Red Cross looking to beef up CRM system

The jump in e-mail traffic to The American National Red Cross after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States has underscored the agency’s need to roll out an enterprise-wide customer relationship management (CRM) system.

Phil Zepeda, director of online media at the Washington-based Red Cross, said e-mail contacts jumped from about 2,000 a month to 31,000 per month, something the response system from CRM software company Talisma Corp. wasn’t built to handle.

“No one anticipated this,” he said. “We didn’t need an enterprise-wide system when we got the Talisma system.”

Although Kirkland, Wash.-based Talisma has offered strong support through the current crisis, at little additional cost, the Red Cross is now trying to figure out how to launch a robust enterprise-wide system that could interface with corporate sponsors and help coordinate donation and marketing campaigns.

The nonprofit agency currently uses different systems to handle various campaigns, such as fundraising or development drives. A new enterprise system could potentially allow data to be shared between different departments of the organization “so that people wouldn’t just be working in a silo,” said Zepeda.

The need is for a scalable application that would be “flexible and adaptable tomorrow and next week and down the road and into the future,” he said, adding that budget considerations would push the roll out of any new system to sometime next year.

“It’s a high priority, but it’s just a matter of where the organization’s priorities lie,” Zepeda said. “We’re a relief organization and sometimes our dollars are better spent in providing direct service to those who need it.”

The Red Cross is just one of a number of nonprofit organizations looking to use CRM systems to get the most out of their donor base and serve their constituents more effectively.

No matter what the event – product recall, service outage or a national emergency – the ability to provide on-demand information to customers is a competitive necessity, said Erin Kinikin, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

“Imagine the value of making blood-donation appointments online instead of being overwhelmed by a flood of well-intentioned donors,” Kinikin said. A self-service system offers more than just cost savings by eliminating manual intervention; it could also allow for a quick response to the public around the clock, Kinikin added.

The Red Cross and organizations like it have been awakening to the need to maintain ongoing recruitment and retention efforts for volunteers and workers.

“The Red Cross has a statistic: If you haven’t donated blood by your early 20s, you probably never will,” said Kinikin. “So establishing relationships with the right youth organizations and keeping in touch can be critical for the survival of their organizations.”

One user already employing fairly sophisticated CRM applications for fundraising is the Austin, Tex.-based radio station KUT-FM, a National Public Radio affiliate at the University of Texas at Austin. For the past six months, the station has used a system from CRM software vendor Convio Inc., also based in Austin, to handle Web content publishing and e-mail and newsletter operations, said General Manager Stewart Vanderwilt.

Prior to the rollout of that system, users had to download and print contribution forms; now they can make their pledges directly online and the system will immediately send out a “thank you” e-mail, he said.

The Convio software, which cost less than US$25,000, has already made a financial difference. When KUT-FM ceased publishing its newsletter on paper and went to a Web-based format, it saved an estimated US$80,000 a year. A recent multichannel fundraising drive received donations of US$650,000, with almost US$100,000 coming from online donors.