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Nonprofits adopting technology to keep up

Tools help groups raise money, communicate

4:30 am, December 3, 2012

crains-2.pngThe Cleveland Museum of Art has doubled its membership since embracing an online giving portal.

The Cleveland Clinic has implemented a text-to-pledge program at its HeartThrob Ball to raise funds for its Children’s Hospital.

The Community Foundation of Lorain County has streamlined all of its board functions and now communicates with its 20 trustees through an online portal. 

And the United Way of Summit County now promotes the 200-some daily volunteer opportunities among its 125 agencies through a new online search tool on its website. 

Nonprofits might not boast the most tech-savvy legacy, but these Northeast Ohio organizations are among a growing number that are believers when it comes to the power of the portal, the cloud and other worldly sounding platforms used to interact with donors, volunteers and board members. 

“Everybody knows they should be using more technology to do the kinds of interactions with volunteers, and donors and board members, but it’s a tough position for many nonprofits,” said Robert Fischer, director of the master of nonprofit organizations degree at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. 

The “generational nature of technology” coupled with the fact that most nonprofits communicate with a diverse population means they simply can’t abandon tried-and-true practices, Dr. Fischer said. 

“We are dealing with four generations of individuals and each has a different tolerance and preference for technology, messaging format and how stories are told,” said Brian Frederick, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Lorain County, which manages 530 funds. 

“Anybody in communications or marketing right now has a really challenging job of how you do that and with the marketing budgets most nonprofits have,” he said. 

The secret sauce 

That said, two Cleveland companies — Big River and StreamLink Software — are making compelling cases for nonprofits to take the interactive leap. 

Ron Cass, founder and president of Big River, which last month received a $250,000 investment commitment from JumpStart Inc., said his online fundraising platform for nonprofit organizations focuses on building relationships. 

“That’s our secret sauce, so to speak,” said Mr. Cass, a perennial entrepreneur and volunteer board member for educational nonprofits over the years. 

“The closer an organization can get to connecting that donor emotionally and intellectually to what their dollar does will make them more successful,” he said. “What you are allowing a donor to do then is become a part of the mission. They are not giving money; they are taking action. That is an emotionally satisfying experience, and we enable organizations to add that ability to their online presence immediately.” 

Mr. Cass said Big River helps nonprofits increase online giving by delivering the most effective appeal to the potential donor at the right time. The software supports all donor transactions, including events, recurring giving, sponsorships and special campaigns. 

Offering a different type of support is BoardMax, an online board management portal from StreamLink Software. It’s an interactive tech favorite at the Community Foundation of Lorain County and nearly 200 other organizations throughout Northeast Ohio and nationally. 

“BoardMax is a tool that helps the nonprofits communicate and collaborate more effectively with their board members and committee members,” said Kevin French, a product director for StreamLink Software, which also has developed a grant management platform called AmpliFund. 

Mr. French said the pricing structure of BoardMax is designed specifically for nonprofits and based primarily on the organization’s operating budget. 

The Community Foundation was one of the first adopters of BoardMax in 2010. 

“About 40% of our members bring laptops or iPads to the board meetings to look at documentation instead of bringing a printed-out board packet,” said Mr. Frederick, the president and CEO. “It has fundamentally changed how we communicate with the board, and it has put a lot of responsibility back on the board members but it has done it in a very efficient way.”

Technology at work 

Since adopting the technologies of Big River and StreamLink, the Cleveland Museum of Art has been able to double its membership, increase online giving and reduce staff time and costs associated with communication with its board. 

“BoardMax enables us to keeps the communication lines open 24/7 with our board and keep our trustees up to date with things that are going on here at the museum in real time,” said August Napoli, the museum’s deputy director and chief advancement officer, of the software the museum has been using since January. 

Big River’s web-based tool, meanwhile, allows museum staff to spend less time processing data. 

“Because (the Cleveland Museum of Art is) free and open to the public, membership is an act of philanthropy,” Mr. Napoli added. “The use of technology has really revolutionized our ability to quickly process these transactions and free up the fundraising professional to focus on relationship development.” 

At the United Way of Summit County, a website addition this March made all volunteer opportunities searchable in one location, said Michael Gaffney, vice president of marketing and communications for the organization. 

The virtual change has reduced the amount of time to connect an individual with an appropriate volunteer interest from a “week to two weeks down to what could be a couple of hours or a couple of days,” said Andrea Metzler, director of volunteer services. 

“Really the best part is that they are able to create a profile for themselves with their interests and their availability which is huge for most people that are trying to fit these opportunities into their daily lives,” she said. “Then the system will email them if a new opportunity becomes available that fits their profile.”

Convenience nothing to LOL at 

Ease of use, especially in terms of donor transactions, is critical for nonprofit relations, said Big River’s Mr. Cass. 

“The way I look at it, many organizations have not been benefiting from the last 17 years of e-commerce,” he said. “Best practices have emerged, tools have emerged and platforms emerged, and a lot of that is unavailable to the nonprofits.” 

It doesn’t get easier than texting a monetary gift. This year, the Cleveland Clinic raised more than $94,000 through its mobile fundraising text-to-pledge program during its Children’s Hospital HeartThrob Ball, said Bridget Andrews, director of annual and special giving. 

“It’s been so successful because during the event people hear all the great stories about the children … and they are inspired to give,” she said. “Once they make that pledge at the event, we’re able to follow up … through email and fulfill that pledge afterward.” 

That’s not the only high-tech, heartstring-pulling employed by the Clinic. Since June 2011, 61 patients have created online personal fundraising pages, raising nearly $200,000 for the institution. 

“Our patients are able to tell their story about their Cleveland Clinic experience, upload photos and invite family, friends and coworkers to join them in supporting their particular Cleveland Clinic cause,” she said.

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