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The Top 10 Elements of an Effective Nonprofit Website

This was originally published as a series of posts on the TechSoup.org blog. You can find the originals here: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

By: Kelley Jarrett

June 2012

Your nonprofit's website is a tool that should be used to engage, interact with, and mobilize your audience – a tool that should ultimately inspire action.

From our extensive research and work with nonprofits in creating strategic, far-reaching websites, we’ve uncovered and organized a list of the top 10 elements of an effective nonprofit website.

Best Practice #1: Know Your Audience

If you don't know who your website is serving, you’re at a serious disadvantage. No matter how hard you try, it will be nearly impossible to create an effective nonprofit website – one that meets the needs of your constituents and helps you achieve your mission.

  • Focus on their needs – Who are your key groups and what do they care about? How do they interact with your site? By understanding the  #1 reason nonprofit websites fail and how to fix it immediately , you’ll be well on your way to creating an excellent nonprofit website. 
  • Use the right language – Know that writing is an art and a science. Every bit of content should showcase your mission. Avoid industry jargon and acronyms. Keep it simple, but include descriptors for clarity and improvement of search engine optimization.
  • Keep mobile in mind – In three years, mobile will be the #1 method your audience uses to access your site. Are you ready?

Best Practice #2: Focus on Your Home Page 

"The web is a world of first impressions … Users form an opinion of a website within the first few seconds of loading it." –Jason Gross, "The Role of Design in the Kingdom of Content"

To create an effective nonprofit website, focus on your home page.

  • Prioritize content – Create visual hierarchy. What content elements are most important and deserve the best location? Remember your goals as well as your audience's during this exercise – not everything everyone wants fits, or even belongs, on the home page.
  • Make sure people can scan through easily  – Use of headers, content blocks, and visual design will allow users' eyes to follow the right path of content.
  • Provide choices – Not everyone accesses your site in the same way; make sure you provide different ways to access information to accommodate this.
  • Test – Show your home page to audience members, and then ask them a series of questions about your organization and its mission. If they can't answer them, consider refocusing and prioritizing your home page.

Best Practice #3: Share Your Mission

Sixty percent of all donors check out your nonprofit's website before donating, and therefore you should tell them why they should give and what impact it will make. And, you should do it quickly, before they change their mind. Share your mission clearly and succinctly and make it actionable!

For example: "Helping People. Saving Gorillas." This is not just a tagline, and it is not just a mission statement.  By clicking on this tagline, the user immediately accesses rich links to compelling content that shares what the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund is about, how they help, and who they serve.

Best Practice #4: Use Compelling Imagery

"Regardless of what your content actually says, the design around it controls what the users see first and how their eyes move across the sections of the page."  –Jason Gross, "The Role of Design in the Kingdom of Content"  

Compelling imagery can come in many forms, but is an essential part of creating effective nonprofit websites:

  • Infographics are my personal favorite. They allow you to visually show all types of content –  from stewardship to impact to mission fulfillment to campaign progress – unmistakably and concisely. They are attractive and engaging, which are two key elements to successful imagery on any website. Charity Water does an excellent job using icons and infographics to tell their story, not just on their home page, but throughout their site.
  • Engage with eye contact. Photography that uses eye contact will allow you to make a personal connection with your user. Personal connections, trust, and emotional engagement are keys to fulfilling your mission! Which would better share the amazing impact Habitat for Humanity has on the community – an image of five volunteers building a Habitat Home with their backs to the camera? Or the eyes of the man for whom the house was built?
  • Share real stories of impact. Sharing stories of how others are affected by your work, your outreach, and your mission will build credibility and encourage empathy.

Best Practice #5: Ensure Ease in Navigation

"User-centric web design has become a standard approach for successful ... web design. After all, if users can’t use a feature, it might as well not exist." Vitaly Friedman, "10 Principles of Effective Web Design"

  • Provide multiple interaction paths – not everyone accesses information in the same way, so make sure key content is accessible multiple ways – navigation, search, calls to action, etc.
  • Test yourself: Access your own site in different ways, see how easy it is to find key content, and adjust accordingly.
  • Does it take two clicks or less for key tasks? (Hint: Effective nonprofit websites follow the two-or-less rule.) If not, revise your structure. You can’t have two clicks to everything, but you can prioritize and make sure key tasks and content are the easiest to reach.

Best Practice #6: Include Clear, Bold Calls to Action

"Assuming that you’ve written a brilliantly persuasive page, it’s still next to worthless without a strong call to action …" Brad Shorr, "Five Copywriting Errors That Can Ruin a Company’s Website"

  • Remove all obstacles to action. If someone clicks "donate now," they should not be taken to another landing page with all of the ways they can give. Effective nonprofit websites take people directly to the donation form where they can give that gift!
  • Provide both tangible and intangible options: Please give 10 meals to your community today; please give $10 today.
  • Calls to action should be clear and compelling.
  • Never say "click here."

Best Practice #7: Showcase Your Stewardship

Sixty percent of donors visit a nonprofit’s website before making a gift. They want to know what impact they’ll actually make. Great web design shows them!

  • Show the impact of the support visually through infographics.
  • Be transparent – share your annual report and show how much of the support goes to the cause.
  • Say "thank you." This seems simple, but it’s often forgotten. Your website is a great place to say it publicly.

Best Practice #8: Keep Content Fresh

Users have short attention spans. Great web design understands this.

If you’re not updating your website regularly, people will assume you a) don’t have anything new to say or b) aren’t putting time and energy into communication. These are actually best-case scenarios – worse is if they simply leave and never come back, which is the biggest risk of stale content!

Remember, content is critically important and creating an effective nonprofit website takes a lot of it.

Try these easy steps to showing your timeliness:

  • Utilize automatic feeds.
  • Add dates to content posted to the home page.
  • Gather user-generated content via blogs, forums, or posts and let your audience help keep content fresh!

Best Practice #9: Be Social

"Integrating the social experience into your organization’s web site will help promote the channel, engage supporters, and provide a constant source of dynamic content …"Melanie Mathos and Chad Norman, 101 Social Media Tactics for Nonprofits: A Field Guide

The world of social media is changing. It’s not enough to have a Facebook page or a Twitter account. The real power of social media is in harnessing its viral capabilities as an integrated channel with reach beyond the limits of your database and lists.

Make sure your web design is action-packed with social capabilities.

  • Incorporate social sharing on your site via AddThis or ShareThis. It will contribute to website traffic and brand exposure.
  • Tweet, blog and post. Often. Make it a priority.
  • Use the Facebook and twitter widgets to pull social posts to your website for fresh content and relevant, engaging activity.

Best Practice #10: Provide a Personal Touch with Multimedia

Your users’ preference for consuming content varies, just as their browsing and navigation styles do. 

  • Allow users to consume information in multiple ways – video, imagery, text, interactivity, and audio.
  • Invest in interactive design elements like virtual tours or maps – it helps bring a personal touch to your users, even through the web.

Kelley Jarrett is market manager for Guide Creative, a design agency that serves nonprofits in creative design from strategy and branding to web and print design, social and mobile strategy to analyzing results for success. Guide Creative is the new design agency for Blackbaud. Follow Kelley on Twitter.