also makes it easier to slip technology in, because we are clear on our purpose,” says Duncan.

“Our job is to save lives and save as many as possible through funding research.”