Internet fundraising: Power beyond the button

Cheap to run and with a potential audience of millions, web campaigns can take fundraising to a new and wider frontier, as Sally Flood reports.

This Valentine's Day, why not give your loved one the gift money can't buy - a bit on the side. For just £25, web users can enjoy a virtual romance with their very own elephant, thanks to London-based charity Elephant Family.

Elephant lovers will receive Valentine's cards and personalised love letters from their chosen animals, and the money raised will be used to help care for 300 Asian elephants, explains Ruth Powys, head of fundraising with Elephant Family.

The charity hopes that the project, which will be launched on Valentine's Day, will generate regular income over the coming months. "We thought the idea of adopting an animal had been done to death, and we wanted something fresh that people would find humorous," explains Powys.

For every £25 raised through the dating site, Elephant Family estimates that £20 will go to the charity, with the remainder used to pay for website content and maintenance, and the cost of printing and posting cards and letters. "This is the sort of thing we simply couldn't afford to do off-line with flyers or the telephone, but on the internet the costs are minimal," says Powys. "The only challenge is finding something creative that will stand out so that people will tell friends and colleagues about it."

Most charities in the UK seek to raise funds online, but most rely on basic 'donate here' buttons, according to Sarah Escott, commercial director of online marketing firm ValueClick. But she says that charities are missing out on the real potential of the internet by using these clumsy techniques.

The advantage of the internet is that charities can incorporate interactive surveys, quizzes and games into fundraising sites, or use viral emails to reach millions of potential supporters at little relative cost.

When the National Aids Trust wanted to increase awareness of World Aids Day, the charity turned to the internet to reach large numbers of people quickly. Using a budget of less than £5,000 for the entire campaign, the charity was able to create a 'virtual red ribbon' which businesses, charities and individuals were invited to download to their own websites and emails to demonstrate their support for Aids awareness. Once the ribbon was installed on a site, visitors could click on the ribbon and be taken directly to the World Aids Day website.

"The key thing about the campaign was that it was extremely simple and cost-effective," says Keith Winestein, the trust's campaigns manager.

"We received more than 2 million hits on the World Aids Day website, and more than 300,000 on the day of the launch alone, which was just mind-blowing. That's something we could not have achieved any other way, but it was really straightforward to do."

The good news is that online fundraising campaigns reach younger supporters, who are less likely to respond to traditional fundraising campaigns. What's more, online donors are typically more generous than their off-line equivalents: Christian Aid reports that online donors to its Tsunami Relief fund donated 50 per cent more, on average, than telephone or mail donors.

Christian Aid is increasingly turning to the internet for fundraising and campaigning, including initiatives such as Pressureworks.org, a campaign website aimed at the TV and digital consumer generation. Katerina Dshadshorov, the charity's media officer, says: "I think people often find it easier to remember a web address, and they can spontaneously make a donation at any time.

"For us, the internet is much more cost-effective; it's cheap to set up and maintain, and we can react to changing events and circumstances very quickly."

Providing a service

One of Christian Aid's most successful online fundraising programmes is Surefish.co.uk, its ethical internet service provider and web portal.

In the past three years, more than 33,000 subscribers have joined Surefish, paying between £15 and £30 a month for internet access. The service is promoted on the Christian Aid website, but the charity also places banner ads on other websites and distributes thousands of Surefish CD-Roms. These include everything a supporter needs to get connected to the internet, and are distributed at festivals and exhibitions.

"It sounds like it would be very complicated, but our only ongoing responsibility is creating content for the web portal, which is mainly articles about ethical living and current campaigns," says Dshadshorov. The computer servers used to provide internet access are hosted and managed by a specialist company in return for a percentage of the monthly access fee.

"We get a discount because we're a charity, so it really costs us very little, but means we have a direct line of contact to tens of thousands of supporters," adds Dshadshorov.

Negotiating special rates can allow charities to create truly spectacular internet services. War Child, the international network that helps children affected by war, recently launched its own exclusive music-download service by negotiating fiercely with suppliers and contacts in the music industry.

For £3.50 a month, subscribers can download exclusive tracks from bands including The Thrills, Keane and Primal Scream.

"I think it's fair to say we shamelessly exploited every contact we could," says James Topham, War Child's director of marketing.

