The latest version, Charisma 1.4, was launched in May 2004, and the company now has around 200 clients, including the RNLI, Tate Gallery and Battersea Dogs Home. It is primarily a fundraising package that incorporates contact management features. It is not designed to handle sales processing, although the company says it can provide integration links to sales systems.
Charles Bagnall, principal consultant at Charisma, describes one area of particular strength: "Our integrated regency frequency value analysis provides more immediate data than most, and incorporates a graphical presentation. One of our clients puts these figures up on the wall of the supporter services department each day and it acts as a great morale booster."
Unlike many competitors, Charisma allows users to personalise it themselves without needing to pay Systems Team Response vast amounts for amendments.
It is also significantly less expensive than many of its competitors, coming in at around £2,000 to £3,000 per user.
ThankQ was released by ESiT in 2000, moved to ThankQ3, and has become the fastest growing contact-management and fundraising system in the UK.
Its clients include the Bible Society, Comic Relief, Citizens Advice and Guildford Cathedral, but its target audience is smaller charities.
It is a modular system and clients only pick the modules they need.
As Andrew Campbell at ESiT says: "This means you get the system you want without having to pay for the stuff you don't." This approach also allows organisations to add or remove modules according to their changing needs.
Like almost every product on the market, the package allows you to do almost anything you want. Campbell admits that it struggles with more than 40 million contacts and is overkill for less than 1,000, but it can be installed for between one and 250 users. Athena's Florey explains why he thinks this package is proving so popular: "Charities like the fact that they can tailor it to fit their needs, and it's reasonably priced." A 10-user system costs between £20,000 and £25,000.
With so many on the market, it is all too easy to purchase the wrong database solution, so careful research and an idea of future needs will pay dividends. Alex Blyth reports
The acquisition of a new fundraising database system can make or break a fundraising department, according to Paul Steadman, managing director of software company Blackbaud. From segmenting mailing lists to recording transactional histories and automating donor communications, a good software package can significantly reduce costs and increase revenues.
But picking the right solution is a real challenge. There are more than 100 packages on the market, ranging from free shareware to sophisticated solutions costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, and it can be difficult to know which one is right for your charity.
The first stage must always be to draw up a specification of what you need. Some charities hire consultants to help at this stage, but many feel confident that they are the best judges of what they themselves need.
Often they are surprised by just how difficult it is.
It can take many meetings to decide whether data collection is more important than ease of transaction, or whether a 24-hour support contract is a higher priority than a user-friendly interface.
Many find the 'Moscow Rules' (must have; should have; could have; and will live without) helpful at this stage.
Since 1989, Peter Florey, managing director of Athena Consultants, has advised more than 100 charities on fundraising software and is widely recognised as a leading authority on the subject. He cautions charities to think carefully, and at an early stage, about how many users will be on the system at the same time.
"I've seen people who expect an Access system to handle 20 or 30 concurrent users, when it can't manage more than about six," he says. "Not thinking about this from the outset can cause major problems later on."
Charities then need to find the suppliers and applications that meet their specifications. They should see demonstrations of the software's capabilities and need to lead those demonstrations rather than letting vendors decide on what they want to show them. They should see the system in action at other similar charities, but not assume that because a package suits one particular charity it will also suit their own needs. Every charity is unique and its fundraising software should reflect this.
Charities also need to consider which other systems the new software will affect. Help The Aged is in the middle of an 18-month project to install new software, and director of fundraising and marketing Anne Grahamslaw points out that it is not only IT systems that are affected. "We completely re-engineered our work processes. Different departments were using the same databases and so needed to devise processes for working together. We spent 3,200 hours of staff time on this aspect of the project."
Finally, it is vital that new systems are tested fully before implementation.
The largest charities can afford to have packages built specifically for them. The smallest will have to buy a solution off-the-shelf or even download some free shareware. Most, however, will need to find the correct balance between customisation and cost.
Most solutions on the market have a basic framework which can then be customised to meet the specific needs of the charity. It is important to ascertain the degree of customisation required, the degree possible and the cost of that work, both immediately and in the long run. Many packages allow users to make adjustments themselves, but not all do. Since requirements can change quite a lot over time, this can become a significant cost.
