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Shape Your Nonprofit Website
to Generate the Actions You Need

by Nancy Schwartz

At this point in time, almost every nonprofit organization counts heavily on its website to generate donations, program participation and volunteers, among other goals. What's ironic is that, now that we're more experienced and comfortable with the Web, many nonprofits have diverted their focus from making sure their sites are maximized to engage users.

Here's an example:

I'll never forget when a local museum re-opened its exhibit space after a multi-year renovation. The museum got lots of press, including an extensive feature in the New York Times. Unfortunately, when I went to their beautiful new website to plan my visit, I couldn't find hours, admission fees or directions anywhere.

Talk about discouraging a visit! Clearly the museum had worked hard to get press coverage, but didn't think through what questions that coverage would generate to make sure they were addressed by the site.

Beware. This kind of error is common. It's all too frequent to be on a website where vital information such as phone numbers and addresses are not included.

Website ease of use (or "usability" to use the common lexicon) is an absolute must. It's far too easy for a site visitor to move to another site to give or volunteer. And very easy for visitors to leave the Web altogether. So do your best to keep your visitors engaged with your nonprofit's site.

Here are my top four "to-dos" to ensure your website generates the actions you need:

  1. Use intuitive/ logical navigation and structure.

    Be sure your site:

    • Makes content easy to find: Organize it by priority, time, alphanumeric order, or some other logical method.

    • Uses "breadcrumbs" to help users determine where they are in the site, where they've been and how to get where they want to be. Approaches include featuring drop-down menus from your site's main menu bar (which features the various sections). Once a user is within a certain section, h/she sees another menu listing all the sub-sections within that section, enabling ease of moving around the site. Another approach is to include the text equivalent on every page (i.e. Home>Get Involved>Volunteer>Sign-Up Form).

    • Has top and side navigation bars that work together.

    • Has no "dead links" that lead users to a dead end with no exit.

    • Includes a technical contact in the event that a user experiences difficulties.

    • A Strong Model:

      Elderhostel's website incorporates all of these elements, which are particularly important for its target audience of seniors. Take a look at:

  2. Keep content short and current.

    In order to reach your users, follow these guidelines.

    • People don't read on screen, they skim. "Chunk" content so it's easy for users to digest the key points.

    • Web copy should be refreshed frequently. Your nonprofit's home page will seem stale if users see the same headlines that were posted two months ago. Give them a reason to return frequently.

    • Write for your audience: Maintain the perspective of each target audience and write to them. Keep their point of view in mind when writing copy. If your target audiences are too divergent to do so, create distinct points of entry or home pages for each group, so that you can communicate in the most effective way.

    • Provide links to additional detail for the user who really wants to know more.

    • A Strong Model:

      Formed around a family collection of rare books and manuscripts, Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum and Libraries has a lot to say on its site. But the team keeps content pithy and organizes it well. As a result, the site is useful for the broad range of Museum audiences, from the museum go-er to an elementary school teachers planning a field trip and a scholar investigating research opportunities.

  3. Put graphic design to work.

    • Give your priority content greater 'visual weight' with a large space on the home page, including a sizable headline, longer summary and/or photo. Weighting multiple elements equally or almost equally is the equivalent of talking about multiple topics at the same time. It's impossible for your audience to know what to focus on.

    • Use graphics and photos to create interest and meaning.

    • Use a consistent page layout for each section.

    • A Strong Model:

      The Family Violence Prevention Fund Take a look at this complex site and you'll see that it covers many programs and campaigns, related news flashes and other topics. But, like a traditional newspaper, the home page "real estate" has been used most effectively to place like content elements together. Color and type choices reinforce these distinctions, making it easy for a site visitor (whether current or prospective donor, advocate, member of the press or abuse victim) to easily find what s/he needs.

      In addition, the use of color and photos of people throughout the site ensure that visitors stay focused and engaged. Consistent page layouts (there are actually two layouts used throughout the site, depending on the content on each page) reinforce focus and confirm, subliminally, that the visitor is still on the same site.

  4. Make your website interactive, where and when it makes sense.

    Of course utilizing online donation and registration forms, as well as links and contact emails is a no brainer. But how can you use interactive tools, beyond those straightforward applications, to add value for your Web audiences?

    Ideas for online community building include:

    • Create a mechanism to solicit donor and volunteer questions, concerns and comments.

    • Poll readers on their response to an article or news flash featured on the site.

    • Share survey results or other audience feedback on a page within the site.

    • Build an online community where participants (think board members or volunteers) can share knowledge, work in progress and experiences. In some cases, you'll want to make these communities private.

    • Great Examples:

      • Speaking Freely, the ACLU of Pennsylvania's blog, is covering the suit brought by parents in the Dover, PA school district who are fighting to keep the teaching of "intelligent design" out of the classroom.

        Blog readers can comment on blog entries. The many comments speak to readers' passionate reactions to this issue.

      • The Special Libraries Association reports results of its recent salary survey back to its membership. Because of the relative ease and inexpensiveness of the online survey format, the SLA was able to survey 100% of its membership for the first time in its history.

      • The Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers provides an online message board for its members to ask questions and share expertise.

Readers, use these guidelines as a checklist for reviewing your nonprofit or foundation website. I think you'll find areas in which your site excels and others that can be strengthened for even greater impact, with a fairly modest investment of effort and budget.

2002-2008 Nancy E. Schwartz. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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About the Author:

Nancy E. Schwartz helps nonprofits succeed through effective marketing and communications. As President of Nancy Schwartz & Company (, Nancy and her team provide marketing planning and implementation services to organizations as varied as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, and Wake County (NC) Health Services.

Subscribe to her free e-newsletter "Getting Attention", ( and read her blog at for more insights, ideas and great tips on attracting the attention your organization deserves.

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