Extra - IT: 'We have the technology'

Few charities are making the most of information systems. Ron Condon looks at four ways to make IT work more effectively, from virtual servers to content management systems.

Charities' spending must be properly controlled and justified, and nowhere more so than in IT. It is easy to be carried away by shiny new boxes and clever graphics. The trick is to make the technology work for you by cutting costs while supporting the core work of the charity. Here are four ideas to make it happen.

1. Virtualisation and consolidation

For the past decade, computer hardware has been cheap, so organisations have often been wasteful in the way they use it. Whenever a new application was added, it made sense to buy a new server to run it on. It was simple and cheap, but organisations ended up with banks of computer servers all running well below capacity - sometimes as low as 5 per cent.

Virtualisation allows applications to be loaded together onto fewer servers, often achieving usage of 80 per cent of total capacity of each machine. Each application runs in its own software capsule, independently of other applications sharing the same hardware.

The approach makes better use of hardware - there are fewer boxes to maintain - and uses less power. Because applications are 'virtual', they can easily be swapped between servers, which is important for business continuity.

Instead of each server having its own disks to store information, storage can be consolidated in one place and attached to the network for all servers to access. By pulling information into one place, it is possible to remove duplicate files and to analyse the information you have.

The leading providers of virtualisation software include VMWare and Microsoft - with its recently introduced SoftGrid product - but there are many others.

For many organisations, virtualisation will go hand in hand with outsourcing IT altogether. Donor support charity New Philanthropy Capital chose the OnlineDesktop system from service provider Intercept because running in-house systems was too much trouble.

"We needed an IT solution to support our growth while ensuring we were getting the best value," says Jocelyn James, chief operating officer at NPC. "We also wanted to enable our staff to work flexibly from home or an alternative location when needed, while ensuring information security and business continuity."

OnlineDesktop is a pay-as-you-go subscription service. Intercept hosts and delivers all applications and data centrally. The company upgraded the entire server infrastructure for NPC, and this is accessed securely through a direct connection from NPC's offices, or via the internet to the data centre.

"This is the way forward for NPC," says Joanna Ballard, office manager. "We have freed considerable amounts of space in the office, enabling our continued expansion without the cost of an office move. We will not now be faced with the costs associated with upgrading PCs and servers, and that means we can focus on raising money for charity."

2. Multifunction printers

If you still have a photocopier, a fax, a scanner and maybe several computer printers dotted around the office, why not integrate them into a single device?

Multifunction printers not only save space and electricity, but also have features that can cut paper use and disseminate information because they are connected to the computer network.

For instance, instead of making a dozen copies of a document, a user can scan it using a multifunction printer and send the electronic image to 12 recipients without printing a sheet. If staff still need to print, make the device default to double-sided printing or reset the documents to use less paper by reducing the point size. Makers of these devices include Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Kyocera, Ricoh and Xerox.

Parity for Disability, a daycare and training charity for children and young people, has switched to a multifunction printer. It produces quarterly fundraising newsletters, annual reports and other marketing material, as well as grant applications. Some of these were previously sent to a commercial printer, while others were created on a slow desktop printer.

Installing a Canon multifunction printer with iW360 productivity software made the process much simpler, says Helene Abbiss, head of fundraising and communications.

"Outsourcing print was costly, with long lead times," she says. "Stock was often left over so storage and paper wastage became a costly issue. We can now create impressive brochures and newsletters. The flexibility of being able to import different file formats and documents has enabled us to produce professional literature with minimal effort."

3. Computer-based telephony

Most organisations rely on a telephone system that uses cables to carry voice signals. But things are changing: computer-based telephony (or VoIP, voice over internet protocol) allows voice signals to be digitised and sent down the same cables that carry your emails. That means one set of cables instead of two, and much cheaper calls. And because it sits on your computer network, it can provide a lot of other features that are awkward or impossible to achieve with a traditional telephone system.

Anyone who uses Skype at home will already know many of the benefits of VoIP. For instance, the 'presence' feature enables you to see on screen whether someone is at their desk and ready to receive your call even before you make it. VoIP also allows you to send an instant message instead of calling - faster and more immediate than an email, but less intrusive than a voice call.

Assigning people to new extensions is always tricky with old-style exchanges but is easy with VoIP, as are conference calling and forwarding calls.

Dimensions, a not-for-profit group that helps people with learning difficulties, has recently switched to VoIP. It has 10 major sites across the UK and 250 smaller ones, and previously each had its own phone system. The organisation opted for a managed VoIP service from 8el, which provides Dimensions with a nationwide phone system. Each office requires only an internet connection and new telephone handsets to join the phone network.

Ray Fletcher, IT director, is halfway through the implementation and predicts that phone costs will fall by 40 per cent. All local and national calls are now free as part of the 8el package, and calls to mobiles are cheaper than before.

Staff can easily set up hunt groups, so if a call to one office is not answered in a certain number of rings, it will be redirected to another extension. Video-conferencing may also arrive in the future.

"These days, the roll-out is so straightforward that end-users are not even aware of the change from one system to another, except for the fact that they have a different phone on their desks," says Fletcher.

The move to VoIP has been a transition. As existing phone systems reach the end of their working lives, 8el installs the CallPort service at the sites concerned.

"The fact that the service is managed for us is a massive financial advantage," adds Fletcher. "As a small IT department, the cost of ensuring that we have staff trained and able to maintain the system would have been prohibitive compared with using a specialist supplier.

"Also, having the service managed remotely frees the IT team to focus on other tasks, such as responding to users. We are the front end; we leave the background stuff to 8el."

4. Rationalised content

Charities need to communicate with supporters and the public in a variety of ways - in print, via email, through their websites and even by mobile phone. By building a central fund of electronic material that can be used for any of these media, the charity can save money and be more flexible in the way it works.

For instance, global animal welfare charity WSPA has just built a content management system that will hold all of its content and enable it to launch into new national markets more easily.

Mike Walton, head of digital at WSPA, says: "Eighteen months ago, when we reviewed what was happening around the world, everyone was using different technology, working on different systems with different strategies." He has now installed a CMS from SDL Tridion, which holds all content, including pictures, case studies and video. It means that when WSPA is launching a new website, it simply has to translate any relevant text and the rest of the material will be available.

"We created a Swedish site in two or three days last week, which would have taken a month before," says Walton. The same material can also be used in email marketing and campaigning, as well as any printed matter that WSPA sends out. An 'extranet' site will allow WSPA to share the material with other animal charities.

GirlGuiding UK is going through a similar process, using a new CMS from Immediacy. Chris Short is head of Fusion Workshop, which is working on bringing all the parts of the system together for a launch this October. He says: "The web content management can serve different devices and allows sharing of content between the intranet and the web. They are also able to reuse content, for example for PDF files for printing."

By introducing a web interface to the system, the organisation will be able to save huge amounts of administrative effort. "At the moment, if a child completes a test to get a badge, they have to fill out a form that the leader signs and it goes off in the post," says Short. "The new site will encourage self-service for all aspects, including enrolment and movement from Brownie to Guide. All this will be managed by their leaders, who can log on to the web portal."

The new CMS will also support the creation of microsites - for instance to promote a particular event. Before, these were created from scratch using a variety of design agencies and tools.

"The new CMS gets them away from building microsites and can accommodate all their needs from the common content repository," says Short.

"To do new stuff, they have custom templates that allow people to build their new sites."

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