Hot Nonprofit Web Sites

April 15, 2006       Craig Causer      

Organizing a group of vendors willing to provide their take on what’s hot in nonprofit Web sites, without self-promotion, is always a challenge. But wait, now they actually have to say something nice about that competitor’s work.

Alert the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Leveling a measure of praise on a competitor is not an act that most online software and Internet solutions vendors are willing to stomach. A number of vendors were more tight-lipped than Barry Bonds when questioned about flaxseed oil. Others expressed discomfort with the “various factors” involved or flat out failed to return telephone calls when the project was described. One vendor agreed to participate and then mysteriously refused to return telephone calls and emails.

Vendors were not permitted to select any of their own clients’ sites. The parameters included reviewing 10 to 15 sites submitted by another vendor and from each list one site was chosen as a “hot” site, thus eliminating any self-serving selections. Five vendors stepped up to the challenge to provide their take on what’s hot in the nonprofit Web space: AuctionPay, Big Duck, Blackbaud, cMarket, and Kintera. AuctionPay was the only vendor not to select a site as the organization it was intended to review failed to participate by deadline.

Those selected include a mix of auction, membership, performing arts, education and advocacy sites and stood out through focused usability, strong visuals and easy navigation. Here are the 2006 Hot Nonprofit Web Sites:

Maryland SPCA

Shop-a-Paw-Looza 2006 http://mdspca.cmarket.com – Traffic: 920,963 hits during its peak month in October 2005 – Dollars raised: $23,962 – Site submitted by: cMarket – Selected by: Sarah Durham, principal, Big Duck, New York City

Although cMarket’s online auction tool may seem a little restrictive due to a template system, the Maryland SPCA conducted a number of efforts that helped make its Shop-a-Paw-Looza auction feel customized to its brand and target audience – people who love animals and care about their local SPCA shelter. What first caught Durham’s eye was the “somewhat silly but apt” event name, “Shop-A-Paw-Looza.”

“They created a banner for the site that integrates whimsical drawings of a cat and dog into a playful, yet hip type treatment of the event name,” Durham said. “The name and design treatment helps brand the online auction and give it real presence. Instead of participating in any old online auction (which sounds a little dry and generic), visitors can participate in something that sounds like a party involving pets and shopping.”

Durham also cited the organization’s customization of its home page with rotating images of animals and, most importantly, the inclusion of information detailing how the proceeds are used. The shelter’s hours are listed for those visitors who are looking to adopt a pet, even though the auction site is probably not the place one would intuitively look for it, she added.

“We were able to develop the top banner area as well as all of the images,” explained Elizabeth Johnson, assistant director of development at the Baltimore-based Maryland SPCA. “We were allowed to change the images and content as frequently as we wanted and we did so about once a week to keep it fresh.”

Additionally, many of its auction items were closely tied to its mission. Items included gift certificates for dog-walking, grooming, boarding, and artwork featuring animals. Non-animal related items such as a snowboard package, hotel stay, and jewelry were also made available. But Johnson said that traditionally, with its silent auctions, animal related items tend to do better. A volunteer committee helped to solicit donations from mostly local businesses and individuals.

The four-week event was the organization’s first online auction endeavor and it netted nearly $24,000.

The fact that the site allows visitors to “watch” items with which they are interested gives the user good reason to go back, Durham said. Hopefully, this will help relationships with the Maryland SPCA grow, she added.

International Fund for Animal Welfare

www.ifaw.org – Traffic: 1.25 million unique visitors in Fiscal Year 2005 – Dollars raised: $1.1 million (FY ‘05) – Site submitted by: Kintera – Selected by: Steven MacLaughlin, practice manager, Internet services, Blackbaud, Inc., Charleston, S.C.

Don’t let the flashy visuals fool you — the Web site, produced by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) serves as far more than indulgent eye candy. An adherence to best practices of online design and usability and a focused and straightforward presentation were reasons that MacLaughlin selected the Yarmouth, Mass.-based organization’s site.

“There is a combination of informative content and strong visual backdrops,” MacLaughlin said. “The action-oriented navigation stands out and it’s clear in purpose. The organizational oriented navigation is more subtle and doesn’t overpower things for the target audience.”

IFAW made a conscious effort to build the top navigation bar and make it stand out with the use of action words, explained Cassandra Koenen, director of online campaigns and marketing at IFAW. By emphasizing action, the organization hoped to get people focused in on what it wanted them to do on the site, whether it’s making a donation, sending a message to elected officials or signing up for an action alert. Another aspect of the site that makes it stand out is the related content links, according to MacLaughlin. The page focusing on African elephants contains plenty of content but the links also have context. In general, there is a good balance between content and the functionality although the advantages of registration seemed to be underplayed a bit, he added.

