An effective website will enable charities to share more information and raise a greater number of donations. Unfortunately, there is often not enough time or budget to have the website improved by others with expertise in this area. With the information in this article I want to help charities to get started on improving their website themselves.
Almost every Dutch person is familiar with one or more charities (also called non-profits or foundations). But what do charities actually aim to achieve? And why is it important for charities to devote sufficient attention and time to improving their website?
Why is a good website relevant for charities?
Most charities want to achieve one or more of the following things: share information, encourage action, and solicit donations. The website can play an excellent role in this. It is striking that the websites of many charities are still missing major opportunities in the field of conversion optimization (CRO). A possible explanation for this is that charities, in addition to all the work they already carry out, have placed improving their website somewhat lower on their priority list. Charities also usually have more limited budgets than commercial organizations, which means that hiring an external conversion optimization specialist is often not an option. This article was written to ensure that charities can take the first steps in the field of conversion optimization themselves, without having to incur additional costs.
In the past period I have helped various charities on a voluntary basis with improving their websites. During the conversations I had with them, various challenges emerged that they faced. I started looking for solutions for these challenges. I focus on some challenges that I have often encountered in my work and describe below how you can deal with them as a charity.
Increasing online visibility
Online visibility refers to the extent to which people encounter the charity on the internet. For example, how high do you score on Google and how often does a message appear on a social media timeline? Without such online visibility, as a charity you are a voice crying in the desert. You will also likely have difficulty raising enough funds to keep your foundation alive. Fortunately, there are various methods to increase your online visibility. Each of these methods can also reinforce each other, so that together they can act as a flywheel for increasing the online visibility of the charity.
Search engine optimization (SEO)
In short, this means that you undertake activities to make your website easier to find in the organic (free) search results of search engines such as Google and Bing. These activities are focused on one or more aspects of SEO: technology, content, and authority.
- Technology: By 'technology' you can, for example, think of adjustments to the website to ensure that it can be better indexed by the search engines or adjustments that ensure that the website loads faster. An analysis with WooRank's tool can be a good start to learning more about areas for improvement regarding technical search engine optimization. This tool shows points of interest for the scanned page. Furthermore, a tool like Screaming Frog can help you get a broader picture of the technology of your entire website. This tool does require a little more knowledge of SEO to properly assess the information.
- Content: Next, 'content' is something that you place on the website. In many cases this will involve pieces of text (such as blogs or news items), but this also includes things such as videos and infographics. The guideline for texts is to work with articles of at least a thousand words. You can use the aforementioned Screaming Frog to see how many words a certain page contains. It is also important to take into account the keywords used. For example, using a tool like KeywordTool you can get ideas about which keywords could be for the charity in question. An analysis using a tool such as SiteLiner can then help you get an idea of which pages still lack unique content.
- Authority: Finally, 'authority' also plays a role in how high your content will appear in the search results. In practice, this almost always concerns links from other websites to the charity's website. These links are also called 'backlinks'. Search engines use those backlinks to determine how important a particular page is compared to similar pages on other websites. You can find more information about the backlinks to your own website in the 'Links' section in Google Search Console. Using (paid) SEO tools such as SERanking you can also collect information about the backlinks of other websites.
Advertising via Google Ads
Google doesn't just show organic search results. In addition to these organic search results, Google also offers the option to purchase paid advertisements to gain better attention. Charities have the option to purchase up to $10,000 in free text ads on Google's search results pages under certain conditions. You can request this by signing up for the Google Ad Grants program. Additional features such as remarketing, image ads, and video ads are unfortunately not available for Ad Grants accounts. Keep in mind that setting up high-performing Google Ads can be a challenge. Therefore, start with this checklist and after some time see whether it can be of added value to the results to involve an SEA specialist.
Use your own network
Relationships can play a valuable role in increasing the online visibility of the charity. If there are partners who have a large number of followers on social media, you can ask them to post a message about the charity. Another example is collaborations with knowledge institutions such as universities or colleges. Such collaborations could lead to publications, for example about the impact of the charity. These publications can then be shared on your own website, social media, in the newsletter, or possibly also via communication from the knowledge institution itself.
Furthermore, it may be valuable to go through the list of existing corporate donors. Are there perhaps parties here with whom further cooperation can be entered into? An example of this could be an ecommerce party that includes a donation to charity as an upsell in its checkout funnel.
Finally, when it comes to relationships, you can of course also think of specialists in certain areas. For example, there may be parties that want to commit themselves to the charity on a voluntary basis and provide advice about their specialty (e.g. web design, SEO, fundraising, CRO, etc.).
