Charitable organizations are under increasing pressure from donors to balance the use of their funding between delivering directly on their objectives and covering their administrative costs. One key strategy to minimize administrative costs is to rely on a large number of volunteers.
However, given they are typically available at varying times,, their activities must be co-ordinated. This requires significant scheduling and project management effort that can both increase administrative overhead and take volunteer time away from delivering services.
The Calgary-based C.A.R.E. Society is very aware of this balancing act. As part of its fundraising efforts, during the December, 2011, holiday season, it negotiated with shopping malls to provide by-donation gift wrapping. Its success a year earlier with such a program at one mall motivated it to negotiate with two more malls last season. That required about 800 volunteers to cover three shifts a day at each mall.
Co-ordinating all those volunteers involved a lot of manual work, fielding e-mails and phone calls about shifts and availability from volunteers and putting together an electronic spreadsheet that was shared via e-mail among staff.
That would usually have been manageable but last season there was a hitch. "Our three-person staff were out of town on family emergencies or fell ill during the 2011 holiday gift-wrapping project, and the person we hired in the interim did not have previous experience running such an initiative so we were really in a predicament," recalls Irene Estay, C.A.R.E 's founder.
It thought about cancelling or scaling back the initiative for the season. Alternatively, it needed to find an innovative solution to handle scheduling that would not require the use of additional staff but could provide a "master schedule" that all staff could access at any time to ensure that each mall had the required volunteers and that the maximum amount of funds went directly to fundraising activities.
The programs run by the C.A.R.E Society were established by Dr. Estay, a psychologist specializing in rehabilitation, in 1995. They have evolved over the years to offer education through seminars, courses and workshops on self-esteem, empowerment and related topics.
Programs are designed for different specific audiences. As well, training is offered to qualified professionals looking to expand their knowledge and obtain credits through professional associations.
Like many non-profits, C.A.R.E.'s staff is kept to a minimum to keep administrative costs as low as possible; two program co-ordinators and one manager/facilitator run the entire program. Funds are limited because all programs are offered at no cost or low cost to participants, making fundraising efforts, such as the mall gift-wrapping program, important to maintaining and growing the organization.
To meet the challenge, Dafne Canales Lees, an adviser to C,A,R.E's board and founder of Spartan 6, a Calgary-based company that provides Web-based business management tools for small and medium-sized enterprises and non-profit organizations, suggested applying its skills to the challenge.
Spartan 6 created a website for C.A.R.E that provided volunteers with a Web-based, self-service tool that allowed volunteers to register themselves for shifts at each of the shopping malls. A volunteer entered in all of the shifts that needed to be filled as well as the maximum number of participants required. A calendar view allowed volunteers to choose their preferred shifts.
As well, Web-based video tutorials were made available on demand through the website to assist volunteers in the registration process; those who didn't have access to the Internet or wanted to make group bookings could phone or e-mail other volunteers or staff members, who entered them into the system directly.
This Web-based solution was deployed using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. That means C.A.R.E. does not need to maintain any IT infrastructure to support the application.
The service was established in just two weeks and then tweaked after volunteer and staff feedback over the following three weeks. While Spartan 6 was involved in developing and setting up the application, C.A.R.E. now does all of the updates to its intranet and can set up and manage its own events using the system, with additional help provided through e-mail and tutorials, as needed.
As a result of the new tool, C.A.R.E. was able to handle more than a doubling of volunteers, without adding additional staff, during a critical time when the normal contingent of experienced staff members was not available.
The online system reduced human error by consolidating the various sources of scheduling and work information into a single location, and allowed all staff to see real-time information. In fact, the program manager who was overseas at the start of the project was able to view what was occurring with registrations through the Web portal.
Instead of having to cancel or scale back the project because of staff difficulties, someone completely new was able to pick up and go from where it had been left off. In the previous year, numerous volunteers were required to field phone calls for registration, but with the new online tools this was no longer necessary and those volunteers could be directed towards core mission activities instead.
For the gift-wrapping project in 2010, approximately 284 hours of staff time were used to co-ordinate the volunteers for a single shopping mall. C.A.R.E. had expected it take three times as many hours to run the project in three malls. By automating both the registration and scheduling using the Web-based tool, the time was reduced by half.
Now the C.A.R.E Society is using the reservation system in additional ways, such as booking its workshops and seminars, which takes staff just a few minutes to set up, creating further administrative cost savings.
"This solution not only made the 2011 campaign a success, but going forward will allow the C.A.R.E. Society to expand its fundraising activities without requiring additional staff to run those projects," Dr. Estay says.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Chad Saunders is an assistant professor in the Entrepreneurship & Innovation and Strategy Areas of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
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