Though it may seem easy (or more common) to promote an online business (an e-commerce or a corporate website), charities tend to have websites as well, and they need attention, too. Let's see how a charity can get noticed online (most likely, on a low budget, but with a couple of passionate workers).
How charities are different from businesses
Charities may have a wide range of goals, from raising awareness to influencing social actions, raising money for research to effecting change one individual at a time. Their scope of activities may be local, regional, national, or global. They may seek volunteers, donations, or corporate sponsorships.
Before we go into depths of lining out the plan, let's examine how charity websites and organizations are different from other websites and companies:
- charities don't have a planned, fixed budget
- mostly, charities don't have full-time web developers, marketers, usability consultants and other web-specialists
- charity websites are viewed as an add-on to offline organization activity, not as an important outpost on the Web
- most often, charities don't have money to hire quality, respectable web developers and consultants as well
- mostly, charities don't sell products or services - they accept donations
- charities provide services to real people online, who can't give back anything, except kind words and word of mouth
- sometimes, there aren't many trusted and established websites on the charity topic
Due to the above circumstances most non-profit organizations find themselves in, their website represents something really awful and not exactly ready to accept donations. Most often, they are not promoted as well.
As you see from above, charities may not have a stable web development department and income. But what they have is their industry online, their passion for the cause and desire to work for it. Let's see how we turn the not-for-profit websites disadvantages and turn them into their advantages.
Planning a charity site
Just as a business web site needs to define their business objectives, and design their site around the goals that they want to accomplish, a nonprofit charity needs to consider who they want to reach out to with their web site, and what goals they want to meet with their pages. So it is important for everyone involved with the website project to remember the charity goals and reinforce them with every decision they make.
One of the important aspects of a charity is its cause. The greater the cause, the deeper it resonates within the people, the easier it is to promote the organization. That's why to build a noticeable website online, information of which will be spread via word of mouth, a charity ought to host a community on its topic (cause) on its own site, i.e. have a forum and, maybe, a blog (it is good for other reasons as well, stay tuned).
Okay, we need to have a forum. But before a forum, the site has to offer something to the visitors, not just a form to donate any amount of money. That's why it is vitally important for a charity site to have quality content. The content will attract the readers to the site, keep them and encourage people to link to your site (for a reason, other than just the charity cause).
As a non-profit organization has to have grounds for its cause, there have to be some research information, available to it. This information is an excellent example of what kind of content can be placed on the site.
Another is thoughts, ideas on how to prevent predicaments (related to the site topic), how to cope with related injuries, diseases, what to do after the rehabilitation period, etc. In short, charity sites need content that will provide value not only to the people, who are affected by the organization, but to everyone.
Here are a couple of examples of communities and content types a charity site can build:
- a place for doctors, nurses and patients to discuss their injuries and diseases
- alternatively, a place for scientists and people, related to the cause (global warming, for instance) to discuss possible preventative and recovery measures
- a directory of sites and resources related to the topic (research institutes, clinics, hospitals, other similar charities, industry sites, etc)
- a place, where people, affected by an injury or a disease, can arrange local meetings
- research papers on the site topic
- a blog, which discusses various aspects of the topic/industry
- a blog (or just another aspect of the previous one) to publish news and major happenings in the industry (or just organization news, if no one wants to track news)
- a collection of success stories, when the donations have helped
- donations spent reports (daily, monthly, quarterly, yearly)
- a directory of organizations that support the charity
- a classifieds section on a website
- advertisement of products or services, aimed to help those, affected by the charity topic (special attention should be made to quality advertisement)
As said before, great content can make it more likely that someone will link to a charity's site, and become an evangelist for the organization. Here are some more ideas for developing content from Bill Slawski:
Narratives can be one way of helping people understand what a charity is aiming to achieve, with real stories about real people. A charitable organization isn't nameless and faceless. It's a group of people who have gotten together to help others. Let people know who the people behind the organization are, and why they have gotten involved. Let visitors know something about the people or animals or communities that the charity aims at helping. Tell stories about them.
One of my favorite charitable organizations is a bird rescue and rehabilitation clinic. On their web site, they introduce us to some of the people who work for the organization, what they do, why they joined, and what their goals are. They take pictures of the birds that they rescue from oil spills and other accidents, and followup with images of those birds during the rehabilitation process, through to release back into the wild.
Make it easy to be responsive
Make it easy for people to be responsive when they interact with the charity's web site.