Using social media
Nowadays, social media plays an important role in staying in touch with (potential) donors. Social media can, for example, be used to increase awareness of what the charity stands for (the mission), what impact is created, to show individual success stories, to communicate with donors, or to directly ask for donations, etc. Examples of highly successful social media campaigns set up for charities include the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and 11-city swim.
Which social media channel is the most effective varies per charity. My advice is to experiment with this and see which channels work best for your charity. A relatively simple way to do this is to keep track of which messages you post and how many responses they receive in an Excel sheet. If you have Google Analytics on your website, you may also be able to use that data for more advanced analyses. When posting messages, also make sure that you limit the number of explicit requests for donations, so that followers are not bombarded with this and therefore unfollow the social media account. Later in this article we will discuss the optimal frequency of donation requests in more detail. Another tip is to focus on a limited number of social media platforms. Some platforms are simply better suited to the charity in terms of target group or functionalities, which means that these social media channels will probably produce above-average results.
Using content effectively
Both human visitors and search engines attach great importance to good content on a website. This helps them, for example, to get a better idea of what the charity is doing, how the donations are spent, and what impact the charity has. Content does not necessarily have to be a piece of written text, but can also take various other forms such as images or videos. The reason why a charity should not only focus on written text is because other forms of content can sometimes convey the message better or provide more online visibility.
Some charities focus on issues that are currently in the public eye. If this is the case, you can regularly write articles about what is going on in the context that the charity is committed to. Examples include Animal Protection and Prison Care. With a bit of luck, such news items will even be picked up by other parties and you will gain valuable online visibility, backlinks, or new donors. Such news items also lend themselves well to messages on social media. If little 'newsworthy' changes over time, you could, for example, consider starting a knowledge base (such as School & Safety) or blog (such as the Earlybirds Foundation) instead of a news department in which you provide timeless explanations about the field. context in which the charity is located.
Another popular form of content is the infographic. Using infographics you can share large amounts of information in an accessible way. This makes infographics very suitable for social media. Infographics can also be easily 'branded' by designing them in the corporate identity of the charity. Examples of this are the infographics of Stichting Salvage, Stichting Lezen, and Houtrookvrij. Optimally, an infographic is based on your own information (such as your own research), but merging information from other sources is also possible. In that case, consider adding source references. For example, you could create an infographic based on a survey among donors or followers on social media. What solutions do they see for a particular social challenge related to charity? How do they contribute positively (in addition to donating) to these social challenges? How does this challenge develop over time? Etc. With the help of tools such as Piktochart, you can also create infographics yourself without immediately needing the help of a graphics agency.
More and more people prefer to watch a video about a subject rather than read a piece of text. But how do you deal with that as a charity? You can think of animated videos that explain some of the work you do (such as this video from the Veldleeuwerik Foundation), information about certain projects (such as the Brooke Foundation) or interviews with people who the charity has helped (for example Foundation for Reading and Writing).
However, recording and editing videos for the website can feel like a challenging form of content, especially for smaller charities. Videos that are professionally filmed and edited can indeed take a lot of time (or money), but this is not the only way to create videos. With a simple tripod and a modern smartphone you can create high-quality videos. In this article from Wistia you can find more information about supplies for every budget. With free programs such as iMovie you can then make some simple edits, such as adding your logo. You'll spend a few hours putting your first video online (and it probably won't be as good as you'd hoped), but over time you'll get better at producing videos and they'll take less and less time.
Making videos requires quite a lot of effort (especially in the beginning), but it can also have a major impact. With videos you ensure that information about the charity can be distributed in a completely different way than just through text. This could potentially provide more online visibility or even reach other target groups such as young people. You can also place videos on platforms such as YouTube, so that the videos can also be viewed on that platform.
Various charities that I have worked for on a voluntary basis work together with universities or colleges. For example, research is being conducted into the impact of the charity. You can think of research from CliniClowns, MS Research, or Hartekind. Even if you do not (yet) have such a collaboration or do not want to enter into such a collaboration, you can carry out simple investigations yourself. For example, consider conducting interviews with donors in which you ask them questions related to their experiences with the charity. Not only will you learn a lot about how you can improve the charity's website, you can also write out the findings in an article for the website. If there is already a collaboration with universities or colleges, they may also have ideas about how the results can be presented on the website. It is possible that this type of research will even be published in (scientific or professional) journals. If this is the case, you can even mention this on the charity's website. With these research results you can increase the authority and legitimacy of the charity because you show that donors have an effect based on validated data.