The organization is continuing to improve the functionality of getting people to register with the site. It’s an aspect that IFAW hasn’t quite honed in on, according to Koenen, but it has made progress in making it easier for people to subscribe to the site.

As an animal advocacy organization, IFAW has the distinct advantage of possessing a cache of alluring images. The organization utilizes that strength to tell its stories through both audio and visuals.

“In the last 12 months we’ve moved toward having very straightforward content that tells our story in an engaging way,” Koenen explained. “As a part of that, we want to tell our story through our visuals. You’ll notice that there’s a lot more Web diaries to trigger people’s senses in another way. We have photo albums now, where you click through an event or rescue, and we’re working to put more of that into the site.” Overall, the IFAW site does a solid job of giving an inviting online presence to new and established constituents, MacLaughlin said. “The site should be a good source of content and interactivity for their key audience members. It is clear that IFAW thought out how best to deliver a compelling online experience.”

Sacred Heart University

http://alumni.sacredheart.edu – Traffic: 358,000 homepage hits per month – Dollars raised: New site – figures not available – Site submitted by: Blackbaud – Selected by: John Murphy, vice president of client services, Kintera, San Diego, Calif.

The Fairfield, Conn.-based university is proud of its re-imagined Web site, which includes consistent navigation throughout. The site is divided into seven major groups: About SHU, Our Mission, Academics, Admissions, Student Life, Arts and Athletics. Due to its manner of navigation and through the use of multiple browsers, the school caught the attention of Kintera’s Murphy.

“An appealing look with simple and easy navigation is critical to having a standout Web site,” Murphy said. “The best Web sites have perfected the visitor’s ability to accomplish why they came to the Web site in the least amount of clicks. In addition, the ability to get more information when desired is a growing expectation.”

The transition to its current site, which was launched in September, 2005, involved not only a change in technology but a unification of the school’s various departments, according to Nancy Boudreau, director of Web content management at SHU.

“The old site — we had main pages that looked the same,” Boudreau explained. “There was a unified look, solid red with a few photos. The problem was that we had 150 departments that all had their own sub-domain. Some departments had created their site using Page Wizard, which was the content management system that we were using, with a red background and black text. Other departments were using FrontPage or Dreamweaver and that resulted in different colors and fonts. It was all over the place.”

With various software platforms in use, problems surfaced on a departmental level if a staff member in charge of the Web departed the school. Now, all departments utilize the same content management software and each has a trained and designated Web liaison. Information can be kept current and broken links are avoided — the system won’t allow the deletion of a page if content is linked to it, Boudreau added.

A significant new feature on the homepage is called The SHU Experience. In working with its Media Studies and Digital Culture Department, professors and students helped to produce a variety of campus-related student videos.  The videos provide students an idea of what it’s like to attend SHU by delving into a number of aspects, including residential life, available technology, engaged learning and community involvement. SHU also instituted an online application process where before it was conducted by the College Board. It’s currently looking into e-commerce options and online bill paying. Boudreau admitted that all of the online tracking involved with a modern Web site is new to the school, but it’s all a part of the ever-changing climate online.

“The launch was just the beginning,” Boudreau said. “Users now are much more sophisticated and they demand an interactive and personalized experience. Our goal was to get this new site up and get departments trained on the content management system so they can update and maintain their pages. Now we’re working on more interactive features. You’ve got to engage the admitted student more with your Web site.”

The Little Orchestra Society

www.littleorchestra.org – Traffic: 5,000 visitors (Jan. 2006 – Mar. 2006) – Dollars raised: Approximately $100,000 in ticket sales – Site submitted by: Big Duck – Selected by: David Mello, vice president, client services, cMarket, Cambridge, Mass.

The Little Orchestra Society (LOS) impressed Mello by embodying four main attributes: Clarity of focus, compelling integration of imagery and messaging, well-defined navigation structure and simplicity of informational access.

The organization name itself, The Little Orchestra Society, married to the tagline “concerts that captivate,” points strongly to an event that is the antithesis of the often bombastic, pretentious pitch of larger, more “important?” orchestral groups, Mello said. Combined with an array of playful images arranged in a retro modernist format, its approach offers an intimate, engaging and ultimately rewarding concert experience.