- If there are ways that people can help, let them know, and give them some idea of the impact that their help can have
- If volunteering time is a goal of the web site, make it clear how people can contact the right person, and what they might do during that time
- If the charity aims at raising awareness of an issue, consider creating ebooks or videos or helpful resources that can be shared freely, and make buttons that folks can place on their web sites which link back to informational pages
- If donations can make a difference, make it easy for people to donate, and let them know how much of an impact their money or food or supplies can have
Tell the story
If the charity has been around for a while, and has a history, tell that story. Let people know who they are working with, what the organization has accomplished in the past, and what its goals are for the future. Keep people informed of the initiatives the group is undertaking, and news about goals attained in meeting those efforts. You want people thinking that this is an active organization, which is making a difference, and can make more of a difference with their help.
Having such versatile content on your site should make your charity website not only The resource on industry information and the cause, but will also help you establish more trust with your potential sponsors, will make you more effective in promoting your cause and influencing people to improve the world.
Mind you, that's just some ideas example. A person from a non-profit can think of more ways how he can make his website useful for the charity-cause community. Especially, if the person is the chief in there (or at least the most passionate activist).
Read more about quality content.
Developing the charity site
Alright, now that we have scratched the surface of what the website should offer, let's go about creating it. Partly due to the limited funds (a good graphical template costs $1500+), using free CMS and a free CMS template may be preferrable for a charity.
Though the resources may be quite slim (at the start, at least), special attention should be made to actually developing a working, stable and scalable website. As far as I can see, Drupal seems to be the system of choice for building versatile websites (though truly large websites on Drupal do require some tune-ups and extra hardware, but who doesn't?). At any rate, anyone can hire a Drupal developer to setup the website for him, even a charity on a small budget (you pay only for installation, customization and the tuning thing, not for CMS and template design).
CivicSpace is a specialized version of Drupal that has been developed to be helpful and useful to nonprofit organizations and charities. If you have the technical skills to install Drupal, you should be able to handle installing the CivicSpace version. They will install, create themes, and even host sites for affordable prices.
Of course, you can talk to a quality designer you like and ask him/her, whether he/she will do the job for free. If the designer sympathizes with your cause, he/she'll do the job. Of course, you'll give credit to his work by linking from the footer, from the about page and post about him/her on her blog and forums, as well.
Note: You should make sure that you like the work of the designer, before you start working with him.
Now that we have found a platform to build our site on, let's see for the forum software. One of the best ones are Invision Power Board and vBulletin. I have participated on forums on both platforms and I must say I like them both, though I'd prefer vBulletin for a website. It offers nice features, loads pretty fast and also has some plugins, such as vbSEO to make it really search-engine friendly.
Good forum software costs some money, but the price isn't high enough to stop the good people from contributing to the cause, right?
Filling with content
Now that we have an installted website, we need to fill it with content. Generally, the easiest material to create is articles (or blog posts). Creating 50-100 informational, educational articles should be good enough to start promoting the website (it is easier to link to sites that have quality content on them).
You can take any of the content ideas from the list above and create a section for it on your website. It is a good idea to create sections one by one and filling them with plenty of content, before creating another section. This way, you create useful resource on a topic - not something spread thin on a huge website with lots of sections.
Setting up a blog and a forum from the start might be helpful, as it'll allow you to convert the early visitors to your constant visitors and maybe, contributors. This way, those forum members and guest bloggers, have joined you from the start, will feel especially important for your community and organization. You'll be able to build strong friendly relationships with them, which should result in many unexpected pleasant surprises.
Don't engage with advertising anything on your site just yet. Let your site age, gain repeat visitors and the momentum. In a year or two, the site should be ready to advertise the really useful products to your community.
Read more about quality content.
Optimizing the site
Some might just slap up a website, fill it with content and start marketing it. But to successfully attract donations, you need to make sure your site works as effectively as it can. Here you can use some SEO services, website optimization or usability consultants and such. You can either pay them (the costs will be compensated by increased site efficiency pretty quickly) or have them help your cause, if they find it dear to their hearts.
The core goal of improving your website is to ensure that every visitor, interested in donating to your charity cause, will donate, in fact. There are numerous things that may help, but it is pretty hard to make your site natural without having any web-related experience.