Warchildmusic.com started out as a pub conversation between Topham and Ben Knowles, editor of NME magazine. The two friends had collaborated on several charity compilation albums, and believed that the internet would be a more effective way to raise funds from charity records. "The problem with an album is that you have to work around bands' schedules and you may not be able to include a great track because the band is on tour in Australia while the album is being recorded," says Topham. "We thought that if we could use the internet to distribute singles, we could bypass that problem, and potentially raise funds throughout the year."

Online music company Video-C agreed to build and maintain the front end of the website for free. The back-end systems, which handle the music downloads and payments, were created by Seven Digital Media, also for free. This process took a little over six months and the War Child Music site was launched in August 2004. Although the technical side of the website was taken care of, Topham admits that creating the service was extremely challenging. "Once you get into areas like copyright and digital-rights management, people start talking to you in a completely different language," he says. "It really has been a massive learning curve."

Balanced approach

However, it's a learning curve that looks set to pay off. War Child Music already has 100,000 monthly visitors, and War Child continues to promote the service through flyers at music festivals and other youth-oriented events. Seven Digital Media has offered free guerrilla marketing services, and War Child has recruited a PR officer from the music industry to help promote the service in the press.

The hard work has enabled War Child to stand out from other charities in the same sector, Topham believes. "Charity websites can be difficult to get right, because you have to balance entertainment against devaluing your message," he says. "We have gained a lot of corporate sponsors because a web presence with 100,000 users is pretty significant."

Standing out in a crowded sector doesn't have to involve anything quite so ambitious, says Isabella Pawlowski, fundraising director of Auctioning4u, a company that helps individuals and charities sell goods online. "For very small charities, the internet can be quite intimidating - people often imagine things are much more complicated than they are in reality," she says.

Auctioning4u currently works with a number of charities in West London, including the Teenage Cancer Trust, to sell donated goods online. All goods are dropped off at one of Auctioning4u's four shops, and staff then write a description of the item and take digital photographs that are posted on auction site eBay. All bids and shipping are handled by Auctioning4u, which sends two thirds of any proceeds direct to the charity at the end of the month.

Selling goods on eBay often guarantees a better price than selling through a conventional charity shop or jumble sale. Pawlowski cites the example of a crocodile skin handbag that recently raised £150 on eBay - the owner had been going to sell it for a few pounds in the local charity shop.

"There are 115 million people using eBay, so your chances of finding the right buyer are much greater online," she says.

CASE STUDY

The National Literacy Trust

The National Literacy Trust raised more than £5,000 through an online auction of envelopes designed by British celebrities. The eBay auction included designs created by authors, artists, sporting heroes and film stars, including Kate Winslet, Quentin Blake and Sir Steve Redgrave.

The Pushing the Envelope campaign was originally conceived as an off-line event, but corporate sponsor Pitney Bowes believed the envelopes would raise more money online, explains Richard Sved, head of fundraising at the trust. "We were lucky because our PR agency was able to design an auction page with lots of pictures, and post that online," he adds.

"It only took a couple of hours and was quite straightforward." Once the envelopes were online, the charity sent out an email newsletter to all its supporters and the staff's own contacts. Staff also posted information about the auction directly onto fan websites, which generated a lot of additional interest. "Certain envelopes, like Quentin Blake's design, were bound to raise a lot of interest, but people like Michael Flatley might not have raised so much without us letting his fans actually know what was going on," says Sved. "That was really easy to do online and didn't cost us anything." The success of the Pushing the Envelope campaign has persuaded the trust to invest more heavily in internet fundraising, says Sved. For example, the charity offers supporters the opportunity to sign up to sponsored events online, or make donations directly through the website. "We are much more aware of the power of our email news-letter these days," says Sved. "We are definitely now in the position where we raise more money online than off-line."

GETTING STARTED

The internet provides a great vehicle to reach a target audience and there are thousands of sites that cater for all markets or interests. Campaigns, though, must be highly targeted to ensure the best possible response.

- Any internet fundraising campaign should be tested, monitored and adjusted on a daily basis

- Don't rely on 'flat' emails to reach supporters. Invest in interactive elements, such as votes on current issues or campaigns and click-through donation links

- Good viral marketing can spread worldwide within 24 hours. Consider using a humorous game or activity on an email, and send it to everyone in your contact list

- Encourage supporters to sign up to charity newsletters by placing links on sites where there is potential for an affinity with the site's audience

- Ask suppliers about discounted rates for charities or pro bono work. Internet fundraising campaigns should look professional and not crash on launch day

- If you don't have the expertise to create an online donation or auction service, work with specialist third parties, such as Justgiving or Auctioning4u.

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