Make a charity/nonprofit site on a budget

Running a charity or NGO has its rewards. Running a charity’s website, however, is similar to running a hospital on fire and pretending that everything’s fine.

The web admin of any charity, big or small, is usually just a kind employee or volunteer who’s in charge of the charity’s site. If large sums of money are involved, the site maybe be an overproduced mess used to burn through pockets quickly and mercilessly. What’s left is a website made from the worst kind of spaghetti code dating from 2009 that barely chugs along. It’s slow, challenging to use, hard to manage, and heaven forbid a smart teenager somewhere has enough free time to waste on hacking the site.

The cold, hard truth is: there’s always a bored, smart teenager out there, somewhere.

What most NGO sites are left with is an undefendable mess of bad copy written by people who really had the best intentions but only know how to write project proposals. Add some poor choices in stock photography that are gracelessly inserted at any at every given moment. Top it off with poor links, without any call to action buttons; vague words about changing the world; and voilà! You’ve got a basic, off the mill NGO/charity website.

This hurts the charity in a multitude of ways. Bounce rates are high. Donations are low. People mistrust the organisation. These reasons are just a few of the worst offenders that cause the greatest damage to any non-profit.

There is a way around this. It entails having patience and truly committing to a website. Whether you’re just starting out, or someone gave you the reigns to their site, or you are the long standing web manager at a charity in dire need of help, you can affect change. You can whip the website into shape so it gains trust, and garners more donations without losing your mind. You don’t have to conduct complicated A/B tests, or spend thousands on a Google App integration, or any other unnecessary buzzword that’s floating around these days.

Building trust. Creating foundations.

There’s an inherent reason why some sites build more trust than others. A bunch of nonprofit and charity websites have been tested for the way they’re used, the way they convey their message, and a lot more. People have incredibly high expectations of these websites, but the problem is most fail to meet them.

People seek answers to highly specific questions; sites that fail to answer them lose people’s interest at blazing speeds, as well as hinder any little desire or motivation left to get the answers they were looking for in the first place.

The answers are revealed through the website’s copy. Copy is text on a website, and its purpose is to imbue the reader with information regarding the charity, its mission, and to build trust. Donations come only after trust has been established.

Building trust through copy isn’t as a daunting task as you might think it is. However, it requires a bit more consideration than just slapping a “We’re this, and we do this, please give money.” or the dreadful “Let’s change the world together” copy most sites flaunt about. The worst offenders use boilerplate expressions and words that circulate in the charity/nonprofit circles.

Write great copy and build a website’s key foundations by focusing on the answers to questions:
who are you,
What do you do with the money
Who’s working with you
How do I donate

1. Who are you?

The most important piece of information people want to know when they visit any charity site is what the charity does and how they do it. This first impression is really important, and if you don’t answer this question in the very beginning, you’ll have high bounce rates, and confused people leaving your site in droves. You have to communicate your purpose effectively, and make it easy for people to read/see what you’re about.

Put your mission first, so anyone visiting your site can learn about it in the first 10 seconds.

Accomplish this by taking your existing mission statement, which is probably 4 paragraphs long, and condense it in one sentence; better yet, condense it in one tweet – 140 characters. Then display this sentence either as the first piece of information people see on your website, or high up enough that it’s easy to find and read during the first 10 seconds.

Even youtube videos now struggle for attention. If you can’t captivate your audience in the first 15 seconds of a YouTube video, then it’s as if you’ve completely lost them.

Reinforce your mission by also placing this sentence in the “About” page or whichever page you use to talk more about your organisation. Just make sure it’s as big as the Universal logo in the beginning of any summer Hollywood blockbuster (like Jurassic World).

Because if you don’t, you’ll be left with a website that seems vague and unapproachable.

After your opening sentence, any other text should be written with similar values in mind. Focus on providing any other information in clear, concise, easy-to-digest sentences. Because attention spans are getting shorter, make your sentences shorter as well.

Sentences like this one, where they’re cut up into bits and pieces in an effort to sound as impossibly educated as they can, only serve a purpose of saying basically nothing, all the while lasting for an entire paragraph; there’s no information to be taken from this long, arduous sentence that may or may not include $10 words such as: Clandestine, Admonish, Facetious, Incongruous and more. Please give me money.

You get the idea. Avoid writing like a corporate machine. Avoid sentences that are as long. Chop them up into easy bits and pieces.

