Nonprofit Web: Was That Really My Hair?

November 5, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

Remember when your organization’s website didn’t have a donate button, much less a focus on fundraising? Looking at early versions of your nonprofit’s website might be like browsing your old high school yearbook: “Omigosh, look at what we wore back then!? Is that my hair?!”

During the 1990s, most websites likely were just a page of links with little strategy and perhaps one person working with a vendor. There certainly wasn’t any social media or capturing of email addresses, said Farra Trompeter, vice president at Big Duck, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based communications firm.

By 2001, nonprofits were thinking more strategically about their goals and audiences, she said, and today charities have much more elegant-looking, dynamic websites that tell stories and focus on fundraising, with more sophisticated back-end systems.

Websites today “really are connected to marketing and brand strategy,” she said. “It’s interesting to see what next step will be,” said Trompeter, who presented a session titled “Is It Time to Redesign Your Website? How to Tell and How to Fix It?” during the annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) held in San Francisco, Calif.

An integral part of the website redesign process is setting goals. Things that good nonprofit websites have always had in common was knowing what the goals and audiences are, being consistent in brand design, and how you portray yourselves differently, said Trompeter. “That’s changed as the tools have changed but the basic ideas have remained,” she said.

The goals for the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) old website were primarily focused on program, such as pollution around the world but nothing that would convince someone to give. “The new goals are focused primarily on supporting fundraising,” said Kira Marchenese, director, Internet communications for the New York City-based EDF, which launched a new site last year.

The EDF, which generated revenue of $97 million last year, had about 18,000 pieces of content on its website. “It wasn’t just a pile of clutter, it was the wrong clutter,” said Marchenese, likening it to cleaning out the attic of someone who doesn’t live in the house anymore. There was testimony, reports, “wonky blog posts about court proceedings” and other things that would support EDF’s program goals, she said, “but not a thing that’d convince someone to make a $50 donation.

“What we needed was human, bite-sized pieces of information. It was hard to explain to people why our content was wrong,” said Marchenese.

The organization’s goals might be for users to donate or sign pledges but those are not the user’s goals. “They don’t say, “Gee, I want to sign a pledge today. They want to support” clean water or clean air, etc., said Trompeter. Whether it’s to add users to an email list or have them register for a golf tournament, seeing those goals will help with later things, like site navigation and what information should be displayed most prominently, she said.

The first question to ask is whether your organization has a good handle on what it can do in-house, Marchenese said. “The more you can guide this process yourselves, the more it’ll reflect the organization’s priorities,” she said.

Trompeter offered a flow chart for assessing whether to redesign a website, broken down in four key parts: goals and audiences, content and structure, design, and technology.

Raising more money is almost always a goal for a website today, but how you achieve that goal might be different. “It doesn’t meant a Donate button pops up on every screen or is the only thing you see,” said Trompeter. “If want to raise more money, what do donors/potential donors want to see?”

A donor who visits your website wants to know:

  • What you do;
  • That you do it well; and,
  • Where the money is going.

“For our audience, we found that video can be very engaging,” Marchenese said. If people are browsing quickly, not on a platform that’s good for viewing video, it ends up being a small part of the audience that’s on it. “But we think it’s worth it,” she said, adding that a teen audience might have very different engagement with it.

To make sure that your new website is able to support fundraising goals, tie it in with what’s important for leadership, Marchenese said. “It’s easier for them to get behind it. It makes conversations so much easier because the tough decision already has been made,” she said.

Having those executives in the conversation early is important, as is hearing from other staff — not just techies — said Trompeter. And sometimes jealousy works, so show off what some other peer websites are doing. “This is who else our audience looks at. We don’t think like to think about competition in the nonprofit space but you are in competition for people’s attention,” she said.

The process for redesigning the website took almost two years, according to Marchenese, with “big chunks” spent early on focusing on sorting out goals. “For eight months, it was nothing but bulleted lists of goals, but that’s what it took to get there,” she said.

Once you launch your new website, however, you’re far from done. You should be monitoring the site to determine whether you’re meeting your goals, review statistics at least monthly, survey constituents or conduct interviews.

Organize content clearly and test it, Trompeter said, suggesting “scavenger hunts” for users to see quickly they can find certain parts of the site, like a blog.

Marchenese recommended that charities also keep an eye on new tools and “what’s changing out there.”

Pinterest was on nobody’s radar when EDF launched its website redesign last year. Look for changes in your audience’s expectations, or needs, and review your organization’s broader goals and plans. “That doesn’t mean you have to do complete redesign or stick a Pinterest button on each page,” Trompeter said. It’s okay to try different things to see what’s out there, she said, adding: “Once your mother or grandmother asks you about it, it might be time to check it out.”

Most organizations don’t need a completely different website for smartphones yet, Trompeter said, though that might be different depending on the audience and goals. For the time being, she added, it might be enough to just able to look at your website on a cell phone.

Responsive design should modify the way a web page looks on a big desktop screen versus a small mobile screen. A desktop might present all the images and video while a Smartphone screen might automatically just use one main image or the most important aspect of the page.