Like many other organisations, charities are embracing the latest web technologies. But unlike many others, they are helping save lives - and save money that can be better spent on a good cause.
Online self-service is being used by charities to automate entry to events, offer credit-card donation facilities or build communities with social networking. Some have seen donations quadruple as a result.
The internet has been as a method of collecting donations for several years, often very effectively. Red Cross Australia, for example, reported that its appeal in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami resulted in 90,000 new donors coming through its website. Most charities therefore offer online donation facilities, with some, including the Leukaemia Foundation, adopting internet-only tactics such as PayPal to enhance their prospects.
Mass-participation events are finding the net is especially powerful.
"Many people in charities think events are a waste of time in terms of fund-raising," says Luke Edwards, fund-raising project manager for the MS Society, which funds research into multiple sclerosis though events such as its annual Sydney to Wollongong bicycle ride.
The cost of staging events is high but they have been considered effective communications tools. Thanks to the net, they are also becoming money-spinners. Mr Edwards says that after the society implemented its new website (gongride.org.au) last year, donations rose by 300 per cent and increased participant numbers by 50 per cent.
He says the site's facilities are directly responsible for the surge in donations and participation in last year's bicycle event, making it easier for people to register and raise funds.
"In the past, the only way participants could get sponsorship was using books. Riders would fund a sponsor, write them a receipt, collect the money, go to the bank and then post us the book."
This process was cumbersome for riders and expensive for the society.
Virginia Dell, general manager for marketing and communications at the Leukaemia Foundation, says its site for the World's Greatest Shave (worldsgreatestshave.com) helped it to raise $12 million this year, well beyond its target. It also freed up staff and volunteers for duties directly related to fund-raising.
"Most of our registrations come from the web," she says. "That reduces the amount of time that our people spend on the phone."
When the foundation's staff do interact with participants, they can now focus on supporting their fund-raising efforts, instead of dealing with simple inquiries.
"We did a really comprehensive Frequently Asked Questions list on the site this year," Ms Dell says. "All our printed material pointed to the site, too. It has meant we can focus on running the campaign and trying to make it bigger and better each year."
Marcus Blease, who is the events marketing manager at the Cancer Council, also appreciates the benefits of online tools for charity events. He says the council's website for Relay for Life (relayforlife.org.au), a 24-hour walking event, results in more money reaching cancer research. "Because more processes are automated, we need fewer staff and there is more money for the cause."
Participation in the relay has also doubled since it went online.
The internet also helps charities find new audiences. Luke Slattery, a director of the Movember Foundation, which raises money to treat prostate cancer and male depression, says the charity's decision to create a web presence (movember.com) has not only helped it to find more donors and participants but has also been crucial in raising awareness of the causes it supports among an audience that is not noted for its engagement with charities.
"The reason we went online was that we were all 30-somethings working on computers every day," he says. "We felt it was a great way to get the message across.
"Prostate cancer is seen as an older man's disease. But communications and education need to happen at a younger age, which is the online age."
Movember seeks to engage younger people through fun online activities, social networking and even a rewards scheme.
Other charities also find online interactivity is an important element of their efforts. The gongride site, for example, keeps track of the teams and individuals that have raised the most money, with a leader board of the top five fund-raisers visible on every page designed to spur on other participants to raise more money and climb the rankings.
The Cancer Council also finds that fostering competition among participants in its Relay for Life is paying off. It has gone to considerable lengths to make sure every dollar can be attributed to donors.
"Many of our relay walkers fund-raise online and off," Mr Blease says. "So we record how much money they collected offline as well as online. This is important, because if you set a fund-raising goal online but the money comes from offline, it can seem like you are not achieving a goal."
Online interactivity is also being used as a tool for the beneficiaries of charities. The Starlight Children's Foundation is piloting Livewire, a social network for seriously ill and disabled young people that includes chat rooms, blogs and forums - activities the foundation recognises as attractive to the 10 to 18-year-olds it represents.
"Livewire is a program that brings these teenagers together with others who have experienced similar challenges," says Anne Johnston, Starlight's head of marketing. "It connects seriously ill and disabled young people with their family and friends in a safe and secure environment."
Charities also love the internet because it is proving more lucrative than other fund-raising tools.
"Our average online donation is $60 versus $15 offline," Mr Blease says. Mr Edwards and Ms Dell report similar results.
The internet also sees money arrive faster. And it helps the charities prove the worth of donations and therefore makes it more likely that the donors will make repeat donations.
"Because the site is there all year, for months after the event people can find out how the funds are used and how awareness has been raised," Movember's Mr Slattery says.
The information captured during an online campaign can be used for other fund-raising efforts. The Australian Red Cross, for example, has emailed the new donors it won after the tsunami to inform them how their funds have been used and also to enlist their support for further campaigns.
Best of all, the organisation says that online donors are sticking around.
"We get less opt-out from the online donors," says Susie Chippendale of Red Cross Australia.
Email marketing is also cheap. Andrew O'Keefe, chairman of White Ribbon Day, which campaigns to eliminate violence against women, says the cost of email is "often no more than 10 per cent and sometimes as low as 1 per cent the cost of traditional postage".
The author will donate his fee for this story to the Multiple Sclerosis Society and Movember. If you want to sponsor him for either Movember or the gongride, visit movember.com/au/donate/ and enter registration number 63468 or register.gongride.org.au/?simonsharwood.
When Terry Houguet-Pincham, CEO of DepressioNet, needed some advice on how to advance the charity's IT strategy, he turned to goodcompany (www.goodcompany.com.au), a site that pitches itself as "the seek.com for volunteers".
Goodcompany has a database of 5500 professionals willing to volunteer their services and, says site program manager Annabel Rattigan, has been able to attract these numbers because the organisation promises to help them put their skills to work.
"We kept hearing stories about professionals who wanted to volunteer and were asked to lick envelopes," she says. The service was therefore born out of a desire to help professional volunteers make a more profound contribution to charity.
Mr Houguet-Pincham says the service has been more than useful, after DepressioNet recently worked with a senior IT professional.
"He helped me understand the IT infrastructure that we have, its strengths and weaknesses. He found another expert, put us in touch with someone who evaluated our website in terms of accessibility and usability and then connected us with independent IT company who audited our infrastructure."
The CEO believes the work involved represents several tens of thousands of dollars of consultancy, a sum DepressioNet could never afford. Nor is it an option for other not-for-profit organisations. "If we paid, we would not be providing the best services to people living with depression."
How charity taps the net
The internet is becoming an increasingly clever way for charities to collect donations -Red Cross Australia picked up 90,000 new donors on its website following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Now more charities are seeing the benefit in a sharper online presence. The site for The World's
Greatest Shave (www.worldsgreatestshave.com) helped the Leukaemia Foundation raise $12 million this year, well beyond its targets. Donors love the ease of one-click giving; and participants in events such as a charity ride are freed from the task of carrying a receipt book for donors.
A Cancer Council spokeswoman says: "Because more processes are automated, we need fewer staff and there is more money for the cause."
Simon Sharwood reports inside on how self-service websites are helping charities raise more money for their good works.
Media Man Australia ProfilesCharity
Social and Community Entrepreneurs