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Although Billing Specialists mainly works on billing projects using major rating and billing applications, we have occasionally performed small revenue-based projects for small clients. This includes some web-site enhancements we provided for the British membership-based rail campaigning organisation Railfuture to allow new members to join online (in addition to joining by post) and for existing members to renew their membership online. This was so successful that we provided further enhancements to allow them to cost-effectively introduce the concept of 'supporters' who pay a lower rate to receive some of the campaigning literature without having to be full members. It also led to other work such as book sales, taking conference bookings and providing facilities to manage their AGM and annual elections.

This page describes how Billing Specialists pitched our ideas to Railfuture, and how we developed a series of incremental cost-effective solutions for them.

Case Study - Online membership management for Railfuture using PayPal

Need for online payments

Railfuture knew that they needed to start taking payments online as well as by cheque, but were unsure of how to go about it and how cost effective it would be, particularly as they were not aware of all of the benefits they could realise.

The reason for considering online payments was triggered by an announcment by UK banks that they would abolish cheques by 2018 (after a lot of protests this plan was eventaully dropped). This would have had a serious impact on small organisations like Railfuture, which receives almost all of its income via cheques. Some members pay their annual membership by standing order, but this causes several issues including the occasional lack of a reference to identify the member, and the need to persuade the member to contact their bank to increase the standing order amount when the annual subscription rates are increased.

Direct debits (and other forms of recurring payments such as credit cards) overcome both issues with standing orders as the collector (Railfuture would specify the reference and the amount when it is due. However, payment requests introduce a whole level of complexity around dealing with payment failures (non-current bank account or debit/credit card, and insufficient funds, for example) as well as secure storage of the bank account (or debit card or credit card) details, which can be a nightmare for a small organisation to handle. Clearly payment requests had to be ruled out.

Deciding how to collect funds

Our first piece of advice to Railfuture was not to try to take payments themselves, and not even capture all of the payment details on their web-site, but to use all an external page to capture everything and take all responsiblity. There were a few payment services that they could have used, the most well-known being PayPal, which they chose to use. An advantage of these services is that international payments can be taken (Railfuture has some international members) with no worries for the member about having to make international money transfers.


We initially set-up a very simple membership page with just a list of pricing options based on the membership types (such as adult, senior, unwaged, family and corporate). The information was taken from their latest membership form available on the web-site and also their most recent leaflet.


When the page went live it was initially kept rather low-key just in case there were problems. However, there were none, and soon after the 'Join' option was made much more obvious with a large green-coloured button that was promintent on every page of their web-site. There was a noticeable increase in the number of people joining. In fact they are now getting new members for very little effort (or cost) in signing them up. Search engines find the site, people like the aims of the organisation and join.

We are convinced that the effort of printing out a membership form, completing it, writing a cheque, writing the address on an envelope and posting it is likely to lead to many potential members changing their mind or just forgetting to do so. However, web-sites encourage impulse buying and we attribute much of Railfuture's success to that. We also believe that has led to a greater proportion of working-age people joining as many employees do things online during their lunch break.

Of course, once existing members heard about the ability to join online they started using the new facility to renew as well. It made sense as British Postal charges had recently gone up by 50% (from 34p to 50p) overnight. Unfortunately there were side effects, such as there being no place on the page to enter a membership number (new members obviously would not have one), which meant a name look-up was necessary to update the membership database. However, there was a financial downside too. When sending a cheque the member often added a donation to round it up (e.g. from £21 to £25) but there was way of doing this on the web-site page. Billing Specialists was asked to provide a facility specifically to take renewals.

We analysed the problem and suggested that the best solution was to offer a range of pre-defined donations, based on increasing the amount paid to the next multiple of £5 and then another £5 after that. At the same time we suggested giving members the chance to renew for one, two or three years, each with the donation facility on top. This was done with a two-step process of first asking the type of membership being renewed (e.g. adult, senior, unwaged, family, corporate) and then the renewal term. This then provided a pull-down list of amounts including donation.

Our proposals were agreed to and were quickly implemented - see

Once again this was introduced in a low-key way to reduce any embarrassment if there were problems. If people enquired whether it was possible to renew online they were directed to the web-site page. After a few months the membership renewal reminder issued with their quarterly magazine Railwatch was changed to provide a link to the web-site. Take-up was substantial. Within the first year around 10% of members had renewed online. Actually, because life-members never renew and others had standing orders, online renewals actually represented about 15% of payments received.

We did not go back and change the join page to include the multi-zear and donation options for brand new members because it did not make sense. If they do not know what the organisation is like they would not want to sign up for more than one year or give a donation.

