In this chapter we shall:
Examples of websites are scattered throughout this chapter in order to help a reader learn more. Companies and their websites change rapidly. These examples are not recommendations and interested readers should use the web addresses as a starting point for their on-line research
Information technology has been rising in popularity – it’s the “very thing” these days. The marked rise in the popularity of everything to do with the internet has accompanied a rise in software, hardware and other related technologies’ trendiness. Technology is more understandable and more personal than ever before. Journalists are using technology for their daily work. Journalists are writing about the businesses that make the technology they use. These businesses are ‘good copy’; fortunes are made; fortunes are lost. Floods of advertising accompany each business launch, further increasing the interest in technology. People are discussing technology around water coolers, at dinner parties or in the pub. It seems that everything to do with inter-connecting technologies is being pre-fixed with “e”. There is a sense of expectation.
If you can imagine “e” in everything you do, you can probably conceive of some practical, significant advances. Try and imagine e-verything your not-for-profit organisation does being inter-connected – fundraising, word processing, personnel, charitable information, stocks and legacies. Imagine everyone you deal with is inter-connected – donors, beneficiaries, regulators, consumers, suppliers and trustees. In some ways, this inter-connected world is frightening to established ways of working. Financial analysts find that many individual shareholders already know more than they do about key companies. Civil servants find that many ordinary citizens know more than they do about planning applications, public health programmes or environmental issues. But in other ways this inter-connected world is liberating. You do not need to provide the same information repeatedly; machines can do this for you. You do not need advisors who merely provide you with access to basic sources; you can search for what you need. You can gather the information you require to effect change. You can speed up the process of change by getting the right information to the right person in the right place much closer to the right time.
However, e-verything as a thought experiment also raises valid questions. Is this inter-connected world around the corner for not-for-profit organisations? 10 years away? 20? Is this inter-connected world going to be too complex or too confusing? What happens to individual rights, to privacy, to legal and regulatory boundaries? What do we do if these systems break down?
Looking ahead within the foreseeable future for not-for-profit organisations, let’s examine just three aspects of “e-verything”:
E-commerce is using the internet to sell. There are a host of good examples of using the internet to sell, from software to books to automobiles. There is a strong distinction between the B2C (business-to-consumer) sale and the B2B (business-to-business) sale. While B2C is a reasonably large and growing market, B2B is predicted to be ten times as large and is rapidly growing.
The best way to learn about B2C e-commerce is to buy things personally over the web. A good, straightforward B2C example is one of the early leaders, www.amazon.com (or www.amazon.co.uk). For example, buy another copy of this book for a friend using e-commerce. Notice the quick load times (comparatively at least), the search facilities, the linked recommendations, the ability to record possible future purchases, e-mail confirmations, gift tokens, category browsing, one-click buying, order tracking and even auctions. There are a host of other sites which you can browse – try www.ebay.com for auctions, www.letsbuyit.com for reverse auctions, www.smartshop.com for price searching, www.schwab.com (or www.schwab-europe.com) for shares or www.expedia.com for airline tickets.
Many of the same design issues apply to B2B transactions. However, B2B is more complicated because organisations are, when you think about it, more diverse than people. There are dormant businesses, sole traders, one-site organisations, multi-office organisations, multi-national organisations, group companies, etc. Businesses have more payment mechanisms available than individuals, not just credit cards but all forms of bank payment. The early leaders in B2B sales have typically sold something which a wide range of businesses buy in a similar way, e.g. stationery. However, newer markets are proliferating at such a rate that over-supply may well be a problem. With so many ways of selling, how can you choose what to use?
Different not-for-profit organisations can use e-commerce in many different ways. A good starting point is to look at your website from the point of view of a quick visitor. Can they easily find the information they need to make a donation or buy goods in a traditional way, e.g. over the phone or by post? Can they download some forms for post or fax? Can they send you an e-mail with some obvious fields filled-in, e.g. to whom, subject, terms and conditions? Getting the basics right is often all that’s needed, especially for a small not-for-profit organisation. After the easy basics are done, you can consider moving to full e-commerce. Online donation is an obvious start. Another possibility is having promotional goods online, relevant books or relevant goods for beneficiaries. Yet more possibilities include full relationship management, accounts for donors and beneficiaries, dynamically tailored and delivered information, transaction histories for everyone on what the relationship has been.
There is a big jump in e-commerce from letting people know that you have things and facilitating their orders to doing everything automatically online. There is also a big jump in technical complexity. Full e-commerce requires an understanding of how to run an online application for anyone on the web, keeping your server running, handling your own databases of stocks and orders, handling payments, monitoring shipments, etc. There are a number of application service providers (ASPs - see later in this section) which can simplify this, but often full e-commerce is unnecessary.
One small religious charity we advised wished to sell books online. Given the likely scale of sales we pointed out that a relationship programme with a large online bookseller would give their potential customers all the service customers could expect from the charity while providing similar income levels at much less technical and commercial risk. All the charity had to do was to add referral links to their site. For another small not-for-profit organisation, we pointed out the possibility of selling some of their used furniture via a recycling site. A complete discussion of e-commerce is beyond this chapter, but there is a tremendous amount of information available on the web using search tools.
