INTERNET: ADVENTURES IN NET LAND - The internet offers charities the chance to raise funds and awareness

ALEX BLYTH

"We can produce a good simple site for just £5,000. As commercial sites become ever more sophisticated, with developments such as broadband enabling audio and video streaming, consumers will expect similar from charities,

says Raymond. "Those which invest now in their web sites will be able to take advantage of the increased potential for fundraising offered by developments such as paperless direct debit."

But only if you know how. Alex Blyth asks the experts about tracking a path through the online jungle.

Since the mid-1990s, the internet has revolutionised the not-for-profit sector. "The immediacy of internet communication has benefited causes that evoke a gut reaction,

says Peter Sweatman, chief executive of the Charity Technology Trust, an organisation that helps other charities with online fundraising.

"The classic example is, of course, the large money transfers over the net to the Red Cross and others following the events of 11 September."

Sweatman is an internet entrepreneur and an evangelist. You would expect him to say things like that. But the evidence does back him up. Oxfam raised more than £700,000 on the internet in one week after an earthquake devastated the Indian province of Gujarat last year, equal to the amount raised through its traditional phone lines.

Of course, not every charity that asks for donations online can boast such a spectacular response. But the figures reported by others are not to be sneered at either. The Royal British Legion's Falklands web site raised around £13,000 for the Poppy Appeal, with some single donations as high as £400. The NSPCC raised more than £200,000 in the first 18 months of its Donate-4-free site.

However, only looking at stories like that paints a false picture of a voluntary sector rolling in new-found internet riches. The success stories merely show us the internet's undeniable potential if it is used properly.

There remains a gulf between charities with well-developed and successful internet operations and the ones on the fringes, fearful of costs and low returns on investment, wary of unscrupulous suppliers and confused by ever-changing technology.

John Tate, chairman of Tate Bramald, a strategic IT consultancy which works for many charities such as Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and VSO, believes that much more could and should be done.

"Charities have only begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities,

says Tate. "So far they've only focused on the sexy things like web sites.

Very little attention has been paid to streamlining internal processes by using intranets, and extranets could do so much to strengthen relationships with supporters."

And therein lies the problem. If the communications evangelist or IT geek told their chief executive that what the organisation really needs is an intranet, or even an extranet, how many bosses would know what they were on about?

That is not the fault of the evangelist or the geek. Organisations will not realise the true potential of new communications technologies until the people at the top start to take a much more active interest in internet strategy.

"Too many simply delegate it all to IT departments,

says Tate. "It is incredible, given the huge potential of the internet, that so few chief executives take an active interest in it."

Given this gulf, Third Sector has taken a look at three organisations that have built successful internet operations to see what lessons can be drawn from their different experiences.

CHARITIES AID FOUNDATION: Effective promotion for online donations

Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) is on target to receive £1.6 million in online donations in 2002. Sarah Hughes, head of new media, estimates that the internet has led to productivity gains of up to 30 per cent.

CAF uses the internet in many ways from online banking for charities through to the organisation's own web site.

Two examples of effective online fundraising are www.allaboutgiving.org and www.give-now.org.

"All About Giving has grown to be the single biggest source of information on tax-effective giving on the internet,

says Hughes. "More than £35,000 is donated each week, mostly by regular CAF givers. That this often rises in a week with a bank holiday proves the benefit of the internet as a 24/7 medium for giving.

"Give Now has also been hugely successful, enabling consumers to make one-off, tax-efficient donations by credit card to any recognised UK charity. It is of great benefit to smaller charities that have neither the time nor the money to build their own web site."

Perhaps the biggest lesson to be drawn from CAF's experience is the enormous value that can be gained from online media partnerships.

"An issue for any organisation with a web site is how to promote its existence,

says Hughes. "We market the sites as we would any other new service, combining existing expertise with the new skills that the web is teaching us. For Give Now, we have also had the help of the AOL Time Warner Foundation, which provided funding so that the first £2 million of donations on Give Now will go to charities intact, and also promoted the site to their 1.7 million UK members."