Because if you write copy well, people will feel it. It’ll help them trust you more easily. The result: they’ll donate more easily as well.

2. What do you do with the money?

Money is sacrosanct. We spend our lives, our precious time alive, into making money. Parting with it for whichever reason requires convincing.

One way to help ease the remorse of parting with hard-earned currency is to explain how it will be used. As an organisation you should provide in as much detail as possible (without burdening the reader!) on what happens to donations once you are in possession of them.

While you are not required to do this, you’ll have a much easier time building trust and convincing potential donors if you do. Perhaps you could somewhat disclose this information in an “About” or “How we work” page, but I strongly suggest you disclose the information in the earliest stage possible.

People who fail to find this information will be left with a sour taste in their mouth; they will not be able to discern whether you are a legitimate organisation, or a scam promising help to other but keeping 90% of donations for “administrative purposes.”

Whatever you do, under no circumstance should you bury this information or try to hide it. Even if people think you take too much % for yourself than they hoped, they will certainly be glad you disclosed this information – and they will be confident that you are not trying to hide anything from them. Try to explain your reasons for why you need to take a cut of the donation, no matter its %.

An excellent example would be the Humble Indie Bundle.

For a sum of their choice, people can buy a bundle of computer games. During checkout, they select who should receive the money and how. They can choose to give it all to the developers who made the games; to the organisation that distributes the bundle; or to a charity. Or they can create any number of combinations in between. Perhaps they would give half to the developers, and half to charity. Or split it three ways.

The person purchasing the bundle is in control. They choose what goes where. While this is not easily possible to do with traditional charity organisations, you could try and be as transparent as possible with what happens with a person’s donation, how it’s distributed/cut, and where it ends up.

3. Who’s working with you?

You’ve got to take special care on how you present your reputation and legitimacy. These two factors are vital to people who are mulling the idea of making a donation. When deconstructed, there’s a few guiding topics you should mention to make sure people think that your nonprofit or charity organisation truly deserves a donation. These include any and all of the following:

– Celebrity endorsements
– Testimonials from donors
– How long have you been doing this
– Endorsements from organisations that review charities

There’s also the venerable effect of word-of-mouth. People are social beings at their core; we seek recommendations from folks who are dear to us for movies, music, books… even charities and nonprofits. This is no different. Your biggest social element to lean on here is Facebook. You can use your Facebook Page to accumulate likes. Then, you’d make your site query Facebook for every visitor. Your site will ask Facebook how many of this visitor’s friends have liked your charity. Hopefully, there’d be at least one person. This instantly builds more trust, and is a silent reinforcer of the social recommendation mechanism I just told you about.

This social factor should not be your primary way of communication your goals. Use website content and neatly written copy. This is your primary way of explaining yourself. The likes and comments on social media are a result of how well you are able to present yourself; besides, they come at a later stage anyway.

Celebrity endorsements are a pretty straightforward affair. Garner as much support from high profile influencers. A fine example would be a McWhopper – a hamburger made by rival companies Burger King and McDonalds. It was a World Peace Day campaign by Burger King and the Peace One Day charity, in an effort to raise awareness of the violent conflict and crimes that have been happen around the world, especially Syria. Sadly, McDonald’s declined, but Burger King has received support from other restaurants, both big and small, and handed out thousands of free, peace day burgers. This event certainly raised awareness; but even though McDonald’s refused to take part, the company launched a campaign to help refugees, although admittedly on its own. If you can get Emma Stone or Jessica Alba to advocate for you, that would be amazing; however, most charities lack celebrity endorsement yet do fine without it.

Most people will come to a conclusion based on a cocktail of info, including endorsements, the testimonials/word of mouth, more info about your organisation and organisations that review other charities. If you are certified with a certain society or organisation like the Charity Navigator, display this promptly. It will add weight to your credibility in the eyes of your site’s visitors. Then again, you should also state how long have you been doing this for. If it’s for two months, i.e. you’re new, then it might be wiser to back this info up with the experience of your employees, and explain why your new venture garners trust; this can be testimonials by partnering organisations, or prior colleagues from influential charities and so on. Don’t obscure this information or shove it hiding somewhere on a bottom of a page. Just back yourself up. Rebrand a new venture as a fresh start or use some similar strategy. It would be better if your nonprofit had existed for some time already – which you can, and should, proudly state – but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have brand awareness experience yet.