In the bad old days, it was fairly common for an organisation to buy new software for a good price, then quickly discover faults and be charged exorbitant sums for inadequate support and unreliable maintenance. The practice is less common nowadays, but only because no-one buys anything without cast-iron agreements on service levels. Every charity should make sure they have one before purchasing new software.
They should also investigate the financial viability of the vendor to ensure that, in a few years' time, there will still be a company continuing to provide that service and develop updates.
Buyers also need to find out about research and development plans to ensure that updates will meet anticipated future needs.
As in all purchasing decisions, a key factor is the relationship with the salespeople. If there is good chemistry, then a good working relationship is likely to ensue. Most crucially, buyers should ensure that the vendor understands fundraising. There are enough companies specialising in fundraising software that few charities find they need go to a non-specialist.
As important as fundraising software is to a charity, it is equally important to get the best value possible. A significant proportion of the cost is in fees paid to programmers and consultants. Having a clear brief to give them at the outset will reduce the time they spend on the project and, therefore, reduce their fees.
Michael Toothill, database marketing manager at Cancer Research UK, uses Care and the Raiser's Edge, and has this advice for anyone looking to negotiate lower prices: "Our ongoing costs are controlled by negotiating a fixed user-licence fee. We also purchase a fixed amount of support time in advance per year at a reduced price. But it is unwise to cut corners by not recruiting a dedicated project manager."
Peter Quinnear, information systems manager at the RNLI, agrees that trying too hard to reduce costs can be risky, but is concerned about a different aspect: "Never skimp on the quality of any outward-facing document.
Any letter that goes out to customers or supporters has to be accurate and well laid out. We redesigned and developed the fulfilment aspect of our software package Charisma so that we could create personalised letters to send to our supporters."
Many vendors complain that charities are more inclined to look at cost rather than potential return, but charities counter that it is extremely difficult to calculate return in this area. As Grahamslaw puts it: "There are so many unknowns and intangibles in this calculation. However, we looked at cost savings from doing more in-house work with the same headcount and increased revenues from areas such as cross-selling, and we estimate that our investment was returned in three years."
Most agree that, to a large extent, with fundraising software, you get what you pay for. Nonetheless, by taking the right approach, charities are more likely to get the right package at the right price.
Killian Lynch, supporter services manager at the British Heart Foundation, concludes by summarising the most common mistakes that charities make in this area: "Not knowing exactly what they want, buying something and not using it to its full potential and not considering the other systems and processes that the software will interact with."
FOUR FUNDRAISING DATABASE SOFTWARE PACKAGES
The Raiser's Edge The Raiser's Edge is the market leader. Having been launched in 1986, it was acquired a few years ago by US company Blackbaud, and since then has received significant investment. It is now used by around 800 not-for-profit organisations, primarily medium to large-sized ones.
It is described as "donor relationship management software that includes all reporting, communications and Gift Aid requirements". A key strength is its ease of use and its adaptability. Peter Florey, managing director of Athena Consultants, points out two other strengths: "It allows fast data entry. It is also web-enabled so you can do anything online from anywhere in the world."
The NSPCC has used the product since 1995 and Richard Wheatley, head of information systems, is broadly positive: "It is good at CRM functions, although less useful for major transactional work. Every year, we pay 18.5 per cent of our total expenditure as an additional service cost.
Although the helpdesk hasn't always been as helpful as we'd like, it has worked out quite well." Prices start at £6,000 for a single user.
The Care Suite is used by 200 not-for-profit organisations, including Cancer Research UK, Friends of the Earth and the RSPCA. It was launched in 1986 and is widely recognised as being one of the best solutions for organisations that have a large amount of information in many locations and need to use it in many different ways.
Nick Spratt, commercial manager at Care, quickly points out one way in which his product differs from the competition: "The Care Suite has been developed in the UK with its fiscal and legal regulations in mind. We don't need to amend, say, US legal and fiscal features to work in the UK."
In terms of functionality, the package does almost everything that might be required, from campaign management to complaints handling and marketing analysis. Where there are gaps, Care programmers are able to customise solutions.
Care is perhaps the most expensive solution on the market, but Spratt explains why it is still a good investment: "A Care solution will last for seven to 10 years, and will grow and change with the client's business."
Charisma is owned by Systems Team Response and was launched in 1995.