Rachel Engel is AOL UK's community investment manager and is responsible for working with UK registered charities in the areas of disability, children and young people to address the issue of the digital divide.

"We hope to be viewed more as a media 'partner' than simply a source of funding,

says Engel. "For example we worked with Centrepoint on its 'Who Wants To Be?' campaign last year. Our banner ads and online promotion through the entertainment channel meant that 70 per cent of visitors to the Centrepoint petition web site were AOL members and it prompted a 76 per cent increase in volunteers willing to do a challenge to raise £1,000."

Such statistics on success are invaluable as Hughes points out. "A web strategy is useless without measurement. Our success is clear in the top-line figures. For instance, we wouldn't have seen online gifts from charity cards go from 0 per cent in 1998 to 25 per cent in 2001 unless we were doing something right."

YOUTHNET UK: A VIRTUAL CHARITY

Set up in 1995 by television presenter Martyn Lewis, YouthNet UK claims to be the UK's first "virtual

charity.

It now offers two services: www.thesite.org, providing advice to young people on issues such as sex, careers and drugs, and www.do-it.org.uk, the first national database of voluntary work opportunities.

However, YouthNet's experience has shown that the internet offers just as many pitfalls as opportunities. "Many charities forget the core principle of designing a web site: keep it simple and always be thinking of the end-user,

explains Jamie Thomas, marketing and operations director. "A complex site with loads of functionality may look good but has the potential to break down more often, and may in fact put off your end-user. Sites that require the user to click more than three times to get to a particular section will lose out."

Technical support is also crucial to getting it right, but finding a suitable development agency can be difficult, says Thomas. "We've been bitten by agencies in the past through not knowing exactly what we wanted and trusting developers to understand our brief and budget. Often they're keen to experiment with a new bit of software, regardless of how relevant it is to your needs. At worst they may be looking to rip you off."

Web sites are a long-term investment, warns Thomas, and require maintenance to keep the web traffic coming in. "It is vitally important to consider who is going to maintain your site, both technically and in terms of content.

If you cannot ensure that content is kept up-to-date then don't have any - a simple 'what we do and when we are open' is fine in most cases.

"Also think about data implications. Regulations for storing data are hotter than ever, so ensure you know the score. Last, don't forget that your web site is like any other piece of communication in that it represents your brand. It should be seamlessly integrated with your offline communications."

The Site receives 600,000 UK users every month and runs with a staff of 19 making it a cost-effective and secure communication channel for young people. "Our service could only exist on the internet as it enables confidentiality and anonymity, something highly valued by young people when discussing potentially embarrassing issues,

says Thomas.

BRITISH RED CROSS: THE RIGHT SUPPLIERS

From a troubled beginning, the British Red Cross has learned to use the internet to best effect, to the extent that it is increasingly central to the charity's fundraising and awareness-raising work, says Miguel Fiallos, head of management information systems.

"When I first joined the organisation, we had an inflexible web site that fell over whenever we tried to update it. It wasn't customer focused, was overly complex and was doing little to enhance our image. So, we ended our relationship with the agency that had developed it for us, and went back to the drawing board."

The British Red Cross took a different tack and decided to focus on just fundraising and information dissemination. After studying other charities' sites, the organisation invited pitches from web design agencies. "The quality of proposals varied greatly: some were clearly over-promising and many failed to understand our needs,

says Fiallos.

The charity chose Baigent because of the agency's experience in the not-for-profit sector, its realistic timescales and a user-friendly front end. It now has an effective site that brought in just under £123,000 in donations last year and provides up-to-date information to existing and potential supporters.

The site initially cost less than £25,000 to set up. In the 18 months since, the British Red Cross has spent no more than £50,000. "Not an insignificant investment but one which continues to provide an excellent return,

concludes Fiallos.

Liz Raymond, marketing director of Baigent, confirms that web sites do not have to cost the earth.

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