4. How do I donate?

The sole purpose of the site is to gather donations. Yes, the site will educate visitors about you, your mission, the way you do work and effect change… but the point of this is to build trust. Because trust leads to donations, your ultimate goal.

And what happens if a person decides they want to donate and you fail to provide a clear way how? Or you overburdened with too much information? Or you bury the donate link to the bottom? Or even place it everywhere so much it becomes annoying and makes you look desperate?

What you need to do is to make the donation process as simple as possible. Seriously, if it can be a two-click affair, do it like that. But everything has to start with a crisp “Donate” call to action button. It has to exist and evoke a sense of slight urgency in the visitor, guiding them to make a donation. Please do not mistake this as an instruction to make a “Donations” page. No. While a donations page can exist, where you can display all the kind patrons who support your cause, you still need an actual call to action button on your home page.

Most donations take around 5 minutes to complete; that’s measuring the time from clicking the “Donate” button and seeing the “Thank You for donating” confirmation page.

Speaking of the process, there’s no wrong or right way to do it. Once the donate button is clicked, people expect some sort of form that asks them for info. Sometimes the form is chopped up into small increments; sometimes it’s a one-piece; either way, strive to take as little information as possible, as you want to reduce friction in the process. Make it short and sweet. Also make it really easy to understand without ambiguous words.

The checkout process on, let’s say Amazon, is a quite quick affair. In fact, they even have 1-click purchasing buttons that use previously used data (card number, address and so on) to make the purchase almost automatic. Heck, there’s even a physical button you can buy from Amazon that, when pressed, automatically orders an item associated with the button. For example you could place a detergent button on the washing machine; every time you run out, just press the button and detergent will be automatically delivered to your home.

Here’s an idea: get a friend who knows basic programming of some sorts. Get them the Amazon Dash button, and tell them to change it so that every time it’s pressed, a donation is made to your cause.

Pitch the button to companies: make them place it at counters or tables or anywhere their customers interact regularly. So, every time a person presses it, on their own accord, the company would donate a small chunk of change to your cause. It would garner great media attention. Heck, it could maybe even go viral.

Thank me with pizza and coffee, later.

Getting back to the form: your donations form is probably going to be a bit more complicated than a regular checkout process on a shopping site. However, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Remember the Humble Indie Bundle? Try to draw inspiration from their donation process.

To offset this added weight, you HAVE TO write clear copy.

Because people that visit other websites either seek information about something, or want to buy the information/products. As a nonprofit, charity, or even non-governmental organisation (NGO) you’re at a disadvantage because you’re the one that’s asking for money. The product you provide isn’t an iPhone but perhaps clean water for someone in desperate need. Yet in the mind of a person who is not in immediate contact with your charities plights may not appreciate the gravity of the situation in its fullest.

That’s why you must CLEARLY COMMUNICATE your value proposition.

It’s the only way to get volunteers and funds.

A few pointers on construction

Your charity’s cause could be anything and everything. Arts, animals, relief, education, environment, health, religion… there’s a bunch of issues left to tackle in the world. Yet all orgs have to basic set of tasks that people do when they interact with them.

They have to decide who to donate to. Let’s say someone is trying to pick between, two, three, even four charities. they probably going to pick the one that’s the closest to their heart. Human compassion is no weakness; it gravitates to the causes that people understand or have a relationship to. Rarely is a person brought up in complete vacuum. But for the sake of the argument, let’s say a person is trying to decide between two charities that touch similar, if not the same, subject. Let’s also they’re of similar size and scope. The content, copy, and the information architecture of a website will sway them.

If they’re making a donation for the first time in their life, they’re probably going to use their own credit cards. If they’re going to make a repeated donation, then a website should remember this person and their details; while this may seem like stepping onto privacy’s toes, it’s not. Shopping services always remember credit card numbers in an effort to make the checkout experience more streamlined. Be no fool, though: a conglomerate like Amazon can afford highly secure servers that protect customer data. Can you? If not, maybe it’s easier to rely on a payment processing company like Stripe payments, or even the unruly PayPal.

Donations that are physical, instead of money, are a little more cumbersome, but still effective. In wake of the Syrian refugee crisis, people have come together and donated food, clothing and more. This was conducted in certain charity centres/collection points. However, it was necessary to let people know where to drop off their items and during which times.

Critical information should never be obscured on your website and your organisation’s Facebook Page. Pinning a post to the top of your page is easy; but a website has to be able to let you display the latest news easily.

