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Taking membership online

Updated 24/9/01

This profile was written March 01, from two perspectives:

It appeared in Professional Fundraising in a slightly different format.

e-commerce has an impact on the whole organisation

Since the National Eczema Society added an ecommerce facility to its website last October, a steady increase in traffic has meant that online membership now represents one in three of all new membership registrations. Adrian Allen, of Akriga, the software supplier, reveals how it has become a valuable source of revenue.

I first became involved with the National Eczema Society in 1997 when I was working as a computer programmer for Visa in Austria. I was helping install Visa's credit card system with the Bank of Austria and as part of my learning process, I wanted to set up a website.

From a child, I had suffered with eczema and, as a member, had often contacted the National Eczema Society for information. I thought they might benefit from some external, voluntary help. I contacted them and with their consent, developed their website for them. They were among the first charities in the UK to have a web presence.

I re-contacted them when I came back to Oxford last July to set up Akriga and market my own e-commerce product, Aktivate. I was keen to see if the National Eczema Society would be interested in using the software for membership subscriptions and donations.

It was - and the enhanced site went live in October and now averages over 500 hits a day. Over this period, comparatively, the site is averaging four times as many people joining online as opposed to the previous method ie print off a form from the site and either fax or post it back.

In the first six months this has meant an additional £6k by way of revenue via the site and the Society is projecting a total of £13k additional revenue for the year. The vast majority of this is from new membership which should mean it is an annual income stream.

The site has attracted visitors from all over the world - from as far away as Japan and South Africa. An 87 year old American currently holds the record as the oldest surfer to join.

The National Eczema Society was among the first sites to become Gift Aid compliant. It just required a simple development of our software to achieve it. The visitor has to literally click a button to declare they are a tax-payer and the Aktivate system then generates the date on which the declaration is made.

Introducing e-commerce to a website has an impact on the whole organisation. We had to work with a multi-disciplinary team at the National Eczema Society, from senior directors through to members of their finance, fundraising and data management teams.

As the Society had to commit to signing a Digital Certificate, which we arranged for them, the project had to have the support of senior directors and trustees. This Certificate is vital to reassure visitors they are in a secure area and they can reveal financial details without worry.

We tried to stick to a fairly rigid timetable and factored into the schedule time to sort out the inevitable problems which would not have been allowed for in the planning process. This prompted the National Eczema Society to ask for new requirements which weren't part of the original remit.

One of the most useful processes we introduced was a system for reporting problems.This was essential if we were not to have complete anarchy. We allocated each problem a unique number and that way we could report when the problem was fixed to the person who had reported it. We also let people know how we were prioritising their problem: high, medium, low.

Quite rightly, the Society was worried about security so we wrote a single page of simple text, explaining to visitors in non-technical language how the site worked and why it was safe for them to become members online.

How the National Eczema Society is using the software is still evolving. Akitvate is flexible software and because it is our product we designed, we know it inside out - it's not a shrink-wrapped product that can only achieve a limited number of tasks. It can adapt for the bigger picture because it has been designed for change.

We have recently completed a project for the Royal Academy of Arts which has meant the software could identify commission fees for sites linked to theirs which brought new traffic to the Academy's site and resulted in new members. Aktivate handled both the new membership and the commission fees for linked sites.

Since the installation, we have provided support to the National Eczema Society and are encouraging them to think about further ways they can exploit the online facility. I believe online fundraising is vital for the future of the charitable sector.

Our website is for more than just fundraising

Oonagh McCurry, Fundraising Manager of the National Eczema Society, reports on how their website fits within their overall fundraising and campaigns programme.

"Adrian's approach to us was very timely because we had just begun to investigate a facility which would allow people to join the Society online. We had seen a steady increase in the number of people who were joining by printing out forms from the site.

"Electronic membership soon outstripped subscriptions from printed forms. Between October and mid-March we registered 469 new members via the site, 384 of which used the online facility while 85 preferred to print off and return the form.

"To introduce online membership was always our priority but because of the software we were able to install a donations facility at the same time. We are now looking across all our fundraising activities to see if can add an online dimension to them.

"Our initial priority was to enable online membership recruitment. We are now turning our attention to how we can communicate with and service these members online and, when the time comes, seek electronic renewals.

"We have always been conscious our website is for more than just fundraising - and my department has to work with the rest of the organisation in striking an appropriate balance. Obviously, the more useful the site is to people affected by eczema, the more favourably inclined they will be to join or make a donation.

"In May we are putting our Spring Appeal online for the first time. We will be testing online responses against our direct mail segments and the results will help us in developing our future appeals strategy and how resources are best allocated.

"We also want to develop the software for campaigning and market research. There is no reason why we cannot target particular visitor groups and collect data for campaigning and publicity purposes. eg nurses about development of dermatological healthcare policy. This would be an extremely cost effective way of generating data and would help us build a visitor profile for the site.

"Our immediate fundraising priority is to build up a stronger case on the site which encourages visitors to join or make donations. We recognise that examples of work we do and the services we offer will help create a stronger appeal for funds. We are talking with Adrian about creating online sponsor forms that we can offer to people who are keen to undertake challenge events on our behalf."

Copyright of Akriga