You may also be able to highlight cases, projects, or success stories for a good cause. The biggest advantage of this is that these examples are likely very relatable to (potential) donors. Such an article can show in very concrete terms how a donation to charity has made an impact in that specific situation. For example, Dutch Cell Dogs shows success stories of placed dogs, the CARE website contains personal stories, and Bears in Mind describes specific projects they are working on.
Responding to target groups and segments
Not everyone who comes to a charity's website belongs to the same group of people. For example, visitors will differ in their purpose for coming to the website, their demographics will be different, and they will arrive at the website from a different source. By responding to these differences as best as possible, you can offer an optimal experience to each of the potential donors, which will lead to, for example, more donations.
- Purpose: The main purposes for which visitors come to a charity's website are to search for information, make contact, or make a donation. Normally the vast majority of the website will consist of informative pages. It is therefore important to ensure good information architecture, navigation, and search functions so that visitors can easily find the information they are looking for. The 'Contact Us' goal can then easily be achieved by including a 'Contact Us' item in the main menu of the website and (also) placing a well-functioning contact form on that page. Finally, to make making a donation easy, most charities choose to place a distinctively colored 'Donate' button in the top right corner of the desktop website. This has therefore become a best practice. On mobile devices, this button is often shown in the mobile drop-down menu.
- Demographics: Visitors will vary by demographics such as age, gender, education, country, and place of residence. It will differ per charity as to whether it is of added value to focus on one or more of these characteristics. For some charities there will be less clear subgroups than for others. The best way to segment also differs per charity. For example, the WWF has a special WWF Youth department and a separate version of the Greenpeace website is available in dozens of languages and countries.
- Source: Not every visitor arrives at the website in the same way. For example, some will end up on the website via messages on social media, others via a link on a partner's website, and yet another group of visitors will arrive at the website via Google Ads campaigns. Of course, it is not possible to offer a unique experience on the website for every source. However, especially for larger campaigns, it can be worthwhile to think about this carefully and, for example, create unique landing pages, so that you can deliver a more targeted message to those visitors and this may result in more donations. More information about landing pages can be read later in this article.
Some organizations choose to work with personas. Various demographic attributes (such as gender, age, education) and the problems/challenges of certain segments of visitors are grouped together to form a 'persona'. Personas can be interesting for charities because charities often have a fairly broad target group and personas can help divide this target group into small sub-target groups, as it were. Such personas can be created in different ways. Using qualitative methods such as interviews, you can group such characteristics together and create personas from them. In addition, a quantitative method is possible in which such attributes are grouped using techniques such as clustering or factor analysis. It is also possible to use a hybrid solution that combines these methods.
Each of these solutions has its own challenges. For example, with the qualitative method you run the risk of oversimplification. If people constantly talk about 'Fast Stephan' or 'Critical Karin' during meetings, the segments may have been oversimplified. On the other hand, with the quantitative method you run the risk of working with solutions that are too complex. The reason for this is that trained data specialists are often needed to properly create such quantitative personas. For the vast majority of charities, advanced quantitative personas should not be high on the priority list due to the time it takes.
Finding a suitable middle ground (such as a hybrid approach) often seems to be an appropriate solution. A first step in this could be to hold some interviews with donors to see whether certain 'subgroups' appear. These results can then be merged with the demographic data of the donors that you can obtain from the system in which the donations are received.
In most cases, it is not a good idea to redirect visitors to the homepage of the website. After all, this is a generic page that serves as a gateway to the rest of the website. If you have the choice to which page you want to forward a visitor, you can almost always devise a more targeted page based on factors such as the platform, the intention, or the campaign. Consider, for example, specific landing pages that are linked to certain campaigns, search terms in Google Ads, or messages on social media. Another example is the Shell Climate Case page on the Milieudefensie website. Visitors are specifically informed about this campaign and there is even a separate donation form.
Developing a useful 'donor journey'
The 'journey' that a person makes in contact with the charity is also called a 'donor journey'. In order to properly respond to the wishes of (potential) donors, it is important to understand how their donor journey works. For example, can visitors find the information they are looking for on the website? What is their experience with customer service? Is it possible to select the desired payment method in the donation form? Do they like the amount of information they receive? By thinking about all these points, you can ensure that your website (and, in a broader sense, the entire foundation) responds better to the needs of donors, resulting in more new donations and less loss of returning donors. In addition, thinking about the 'donor journey' can also help to better coordinate teams working at charities internally, to gain insight into the required data/technology, and to learn to collect structural feedback from donors.
