Top 10 website mistakes charities make

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Charities make the world a better place, and they often do it on shoestring budgets with staff and volunteers who are already stretched thin. With the time, people and money these organizations have already dedicated to mission-critical work, it's no wonder charities often make websites a low priority.

But they shouldn't. A website is a powerful marketing tool. It's one of the best ways for charities to attract new supporters, particularly young people in high school, university or just entering the workforce. It's often the first point of contact for your future donors and volunteers. When someone visits your website, they get to know a bit more about how they can support your organization.

The cost of a website is a common challenge for charities, one that is often met with a search for a bargain-basement developer. The result is almost always a website that doesn't connect.

rtraction is currently running a contest for Canada's Worst Charity Website, which is dedicated to helping one lucky charity to improve its online presence with a $20,000 website overhaul plus $5,000 in additional services. Voting is open now, and the contest has led us to analyze some of the primary reasons that the websites we've seen ultimately don't serve their charities. This list outlines the top ten offences, and what you can do if your website is one of the guilty parties:

1. No direction = no action

Unclear navigation and missing information are common website blunders, and often symptoms of simply launching a website because "you're supposed to", or using it as an information repository. Ultimately, people can't find what they're looking for (e.g. because the volunteer form is filed under "About Us") or figure out how to contact you.

The fix: Put yourself in your visitors' shoes. If the website were your first introduction to the organization, what would you want to know and what would you want to do with that information? Ensure that each piece of content and functionality is dedicated to getting people to do what you want them to do with a clear call to action (see the London Food Bank website for an example). Your contact information should also be easy to find (e.g. in the header or footer of the website), as the next step for many people will be a phone call or visit.

2. Only one channel

Having a website is great, but driving people to it and making it accessible from anywhere is even better. Facebook and Twitter are powerful tools for learning and sharing what's happening in the community and they're pervasive. Busy people look at websites on their mobile devices while waiting for an appointment or standing in line at the grocery store. Charities that neglect social media and mobile access miss opportunities to raise awareness, attract donors and get volunteers.

The fix: If you aren't already, find opportunities to engage with your stakeholders through Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels. This might be an initiative for your marketing resources, a great volunteer or internship opportunity, or an investment in consulting and implementation with a digital agency. If your website isn't mobile-ready, you can find affordable website templates that include mobile versions, or ask an agency to help with design and development.

3. A message in the wrong medium

Your message should be consistent across all media. But people read differently on a screen than they do on paper, and they visit your website for different reasons than they'd scan a brochure.

The fix: Web copy must account for short attention spans with brief, consumable chunks of information that, in keeping with #1 above, gets people to take the next step toward supporting your organization.

4. Trying to please everyone

Bill Cosby once said, "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody." Charities have multiple internal stakeholders who influence what goes on a site and various audiences to engage. When too many voices are represented and too many audiences targeted, your message quickly gets diluted and confused.

The fix: Do your homework and work together. Think about the top three audiences you want to speak to and prioritize them. Identify common threads within stakeholder input. Find out where you'll get the most traction and focus your effort on giving people enough information to encourage them to act by donating, volunteering or getting help.

5. No proof in the pudding

You're proud of the work you do, and you should be. But simply telling people your mission and your latest accomplishments won't build the connection they're looking for. They want to see the difference you make, and how they can be a part of it.

The fix: Leading with a few stats that show how people's contributions make a difference, or sharing photos and testimonials (video or written) will help people see why you're worth supporting.

6. Low (or no) maintenance

A good website is never done. When the technology and design aren't maintained, it shows. When content is entirely static, people don't come back to your website. When you wait for your content to be perfect, you miss excellent opportunities to engage.

The fix: Keep your website up-to-date. It doesn't have to be overwhelming or overly expensive, but it should be done and a content management system (e.g. WordPress or Drupal) can make it easier. Try out options for posting new content with a blog, event listing or even a space where people can post their own stories, photos or videos. Keep in mind that a successful blog is one that's updated frequently, so if you think you'll have long periods between updates, it might not be a good fit.

7. You've got our number...now what?

Any time you're collecting personal information (e.g. volunteer forms, online donations, contact forms), you must have a privacy policy that tells people how you will (and won't) use their information. Yet on many websites these policies are either nowhere to be found, or are a confusing cut-and-paste jumble of other policies.

The fix: Legalese can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. Try out a privacy policy generator that asks you for a bit of information about your organization and creates a simple policy tailored to your circumstances.

8. You look familiar

Websites that are too reliant on stock photography or — GASP! — clip art do a community-oriented organization a disservice. Stock photography may have a place in the corporate world, and it may make it easy to find the right image, but it doesn't show you doing what you do. When people see the same image on your charity website as they did when they were shopping for car insurance, they won't feel a connection.

The fix: A community organization should be showing the world what it does. That doesn't mean you have to hire a professional photographer. It may be as simple as getting a volunteer to snap some shots at your next event, or even asking your community to post their own images for some bonus online engagement.

9. Out of style

This isn't about whether the look-and-feel of a site is pretty enough — that can be subjective. It's about whether a site remains consistent with the style guide that was provided by the designer, or even lacks a style guide at all. Like stripes and plaid, blending styles can be a bit tough on the eyes.

The fix: If you have a style guide — a set of guidelines for page layout, font, image sizes, colours and other brand elements — follow it. If you don't have one, it might be time to work with a designer. If that's not a financially viable option, an internal marketing resource might take some time to identify the best elements of your current design and create a quick reference document for future changes.

10. Not measuring up

This is one of those things that you can't see as a visitor, but it's important for anyone with a website to know. What is your website doing? How many visitors are you getting, from where, and what are they looking at? If you don't know that, you don't know what elements of your site are working and what could stand to be improved.

The fix: Google Analytics. It's that simple, and it's free. You can use as much or as little of the data as you'd like to find out how people are using your site and see if any changes you make are getting traction.

You've made it through the list, and maybe even learned a thing or two about making your website the powerful communication tool it can be. Now, there's one more thing you can do to help a charity website in need: head over to worstcharitywebsite.ca and vote for the website you think needs the most TLC. Voting is open from March 6 until March 20, 2012. Please, think of the websites!

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