“Having been suitably engaged at first glance, it is now an unaccustomed pleasure to actually navigate the site,” Mello added. “The primary navigation structure is not only very understandable, it travels well throughout. No matter where I am, I always know where I can go. So often, sites change the navigation structure one or two layers down, dropping the visitor off in an unfamiliar landscape and giving them the feeling they while they might have wanted to go directly from Boston to New York, they have somehow been temporarily re-routed through Kansas.

Thankfully, this site uses visitor-centric Web conventions, like consistently employing the vertical bar for primary navigation and a left-side menu for secondary navigation, to help the visitor move seamlessly from page-to-page.”

Ease of navigation is essential to the site’s audience, according to John Kordel, managing director at the New York City-headquartered nonprofit. The bulk of its hits occur on weekdays between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., the crux of the workday when people do not have the time to maneuver a complex site.

“So, we focused on creating a mold that would be carried through all pages,” Kordel said. “Our old Web site was extremely difficult for the audience to navigate with a single menu bar and numerous tunnels. To obtain information on previous pages, the user would have to employ their ‘Back’ button or begin again from the main menu. Users would then often give up searching for the information they needed. The new site does not duplicate information.  If there is a need to mention concert detail in a location other than the concert page, a link is created sending the user to a common page.  This has minimized errors on the site and allowed users to flow into other relevant pages of the site.”

As far as content, the site, while heavy on text, does not feel that way. With easy-to-read typeface and consistency, the user is able to locate information, including consistently updated and detailed concert listings, musician profiles, children’s activities, and clearly stated organizational information.

The improvements have resulted in approximately $100,000 in online ticket sales, a Herculean leap from the $5,000 in Internet sales from the 2004-05 season. However, the site’s success does not ride solely on the back of ticket sales. The goal is to make the Web site a core part of the concert experience from purchasing tickets prior to a concert, returning to the site to prepare for the performance, and visiting again after the concert to review what was experienced and to get additional information.

“Results of a recent online survey informed us that we were beginning to see the audience utilize the Web site this way,” Kordel said. “The results stated that many audience members visit the site monthly to gather concert information and activities. We are aware that we are still a long way from fully achieving our goal, but the small steps we are continually implementing, such as providing an activity for every children’s concert, bring us a little closer to goal each month.”

Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance http://www.sonomavalleywine.com/ – Traffic: Declined to provide traffic figures – Dollars raised: Approximately $50,000 – Site submitted by: AuctionPay – Selected by: Sarah Durham, principal and founder; Erin Rubin, director of client services;  Ali Kiselis, public relations manager & copywriter; Ksenia Lobanova, senior designer – Big Duck, New York City.

When it came to hierarchy in design and navigation the folks at Big Duck were most impressed with the Web site detailing the work of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance (SVVGA) in Sonoma, Calif. The overall clean and clear design, including oft-ignored white space, effective use of images, consistent use of color, and ease of navigation won Big Duck over, according to Lobanova.

Distinct features that scored points with the reviewers included rotating images on the homepage, which presented a “charming” glimpse into the organization’s environment. The alliance also presented three blocks of color on its homepage that clearly highlight three distinct areas (wineries, growers, events) of the organization’s focus. Those three colors are also used consistently throughout the site. When it comes to events, the “call-out” prominently located at the top-right of the homepage is easy to find for those looking to purchase tickets or find out more information. Resources, including white papers, newsletters and links to various wineries, form a well-rounded content base.

SVVGA responded to the praise by divulging that it is in the process of adapting the look and feel of its site. The makeover is scheduled to be unveiled on April 24. “We want to make it a little more user–friendly, particularly when looking up various events,” explained Maureen Lamb, event coordinator at the organization. “We also want to make it easier for our growers to find things as well. It’s going to be the same information; it’s just going to be easier to navigate. We’re going to use a similar segmentation of the Web site for the new site. When you go to the homepage you’ll continue to see that it’s separated into three different columns — wineries, growers and associates.”

Currently, growers use the site mostly during the harvest months of July to September to sell their grapes online. Growers log in under their username and fill out a form with their product and contact information. The details are posted to the Web site and interested parties can contact the growers directly. The site’s primary users are comprised of visitors to Sonoma, who are interested in purchasing tickets for events or looking for event information.

Membership dues are minimal compared to the funds raised via events, Lamb said. The only money raised online comes from event ticket sales, a process that has made it easier for both the public and the organization to process sales, Lamb added. “Our auction is our largest event so we’re looking at doing an online auction for the first time this year,” Lamb said. “Along with the new site we’re hoping to continue to improve on the progress we’ve made so far online.”    DRFE

NonProfit  Times
The Leading Business Publication For Nonprofit Management