Virtual Open House: Improving Nonprofit Websites
Some nonprofit websites are engaging and even cutting-edge. But many seem woefully behind the times. Here are some thoughts about what to look out for and how your organization can ensure that its website is serving your mission.
This article originally appeared on www.ejewishphilanthropy.com
Make no mistake: your organization is hosting an open house 24/7, 365 days a year.
As the fundraising climate has rebounded and capital improvement projects have picked up, nonprofits have worked to create more inviting, contemporary, and flexible spaces. Rather than serving as grand edifices, the architectural emphasis now is on using physical space to convey warmth, intimacy, and community. So, imagine if a potential donor walked into your building, found the lobby totally disorienting and off-putting, couldn’t find the person or information he or she was searching for, and simply walked right back out the door. Now, imagine if this happened and you didn’t even know someone had visited. I’ve got news for you: this happens all the time, only the lobby is the virtual one housed on your organization’s website. The way in which space is utilized on your homepage may be every bit as important as how it is set up in your physical address. Are you proud of what people see when they enter your virtual address?
There are some fantastic nonprofit websites that perform many services, including education and outreach. Still, some 15 to 20 years into the digital era, it surprises me to see how few organizations seem to truly grasp the importance of their website. According to the 2012 Digital Influence Index, 89% of customers search the web before making a purchasing decision. Why would you assume that that would be any different when it comes to finding an organization to volunteer for or making a donation to a worthy nonprofit? There’s no doubt that prospective donors will visit a website before stopping in or calling, and the website plays a huge role in shaping first impressions. Is your website causing them to go back to Google to continue their search? All too often, organizations miss valuable opportunities by allowing their websites to offer inaccurate information, an outdated design, or both.
Why do so many websites reflect poorly on their host organizations? Oftentimes, nonprofits don’t allocate the necessary resources to maintain and monitor their websites. Perhaps as frequently, organizations have assigned someone to stay on top of the site, but that person lacks the requisite skills to serve as a site administrator. For example, knowing how to write code isn’t crucial, but it helps if the person in charge can understand it and have the ability to make minor changes to it.
Some of the most common mistakes I see include:
Outdated Design: A pair of British psychologists found that website design accounts for 94% of visitors’ first impressions. In today’s digital landscape, websites have a shelf life of about two to four years. A site that was totally acceptable in 1999 or even 2006 looks today like a bulletin board plunked into cyberspace. Styles and standards have changed, and no doubt the scrolling homepages that are in vogue today will be considered stale in a few years. Organizations should study websites both in and out of their industry to see what works and what doesn’t. Combine features from other sites along with your own creativity to provide visitors with an engaging and inviting experience that will make a favorable impression. A survey conducted by Stanford Web Credibility Research showed that 75% of users admit to making judgments about an organization’s credibility based on their website design.
Lack of Functionality: A continuing source of frustration is when websites contain broken links. The person dedicated to maintaining the website should build a checklist of links, images, and pages that should be visited regularly to ensure they are functioning as intended. Having to click multiple times to find important information is almost as disconcerting. Make sure that the most important updates are just a click away.
Outdated Information: Pay attention to the details! Use your new checklist wisely and keep track of any dates or current events listed on your homepage and any secondary pages. Lack of attention to detail is a sure way to turn off a potential donor or volunteer and can easily be avoided. By using valuable website real estate to highlight – or even ask users to register for – an event that’s already happened, an organization is sending an unintended message: our house is in disarray.
Inactive Blog: It is a great idea to feature a blog or newsfeed on your site. Blogs are a great way to engage users, address relevant topics, and boost traffic to your website. But too often blogs go weeks or months at a time without being updated. This makes it look like the organization isn’t minding the store or even potentially like the organization is defunct. If you are going to have a blog it must be active. It is better to not have a blog than to have one that hasn’t been active for weeks or months.
Just a few of the things that organizations should keep in mind as they look to retool or redesign their websites are:
Responsiveness: Increasingly, people visit websites on mobile devices. A responsive design enables your site to automatically adjust to the device’s screen size and orientation.
Control: Make sure that your website design allows an administrator from your organization to have control and be able to update virtually anything the user can see. You don’t want to pay a designer an hourly rate to make minor updates or design changes, but should save those dollars for larger wholesale changes.
Compelling: The adage is true: a picture is worth 1,000 words (or these days maybe just 140 characters.) Make sure your site features large, clean, and crisp, images that engage the viewer.
Donate: It should be as easy as possible for potential supporters to give to your organization through your webpage. Make sure your “Donate Now” button is clearly visible on your home page. The button should be a color that’s different from your site’s established color schemes.
If your organization isn’t doing so already, it must start considering its website as important as anything else that it operates. It is a powerful engagement tool. You may not gain a volunteer or donor though your website, but you can certainly lose them.
Designing a new website can require a big investment of time and resources, but it is an investment that pays dividends. My recommendation: if your organization’s site is more than a few years old, or if it seems lagging compared to contemporary standards, consider working with a designer to create a new site. A talented professional web designer can create a unique and dynamic website – one that is customized to your organization’s needs and mission. If a full service designer isn’t in your budget, you may want to consider approaching a passionate donor to fund the project. If that strategy doesn’t work, inexpensive options exist to help you improve your site. For as little as $25 a month, your organization can run a professional looking website built on a template. To go this route, it would be best to find somebody who has knowledge of website design and maintenance and is willing to make an investment of his or her time. The end product may not look as spectacular as a custom-designed site but will likely be more than adequate. The most important point is to make your organization’s website a top priority. If it doesn’t reflect your organization at its best, it is time to make some changes. Evaluate your website, research those of comparable organizations, and make informed decisions about next steps to take. If your website doesn’t currently make the cut, don’t despair – a better site is both achievable and affordable.
Forward-thinking organizations are seeking to inspire, enrich lives, and shape our future; it’s a lot easier to do these things by maintaining a compelling and accurate web presence.
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