Online payments bring added benefits to small voluntary organisations like Railfuture where there is no office, no paid workforce and volunteers scattered around the country. Cheque payments present a business continuity risk - what happens if the volunteer dies, goes into hospital or just cannot pay in cheques for some reason? PayPal allows several people to manage the funds.

Commission charges

As a non-profit-making organisation Railfuture gets free banking so that it costs nothing to pay in a cheque. However, PayPal charges represent a financial hit. As people would save money on a postage stamp rates could be increased slghtly for online payments, but the lack of a common price might confuse people and could increase complexity in adverts. It was considered inappropriate to pass on coimmisson costs to members.

So they were reluctant to encourage people to pay online, but Billing Specialists explained to them the added value of members visiting the web-site, which the payment of subscriptions would trigger. By visiting the web-site members can see what the organisation is doing - how active it is and this can encourage them to remain a member (so called brand loyalty). Moreover, there are opportunities for cross selling. The Railfuture web-site now allows people (anyone, not just members) to buy books at a discount and members to join the monthly lottery, profits from which help to fund Railfuture's campaigning.

We have looked at other service providers that charge lower commission than PayPal. Whilst this would represent a saving, especially as more people spend on the web-site, there are often downsides as well. We investigated CardSave (a division of WorldPay) for them. Their commission was lower but they charged a fee of £25 for any request for a refund. Clearly this was a substantial risk where Railfuture was reliant on an external party and its margin was very small (such as on discounted books). However, with several years' worth of sales data there have been no refunds on membership fees, other than where the user has accidentally submitted the PayPal page twice. Our advice has been to mix-and-match, with the high-risk sales remaining on PayPal and the low-risk ones moving to CardSave. Because of the PayPal tiered commission rates, however, we warned them that commission payments could go up if they lowered their sales volumes by using multiple service providers. There will obviously need to be some re-work to the web-site if the payment service provider is changed. We have left it to our client to decide how to proceed.

Time-based sales

Taking membership payments online is relatively easy because the sales item is configured once and stays for a long time. However, Railfuture also organises two national rail conferences at prestigious venues each year, which are operated on a cost-neutral basis. To increase the number of attendees (essential to cover the room hire costs) online registration was deemed vital.

Billing Specialists has provided a solution for Railfuture - see their conferences page. Each conference has a life cycle as this is configured on the web-site:

  1. Conference announced - provisional date and town/city for people to put into their diary
  2. Conference venue booked - date and town/city confirmed but finances still being worked on so conference fee not decided
  3. Conference bookings open - early bird rate available for members; full rate for non-members
  4. Conference bookings open - early bird rate over - full rate for members and non-members
  5. Conference imminent - bookings being taken but catering figures have been finalised so lunch fee will be refunded if not available
  6. Conference over - no bookings possible

There are three life-cycle stages where bookings are being taken, and differential pricing is used effectively. Railfuture has found that around 50% of attendees are now registering (i.e. paying) online, and there has been a marked increase in the number of attendees at some conferences.

Key Points

The key thing for any organisaiton is getting PayPal (or an equivalent) set-up and linked to their bank account. PayPal has to be satisfied about the organisation's legitimacy - PayPal is a like a bank account so they do money laundering checks.

Once an organisation has a PayPal account then people could actually pay directly into that account simply by using the e-mail address associated with it – i.e. they do this on the PayPal web-site and do not need to go via the organisation's web-site at all. The disadvantage here is that they can send any amount and they might not give a very useful description of what they are paying for.

PayPal allows 'buttons' to be configured to define items being sold. These are a bit like colour and style variants of a product rather than a range of products. PayPal allows up to 10 items for one button, which should be enough for single-purpose sales.

When you set-up the button in PayPal it will give you sample code to paste into a page on the web-site - it's that easy, so you do not need a lot of technical expertise.

All of the purchasing details are entered on the PayPal web-site page. The organisation has no visibility of what the purchaser does there; they simply get an e-mail with the sales info from their PayPal button (e.g. item name, price) plus all of the details the purchaser completed (name. address, etc.) when they have made a payment. The organisation cannot see any of their credit/debit card details; hence the purchaser would be protected from misuse by the organisation. However, it also means that the web-site has no record of what has been done, or if the purchase cancelled the PayPal page.

The maintenance overhead on the web-site is that the list of drop-down options has to precisely match the PayPal button, so if prices change then a change is required to both the web-site and PayPal configuration.

As well as the email confirmation the organisation would be able to log into their account to see all of their transactions and download a spread-sheet of all transactions for a specified period (it can provide up to a year’s worth).

Billing Specialists is willing to provide a quote for membership facilities for similar small organisations such as Rail User Groups - please use the e-mail address shown below.

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