Modernizing gift processing with automation

Mary  Ehart of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is talking about "Moving Your Gift Processing Operations into the 21st Century." Moving into the 21st century is not just about technology, but also training and capabilities. Often it's chief development officers who are dragging their operations shops into the 21st century.

Five years ago, CHOP did 45,000 gift processing transactions per year, all fully manual. Now, they handle 108,000 transactions per year, and 75% are automated. This change was driven by an internal audit, an increased volume of gifts due to a campaign and big event gift processing being pulled in-house. At the same time, finance was doing a project to clean up their funds. 

The game changers they faced were a focus on online giving and a focus on new donor acquisition. They decided to outsource their web hosting and their direct mail processing.

When they began their project, their staff was focused on accurate keystrokes. They were distanced from the technology in place and were apprehensive about new technology and processes. It's important to assess whether your staff will be able to come up to speed with training, or whether they are "just not that into it." Gift processors want to know what to expect -- now, and in the future.  At the same time, CHOP's training program was focused on hind-sight problem-solving and corrections.

CHOP also assessed the physical size of the office, and equipment needs and capacity.
They prepared for the change by being transparent with staff, so that they wouldn't hear things like "automation"and "high volume" in the hallway. They communicated early, even when they didn't have full information about what was going to happen.

They held team meetings to discuss lockboxes, scanning gifts for an audit trail, and more imports and less hands-on data entry (this was a source of nervousness). They also made it clear that roles and job descriptions would change.

They chose their technology by going through an RFP process. Document why you chose the vendor that you chose. When looking at online providers, they looked at two primary factors: the user interface and how the back-end integration would work.

They also chose a scanning system, so that checks and other documentation are attached directly to the gift. They do not retain paper copies, unless it's for a major donor or board member.

The chose to outsource their direct mail gift processing. They made the business case for this by looking at metrics for their shop. They tracked batch entry over six months and extrapolated how many additional staff they would need based on their projected increases in giving. CHOP worked with their outsourced vendor to devise work flows and exception processes. CHOP reviews the exceptions and does some spot-checking, but they do not review every gift. This outsourcing reduced their turnaround time from 2 weeks to 1 - 2 days.

When implementing this kind of change, go for some easy wins. They created a temporary fund to deposit checks while waiting for a fund to be created. They prioritized entering and receipting large gifts. They also started opening all mail at the front desk -- sometimes checks would sit for weeks because the mail had been addressed to someone who was on vacation.

Another tip is to work with your vendors. CHOP's IT was very busy, and they were able to have vendors program solutions for them instead, while meeting the standards of in-house IT.

CHOP was able to move from five temps and five full-time processors, and all staff (including the Executive Director) had to pitch in and enter gifts to keep up with the volume. Due to automation, they've been able to eliminate the temps. They did hire an import processing coordinator.

They also created a new quality assurance position. They revised all job descriptions and actually bumped everyone up a level, so raises helped ease the stress of change.  As well, they reassessed one job description to create a director of gift administration, who works with finance on fund issues.

CHOP implemented an incentive program for their staff based on quantity, accuracy and difficulty. Staff can earn up to $500, and earn points on a weekly basis. This proved to be motivational.

To sustain a change like this, establish policies and procedures; ensure staff are aware of the big picture; and work closely with finance. Use incremental improvement to continually refine your processes. Consider doing an external audit to ensure you are meeting best practices, staffing is adequate, staff deployment is correct, and you are ready for your next campaign.

Final lessons:
It's not only about gift processing -- you need to work with many different staff at your institution.
Always look ahead -- know the plans and think ahead to meet new needs. Get buy in along the way.
Provide continuity -- show the roadmap and continually improve.
Automation will provide consistency to narrow the margin of error.
Analyze -- make a good business case for automation. Know your numbers.
Automation does not necessarily mean fewer staff, if your processing volume is increasing at the same time.
Figure out the competencies that you need.