November 25, 2015

Thinking Beyond the One-Time Grant for a Successful Digital Adoption Program

Digital Divide Case Study

The Youth Policy Institute (YPI) is a nonprofit organization transforming Los Angeles neighborhoods through a holistic approach to reducing poverty. By ensuring families have access to high quality schools, wrap-around education, and technology services, they enable them to make successful transitions from cradle to college and career.

With technology services solidly a part of their mission, it is no surprise they are a role model relative to digital adoption programs.

Diana Rodriguez, YPI’s director of digital learning and technology, explained how their digital adoption program started, evolved, grew, and evolved some more since 2010, when they became a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant recipient.

For those who don’t know, BTOP was a grant program associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) a few years ago. The grant program was created to promote the development and adoption of broadband throughout the United States, particularly in unserved and underserved areas.

With BTOP funding, YPI was able to equip 83 public computer centers in areas where people were already congregated: schools, community centers, and libraries. Together, these centers served more than 100,000 Los Angeles residents annually. When the funding ended in 2013, YPI worked with many of these centers to develop sustainability programs. Twenty-five of those centers are still operated by YPI today. They provide access to equipment, the Internet, and support, much like a library would, just without the wait or the time limits. YPI has since received additional funding from the California Public Utilities Commission to continue their broadband access, adoption, and deployment efforts.

To better understand what was keeping people from adopting broadband, they conducted grassroots research, putting people in the field to survey residents. They learned that the primary obstacles to increasing digital adoption included:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Relevance
  3. Pricing

YPI knew there wasn’t much they could do about infrastructure concerns aside from bringing the issue to light, so they sought out to address the others.


Many of those surveyed didn’t have broadband access at home because they didn’t understand why they needed it. YPI’s programs help educate community members about the benefits of Internet access. In YPI computer centers, residents learn about why and how to use computers and the Internet at home.


The research uncovered a lack of affordable options for Internet access at home. Some of the larger providers offer reduced rates, but not at the speeds needed to support use for education or entertainment purposes, which are often the main hooks for new adopters and the functions that people have come to expect from Internet service. They also found that, with taxes and hidden fees, the reduced rates ended up being not so low-cost at all.

The good news is that more recent research shows that adoption rates are improving and the demand for digital literacy training remains constant. To meet the demand, YPI, in collaboration with the Mayor’s office, continues to lead training efforts in the Los Angeles area. Through a refurbished computer program called OurCycle LA, YPI brings people in for digital literacy training, and then sends them home with low-cost Internet service and a computer. Program participants include families with school-aged youth, older adults, and other adults who are first-time computer owners. YPI noted two memorable program clients who benefited from their program.

A young man, formerly a food service worker, came into a center to improve the digital skills he needed in order to advance in today’s workforce. The certification process in his desired field was entirely online. Basic Word skills were a condition for employment. A center helped him with both. Today, this young man has been successful in moving out of the food service industry and is in a job where he is earning more than minimum wage.

In 2011-12, a man who had lost his home as a result of the economic downtown came into a center. He had operated a home-based business that he needed to continue in order to dig out of his situation. He was able to take advantage of the resources provided by the computer center, and has now successfully transitioned to a life of increased independence.

YPI is proud of what they have accomplished in closing the digital divide in Los Angeles, and they have learned a lot along the way. Diana offered this advice for organizations wishing to implement their own digital adoption program.

Make technology services a part of your mission. If it is a priority, you need to write it in or it won’t be perceived as important enough.

You can’t do it all in a one-time grant. You need to make sustainability a part of your plan. Even YPI, with a BTOP grant, wouldn’t have been successful if they hadn’t planned for what would happen after the grant ended. They were successful because they established a department, a team, someone to take charge, and a strategic plan.

YPI’s Wish List

YPI’s program continues to evolve. As they look to the future, they plan to continue to develop the logic model behind their program. They wish to gather more rich data to tell their full story and to inform an education technology plan. By continuing to understand their clients’ needs, they will have more success in meeting them.

Additionally, YPI wishes for more affordable offers. Internet access is an issue of social justice. Industry cannot overlook the needs of low-income families. Policies must

Cassie Bair
Cassie Bair is the managing director of Voqal’s Mobile Citizen initiative, which aims to bridge the digital divide with affordable mobile broadband technology. Mobile Citizen works with nonprofits, educational institutions and social welfare agencies to advance social equity through access, and was a sponsor of NTEN’s 2015 Digital Adoption Report (
November 25, 2015

Things We Like (November 2015)

A monthly roundup of our favorite nonprofit tech resources and other goodies.