There is no one specific method for developing a 'donor journey'. Therefore, some popular methods will be discussed below, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
- Circle: This model views the journey more from a strategic view than from a practical point of view. Traditionally, a 'journey' was described as a linear funnel (awareness, awareness, consideration, purchase). However, today it is often assumed that such a journey does not always occur in a straight line. McKinsey proposes the shape of a circle in the article 'The consumer decision journey'. Although the other models described are largely linear, it doesn't hurt to keep in mind that there is likely some form of feedback loop that links back to previous steps.
- List: The company Fineline proposes a trip in the form of a list. Every action by a donor is seen as a trigger, resulting in actions. For example, when a donor makes his or her first donation, a confirmation of the donation is emailed, a handwritten thank you note is sent in the mail, and the donor is added to the newsletter recipients. You can make such a list of triggers and actions as simple or complicated as you want.
- And/or: Actually, this model is an adapted form of the above model. Instead of just looking at a list of triggers and actions, you further nuance it. For example, a donor who indicates that he would rather not receive a newsletter follows a different path than one who does. Consideration may also be given here about how to respond to different segments.
- Combination: Finally, there is the most extensive model in which various aspects are graphically connected. In this form, proposed by Cohort3, for example, a journey of a certain segment is looked at, its goals, thoughts & emotions, touchpoints, and phases. All that information is then put on a kind of PowerPoint slide so that it can be easily shared with the organization.
Asking for donations appropriately
Research shows that asking for donations can help get more people to give money. For example, a study by Yörük (2009) shows that there is up to a 20% higher chance that someone will donate money when asked (compared to someone who has not been asked). The total donation amount also increases significantly when a donation is requested. But when is the best time to ask for donations? And how do you deal with 'donor fatigue', for example, where donors are overwhelmed by too many requests to donate?
Research shows there is no universal best time to ask for donations. There may be certain periods of the year or on a day for the specific charity when it is more likely that a request will lead to a donation. For example, analyzes of expenditure patterns by Pharoah & McKenzie (2010) revealed the following findings. Please note that this study is slightly older and was conducted in the United Kingdom.
- The average weekly sum of donations followed a slightly U-shaped trend over the year;
- The least was donated in the summer months, up to 11% less compared to autumn and winter;
- Households with higher incomes mainly gave money in the spring, probably (partly) for tax reasons;
- Lower-income households mainly gave money around the holidays at the end of the year;
In addition to these broader trends, it may also be possible to time the request more specifically. For example, ShareTheMeal sometimes sends donation requests around dinner time, which makes the concept even more alive. Similar personalizations can, for example, be developed around certain holidays or times.
In concrete terms, this means that a charity must try out and keep track of what works best for them. Responding to the various segments can also help. For example, how many donations come in per calendar month? At what times of the day are they made? Is it effective to set up special campaigns aimed at households with higher incomes in the first quarter of a year? Are there striking 'summer' campaigns that can be set up in the summer months so that you can also collect more donations there? Etc.
The chance that someone will donate is not the same for everyone. For example, Bennett (2003) indicates that demographic characteristics such as age, income, work, number of children, social class and diplomas all play a role in this. Research by Lohmann cited by Bennett also shows that belonging to certain networks or groups (social, political, scientific, religious, etc.) can play an important role in whether or not someone donates to charities. This makes it clear that it can pay to think carefully about who you do or do not approach for a donation to the foundation or charity.
Furthermore, Bekkers (2004) has shown that relationships are also important for the chance of receiving a donation. His research showed that people with a stronger personal relationship with the potential donor or volunteer were more likely to be successful. It may therefore be worthwhile to have such requests made as much as possible by people 'close to the target group'.
In addition, the method of asking can also influence the chance of whether a request will lead to a donation. For example, scientific research by Whillans & Dunn (2018) shows that individuals with higher incomes responded better to a request that focuses on 'agency' instead of 'community'. An example of this is that they concluded their request with "Come forward and take individual action. Donate today." (agency) versus "Join your community and support a common goal. Donate today." (community). In their study, these changes led to approximately 82% more donated money.
How often to ask for donations seems like a challenging issue. For example, it was previously assumed that drawing attention as often as possible was optimal, but research by, for example, Kinnick et al. (1996) showed that this causes 'donor fatique' (donation fatigue). Donation fatigue is a phenomenon that is closely related to 'compassion fatique' and effectively boils down to the fact that too many messages and requests from charities can cause donors to emotionally withdraw and stop making donations.
Additional studies building on this note that the optimal frequency for asking for donations appears to be shaped like an inverted-U (So et al., 2017; van Diepen et al., 2006). In addition, if there is too little communication from the charity, relatively little will be donated and if there is too much communication from the charity, too. The optimal point is then in the middle. What this means for the communication frequency from the charity is difficult to determine, but certainly not impossible.
