Expert view: Time for the paperless charity

I sometimes wonder what part the third sector plays in global warming. Charities' desire to use direct mail, which this year increased by 9 per cent to approximately 43 million mailings a month, must give them a pretty big carbon footprint.

Charities use direct mail because it's a comfort blanket, an easy fall-back. They understand the metrics of direct mail: it's quantifiable and traditional but also expensive. With donations levelling out, however, individual charities should be cutting costs, not adding to them.

I see this as the big internet challenge, but I fear that many people struggle with the concept of measurement online - especially when it is compared with the reassurance of direct marketing quantification.

The irony is that the measurement of online audience engagement - the who, what, where and when - is far more comprehensive than measuring consumers' engagement with print.

Not only can data from online campaigning and tracking be used to build relevant donor databases and accurate real-time audience profiles, but it can also actively reduce costs - unlike the relatively scatter-gun approach of post.

Furthermore, it allows the valuable process of direct engagement with willing donors to happen - unlike unwanted mailshots, which are more likely to go in the bin. Surely this alone is a valuable point for smaller, under-staffed charities.

The recent Third Sector poll by the think tank nfpSynergy highlighted the fact that charities are out of touch with public perception. This could easily be resolved if they used their online presence to listen more.

It's crazy that, while bigger charities are toying with virtual-world site Second Life, smaller ones are only just getting to grips with their websites, never mind tracking the intricacies of web analytics or user-generated content.

And this is where I believe government and the sector should be actively sharing knowledge. For this reason, I'm a fan of the new Small Charities Coalition, set up by Patrick Cox, chief executive of the Male Cancer Awareness Campaign, to offer support to charities with an income of £1m or less a year.

Charities should be more transparent about the set-up costs of websites, direct mail and email campaigns and the results of such activities. It would help promote efficiencies and support smaller charities in taking risks when trying new approaches to fundraising.

Replacing paranoia with transparency and support within the sector would only be a good thing, and perhaps we'll help save the planet at the same time.

- Dean Russell is digital marketing consultant at Precedent Communications

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