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Christmas charity appeal increases donations with cloud-based comms

St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity is using a pop-up cloud contact centre from supplier Sesui to help run its annual Christmas appeal in partnership with the BBC

For many BBC Radio 4 listeners, the St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity Christmas Appeal, which has been associated with the BBC since the 1920s, has become as much a part of the Christmas schedule as Carols From King’s or repeats of Morecambe and Wise and Only Fools and Horses.

In the last two years alone, listeners have helped raise more than £5m to help the organisation support homeless and vulnerably housed people, with donations shared between The Connection, St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity’s 24-hour support centre next to its world famous Trafalgar Square church, and the Vicar’s Relief Fund, which offers one-off grants to help people back into housing, or to pay off rent arrears to save them from eviction.

At Christmas, this need always becomes even more acute, but with homelessness across the UK more than doubling since 2010 following almost a decade of government austerity, the charity’s work has become even more important, and it has had to redouble its fundraising efforts.

In this light, the importance of its Christmas appeal is paramount. With its switchboards run by a staff of volunteers and BBC presenters – well-known voices including PM’s Evan Davis and Woman’s Hour’s Jenni Murray are regular participants – the appeal, which launched this year on Sunday 2 December, takes thousands of calls from listeners every year.

Also, while St Martin-in-the-Fields has branched out into accepting donations online, the demographics of Radio 4 listeners tend towards people who prefer to make a connection over the phone and talk to a real person – with the thought that they may get to talk briefly with their favourite radio presenters clearly driving many to pick up the phone.

Therefore, with every dropped or lost caller meaning a potential lost donation, the importance of a robust communications and contact centre infrastructure is obvious. However, with a bare minimum of staff and no real IT estate or expertise to speak of, for St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity director Tim Bissett, this is something of a challenge.

“We’re a very small charity – there are just three of us – so a challenge for us is to be able to scale up and run a national appeal like this in partnership with the BBC,” he tells Computer Weekly.

“We need supplier partners to enable us to do that, so we are reliant on a group of suppliers who we look to work with, very much in tandem together, to deliver the whole solution.”

For the past nine years, this has included Sesui, an Oxford-based supplier of communications – latterly cloud communications – services with a longstanding focus on healthcare and charity customers. The charity is now using the firm’s Pop Up Connect cloud contact centre service, a ready-made cloud contact centre to support one-off events or campaigns for charities and non-profits, which was developed entirely in the UK to support one-off events and campaigns exactly like this Christmas appeal.

It works by pointing fundraising telephone numbers to the Sesui cloud, and then delivering calls to volunteers who, for the peak period of the appeal, are mostly hosted around the corner from St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity in office space donated by an HR firm, with overflow to a third-party call centre in Cornwall.

Read more about IT for charity organisations

“A problem we have is that a radio appeal of this nature is very spiky in terms of call volumes,” says Bissett. “If a piece goes out on Radio 4 with a call to action in it, we get very rapid peaks of demand, so what we need is a system that can scale quickly, handle multiple calls in through our 0800 number, and hold them for as little time as possible before they get to an operator.

“We obviously want as many people speaking to our Radio 4 presenters as possible, but we also have to overflow so that people don’t hang up. We want our volumes to be busy, but we don’t want to miss calls either, and a big part of the growth of the appeal is that [Sesui] devised a system that could do just that.”

Effectively, this means that St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity can operate a fully compliant cloud contact centre without needing to locate physical equipment or seat volunteers at its extremely constrained site.

“For nine years, we have applied our pop-up contact centre approach, so that BBC presenters, celebrities and volunteers can take over an everyday office building in central London to receive calls from Radio 4 listeners,” says Sesui CTO Manveer Mangat. “It’s not a dedicated contact centre, but for one day each year we are able to make it one, in order to get those calls answered.”

Also, this year Sesui is experimenting with routing some calls to its Oxford headquarters, where a number of volunteers have taken over part of the office.

“We are throwing open our doors on the Oxford Science Park so that volunteers can take over our office and answer even more calls,” says Mangat. “Our team will be right by their side, answering calls and hopefully helping change some lives.”

Go-anywhere nature

The go-anywhere nature of the Sesui system means that the charity may eventually be able to draw on volunteers all over the UK, routing calls wherever they are needed – something Bissett says he is keen to explore.

“What we’re aware of is that old-fashioned landlines are becoming a thing of the past, so we’ve got to find solutions that use different tech where people can maybe use their own phones and not be reliant on an office set-up,” he says.

Before Sesui came along, the donation process was mostly run through the BBC, which naturally tended to rely on big services outfits, such as Capita. However, Bissett says the charity has found that it is its volunteer switchboard that takes the most money, not paid operators.

Thanks to the powerful incentive of speaking with a celebrity, people are also more willing to wait on hold, making the appeal’s performance indicators quite different to those in a traditional volume-focused call centre.

“We know that if a caller gets through to a volunteer, they have a better experience, a nicer conversation and spend longer on the phone with people,” says Bissett. “And actually, we want that to happen.”

Record-breaking year

The evidence in favour of this approach is clear to see in the statistics. Last year, the charity took in a record-breaking £3m, with the contact centre taking more than 3,000 calls during the lifetime of the appeal. Although the number of calls has been dropping, says Bissett, the charity is finding that its volunteer-based approach means the average amount donated is rising.

The BBC Radio 4 Christmas Appeal with St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity runs through to Christmas and beyond. Donations can be made by phoning 0800 082 82 84 or online at St Martin-in-the-Fields Charity’s website

A gift of just £20 will pay for a full assessment for one rough sleeper at The Connection, while a gift of £200 will help support a homeless person back into secure housing, or pay for essential items and furniture.

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