Of course, some measures the Web specialists will come up with will attract more traffic and links to your website - which is good - but the key to your site success lies in converting your site visitors to sponsors, evangelists or just in improving peoples minds, so they could improve the world themselves. That's why for them to understand what you have to offer, having a human-friendly, usable website is a must.
Of course, if you have willing people on board, you can ask them to learn all the site-related delicacies. It'll take several months to learn the basics and a half a year to a full year to learn some advanced stuff, so you don't need any website optimization consultants. A good step to learn about improving websites would be this very blog.
If anything, most likely, without an external (or internal) site consultant, you'll need to:
- improve site usability
- optimize site speed
- improve website accessibility (it is a legal requirement in the US, UK and Europe)
- format the content properly
- develop solid internal linking structure
Read more about website optimization.
One more thing about site improvements. The best case would be when you or your designer integrates all site aspects in the design process. It will ensure that you will have less to do or won't have to redesign your website. The same thing relates to creating (writing) content.
So, the best way would be to have educated staff on board or use the services of a website optimization consultant before the web designer starts to work. Luckily, Drupal seems to be more or less user friendly, but the majority of issues come from hand-crafted content and site structure.
Promoting a charity site
Now that you have a ready website with some content, you can start promoting it. Generally, it all comes down to letting all the (potentially) interested parties know that you exist and they should spread the word about you. Let's make a small list right now:
- get mentions on the institutes sites, which research results you used. They will be likely to mention you on their sites to show the results of their researches go into practice.
- participate in forums and blogs in your topic industry (as some forums don't allow accounts from one IP address, you may want to divide forums between your employees/activists. Or take the risk of explaining everything to the other forums administrators)
- find blogs about your charity cause and tell them about your organization, how you provide value to the other people. Most likely, the blog owner will listen and talk about it (or even promote your non-profit company on his site).
- find sites, which sell products or provide services, related to your cause. Tell them about your cause, your site and find ways to cooperate together (by running events, maybe they'll sponsor you as well). This way you not only get mentions in their blogs, but also gain interested visitors and, possibly, a sponsor.
- Go local. Create a page about your own town and how you help it to be better. Get engaged with local community, run events, support sessions, contribute to holiday (Helloween, Christmas, New Year) celebration: get noticed.
- find local bloggers and find ways to cooperate with them. Let some local writer cover your organization on his blog or in your site. Feature him/her as your premium contributor. If anything, befriend a local reporter/journalist to do the same.
- finally, issue press releases about really major milestones and newsworthy stuff. It is likely to be picked up, the more interesting your news is. Cooperate with local newspapers.
- focus on the people and how you can benefit them. Forget about the search engines, when finding ways to optimize and promote your site.
More marketing ideas from Bill:
- There are a lot of directories and portal sites set up specifically for charitable organizations and volunteer opportunities. It's worth finding those, and submitting information about your organization to them. A search in Google for "nonprofit directory" (without the quotation marks) uncovers a large number of directories. These are often free to join and create a profile page upon or add a link to your site from
- Other charitable sites may be willing to share their experiences and ideas on how to reach out to others and attract visitors to your site. An email or phone call may lead to a wealth of ideas
- Include the web address of your web site on letterhead, brochures, posters, business cards, and other materials created for the organization
- If the efforts of the charity can be captured effectively in photographs, consider submitting images to photosharing sites such as Flickr. The Wikipedia article on photo sharing lists a good number of other sites where pictures can be shared. The Bird Research and Rescue site I mentioned above would be a great candidate for the use of a photo sharing site to spread the word about the charity.
Though a charity organization doesn't sell anything, it doesn't mean that the image of the organization should be neglected online. The image is created not only during the design procses, but through site content and marketing methods as well. As the core of charity organizations is providing value to the needing people, the site development, optimization and promotion methods should be focused on providing value as well.
Giving online will not only align well with the charity image (brand, if you will), but will be most effective as well.
As you can see, there are plenty of opportunities to improve and promote your organization and your charity website. The trick is to find ways to provide value to the people, interested in the cause and to communicate, build relationships and cooperate with them. If your aim is to make a better world, start with yourself and your local community and then reach the online community. Act together and you'll make an impact.
As you may have noticed, this post was written together with Bill Slawski, a well-known (in certain circles) SEO and admin for Cre8asite Forums, who is famous for reviewing various Web-related (Google, Microsoft, etc) patents and translating them to the human language at his SEO company site and blog, http://www.SEObytheSea.com.