How does the largest student-run philanthropy in the world communicate information among their volunteer base? Effectively sharing documents, messages, and files among 16,500 students is no easy task. THON is a year-round effort that requires planning on a massive scale. The 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon event of THON Weekend alone takes thousands of hours to plan. As such, THON cannot happen without effective communication. Let’s take a look at the software, services, and techniques THON uses to forward their mission.
Before 2019, THON utilized a variety of services to solve their storage and messaging challenges. These were mostly pieces of software that Penn State already adopted. This meant that students were generally aware of how to use this software, but usually only at a cursory level.
The problem came in transitioning. Using a variety of services across different ecosystems had a distinct disadvantage: Each service operates independently. Many positions would need to transfer sensitive access information, like passwords, from year to year. Furthermore, documents that were linked to a specific user would need to be “shared” with the new position. Ultimately, this resulted in many files “getting lost” – that is, files become inaccessible from broken links over time. Clearly, there had to be a better way.
THON features a unique organization structure. This causes some solutions that are common in the industry to be less effective.
A typical organization is arranged vertically: Each employee works with a small group, with a lot of distance between them and the top. This allows individual teams to easily communicate with other teams at their level, but it can take a lot of time and effort for communication up and down the chair of command. This structure is prevalent throughout the industry due to the appeal of “moving up” throughout employees’ careers – typically, salary and responsibility increases.
THON, on the other hand, embraces a largely horizontal distribution. As a volunteer based organization with no salary implications, it is very important that each volunteer feels valued and important. Therefore, THON only has 4 levels of administration, leading to easy communication up and down the chain of command.
Many organizations have a “time until effective” metric, or the time from the hiring of a new employee until they are fully trained and effective as an independent team member. Often, this is 1-5 years.
THON faces a unique challenge at the beginning of every season – the volunteer base has a turnover rate of nearly 100%. Even the students who have not graduated rarely return to the same position. As a result, every position needs to successfully transfer the full knowledge of that position over to someone new every single year. Therefore, we cannot use traditional education techniques from the industry, as we do not have 1-5 years for volunteers to be fully trained.
Adopting a Single Ecosystem
Many of the problems mentioned above are easily solved by adopting a single ecosystem. When services seamlessly link together, documents are not “lost.”
Penn State adopted the Microsoft 365 Suite (M365) in the summer of 2019. THON was at the forefront of this transition, leading the charge for how an organization can best use M365.
Microsoft Teams & SharePoint
Although communication over email is important to running THON, typical day-to-day conversation fits in a more messaging-style application than email. Microsoft Teams fits this application perfectly.
For example, each Teams message allows replies to create their own thread, just like an email chain. This allows multiple conversations to occur at once without confusion, and volunteers can easily search messages in the future and find the whole conversation.
THON’s Teams are organized by function. If a group is communicating with each other often, they have either a Team or a channel for that communication. This spans across committee lines, so several Teams contain members from many different committees.
Furthermore, Teams and SharePoint sites are recycled year-to-year. This means that documents, files, and share links all do not change during the transition process. As long as the same positions stay in the same Teams, they will always have access to necessary documents.
Email & Sharing Mailboxes
In order to maintain THON’s professional image, it is vital that volunteers can utilize custom @thon.org emails (we call them “position emails”).
Traditional organizations typically base their email addresses around employee’s names. This method has a few advantages: Onboarding, movement, and security, among others. Onboarding is simple, just create a new email address for the new employee. Furthermore, if someone switches positions throughout their career, they can take their email with them. Finally, when an employee leaves, their email can be terminated without any security concerns or loss of data concerns.
These advantages do not apply to THON, though. Since our volunteer base all onboards at once, and volunteers do not swap positions throughout the year, the first two points are moot. We also want to easily transition emails from year to year, meaning that we do not want to delete mailboxes. Accordingly, THON utilizes emails that are named by position, like firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
From a technical standpoint, this works through Exchange Distribution Groups. Essentially, each email (called a “Shared Mailbox”) has a list of users who can access it. This enables us to automatically adjust who is assigned to each mailbox without actually changing anything about the mailbox. Volunteers then sign into their email with their Penn State Accounts – no extra passwords needed – and they can sign into multiple mailboxes if applicable. The flexibility of Shared Mailboxes enables THON to present a professional image through email, while not sacrificing speed of transition.
M365 provides a great suite of services that empower THON, but THON has some niche requirements that do not fit the typical workload of an organization. For example, we have in-house developed software that requires user login and role-based access control (RBAC).
Penn State utilizes Azure Active Directory to enable federated login (also called single sign on, or SSO) across multiple services. In a nutshell, this means that students can use one account, their “Penn State account,” to login to every university-provided software. This means students only ever need to remember one password, and accounts are less likely to be compromised.
THON takes advantage of this SSO while building RBAC on top of it. Using the open-source identity management platform Keycloak, THON sends the permissions for each user when they log in based on their position on a committee. This enables seamless transitioning – when a new volunteer takes over the position, they automatically have the same access as their predecessor (and the predecessor loses access).
The seamless integration of Azure Active Directory via federated login empowers the THON Community by automating away access procedures. No volunteer needs to waste their precious time giving access to resources thanks to this method.
To summarize, the main advantages to THON’s use of the M365 platform are as follows:
- Position-based resources: Files, emails, Teams, and all of THON’s services are delegated based on volunteers’ positions, not the volunteers themselves. This enables fast and automatic turnover year-to-year.
- Functional organization: Resources are grouped by the people who need them, so files don’t disappear.
- Federated access: THON’s services link together to provide a seamless login experience across all of our platforms.
Without a doubt, THON could not operate on the scale it does today without the help of the M365 ecosystem. This technology multiplies the already strong force of the volunteer base to take us one step closer to finding a cure. If you’re interested in learning more about how technology powers THON, feel free to email the Technology Director at firstname.lastname@example.org.