Tech Makes Donating Easier
Click & Pledge can't do anything about making potential contributors feel flush enough to make donations, but the company is using clever technology to make the process of donating to your favorite nonprofit organization or political party as fast and easy as possible -- and has made a business for itself in the process.
As the economy heads south and potential contributors worry about their own finances, everyone from schools and churches to political parties and public TV stations is concerned about their contributions drying up. In response, these organizations are trying to do everything they can to remove any barriers that might keep their donors from giving.
For more than 9,000 such organizations, that means turning to Click & Pledge. The company, founded in 2000 in rural Blacksburg, Va., took its Web-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) system live in 2002. Called Trio, it now handles millions of dollars in transactions. In fact, dollar volume has been tripling year to year, according to Kamran ("Kami") Razvan, Click & Pledge's CEO.
The idea, says Kami, is to give even smaller organizations access to powerful fund-raising technology. Using SaaS principles, Click & Pledge charges an initial fee of just $50 per component, with free hosting, free support and maintenance, and free updates. Other costs include donation fees of up to 4.5%, processing fees of $0.35 per transaction, and so on.
Beyond The Donation
Over the years, Click & Pledge has expanded its Trio service to include helping organizations sell products, create Web sites, and manage their all-important contact databases. The combination has forced the company to implement a wide range of technology solutions.
With a mix of commercial and open source development, the system includes a custom Internet credit card payment system, a Sugar CRM donor-management system, and a Joomla Web content-management system. Click & Pledge also works with Constant Contact for e-mail marketing, TransFirst for e-Payment banking services, and many others.
With all of that, however, "Our No. 1 priority is security," Kami says. The company is currently going for its PCI Level 1 certification, a process Kami describes as "excruciatingly painful."
Uptime is the No. 2 priority. "No matter what operating system people use, we have to provide uptime," Kami says. "A Web site is not a storefront," we have to have a 24/7 presence. But operating in more than 47 countries and accepting some 35 different currencies presents a constant string of availability challenges.
"The average user has no idea why it doesn't work," Kami says. "It worked yesterday, they say, 'and all I did was...' "
Worse, "people's expectations don't match their level of expertise and understanding. They want the Web to work like their desktop applications." To try and meet those expectations, Click & Pledge last year began moving away from static Web pages to take advantage of Ajax technology, but it proved quite challenging to provide compatibility on all possible platforms and browsers. "By the time we test something and make sure it works, it's obsolete," Kami says. As soon as Click & Pledge was able to be compatible with all the current browsers, for example, Internet Explorer 8 came out, Kami complains.
Bank of America can tell users their system supports only IE 6 or IE 7, Kami says. "I don't have that luxury ... We get [customer service] calls from people using Netscape 4!"
Other tech keys for Click & Pledge's developers in Blacksburg, New York, and Washington, D.C. (the company also is opening offices in Toronto and the United Kingdom) include redundancy, availability, and backups.
Carrying The Load
As Click & Pledge's transaction volumes have soared, so also has the company's need to boost performance. "You get mathematical problems when you triple volume every year," Kami laughs. There's no way to handle it with one server in cluster mode. Click & Pledge now has its own data center, with a primarily Cisco infrastructure.
For help with performance, though, Click & Pledge turned to Coyote Point Systems. Donation traffic typically spikes on certain dates, such as Election Day or Dec. 31. You can't be down for maintenance on those days, Kami says.
Click & Pledge wanted to be able to do necessary upgrades without interrupting service. In addition, Coyote Point's compression technology processes requests and sends the request back to the user compressed, which speeds response time. "Today's browsers all do decompression in real time," Kami says, "so the user has no idea" that any of this is happening.
Similarly, Coyote Point puts the SSL certificates on the load balancer instead of the servers, making upgrades much easier. "We have 50 servers, and it's difficult to update security certificates on them all without causing problems." With the certificates on the load balancer, Kami says, "We upgraded in the middle of the day, at 12:30pm, and no one knew. One person was on the old release, and the next person was on the new one."
A Plus Side
Despite its challenges, Click & Pledge also has some advantages. Foremost, Kami says, is the fact that the company's customers typically don't require the exchange of goods. The money is sent for donations, memberships, and conference admissions, so there are no deliveries, inventory, or returns to worry about. "That makes life much easier," Kami sighs, and allows a company with just 10 full-time staffers to serve 9,000 customers.
And what does Kami predict for donations in 2009's troubled economy? "Our business is still doubling from last year," he says. But he predicts that some organizations will have trouble raising money this year, while others will do fine.
"For organizations that look only at the donors' wallet," he says, "they are seeing a decrease." But organizations that don't concentrate on the donation, but instead build relationships with donors, are likely to do better. "People give money to friends, not to people they don't know," Kami says. "Volunteers statistically donate more."
When people donate money, he adds, in return they expect you to fulfill your promise: "I take care of the homeless," for example. People have to trust that relationship, and in today's networked world, all the info on whether an organization is fulfilling its promises is very easily available. To keep donors' trust, Kami says, organizations need to say: "Don't ask me" about what we're doing. "Go ask Google."
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Fredric Paul is publisher/editor-in-chief of bMighty.com and SmallBizResource.com.