With around 100 fundraising software packages on the market, choosing the right option can be a daunting and bewildering task. Caspar Van Vark details four recent products that charities are starting to use.
Charities can have a tough time choosing what kind of software to use for their fundraising and marketing activities. There's always a bewildering array of new products, while existing ones evolve or disappear.
There are around 100 dedicated fundraising software packages on the market - ranging from very simple, free applications right up to large and powerful databases - with prices to match. Many charities will be familiar with Blackbaud's The Raiser's Edge, for example, which claims to be used by 12,000 non-profit organisations.
But there's much more to choosing software than just buying an off-the-shelf fundraising database. While that will be sufficient for some, the choices will depend on the charity's size, budget, and aims. It's common to have one major piece of fundraising software, but to supplement it with other specialised applications for different tasks.
In the past few years, a couple of major alternatives to traditional, paid-for, off-the-shelf software have emerged. They are ASPs (application service providers) and open source software. ASPs provide software packages that are hosted on the internet, which can cut costs. Open source software, mostly free, gives you ownership of the building blocks of the software and therefore greater flexibility. Such packages might form the backbone of your IT structure.
There are also some smaller, more specific pieces of software on the market that can be used to hone a charity's fundraising and marketing.
Communications can be increasingly targeted with the use of one-to-one online marketing techniques, for example. It's even possible to run your copy through a piece of software to pick out any linguistic weaknesses to increase its effectiveness.
The following examples are by no means exhaustive, but they represent some of the possibilities that many charities might not have considered.
Whatever applications you choose will almost immediately be out of date, but that's the nature of software (and hardware). The important thing is not necessarily to be at the cutting edge, but to make sure that your systems work for you.
Application Service Providers are online databases that eliminate the need for a separate data server
Smaller charities in particular might find ASPs useful for managing their fundraising. The main difference with an ASP application is that it is hosted online, so you don't have a programme actually installed on your own computers.
One of the better-known ASPs is eTapestry (www. etapestry.com). It does what you would expect of a fundraising software package - it lets you track donors and manage payments, and it's easily customised, but it's all online.
"The first thing people ask is whether it's secure," says Lynn Jarvis, development executive with Silverstream Fundraising and Communications, which trains charities to use eTapestry. "But it works just like online banking, with an extremely sophisticated security system."
All the information is stored on a secure server, and whenever a fundraiser wants access they can just enter their password, so the charity doesn't have to hold the data on a server of its own.
"You don't have to back it up, because it gets backed up five or six times a day," says Jarvis. "And as long as you can access the internet, you can access eTapestry from anywhere."
One of the first organisations in the UK to start using eTapestry was the Scottish Association for Mental Health. Its fundraising officer, Trish Brown, has found it particularly useful for cross-referencing relationships on the donor database.
"For every record you have, you can click on relationships and see that X has a relationship with Y," she says. "So if I'm wondering if a particular person knows someone who can help with a campaign, and I've entered all the information properly, I can easily tap into that and see whether you know Joe Bloggs."
There are many similar ASPs on the market, such as Amergent and CharitEx.
Etapestry is free to use for one registered user with fewer than 500 records, with an upwards sliding scale. For one user and up to 1,000 records, it costs £300 a year, and for up to 15,000 records it rises to £1,392.
But Peter Flory, an IT consultant for the charity sector, warns that charities should bear in mind that using an ASP may not necessarily work out cheaper in the long run, particularly for larger organisations with more than one registered user.
2. OPEN SOURCE
Regarded as an alternative to Microsoft applications, and already used by the Government, open source software is shared, free, and available on the internet
In a world where Bill Gates and Microsoft control what's on most of our computer screens, it's easy to forget that there are alternatives - but there are.
The easiest way to think of open source software is as the opposite to Microsoft. Where Microsoft applications are licensed and paid-for, open source (www.opensource.org) is shared and free. It's called open source because the source codes of its applications are public, and anyone can change them to suit their own needs. The Government already uses it, along with some major charities such as Breast Cancer Care.
It might sound confusing and daunting, but many people herald open source as an ideal solution for charities.
"The voluntary sector probably has the most to gain from this," says Miles Waller, director of Jamkit, which provides web design services to charities. "You're free of any tie-in to a particular organisation, because you can download the software and you've got access to the source code that runs it. If you need to make changes, or there's a bug that needs to be addressed, you can do that. The second very useful thing is that it's usually free."
One drawback of open source is that, while it is cheap and flexible, it also requires a fair bit of technical knowledge. That was particularly true in its early days, but in the past couple of years open source has moved more into desktop applications that are similar to those of Microsoft.