During times of great need, people will flock to your site and seek information in how to help. Don’t disappoint them. Clear, easy to read content is also key. Make sure to insert contact information. Make double sure to increase the importance of critical info. Refrain from bolding have of your text; use bold and red colour sparingly. Everything may seem important to you, but it’s not like that for everyone. Take 5 minutes, reread everything, and select 3 important facts. Rewrite them as three tweets (no longer than 120 characters per fact). This will make them extremely easy to share on Twitter and Facebook, which will help you immeasurably more than a simple copy-pasted link.

People will more often than not, search for your charity/nonprofit on Facebook, too. Give them an opportunity to show off their willingness to donate by adding a “Share with friends?” option on your confirmation page. This will help you raise more awareness, and let them show off their altruistic spirit. A Facebook Page will also be great when people write status updates and mention you (in good and bad). Because once tagged, anyone can click your name in the status and be transported to your page. The same goes for Twitter and Instagram profiles.

Volunteering is also a pretty important aspect of your work, so treat it as such. Offer streamlined ways for people to find more information on how to volunteer for you. Even if you’re volunteering period is closed, state so on your website, with more info about when it will reopen. Also provide a concise call to action button, for example “Volunteer today!” It’ll help guide visitors to the page with the right info. The information you display here is also critical to lowering your bounce rate. Place straightforward information about volunteering at your org looks like, describe typical duties and responsibilities, and list their potential working hours. It’s the most important information volunteers always look for. Do it right, and you’ll save yourself the trouble of answering 500 emails filled with questions. Provide contact info – as in actual phone numbers – because folks often prefer to talk to somebody directly before they commit to volunteering.

Fill the volunteering page with social media links, because people will often share your info if they want to help somehow but don’t have money or time to volunteer right now. That’s where the word of mouth play comes in.

Do not beg, and do not force anyone to share your content. A simple “Please help us out by sharing” will suffice. Do not guilt trip folks into sharing; offer it as an alternative instead: “Don’t have time to volunteer? Maybe someone you know does! Please do us a solid and share this? Thanks.” Talk like a human being, not a corporate conglomerate. No matter what you do, your tone of voice should be friendly and approachable.

Let me go back to the payment process again, to reiterate the highly important fact: it has to be as efficient as buying detergent online. It also has to take roughly the same time, if not less. People already have a mental model set up for paying for items. Donating money is similar if not the same as paying money – the buttons, dials, fields, and forms on websites largely serve the same purpose of making a transaction between the person and the organisation. That’s why when you’re asking for something other than money, people need to make new mental models. They have to learn about what you need from them, and how to do it. Collecting clothes for the homeless is not a new idea, but still requires info like where to deliver the clothes, in what condition, and whether or not there is any additional important info regarding the drop-off. Help your donors overcome this barrier by providing them an easy way to learn how to donate non-monetary items, and why. Because if you don’t, they’re just going to jump from charity to charity that share a similar cause, until they find the one with the easiest way to donate. Sometimes, the easiest way to donate seems easy just because it was the easiest to understand; some sites have easier ways of accepting non monetary donations, but they grind on in 5 paragraphs on the importance of life and death instead of a few concise sentences.

The best formula is already present in journalism. Journalists are actually the first information architects to use words in order to structure news. When they write press releases they need to answer the TOP 5 questions about the news in the VERY FIRST SENTENCE. These are WHAT, WHY, HOW, WHEN, WHERE.

When we take apply them to our cause, it translates into something like this:

What: Clothes. Why: for homeless so they don’t freeze in winter. How: Drop them off regardless of condition. When: from 9 to 5. Where: in our centre located at this address.

When we organise it a bit, we get;

Please donate clothes for the homeless, so they don’t freeze and die during winter. Drop them* off from 9 to 5 in our centre, here.
*condition of clothes doesn’t matter.

Simple, easy to read, easy to understand, short.

But, you can take it a step further and give it a more friendly tone and a human voice:

Calling all dusty closets! Please donate warm clothes to freezing homeless people. Drop them* off from 9 to 5 in our centre, here.

The beauty of such a compact approach is the fact that this can fit into a Facebook post. Couple it with a picture, and you’ll have a post that’s worthy of sharing and promoting. People online don’t have much time, and their attention spans are really short – around 3 seconds per post. Read more about how to write great Facebook posts at their Creative Tips article. It talks about making an effective ad, but it easily fits into the type of posts you probably make when calling for aid/action.