Fundraising software packages have failed to keep pace with their commercial-sector equivalents. Many charities, frustrated by poor integration with back-end systems, limited reporting capabilities and an often complete lack of internet capability, are looking to change.
The developers and distributors of fundraising software will of course disagree with what looks like a rather sweeping and unfair view. But the evidence is there. A recent survey of Institute of Fundraising members by IT consultancy Tate Bramald found that as many as 14 dedicated software suites were being used by 51 respondents.
"It's an immature market,
says John Tate, the consultancy's chairman.
"I think the whole area of direct marketing or fundraising and integration has moved very slowly in the charity sector from an applications perspective and certainly slower than for commercial organisations. Most products are somewhat long in the tooth, often written before Windows, let alone the web."
The researchers estimate there are more than 100 fundraising packages in use in the UK today, with no clear market leader. Among the software suppliers identified were Westwood Forster with Alms and Visual Alms, Donorflex from Care Data Systems, Raiser's Edge, distributed in the UK by Blackbaud, Appealmaster, which has recently been bought by Blackbaud, and Microsoft Office. Other players include AK Consulting, Kubernesis, Esit and Progress from Fisk Brett.
But despite the range of products available, the survey found that charities are frustrated by the lack of integration the packages offer. The software vendors, perhaps not too surprisingly, reject the charge, and say integration is not an issue. However, the newer entrants to the market aren't so sure. "Our research suggests that the software available to small- to medium-sized charities has not kept pace with the capabilities of modern management information systems,
says Ian Gillingham, managing director at Exordia Software. "Specifically, the activity beyond raising funds seems to be particularly ill served."
Even longer-standing players acknowledge there is a legacy issue to deal with since many fundraising software products were initially designed to make the donations management and processing of tax claims more efficient.
"This early bias has contributed to some software lagging behind the rest of the relationship management and direct marketing markets, for whom this aspect was less relevant,
says Tony Davey, business development director at AK Consultancies.
But if you design the system in-house you could avoid this from day one.
One organisation that tried this approach is Greenpeace UK. Kit Kline, systems developer at the organisation, built a Java-based system running on an IBM DB2 database under the open source (i.e. free) Linux operating environment. He believes that this has resulted in lower development costs and led to other benefits. "Apart from during the release of a new version, the system has never gone down, and we have experienced no loss of data or corruption,
Kline now counts himself as a fundraising package sceptic and is far from convinced about the market. "In the past, I have seen organisations' business logic dictated by what their software can offer. I think the best thing to do is document your desired business process and then implement it using an adaptive framework. This way if your business is always shifting, you can adapt,
Scottish Christian charity Lord's Work Trust has gone the other way and moved from a dedicated system to a package-style solution. The charity had been using a bespoke application on an older IBM mid-range computer, according to its voluntary IT adviser John Grant, the one-time chairman of the IBM UK User Group. "Having had a custom system already we looked at packages but couldn't find what we required,
he says. A local company Exordia wrote him a system that has been adapted for the wider market.
Indeed, many fundraising software suppliers say the biggest competition isn't each other but home-grown solutions. "There's a lot of the 'bloke next door's son,'
says Davey. "You get people writing things in their holidays from university, and that can be a fine short-term, economic solution. The problem comes when you want to expand or modify the system when the person is gone. Charity software's not cheap, but the point is you get what you pay for in terms of supporting your changing needs in the long run."
All this begs the question of where is fundraising software going next?
Customer relationship management, a class of software based around integrating what companies "know
about their clients, seems to be making in-roads into the non-profit sector, as is software that makes it easier to use the internet as a fundraising tool. One such recent convert is Oxfam.
The organisation has employed software from Bluestreak since last November to send out 50,000 emails each month to supporters interested in its development work, campaigning, fundraising and educational activities.
"We see a huge potential in this method for keeping in contact with our supporters at low cost,
says Rachael Clay, Oxfam's new media marketing manager. "We can now get a lot more information about people who sign up with us, and it has let us react rapidly in some of our recent campaigns. It has already paid its way in terms of emergency fundraising."
Clay adds that the charity has been impressed by the results so far.
