Charity Awards 2024

Sky’s the limit: Digital technology driving income to new highs

Matt Cassini explains how Orbis's new integrated fundraising strategy is hitting new highs by embracing digital tech.

In June last year, Orbis launched the third generation of its Flying Eye Hospital – a fully equipped hospital onboard an airplane, where doctors and nurses in developing countries can get handson training in the latest ophthalmic techniques and eye surgery. Six years in the making, it presented a once-in-a decade opportunity to re-engage with our existing supporters, and inspire new supporters to donate to our work, as well as overhaul our fundraising programme.

While the plane was being fitted out, the fundraising and communications team began working hard to develop a three-year strategy to inspire and engage new supporters. We had been tasked with figuring out a way to increase the amount of unrestricted income, as well as raising the return on investment. As we had a fairly limited budget and only three or four existing routes to market, and we faced a turbulent external environment, the challenge proved to be an interesting one to say the least.

Fresh approach

Our supporter acquisition and development programme up until that point had been weighted quite heavily towards traditional channels: direct mail, inserts, some DRTV testing and occasional tests with other forms of fundraising, such as tube panels and display ads.

We decided to engage fundraising data analysis experts to work through our programme’s performance outputs and compare them to indicative returns across the sector. This external review of our activity helped hugely and spurred us to take a fresh approach. It helped us to see clearly where we should be focusing our attention to deliver the most significant benefits.

Rather than dropping channels, we began making considered marginal adjustments, such as focusing our approach on building in digital uplift mechanisms and thinking of each channel as a part of the overall mix – basically, taking a more integrated approach.

For implementation, we started applying a rigorous “test, refine, rollout” approach, working iteratively to shape our programme into a leaner, more cost-effective one, which ultimately means more supporters’ money for our services. This new approach looks set to improve the ROI of the acquisition programme from something a little under the sector average to a five-year return of around two to one by 2019.

Know your donor

As an organisation that sees cultivating open and strong relationships as one of its values, we knew it was incredibly important to put our supporters right at the centre of the strategy, so we went about adopting the same methodical approach to doing that as we did to looking at the fundraising mechanisms.

To start with, we wanted to really understand who our supporters are – without assumptions and deferring to the information we acquired. We wanted to let the data do the talking. We knew our supporters’ giving behaviour, but acknowledged that even the most generous and committed supporter only spends a small percentage of their time thinking about charity, and it only reflects a small part of who they are. We wanted to not only understand them, but also to embed this knowledge within the whole team. We wanted to know how donors spend their time; what experiences shaped their thinking and behaviours; how they interact with their family; why they give to charity and, perhaps more crucially, why they stop giving.

Throughout, it was a case of listening to the recommendations from our advisors and then shaping our strategy. These included being strategic for efficiency, conducting in-depth interviews with donors rather than focus groups, collating and refining existing datasets rather than commissioning extensive new projects, and really listening to our supporters whenever they contacted us to tell us how they felt.

Digital first

It was apparent that we needed to ensure that digital technology became an intrinsic part of everything we do. It needed to be a key element of our plans and part of our thinking right from the start, rather than “OK, we’ve planned this appeal; now, how can we add something digital to it?”.

However, our fundraising programme had a pretty limited range of digital offerings. We had dipped our toes into the water with occasional opportunistic tests, but hadn’t necessarily taken a forwardlooking approach to integrating digital tools into all of our activities.

We recruited a new digital lead who was tasked with working with the team to build an engaged online supporter base and really think about the donor journey and how best to inspire our supporters.

We brought our email lists onto our supporter database, rather than having separate datasets and started to think about how we can make the process of giving as easy as possible using all the tools available. For example, we made it simple for someone to give online no matter what type of communication they received from us – whether by post, an e-newsletter or a text message. A lot of it sounds really basic and most of it is, but as important as innovation is, executing basics to a high standard consistently is just as important and something every team can do.

The strategy really came together when we had the chance to develop a virtual tour of our unique Flying Eye Hospital. It seemed like a great opportunity to embrace our new “digital first” supporter-centric thinking, as well as a catalyst to drive internal change. Charles Mansfield-Osbourne, founder of UK-based virtual reality production company Street Visit, is a supporter of our work and offered to create the virtual tour for us to support the launch of the new plane. His company built the tour completely free of charge, investing countless hours to deliver an incredible, immersive experience.

We launched the virtual reality tour on World Sight Day on 16 October 2016, accompanied by a new email programme, online donation journey and thank-you process. Supporters can visit the website, tour the facilities and have full-immersion experience of what it is like to be on the plane. And donate, of course.

Concrete results

Three months on from that launch and it feels like we have delivered for our supporters. We have seen real, concrete evidence that our new, digitally-integrated approach is working, with some outstanding metrics. Our supporters have gone from spending an average of less than a minute on the website after receiving an email to spending nearly five minutes online.

Since the launch, more supporters than ever are choosing to make more online gifts, and online donations have more than doubled compared to the same period last year and email sign-ups are up more than three-fold.

This year we will continue to be ambitious in our approach. We are working hard to develop a new, supportercentric, fundraising-optimised, organisational website. We have seen discussions around digital tactics become one of the first points on the agenda when planning appeals. We are using digital channels as our first method for testing messaging and new activity before increasing investment across the mix.

We are confident this approach is delivering our supporters a better return on their investment, which means that we can help even more adults and children in the developing world to see again.

Matt Cassini is the interim head of individual giving at Orbis: @ukorbis