For example, Piersma & Jonker (2004) developed a model for a large Dutch charity in which they looked at how often physical mail was sent to donors. According to the researchers, after the frequency with which the mail was sent was optimized based on the model, this resulted in significantly higher numbers of donations.
Although it will certainly not be possible for all charities to conduct extensive analyzes into the optimal frequency, it probably wouldn't hurt to take a critical look at the amount of communication towards donors. Things like surveys followed by personalized communication may also provide some insights. This can then result in the frequency and content of communication being better aligned with the donor's wishes, which will increase the amount of money donated.
Thanking donors for their donation
Research shows several reasons why it is important to thank donors for their contributions. For example, Merchant et al. (2010a) have shown that feedback that donors receive from the charity helps to increase the 'emotional pay-off' and increases the chance that they will donate again. Other research by Merchant et al. (2010b) shows that acknowledgments strengthen positive emotions and alleviate negative emotions. According to the researchers, thanking donors offers a promising means of promoting donor relationships and retaining donors. Yet Burk's research cited by the aforementioned researchers shows that only 39% of donors were always thanked.
Thanking donors can of course be done in many different ways. For example, an automatic email, handwritten card, or a telephone call. What exactly is the most effective method will differ per charity and per donor. My advice would be to keep track of which method is used for which donor, and what its effects are. For example, what percentage of donors give money again after an automated email and how many give money after a handwritten card?
A popular belief among fundraisers is that including a gift in a direct mail package increases donations. However, this belief is not strongly substantiated in the scientific studies that Bekkers & Wiepking (2011) studied. Indeed, when people receive material benefits for helping, they tend to think less from their "helping" motives and more from a cost-benefit perspective (Zuckerman, Lazzaro, & Waldgeir, 1979). The consequence of this change is that it reduces the provision of future help from these people (Bekkers & Wiepking, 2011). Nonprofit organizations should therefore carefully consider the psychological motivations of their donors before handing out gifts in exchange for donations (Chao, 2017).
Charities have to keep a lot of balls in the air. There is also often a shortage of volunteers and many people wear multiple hats at the same time. The result is that sometimes (too) little attention is paid to the website. This, while the website is an important link in informing people about the charity and obtaining donations. This article therefore provides guidelines and examples on how charities can learn to deal with common challenges themselves.
- Bekkers, R. (2004). Giving and volunteering in the Netherlands: Sociological and psychological perspectives. Interuniversity Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology.
- Bekkers, R., & Wiepking, P. (2011). A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms That Drive Charitable Giving. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 40(5), 924-973.
- Bennett, R. (2003). Factors underlying the inclination to donate to particular types of charity. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 8(1), 12-29.
- Chao, M. (2017). Demotivating incentives and motivation crowding out in charitable giving. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(28), 7301-7306.
- van Diepen, M., Donkers, B., & Franses, P. H. (2006). Irritation Due to Direct Mailings from Charities. 52.
- Kinnick, K. N., Krugman, D. M., & Cameron, G. T. (1996). Compassion Fatigue: Communication and Burnout toward Social Problems. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 73(3), 687-707.
- Merchant, A., Ford, J. B., & Sargeant, A. (2010). 'Don't forget to say thank you': The effect of an acknowledgement on donor relationships. Journal of Marketing Management, 26(7-8), 593-611.
- Merchant, A., Ford, J. B., & Sargeant, A. (2010). Charitable organizations' storytelling influence on donors' emotions and intentions. Journal of Business Research, 63(7), 754-762.
- Pharoah, C., & McKenzie, T. (2010). Seasonal patterns in household giving in the UK.
- Piersma, N., & Jonker, J. (2004). Determining the optimal direct mailing frequency. European Journal of Operational Research, 158(1), 173-182.
- So, J., Kim, S., & Cohen, H. (2017). Message fatigue: Conceptual definition, operationalization, and correlates. Communication Monographs, 84(1), 5-29.
- Yörük, B. K. (2009). How responsive are charitable donors to requests to give? Journal of Public Economics, 93(9-10), 1111-1117.
- Whillans, A. V., & Dunn, E. W. (2018). Agentic appeals increase charitable giving in an affluent sample of donors. PLOS ONE, 13(12), e0208392.
- Zuckerman, M., Iazzaro, M. M., & Waldgeir, D. (1979). Undermining Effects of the Foot-in-the-Door Technique with Extrinsic Rewards. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 9(3), 292-296.