Back to basics: Information technology - Managing your supporters

Technology can help charities develop sustainable donor relationships. Catherine Everett offers a step-by-step guide.

In today's increasingly sophisticated consumer society, it is no longer enough to simply sit back, wait for donors to come to you and expect them to stay loyal.

Instead, it is crucial to use all of the tools at your disposal to maximise income and to build long-lasting and sustainable relationships. One of these tools is ICT. Although not a silver bullet, technology can help you manage the donor relationship.

Most of the top 3,000 charities in the UK have sophisticated and expensive systems such as Blackbaud's The Raiser's Edge in place. But according to Peter Flory, managing director at Athena Consultants, smaller organisations don't have to fork out for such expensive software.

He says that for £100 they can pick up a perfectly adequate database that can record donations and gift aid, and cope with mail merges. They can then migrate to larger systems, with specialist functions such as fundraising, as they grow in size and stature.

There are five key steps to successful supporter relationship management.

1Plan and define your goals It's impossible to underestimate the value of planning. The key thing to bear in mind is that this is a change management initiative, not an ICT project. So it is crucial to come at it from a business rather than a technology standpoint.

Nicky Thompson, project manager at the ICT Consortium, explains: "ICT is only a tool - it's unhelpful to concentrate on technology. The first things to think about are goals, business requirements, what you're trying to achieve and how you intend to get there. It's about people, processes and technology, in that order."

This involves clarifying what donor relationship management actually means to an organisation and its people. This process prevents misunderstandings and unrealistic expectations.

"Next, evaluate whether your current ICT capabilities are going to help you manage the relationships you need in the light of what you're trying to achieve," Thompson says.

2Work in stages and measure success along the way There is no need to adopt a big-bang approach to implementation, although this is perfectly valid if a business case can be made. Coming up with a long-term vision, prioritising different elements of the project and rolling it out in a staged way is often more successful.

Tackling a large initiative in small chunks can make it easier to obtain initial funding. It can also make it easier to measure success because there are lots of smaller goals rather than a single large one.

One common pitfall is setting goals that are too high, such as wanting to improve 'donor retention'. These are often almost impossible to define and measure. As a result, projects fail to meet expectations and are deemed to have failed.

3Minimise politics by ensuring staff and management buy-in Initiatives such as these involve changing the organisational culture and the way staff work, so politics can play a big role.

Many projects have been sunk because of a lack of staff co-operation and internal bickering, so the need for buy-in at every level should not be underestimated.

The first port of call is trustees and senior management. "They have to understand what you're trying to do and be happy to pursue it," says David Irish, ICT manager for Cerebra, a research and support charity for children with brain injury and neurological problems. "I wrote documents and attended board meetings to explain the process."

It is important to involve the staff who will use the system too. "You need to get staff buy-in - if you don't, they simply won't use the system or key in the data you need," says Thompson at the ICT Consortium. "They can also provide useful feedback and inform you of other things that you wouldn't necessarily think of."

When Cerebra introduced an Access supporters' management database and installed Amcat's predictive dialler technology, the charity's operations manager and all staff supervisors were involved from the outset to ensure that the systems met their requirements and that they could see the benefits.

4Optimise processes It's easy to automate bad business processes. Flory of Athena advises changing current practices to improve efficiency.

"We had story boards about what happened to information when it came into the organisation and where it changes along the way," says Janet Wickens, director of marketing and fundraising at horticulturist support charity Perennial, who used Flory's consultancy skills during a year-long system implementation. "It sounds like a lot of work, but it wasn't too painful because it helped people see how things could become better."

5Choose a system that fits your requirements The final stage is finding the right software to suit your needs - and your pocket. A common pitfall is not taking into account total cost. According to Thompson, for every £1,000 that is spent on a system, another £1,000 will need to be invested in training, support and maintenance costs and staffing.

Approaches to finding the right system range from issuing a full-scale invitation to tender to organising what Flory describes as a "beauty parade", where sellers demonstrate their products. But Thompson warns charities against getting carried away with "fun, dangly extras that you might not need".

Instead, she recommends visiting other organisations to see how the software performs in the field.

Technology, though, is not a panacea. Thompson concludes: "If you have not worded your mailshot correctly, it doesn't matter how sophisticated your software is - it won't get the message across. You can't build relationships with technology - you build them by communicating using the technology.

It can help you manage your relationships, but you still need a good mix of interpersonal skills."

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