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Seven questions for nonprofit leaders who are serious about digital

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The idea that online strategy begins and ends with the IT team is outdated. We no longer expect senior decision-makers to be hands off with everything digital. After all, you certainly don't need to be a tech guru to be invested in the success of your marketing and communications.

The most effective nonprofit leaders are well-armed with important information about their organizations before they consider their web strategy, either internally or externally through a consultant.

If you're a manager or executive director who is truly serious about improving your nonprofit's digital presence, be sure you are able to answer these questions before you dive into any deep discussions about your online campaigns.

1. What information does my organization currently capture online?

Do you know all the ways you are using the web to acquire supporter names, addresses, and demographic information? Does your contact us link just direct to an email address? Or does it go to a form that collects constituent details to add to your database?

Think of all the points of contact you have with your audience on your websites or online communities right now. Knowing every place your organization asks supporters to provide information is the first step on the road to improving your ability to encourage those visitors into taking action.

Smart leaders will also be aware of constituent information they are not collecting and can prioritize the additional details they'd like to collect online. For instance, should you be asking your donors or event participants for their cell phone numbers? You might not have a mobile strategy today, but if your organization is thinking about a SMS marketing or advocacy plan in the future, your website can help you build that program now.

2. What are the addresses for my organization's web properties and microsites? What are our social media handles?

Knowing your website address is pretty basic stuff, but have you ever found yourself saying, "Hey, are we on Facebook?" If you're really serious about your digital strategy, you shouldn't have to ask a coworker if you have a YouTube channel or Flickr account.

Some of your seasonal events or fundraising campaigns may have a unique micro-site; do you know the URL? It may not be a program in your department, but if it benefits your cause, it's your responsibility to know where more information can be found online.

As a leader, you represent your organization everywhere you go. Promoting your social media presence is a team effort that shouldn't be left to your communications coordinator or digital marketing agency to shoulder alone.

You never know when you might meet that perfect person at a networking event who wants to engage with your cause online. Asking supporters or donors to search for you on social media is much less effective than directing them to your official presence.

Remember, social media is not for everyone. You don't have be using Twitter yourself to be informed enough to tell a supporter: "Yep, you can follow us on Twitter at @mycharity!"

3. What percentage of our overall giving is online?

You are likely already aware how much money your organization raises every quarter and every year. It's crucial information for every staff member to know, even if they're not part of the development team. But do you know how your website performs as a fundraising channel?

If you're committed to improving your website, remember that it's the driver behind your online giving. The 2010 Online Giving Report indicated that online donations grew an impressive 35% in 2010. The average North American nonprofit raises between 7 - 10% of their total giving online. So knowing this, what's your number?

What will you need to do to your website this year to improve that metric? Knowing your current benchmark helps you determine if you've improved your conversion in the future. Don't make changes without knowing your number!

Donations by web are the most cost-effective for your organization to process, and the digital channel is the fastest growing method of giving. Informed leaders keep a careful eye on their online giving performance.

4. Which accessibility issues matter most to my organization and supporters?

Nobody knows your organization's primary users better than you! Is accessibility top of mind for you when considering your audience?

As you design your sites, do you know how they will display on mobile devices, with screen reading software, or other adaptive technology solutions? If you're not sure, CNIB offers an Accessibility Site Check Certification service.

How does your website perform if it is used in the classroom or libraries as part of an educational program? Libraries or community centres may be slower to upgrade to the latest browsers or plug-ins.

You should also consider what percentage of your programs are delivered through your web properties (or social media sites). For instance, if you are a counselling service, are you offering online chat? How many of your clients choose to access digital services versus your traditional channels?

5. What drives the most traffic to my website?

Here's where your top-level knowledge of Google Analytics will really benefit you. There's simply no room for guessing when it comes to how your supporters are currently finding you online.

Do you know what words your visitors are using to search for your organization? Which keywords in your content might be misleading visitors who then exit immediately? Which websites or blogs are your top referrers? Are you (like many other nonprofits and charities) noticing a steady increase in traffic from Facebook?

The wonderful thing about Google Analytics is that it's not necessary to crunch a bunch of numbers every day to answer these big questions you have about your visitors. Once you've identified your website's goals, weekly or monthly reports and alerts can be automatically prepared to keep senior staff in the know about who is talking about your cause online.

6. How many records are in my database? What percentage of those records have email addresses?

If you know right down to the exact number, I'm impressed! And a little worried about your obsession with your database. Kidding aside, it's important to have a general idea of how many individuals you have in your contact management system.

You may not have permission to contact every constituent in your database. Do you know how many of your members have opted-in to receive email messages about your cause?

A clean list of email addresses benefits every aspect of your organization, from fundraising and program delivery to marketing and communications. Email will likely be a vital piece of your next digital campaign. When was the last time you updated or reviewed your email lists? Wise leaders know that a healthy database is a healthy organization.

7. Who are our top five competitors?

Part of digital literacy is being aware of the superstars in your sector. It's not realistic (or wise!) to assume that you can replicate every slick campaign that catches your eye. But if you have a consistent group of organizations of similar size and mission that you admire for their online campaigns, share your observations with your web or communications team.

How have your competitors evolved over the last six months or year? Where are those organizations succeeding and failing?

Wired.com's Jim Hopkinson shared a great piece of advice for young professionals in 10 Things I Taught My Interns, and it applies to managers too: Hopkinson starts every Monday morning by visiting his company's top competitors and reading the latest industry news.

Are you aware of online publications focused on the digital side of the charitable sector? Osocio.org, NTEN Connect, and Socialbrite.org are curated by nonprofit thought-leaders. Imagine Canada, Hilborn eNews, and CharityVillage®'s Village Vibes, are all e-newsletters on charitable issues, written for Canadians.

Ultimately, you don't have to be an expert on usability, interactive multimedia, or any of the other buzz words of the day to benefit from a broad understanding of your digital infrastructure.

Many decision-makers are hesitant to show an interest in activities that happen on the web. Why sit around a boardroom table waiting for your IT or communications team to report in on the state of your website?

If you are a leader who knows the answers to these questions, you're well prepared to make smart decisions about the future of your organization online.

Claire Kerr is the director of digital philanthropy at Artez Interactive. A nonprofit veteran, Claire has worked for charitable organizations in the economic development, education, and fundraising sectors. Connect with her on Twitter or on LinkedIn, or in person over a double-double at Tim Hortons.

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