From campaigning to research, Simon Ellery takes a look at what charities can do with the information they manage.
Charities are becoming sophisticated users of new technology. From donor profiling to managing events and campaigning, databases have injected much-needed intelligence into the voluntary sector.
Database technology has moved from merely keeping the names and addresses of supporters to storing case information and offering data that allow charities to mount finely-tuned campaigns and communicate better with supporters. It's known as customer relationship management or CRM.
As charities compete against an increasing number of rivals, intelligence is becoming the crucial factor in boosting income, running successful events and delivering high-profile campaigns. There are now ICT systems on the market that enable all charities - large and small - to tap into the extra potential databases can offer.
On one side of the fence, Cancer Research UK uses ten databases; on the other, the software firm Centrepoint Computer Services hosts a database of contacts and events for 30 voluntary organisations in London.
Until now, it has mainly been the bigger players that have taken advantage.
But with the surge in broadband availability, as well as government campaigns to boost ICT sophistication, the smaller charities are raising their game.
One spur for charities to improve their capacity and boost their use of technology is the ICT hub, part of the Home Office's ChangeUp initiative to boost the infrastructure of the voluntary sector. The hub aims to reach out to voluntary organisations at a local level, delivering ICT guidance, good practice, advice and support.
Many smaller organisations use databases mainly for CRM - increasingly, however, more intelligent uses are being exploited. Here we explore some of the opportunities.
1. Campaigning Amnesty International makes extensive use of databases.
Without the technology, it just wouldn't be able to track individual cases and communicate with supporters so effectively. The organisation uses databases to manage communications and actions with campaigning supporters such as individuals, student groups, youth groups and trade unions.
"It would be impossible to meet the communications needs of our activists without adequate database support," says Bruce Wylie, head of activism at Amnesty International.
Databases are central to thematic Amnesty campaigns such as Stop Violence Against Women, Control Arms and Against the Death Penalty, and to urgent and long-term casework on behalf of individuals at risk of human rights violations.
The homelessness charity Shelter also relies on databases to streamline its campaigning activities. To shape housing policy, the organisation has to forge strong ties with journalists, MPs and the public - and databases are at the heart of this activity.
Shelter's biggest and most high-profile campaign is the Million Children Campaign, designed to trigger public support and generate interest among MPs. For its donor and lobbying work, the charity uses Raiser's Edge, an off-the-shelf system that tracks and helps to analyse information such as the work campaigning supporters have been asked to do, who donated when and how much they gave.
Shelter has 65,000 campaigners signed up to its two main campaigns, so keeping track of their activities is vital. As many as 40 per cent of its donors are also campaigners, so the charity uses its system to cross-reference details.
The database allows Shelter to obtain detailed breakdowns of information for region, type of person or action. The kind of information you get out of it can be sophisticated, says Charlotte Fraser-Prynne, campaigns officer at Shelter. Using Raiser's Edge, the charity can tag donor records to reveal details such as how many of its supporters are within a given MP's constituency.
"It's useful in the sense that you can carry out more targeted action," she says. "From a public affairs angle you can say, for example, that there are 1,000 people in this constituency who care about this issue and have pledged their support. This gives us greater leverage."
She adds that the use of databases is fundamental to monitoring and evaluation. "You need to know what works and what doesn't," she says. "You need to know your success rate."
2. Service delivery
It is not only donors and supporters of which charities must keep track. Any of the organisations involved in service delivery maintain complex records on service users. The homelessness charity Broadway manages the Combined Homelessness and Information Network, a database to ensure effective support for street homeless people. The database, known as Chain, is funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
A website database holding information on rough sleepers, beggars and street drinkers, Chain helps decision-makers in central and local government and voluntary organisations deliver services to an often vulnerable and always transient group.
"This allows our workers to access and record information about individuals," says Joanne Fearn, research and information manager at Broadway. "When they first meet new clients, they can search for them on Chain, which can give them a more informed starting point."
Broadway uses Chain to produce regular reports for the sector, including its quarterly rough sleeping bulletins and its annual Rough Sleeping Report.
3. Research Cancer
Research UK uses ten databases for a range of work, including scientific research and giving grants to universities for research. "We provide grants to fund more than 500 research group leaders, including many of the UK's top scientists," says Michael Toothill, head of data management at CRUK. "We need to know who is doing what and when. For this complex form of work, databases are invaluable."
For Amnesty International, research is often campaigner- and supporter-led. But it still has to be co-ordinated, and a database is the perfect way to collate all the necessary information. The charity's Individuals at Risk programme is developing a case work management system tailored to membership campaigning. When the system is complete, details of cases will be held in an accessible, searchable databank that will map activity against Amnesty's thematic and country agendas and concerns. This will allow sophisticated statistical and narrative reporting.
