The essentials: Technology - Getting IT right

Finding the systems that suit your needs can transform efficiency in many areas of a charity's work. Sally Flood reports.

Within 24 hours of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster on Boxing Day 2004, the Disasters Emergency Committee raised £10m. Up to a quarter of those donations came from digital media channels - interactive TV, text messages and the internet. "What we realised very powerfully was how important technology is to charities," says Jen Topping, formerly new-media editor at the Media Trust, which provides advice to charities on communication issues. "People can now see a news report, click a button and make a donation."

However, it isn't just new-media technology that has the power to transform charities and their work. We asked industry experts what they considered to be the top six ways that charities could use information and communication technology to improve their performance.

1. MANAGE YOUR DATA

Research from computer company HP found that up to 50 per cent of the information stored on the computer systems of a typical company was outdated, inaccurate or duplicated. That figure doesn't surprise Stuart Shepherd, managing director of APT Solutions. "In charities, the figure might be even higher," he says. "There's a vast amount of information held in Excel spreadsheets, Outlook folders and Access databases."

Data management is the discipline of bringing all this together into a standard format and putting it into a single database (or multiple databases that can speak to each other). One way to do this is to work with a specialist company, which can help convert data into standard formats. Data-cleansing software, meanwhile, can help to improve the quality of data by removing duplication or obviously inaccurate information.

That task done, you can start to reap the benefits. For example, donor and sponsorship information can be fed into a customer relationship management application that can track every communication your charity has with an individual or organisation - allowing you to spot opportunities and trends more effectively. "CRM allows you to identify potential high donors or follow up a newsletter someone has received," says Shepherd.

2. IMPROVE YOUR COMMUNICATIONS

Many charities rely on small teams or volunteer staff, who may work from home or in different parts of the world. This makes effective communication a challenge, according to Jerry Thompson, director of broadband at BT.

"If you're relying on conventional phone and dial-up internet access, you're missing out on huge potential," he says.

One of the biggest recent developments in communications technology has been the mass adoption of 'voice over internet protocol', sometimes called internet telephony or voice over IP. This means sending phone call data via the internet, rather than a phone line. Not only is this cheaper (because you're only paying your flat internet access fee) but it also allows you to benefit from computer telephony applications such as video conferencing.

The simplest way to test this technology is to download a free software programme, such as Skype, from the internet. You will also need a headset or VoIP-enabled telephone that plugs into your computer to make calls.

If your network is supporting voice and data, or other new applications, then you will probably need to invest in more bandwidth or network capacity.

This doesn't necessarily need to be expensive - many charities could benefit from something as simple as a broadband internet line and virtual private network, which allows them to send information securely from one computer to another over the internet.

3. GET YOUR HR DEPARTMENT ONLINE

If you have a large, international workforce and are struggling to handle, say, HR administration, employee benefits and absence management, you could invest in one of the latest human resources management system applications, designed to automate and link together core HR processes.

Ten years ago, these packages were available only from the likes of SAP and Oracle, and could cost millions of pounds - but hosted versions, accessed in return for a flat monthly fee, are now available for smaller organisations.

Be careful when meeting suppliers, though, because it's easy to blow the budget, says analyst Paul Hamerman of Forrester Research. "We find that many people are swayed by slick sales presentations from top vendors but actually use only a fraction of these capabilities," he says. "It's important not to bite off more than you can chew."

There are other, less complicated ways that technology can improve HR processes. For example, using an online recruitment tool such as monster.co.uk can reduce hiring costs by as much as 75 per cent, while recruiting volunteers through an online portal such as TimeBank is virtually free.

Once you've found recruits, how do you keep them? "Charities often don't have too many problems finding new recruits, but it's getting the right people into the right roles and then retaining them that can be a challenge," says Dr Justin Davis-Smith, deputy chief executive of Volunteering England.

One way to improve retention is to invest in training - potentially using e-learning as a cheaper, faster alternative to traditional classroom training.

Many providers offer e-learning solutions for the voluntary sector, including Computer Solutions Group.

4. CONSIDER DIGITAL MARKETING

The great thing about internet technology is that it allows you to put together global marketing campaigns for little more than the cost of a local phone call.