For instance, the open source alternative to Word is an application called Open Office.
If there are problems with your software, you have access to an email forum full of people who can help. Waller insists that the results are better than an 0800 number. "Each software package has an active mailing list associated with it," he says. "So if you really don't know anything technically, you can email people who do know and you'll get a response quickly. Experience shows that you get a much faster and more helpful response from an open source mailing list than you do by sitting in a queue with a large company."
But consultant Peter Flory says only two of more than 100 of his clients are using open source. "You need to be compatible with Microsoft because everyone uses it," he says.
Open source is still relatively new and it will take more trail-blazing charities to make it mainstream.
3. ONE-TO-ONE MARKETING
Sending personalised emails to donors rather than mass mailshots enables recipients to tailor the information they receive from charities
With so many charities and companies competing, it's no wonder that everyone is trying to personalise communications. How to do so was the subject of a recent Institute of Fundraising event. But does it go beyond simply putting someone's first name on a letter? There's obviously a limit to how much you can know about every individual on a 500,000-strong mailing list.
The MS Society is one charity that has approached this from a different angle. Rather than try to find out everything about its supporters, it puts the ball in their court. It uses email alerts to communicate with supporters, and lets recipients tailor what they receive.
So rather than sending mass mailshots in the post, or just saying "tick here to get our newsletter", it allows people to choose subject areas and the frequency with which they get information in their inbox. The email alerts are sent in addition to a more general newsletter.
The value of the system is that it lets supporters feel in control, according to Ken Walker, marketing director at the MS Society. "The choice element underpins it," he says. "People get a bit overwhelmed by the number of alerts they're getting from organisations, so one of the key criteria for us was making sure people could choose not only the subject matter, but also the frequency. It means that they feel in control of the process."
The MS Society worked with BSD Marketing to set up the email alerts, and came up with 10 subject areas that recipients might be interested in. These include research, news, events and jobs.
A networking tool
Sending personalised email alerts chimes with fundraising more than you might expect. "People who do one event will generally sign up to learn about others, and that saves us on recruitment for fundraising events," says Walker.
"We've also built it into our committed giving programmes. People who give £5 a month automatically get an alert when there's news on the research front or a media story, so it does have a fundraising dimension."
The system relies on a fairly sophisticated 'back-end', managed by BSD, which matches recipients' preferences with changes made to the website as they happen. The MS Society manages the content itself, and anyone who changes content has the option to qualify that change for a news alert. If they're just making a tiny change that doesn't merit an alert, nothing will be sent.
The most useful aspect of this system is the scope for monitoring. The MS Society receives click-through rates every week, so it can see which alerts are being responded to by people clicking on links to find out more.
"We've been running it for about 18 months now, and we're about to look at the categories and some we might replace," says Walker. "But out of the 10, we've got six or seven really strong ones. Sometimes we have click-through rates of more than 60 per cent, so it means there is a thirst out there."
4. LINGUISTIC ANALYSIS
An advanced technique that analyses language for ensuring effective, positive language in communications such as direct mail, websites and emails
How often have you read poorly written copy on a website, email or piece of direct mail? Even when a charity's communications are carefully targeted, they can lose their punch if enough care isn't taken with language style and structure.
While many organisations have settled on having a few people read copy before it is sent out, some have found that it pays to use more advanced techniques. This is particularly true when the copy is going to be read by 500,000 people, and every percentage point increase in response rates makes a big difference.
The Great Ormond Street Hospital Children's Charity recently used ESP (www.espconsultancy.co.uk), which calls itself a 'psychographic marketing company', to apply linguistic analysis to its direct mail. ESP has its own proprietary software which it uses to analyse copy.
"We decided to use this software to buck the declining trend in recruitment mailings," says Claire Cook, the hospital charity's head of fundraising publicity.
The charity found that creative copy that had been run through ESP's linguistic analysis software increased the response rates by as much as 19 per cent. As a result, the charity is making the software a central part of its marketing strategy.
"The software looks at the structure of the language," says Jim Brackin, director of insight at ESP. "It computes how things are said and looks for juxtapositions of words and syntax, because the way you say something is as important as what you're saying. How you put something across can affect the results." For example, the software will point out passive sentence structures. "The more active sentences you have, the more responsive the reader is likely to be," says Brackin.
ESP has done a number of jobs for the Great Ormond Street charity, most of which have improved results by around 10 per cent. But couldn't a human being pick out passive sentence structures just as easily?
"I wouldn't suggest otherwise," says Brackin. "It's just different. Most people will look at a piece of copy and say they don't like or they do like it, but not know exactly why. The software will say exactly what it thinks is working."