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Converting is the business

Updated 24/9/01

A case study from APT. Open University has a large number of past students to keep in touch with and needs a strong system to manage this.


The challenge of raising charitable funds in an overcrowded marketplace from a finite number of sources has never been greater. Charities worldwide are faced with the need for continual development of new, more effective methods of soliciting financial support.

Thanks to improvements in new technologies and wider understanding of the basic principles of customer relationship marketing, everyone now recognises the importance of establishing potential donor profiles - and to learning how to target them successfully, without spending a disproportionate amount of time and money to do so.

Perceived wisdom - and the message from increasingly wealthy programmers - was that to build a meaningful database, you needed to start from scratch, costly in terms of time and budget. APT Solutions, established 1988, has been able to change that perception through lateral thinking, and 'open systems' able to work with a range of operating systems, databases and computer hardware. An accounting package was the first to be developed, but they soon spotted another market niche - the need for a good contact management and membership system which could be easily adapted for a range of customers.

"The Stratum system is essentially a package with the provision to adapt to a very broad range of variations within the program," explains Roger Bourdon, Commercial Director "Previously most membership databases had been designed from scratch. We came to the market selling a product which just needed personal modifications - a much more cost effective alternative." The initial specifications for the membership system came about as a result of collaboration with the National Union of Teachers.

"Once we'd established the package, we decided to think laterally, exploring other markets - and charities are a natural progression for us," Roger continues. "They need to identify potential donors and learn how and when to approach them for optimum effect. Our basic system helps them do just that. And with some of the more personal modifications, devised in consultation with the end users, they can glean information, collate it and put it to work surprisingly easily."

Taking the plunge

One of the first clients to make the leap of faith testing out the new system was Selena Featherstone, Database System Manager at the Open University. With her team in the Development Office, Selena tracks alumni from this pioneering educational establishment to help raise money for current students and ongoing special projects.

"We'd looked at a range of options available in the market, but we'd been unimpressed by the level of understanding of our particular needs," she explains.

OU Business School Voluntary Sector options

"We currently manage over 160,000 records a year which is about to rise dramatically with the addition of our MBA students onto the database - but we didn't have a limitless budget to devise our own software.

"After seeing the APT system at work, it was all we could talk about on the train journey back from their offices. The basic package was good, but the adaptations to create something absolutely perfect for our use were easy to understand and easier still to implement."

Selena can now talk to any or all of her 160,000 alumni on a personal basis, recognising personal differences and patterns of giving. "In the early days of implementation we were contacted by one of our alumni who rang to say that if he didn't receive irrelevant mailings from us, he'd become one of our most regular donors. Thanks to the stated preferences on our programmes, we don't - and he's kept his word. With more and more students ticking the boxes necessary under the Data Protection Act to request no mass mailings, we've got to get better at talking to our members and learning what hits their hot button. This programme is going to help us to do that."

Thanks to an ongoing working relationship with the OU, APT Solutions has devised a wide range of additional features, now standard on the Stratum software - a trend that looks set to continue. Features which include campaign management and reporting and the ability to track covenants, gift aid, CAF vouchers, legacy administration, payroll giving and much more.

"As we work with more and more charities, so the programme is continually evolving," Roger says. "Clients pay a regular annual licence fee which covers all their upgrade costs - the only additional charge arises when a client decides they want a completely new feature. Even then, if it's something we think will benefit other customers as an integral part of Stratum, we'll subsidise the development fees ourselves."

The OU's new MBA upload comes from an internally generated programme - but APT Solutions' experienced technical team have handled it all before. "Another common misconception is that conversions to new systems have to be time consuming and fraught with difficulty," Roger explains. "That's simply not the case. Adequate planning and real understanding of both applications won't negate problems completely, but should iron out any 99% of potential problems. And we're always on hand to deal with the other 1% should they arise.

"We recognise it's a tough world for charities out there - but we're convinced we've come up with a unique way to give them the edge they need to succeed."