E-procurement is the use of the Internet for purchasing. Having obtained Internet access, many not-for-profit organisations ignore some quick gains to be made by using the Internet for purchasing. There are a number of ways of categorising on-line markets. One categorisation is:
Between the buyers and sellers on the internet, there are a few distinctions worth mentioning:
Again, as in many things on the internet, reading is a poor substitute for exploration. For many small not-for-profit organisations, the benefits of e-procurement are not just more competitive prices. For instance, paperwork can be reduced, costs can be benchmarked, deliveries can be tracked. A simple example is stationery. Many online stationery providers permit even small users to set up budgets for categories of goods or their internal departments, develop a standard mini-catalogue of their own, provide for online secondary authorisation, obtain very detailed statistics on purchases, track deliveries, establish re-order limits and achieve bulk discounts over time. The technical knowledge needed for supplier-supported e-procurement is simply how to use a web browser. Stationery and IT purchases are, at the time of writing, the two biggest B2B categories. It’s easy to get started, because the supplier is doing all the hard work. It can even be fun.
For your not-for-profit organisations, another simple test is to look at your web site from the point of view of a prospective supplier:
Not-for-profit organisations can also publish statements of their policies (e.g. opposition to child labour, environmental requirements, equal opportunities), procedures for registering suppliers or application forms for prospective suppliers. None of this requires technical work, simply web publishing.
For large not-for-profit organisations, e-procurement can be more complex. Linking an ERP (enterprise resource planning) package to dynamic purchase ordering, good receipt, stocks, and so on through to invoicing is quite tricky. Few large companies have sorted this out, yet alone not-for-profit organisations. It is likely that some of the larger not-for-profit organisations, particularly those operating internationally, could use automated procurement systems for large or important purchases in a few categories, perhaps furniture, air travel, computers or healthcare. Not-for-profit organisations are so diverse it is hard to provide standard recommendations.
The high costs and complexity of IT have led some suppliers to provide common services to a range of organisations. Over the years, these suppliers have had various descriptions, computer bureaux, facilities management suppliers or outsourcers. Some fine distinctions have been made in this lineage (e.g. whether or not the clients own the computers which facilities managers run), but the basic premise is the same – sharing your IT needs with other users. The Internet has added a new description, Application Service Provider (ASP).
In some ways ASPs are more exciting than outsourcers. The common browser interface and the simplicity of inter-connection enable ASPs to provide specific services. Contrast this with an outsourcer who, in order to have a commercial proposition, would typically need a large chunk of computing to manage, e.g. all the desktops, or all the servers and applications, or the entire network (see chapter 19). ASPs are available for a variety of tasks:
ASP examples are legion – financial modelling, web site construction, search engines, data storage and backup, wireless connections, online research, translation software or online diaries. There are even some emerging ASPs which permit unused home computer time to be co-ordinated for advanced research in bio-informatics (folding@home) or the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI@home). These projects are, of course, large-scale not-for-profit volunteering activities. Anything which can be delivered across the net is a potential ASP service. Many small organisations are building entire web-delivery capability with nothing more than access to a personal computer and a dial-up line to the internet.
One extreme example is a small cosmetics firm we know who outsources everything. The chief executive began by designing some insect-repellent scents and outsourced production of the scents and cosmetics to larger firms. She then used her husband’s PC to use an ASP for building and hosting a free website. Having built the website, she used connections to other ASPs for site tracking, shopping trolleys, ordering and billing. Finally, she outsourced her warehousing and shipping to a firm which receives its instructions by e-mail from her billing ASP. She spends most of her time on traditional PR and promotion while the automated parts of the business are provided by others.
While ASPs are an exciting development, they have many different commercial objectives. Some ASPs are trying to build pay-as-you-go services, others are based on the Internet “shareware ethos”, others still are trying to make money on advertising or research from their users, while many others are free in the early stages but hope to charge later. Assume you won’t get something for nothing, at least in the long-term, so most not-for-profit organisations should consider how using the ASP will help them (and also how their business will help the ASP) before designing their web strategy around an ASP. ASPs are certainly useful at the fringe, for instance trying out an advanced search capability on your site before purchasing a search engine. ASPs can be useful for the savvy user who is prepared to continue to put in work keeping up with the latest offerings. After all, most ASPs are invisible to your site visitor, so changing ASP from time-to-time shouldn’t be too noticeable.
As with e-verything else, ASPs are evolving so rapidly that the best advice is to use the web to do your research (try starting with www.aspnews.com).
To conclude this chapter, a few random ideas to jolt the imagination. Too often not-for-profit organisations believe that technical complexity prevents them having imaginative sites. One of the earlier, creative uses of the web was Friends of the Earth’s polluter databases and maps (www.foe.co.uk). This was simple and effective. If you are a small not-for-profit organisation with interesting information to hand, web publishing/searching/mapping it is not too difficult. Getting started with a web developer or programmer can often be kept within reasonable bounds to try out an idea. From there, popularity can determine whether future benefits exceed further development costs. Consider linking popular books around your cause to online bookstores. Consider posting form letters for sending to the appropriate politicians. Ensure you have a “popular links” page out from your site. Extract key news stories about your cause for referencing. Consider using chat rooms for donors and beneficiaries. Allow people to register for e-mail newsletters. Provide calculators for environmental damage costs or benefits owed. Allow activists to register and manage fundraising projects online. Help people support beneficiaries with letters or “adopt” an issue. Contemplate doing anything you do today on the internet. Imagine solving your most intractable problem through creative use of the web, then perhaps help other not-for-profit organisations solve it too through your own ASP!