"The tools are pretty user-friendly, but to use them well takes direct marketing disciplines. We have learned a lot from trials in fundraising, and will be trialling new work in the coming months,
Oxfam is currently trying to identify how the return on investment compares with other channels, and is planning to increase the level of e-fundraising activity. "Email and online fundraising have been very successful for us in events. Runners could raise funds for the London Marathon online, and our Trailwalker event in July is proving popular,
She adds that developments in software have also made it easier to raise funds during emergencies. "We are able to inform supporters via email of a crisis within hours of it happening, keeping them up to date with our on-the-ground intelligence, and allowing them to donate online. We are currently investigating donations through mobiles, and expect that the immediacy of mobile text messaging will stimulate donations when there are emergencies,
One charity that has solved its problems by not buying a straightforward fundraising package is Comic Relief. It identified three main systems that it wanted to upgrade: its basic accounting systems, an enhanced grants management application, and a new contact management solution. "We live and breathe through the relationships that we have with donors, the corporate sponsors, the artists who appear on the Red Nose Day show, the BBC and so on. But there are different types of relationships that need to be managed and monitored, so the system had to be adaptable,
says Mark Agar, business director at the charity.
Comic Relief has deployed software that has integrated both its grants management application and a new contact management solution to solve the management of its fundraising activities.
It uses a combination of Microsoft Great Plains eEnterprise software suite as the financial solution with bespoke software from Esit to handle contact and grant management activities.
The charity says the benefits include rapid and complete multi-dimensional analysis, allowing it to respond actively to fundraising opportunities.
According to Comic Relief, the software has helped to increase staff productivity and improve cost-efficiency.
Whether you choose to stick with your existing package, have your own bespoke version made, or adapt another technology, the bottom line is the same: make sure you know what you need. As Comic Relief's Agar says: "The key to success here is to be clear about your needs at the outset - write them down and get clear buy-in from the start."
CASE STUDY: BRITISH RED CROSS USES SOFTWARE TO MAINTAIN RELATIONSHIPS WITH SUPPORTERS
The British Red Cross supports the UK statutory services by caring for people in crisis. Services include first-aid cover at public events and projects to empower young people to helping to reunite families separated by wars or natural disasters.
All the Red Cross's direct marketing work is undertaken through Visual Alms from Westwood Forster, including the management of regular (planned) giving agreements and their associated automated bank transactions. Trust, corporate and major donor contacts are also managed through the system.
The charity is also implementing the Legacy Administration module and will be starting the integration of Special Events management in September. The Red Cross does not use the Membership or Mail Order Modules within Visual Alms, as yet.
"The primary role for technology in fundraising is to enable us to maintain the most meaningful relationship with our supporters, including those giving time and expertise, while keeping costs to a minimum,
says Andy Cornish, fundraising systems development co-ordinator at the charity.
The system was recently migrated to a Windows 2000 operating system platform, having previously operated on Novell Netware. The Red Cross is in the process of converting the system to the latest version of Visual Alms, having been a user of earlier products for many years. Cornish says that an analysis was undertaken to confirm that the product would be the most suitable for the charity's future strategy.
So is it providing value? While declining to detail the amount of investment in the upgrade, Cornish answers with a definite yes. "Most of our fundraising activity would not be feasible without the software, nor would we be able to take best advantage of things like Gift Aid."
Cornish adds that any metric for measuring value of a fundraising package needs to take into account more than the upfront expenditure. "You will generally find that your software costs are small when compared with the costs of your human resources, creative resources and the information, communication, hardware and infrastructure that needs to be in place for most charities to operate,
And, of course, cost is always a factor. "Like any business, we have to calculate how much our fundraising costs compared to what income is achieved. In the voluntary sector, where our income wholly reflects the goodwill of the public and their belief in what we are doing, we are honour bound to get those costs down to a minimum."
Cornish gives some coal-face advice on how to get the purchasing process right. First he distinguishes between those starting from scratch and those upgrading. If you're in the lucky position of being the former, he says, start by getting clear guidelines of your organisation's business strategy for at least the next 24 months and identify what elements of that strategy must be achieved through the implementation of the software.
Then try and understand the tasks that you want to do digitally and try to assess if the business process (whether manual or electronic) still makes sense when compared against business requirements. Then on a large sheet of paper draw out each step and who is responsible, he advises.