Taking it to scale

American Cancer Society uses new technologies to serve constituents.

By Ret Boney

Preventing, curing and treating cancer, as well as educating the public about the disease and its causes, is the goal of the American Cancer Society, and technology is a big part of making all that happen.

“In the 93-year history of the Society, technology has been employed as it becomes available to further our mission,” says Rob Mitchell, the group’s chief development officer.  “What’s happened recently is that the types of tools have expanded dramatically.”

Given those new technologies, and an American public that is increasingly Internet-savvy and wired to the web, the Society now is seizing the opportunity to get closer to its constituents.

Mitchell, who also serves as president of the American Cancer Society Foundation, says that pertains to donors as well.

Managing constituents

About six years ago, the Society converted from a home-grown donor-information system to a web-based constituent-relationship-management platform.

That system, which is managed at the national level, contains more than 50 million names from the group’s 4,600 local divisions, each of which taps into the database through the Internet.

About 8 million people donate to the organization annually, and Mitchell expects to exceed $1 billion in contributions for the first time this year, virtually all of it from local offices.

Much of the Society’s fundraising growth is from online giving, which Mitchell says is growing at about 100 percent a year.

Relay for Life, the group’s premier fundraising event, raises more than $40 million online, he says, with seven in 10 online donors new to the organization.

With the system in place, Mitchell’s group is preparing to launch a “constituent care plan” next year that eventually will include everyone in the database.

That plan will allow the Society to determine whether constituents want to be contacted by regular mail or email, what kinds of information they want, and how they would like to be contacted for additional gifts, Mitchell says.

“The system allows us to collect information in more accurate and timely ways about our supporters so we can care for them appropriately,” says Mitchell.  “We hope to treat our donors, volunteers and advocates all across the country the way they would like to be treated.”

That focus on the individual extends to all the organization’s contacts with its constituents, whether they are patients, survivors, supporters, doctors, advocates or a combination of some or all of those.

“Our number-one focus is user experience design,” says Adam Pellegrini, strategic director of online for the Society.  “There’s a transformation occurring where we want to focus on the needs of the users, not just the needs of the organization.”

Web redesign

That means a complete phased-in redesign of the organization’s national website, which serves all local offices and receives two million visitors each month, constituting eight million page-views, almost double the traffic this time last year.

With the redesign, Pellegrini aims to increase the level of personalization, localization and customization users have come to expect from sites like MySpace.com and My.Yahoo.com that allow visitors to design experiences to fit their own needs.

“It recognizes that our constituents are more than one thing,” says Dave Ragals, director of web marketing.  “It recognizes the crossover and finds information that is relevant to them in multiple ways.”

About nine in 10 of the Society’s constituents have high-speed Internet access, says Pellegrini, allowing, them to take advantage of new features.

That includes training and promotional videos, interactive cancer-prevention features, e-communities that connect people with similar interests and “portals” constituents create with the information they care about.

“We’re putting the power of our web application into the hands of our users,” he says.  “There is a significant demand for localization.  People want to get involved but they want to have a local impact.”

To facilitate that, the Society has launched a mobile version of its website that provides highly-localized information formatted for hand-held devices like cell phones and palm pilots.

The mobile site helps people find cancer resources in local communities using the national organization’s database, which can provide information like the nearest hospital, volunteer groups or support organizations based on zip code.

Marketing opportunities

The Society also is taking advantage of new marketing opportunities presented by the web.

“We are looking at what is the highest return on investment from a mission-support standpoint,” meaning fundraising, says Pellegrini, “and from a mission-delivery standpoint, like helping someone stop smoking.”

One way to do that is through search-engine optimization, which means increasing the likelihood your site will appear in response to specific search criteria.

Another is search-engine marketing, or paying to receive a high and prominent listing among search results.

These latest efforts are aimed at helping constituents understand, prevent, battle and survive cancer, but catering to the user benefits the Society as well, says Ragals.

“We know that if we continue to provide a greater user experience, (constituents) will be more successful in accomplishing their goals,” says Ragals.  “If they are happy, they will come back, refer a friend and make more donations.”

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