"It will include analysis to make links between apparently isolated cases, through which we can identify patterns and formulate strategies," says James Savage, programme manager for Individuals at Risk.
This databank is being connected to the main Amnesty International website so that activists can use the information by, for example, downloading interviews and testimonies, chatting to other activists or feeding information back into the database.
4. Collaborative working
The Home Office is keen to encourage collaborative working through its ChangeUp programme, and smaller charities are increasingly sharing databases as a highly effective way of cutting costs.
This can be done in two ways - a charity can either have its database hosted by an umbrella group or have it hosted by a software firm and be linked through the internet.
"Some charities want the capability of the serious operating system but feel that they can't afford the investment," says Andy Campbell, managing director at the IT solutions firm Charity Software. "By getting a group of them together, they can have a halfway house."
This is an area in which charities are ahead of profit-making companies - Campbell says CRM systems are the buzzword within commercial sectors but says that charities have been "doing this for years".
These shared systems are able to do everything a dedicated database used by a single organisation can do, from tracking relations with supporters and donors to allowing organisations to keep track of the often complex processes involved in applying for funding.
"Smaller charities are now demanding more sophisticated systems that can, for example, do Gift Aid tax recovery and event management as well as volunteer monitoring," says Campbell.
Although the technology is shared, the information contained in the database is carefully segmented according to the organisation that owns the data.
"They share the software and the hardware," says Campbell. "But care must be taken so that one charity cannot access the other's data because of data protection rules."
It is easy to see why it is such a tempting option for smaller charities - by joining forces they can buy a system that would otherwise be out of reach. A single user might expect to spend £20,000 on the technology and an extra 15 to 20 per cent of that each year in upgrades, maintenance and support. For a collaborative system, the cost can be reduced to an initial cost of £2,000 per charity, with shared ongoing costs.
"You will need training, but that cost is brought down if it is done with several others," says Campbell. "Why does a smaller charity have this in-house when it can pay someone else to do it?"
Charity Software has supplied technology to five organisations that are acting as hosts to others and is itself hosting databases for several charities. As internet speeds increase from the current average of two megabits per second to eight, it might become a more popular option.
But some charities remain nervous about having databases that are not in their offices, and for larger charities there is no need to take the shared route. "We don't collaborate," says Toothill at CRUK. "I can understand why some charities do, but we can manage it more effectively in-house because we understand our supporters better than anyone."
5. Relationship management
Many charities now use databases to track and record donations, build up donor profiles and link this data with information on how those donors might help in other areas, such as volunteering or campaigning. There are obvious benefits.
Key points to watch out for are ensuring that donors or campaigners are not pestered with letters or requests, and that volunteers are not overused.
This is where a database can build up an intelligent profile that can help foster strong ties.
Wylie of Amnesty International says improvements in the level of information that can be stored can improve relations. "They enable a 360-degree view of supporters' interests and ways of supporting Amnesty - both financial and non-financial," he says.
Future plans at the organisation include linking its new website to the database to allow supporters to customise their relationships with the charity online and to take part in on-line 'communities of interest'.
Cancer Research UK, which has five million active supporters, uses databases to enhance its donor relationships. It records and manages relations with all supporters and donors, from £2-a-month supporters to millionaires and celebrities. "We can do lots of research that not only helps usto talk sensitively but also stops us overusing supporters," says Toothill.
As an example, he points to the charity's annual Race for Life event.
Databases, he says, can ensure that supporters or volunteers are used, but not too much.
Like Shelter, CRUK uses Raiser's Edge - but it also uses a system called the Care Suite, along with a database called FirstClass.
"The biggest step change is the integration of our main website into our databases,'"he says. "With thousands of events across the country, we want people to be able to enter their postcodes into our website and find out about events with which they can get involved in their areas. It's about bringing it all together - and making our relationship with the public seamless."
POPULAR CHARITY PACKAGES
Advantage Fundraiser - Donor management
Care Suite - Customer relationship marketing DonorFlex Covering covenants, events and donations
Donor Strategy - Donor management, including fundraising administration, event management and remote working FirstClass Specialist legacy administration
Progress CRM Raiser's Edge - Popular fundraising management system offering CRM, with modules for areas such as event and volunteer management
thankQ CRM Visual Alms - For fundraising, events, marketing, tax, membership, alumni and grants administration. A widely used system, due to be replaced soon
Source: IT for charities www.itforcharities.co.uk/fundrais and Athena Consultants
- The Institute of Fundraising runs a special interest group on information technology - see www.institute-of-fundraising.org.uk
- For information on the ICT hub, see www.ictconsortium.org.uk
- Consultant Ivan Wainewright runs a website offering free information on ICT products, services and technology for charities. See www.itforcharities.co.uk
- Athena Consultants and Ask Charlie specialise in independent ICT advice and guidance for charities and other non-profit organisations. See www.athena.org.uk and www.askcharlie.co.uk.