Ensuring a charity claims the money supporters have pledged is critical. For RSPB, adopting a cloud-based automation system has not only ensured its income, it also opened the way for a bigger database project, as David Reed finds out.
Fundraising is a sector well-known for the struggles it faces with data management. Support for a cause can come in a wide range of forms - transactions, donations, volunteering - through a wide range of channels and may remain in place for a long time. An individual who gives a small cash amount once a year could be planning to name the charity in a legacy, for example. A fundraiser changes that data at their peril.
At the same time, charities need to assure their cash flow, which is one of the reasons for the drive for committed giving via Direct Debit. Fixed monthly income makes the financial position of the organisation much clearer.
Ensuring those donations are collected when they should be is therefore a critical operation. RSPB recently migrated its scheduling of such processes into a cloud-based automation system - its first move into virtual solutions. Previously, the charity had been using an on-premise process automation system called Chronacle and has now replaced that with RunMyJobs, both provided by Redwood Software.
“We are using RunMyJobs to run a whole suite of jobs overnight, such as importing addresses, verifying postcodes, validating bank accounts through to collecting direct debits. It is very important for us that there are no issues with that - we have got to know that when it says something is going to run, it does,” says Andrew Oldham, supporter data manager at RSPB.
The organisation had been running version 7 of Chronacle to collect monthly donations and process Gift Aid claims, as well as for its data integrity procedures, such as data validation and flagging high-value donations for direct contact. “Being a charity, we were somewhat behind the times with our software. We needed to upgrade and were looking at moving to version 8. During that process, Redwood Software released RunMyJob,” says Oldham.
The upgrade would have cost around £11,000 a year for the license and support. RSPB also realised it would need to upgrade the hardware running the system, adding to the cost. By contrast, moving to the cloud would remove any need for new IT and reduce annual running costs to around £6,000, based on the pay-per-use model.
“We knew from our historical experience how many jobs we were likely to run each month, so the pricing per job meant we only had to pay for what we were running, which was not a huge amount,” says Oldham.
While the business case was compelling, the proposal still needed to clear data security issues. “There were lots of questions from a security point of view. Security is taken very seriously - we have a data protection officer and a security officer sitting in the IS unit. They look at everything very carefully because we have 5.5 million people who have trusted us with their data,” he says.
While the automation of processes happens out on the cloud, the data itself actually remains in the source systems behind the corporate firewall. Users log-in via a secure website to create schedules or check on those already running and can do so via mobile devices - a productivity bonus which Oldham particularly appreciates.
“When we were running server-based software, if I wanted to check on the weekend that a job was running, I had to get out the laptop, log in to my desktop remotely and if something had a problem, I’d need to fix it,” he says. “One colleague described our old approach as ‘hit and hope Friday’ because we wouldn’t know whether a process had been successfully carried out until Monday. It could have all gone wrong and we might have lost three days before finding out.”
Moving onto the cloud has encouraged the charity to look more closely at other aspects of its data management and marketing processes. Says Oldham: “We recently had an audit of the communications we send out - as a charity, we tend to send a lot of asks and information to a lot of people. Our systems had all been totally separate and were only aggregated once a year. It was painful and difficult.”
The desire to improve its communications triggered a project to create a single customer view (SCV). Working with CACI, RSPB has been reviewing all of the data it holds, where that sits in different systems, and the target fields which it would want to create in the new data model.
While the marketing database has 5.6 million contact names, the volunteering database holds only 90,000. Identifying records and working out how to link them had previously only been done once a year, creating a latency in data accuracy.
One point that emerged from the data audit was the charity’s data deletion policy. “The way we have handled that is if there has been no communication from a supporter for seven years, we delete them,” says Oldham. On occasion, former supporters have directly requested a deletion, although there are still reasons why data might need to be retained, such as proving to HMRC that an individual provided a Gift Aid request.
Being able to manage deduplication and data integration more effectively was one dimension of the SCV project. Another was to improve its marketing. “The main objective is to make our communications more effective. We are also changing our email provider so we can do dynamic content,” says Oldham.
As with the process automation switch, the SCV needed to gain approval, but right from the top. “RSPB has a board and a council, so it had to go all the way up that hierarchy to get approval. They could see what it would bring us,” he says. After this phase, work on creating the new database is now under way and it is expected to go live by October or November.
Oldham believes that the move into the cloud for its scheduling system helped to give RSPB the confidence to consider a new, integrated supporter SCV. It will also allow the charity to bring together its transactional and volunteering data with information from the community section of its website, which currently holds those registrations separately.
As Europe’s largest wildlife conservation charity, RSPB has some significant objectives which require good funding streams. Good direct marketing helps to deliver those, which requires good data, as Oldham notes: “The SCV gives us a better picture so we are able to communicate about the things our supporters are interested in.That drives better communications based on what we know.”
He adds: “I like to think it brings us up to the leading edge on donor data.”