If you provide a range of gifts or subscriptions for supporters, you might want to promote new ranges or special offers. This can easily be done via email, with the advantage that most email programs will allow you to track immediately how many people clicked the links in your email or went on to make a purchase.

"The great thing is that you can see immediately whether it's worked, rather than waiting for feedback from a mailing," says James Grieve, marketing and communications manager at justgiving.com.

If you want to promote a service or product via email, the cheapest way is to do it yourself, but there are agencies that will send out mailshots on your behalf and can provide you with databases of potential supporters.

"Oxfam, for example, pays a monthly fee for access to a list of supporters," says Grieve.

Other agencies, such as FlyTXT, specialise in marketing through mobile technologies, particularly to mobile phone users. It's possible to attach a 'shortcode' (a five-digit mobile phone number) to an advert or flyer, which users can then text. The user pays a set fee to send the text (usually about £1), which is split between the network operator and the charity.

A CRM system can also help improve marketing by identifying the most profitable donors and the best time to approach them.

"You can see that Mrs Smith responded to a mailshot or she registered for a newsletter to find out more," explains Shepherd. "Previously, that information would have been fragmented across the organisation and never acted upon."

5. MAKE THE MOST OF INTERNET FUNDRAISING

Internet fundraising is an increasingly popular option for smaller charities, says online fundraising consultant Howard Lake, who runs www.fundraising.co.uk. Online donors tend to give more often and more generously than their offline equivalents and the internet makes them easy to target. "Online fundraising is highly cost-effective, allows you to reach a large audience quickly and needn't be difficult or expensive to set up," says Lake. "However, it's not really enough just to slap up a website and a 'donate here' page and then hope for the best."

If you're new to online fundraising, the simplest way to get started is to use a web service such as justgiving.com or bmycharity to host a donation page, which you link to from your website. The hosting company will pass on donations, minus a commission of about 10 per cent.

Once you're more established, you could buy a white-label service from a hosting company. This is still provided by the external company but looks as though it's a part of your own website. For all but the biggest charities, this is a better option than building your own payment system, says Seb Bacon, technical director of charity web agency Jamkit. "We can do that on behalf of clients; it isn't something we recommend they do themselves," he says.

CASE STUDY - SCORING SUCCESS

Investing in IT has hit the right note for the LSO

The London Symphony Orchestra has invested millions in IT projects that should help it take full advantage of global opportunities, explains Jeremy Garside, head of technology.

The orchestra tours all over the world, so staff and musicians need to be able to access performance and scheduling data wherever they happen to be. LSO wanted to use internet telephony to keep in touch with its artists. The orchestra also wanted to be able to record and distribute digital music globally to generate much-needed revenue.

Garside recalls that when he joined two years ago "we were managing with a couple of leased ISDN lines and a virtual private network, which connected two offices. There wasn't the network capacity to deliver the kind of services we wanted." To solve the problem, Garside invested in a hosted network from Easynet, which uses a networking technology called MPLS to manage traffic. MPLS prioritises data on a network so that important traffic takes precedence over something non-urgent, allowing organisations to get by with much less bandwidth.

At LSO, the new communications technology has radically improved network management. The orchestra can now push significantly larger volumes of data around on its existing 2MB network, as well as slash the admin time needed to support the system.

The orchestra has also invested in a web-based system to hold information about performances, venues and schedules.

Just because you're a charity doesn't mean you don't need to invest in technology, Garside argues, but your investments do have to be smarter.

"I think as a non-profit, you have to be sure all the money you spend makes a difference at the pointy end," he says. "But if you don't invest, you're left behind in a very competitive market."

USEFUL CONNECTIONS - WHERE TO GET HELP AND ADVICE

- Charity Business (www.charitybusiness.com) provides consulting and managed IT systems for voluntary organisations.

- The Charity IT Resource Alliance (www.citra.org.uk) provides information about IT from members. It was set up by a group of eight charities.

- Fundraising UK (www.fundraising.co.uk) provides a wide range of information and events about internet and other electronic fundraising techniques.

- The ICT Hub (www.icthub.org.uk) provides support to charities looking to improve their use of new technologies. It also provides seminars and conferences around the country specifically aimed at charities.

- Lasa (www.lasa.org.uk) brings together a range of information and events for organisations that provide advice and information services. The Lasa website includes details of courses, seminars, useful articles and web resources.

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