  1. We love cats here at NTEN, but we don’t always love their life choices. Perhaps neither do they!
  2. A poor choice for marketing real estate? A meme was born after Airbnb’s unfortunate Muni shelter ads.
  3. This cartoon was born as the child of real estate and nerdiness. Give it time; it will grow on you! (H/T Isaac Shalev)
  4. How much time do employers give parents after a child is born? This online resource center is here to sum up maternity leave. (For brutal irony, look up Babies”R”Us)
  5. These brutally honest illustrations sum up adulthood.
  6. But what might adulthood look like in a parallel universe? Could we be closer to knowing?
  7. What would paint colors be named if Jeff worked at the hardware store near you?
  8. What might the tech industry look like if we all followed Serena Williams’ advice? Related, is there any time one should not follow Serena Williams’ advice?
  9. Why aren’t there currently more women represented in tech? Here’s why not, and why it matters.
  10. Thanks to WOCinTech Chat, here are stock images representing women of color in tech, available for free. What tech leadership looks like.
  11. At a recent Street Roots event, Marissa Madrigal explored what courage, kindness, and leadership look like, and what can happen when we come together.
  12. When Ai Weiwei was denied his bulk Legos request by the toy company, his fans flooded him with #LegosForWeiwei.
  13. Scott Kelly is (not quite, but one can hope) flooding his followers’ Twitter feeds with images from his #YearInSpace.
  14. Speaking of images, maybe you need some placeholder images of Bill Murray? We’re just going to leave this here.
  15. This mother/son wedding dance left it all on the floor (video). File under Zumba with not-activewear.
  16. File this video under activewear for not-active things.
  17. Did Heritage Foundation just make PDF files obsolete?
  18. Here are 15 features for Google files you may not have known existed.
  19. We close out Things We Like with a new podcast that our Content Manager co-launched this month, called “Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About This?
Steph Routh
Steph has had a nonprofit crush on NTEN for years and is thrilled to be a member of the team. She has a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on organizational development, communications, fundraising, and program planning. Outside the NTEN office, Steph is the Mayor of Hopscotch Town, a consulting and small publishing firm that inspires and celebrates fun, lovable places for everyone. Her recent book publication is "How to Move by Bike." Steph was the first Executive Director of Oregon Walks. Steph is married to her bicycle and an aunt of two.
November 24, 2015

The Luminate Online Monster Benchmark

The jackpot of benchmark reports

Recently at BBCON, Blackbaud released the 9th edition of the Luminate Online Benchmark Report. It is the largest online fundraising and marketing report in the industry and provides the most comprehensive metrics on the state of online fundraising.

  • 685 organizations
  • $1.5 Billion Raised
  • Nearly 22 Million Transactions
  • 6.3 Billion Emails Sent

I don’t consider myself a data nerd by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a fundraising nerd. I get excited by reports, examples of success (and failure), and stories and ideas that can help nonprofit organizations get unstuck. This report is overflowing with useful information; the trick is knowing how to use it.

Eighty percent of the organizations analyzed in this report raised less than $2 million online last fiscal year. When the analysts and authors created the report, they did it with everyone in mind, looking at the highs, medians and lows, mission verticals, and sizes. That breadth of data and analysis enables organizations to put things in context.

The Highlights

Here is a short list of the statistics that stood out to me.

Donors continue to move to online. For the 5th year in a row, online revenue has grown. Here is more good news: the number of gifts made to organizations is also up across all verticals.

Housefiles—the number of usable emails on file—are growing, and most organizations saw the number of donors that are giving increase from FY 14 to FY 15.

With these increases, it’s no surprise that organizations are sending more solicitations to their audience, a 17% increase year over year in the number of fundraising appeals sent.

While the median conversion rate is down again, it has slowed. This is a positive sign when you consider the jump in the number of appeals going out to constituents.

One of the most impressive statistics in the whole report is, when looking at first time gifts v. repeat gifts, first gifts make up 38% of total revenue; repeat gifts amazingly make up 61% of total online revenue. When you consider that the Association of Fundraising Professionals Fundraising Effectiveness Project Study identifies that every 100 new or renewed donors is offset by the loss of 103 donors, our 61% statistic shows you just how effective online fundraising is for today’s nonprofit.

Now let’s get down to business and answer, “What now, Danielle?”

Whether you are an organization that has been dabbling in online fundraising but doing so without a net (aka a plan); or an organization that has a comprehensive, multichannel strategy created to make the leap from good to great, here’s some practical advice to put things in motion. Let’s break it down by different types we see and sort out the nuggets that will be most useful.

The Dabbler

The Dabbler is the organization that:

  • Sends emails, but not consistently
  • Has one or two online fundraising appeals a year
  • May or may not coordinate efforts between marketing and development
  • Has email, forms, and donations housed in different systems
  • Is limited by budget, technology, or both
  • Wishes they could invest more time in expanding knowledge

If most, but not necessarily all, of these things sound familiar, the first action item is to use the report to benchmark your results against your organization’s metrics for the past 2-3 years (the report has a handy tool to do this super easily!). Once you’ve got the numbers, do what Jim Collins recommends and have a “hard truths” meeting with all stakeholders. Now is the time to remove the silos. I like to call this turning on the GPS: before you can progress, advance, or move on to better things, you need a starting point. A good guideline for making this conversation productive: conduct a SWOT analysis. Learn what strengths, opportunities, threats, and weaknesses you have to mitigate or exploit.

Now you’re ready to develop a plan based on realistic goals and identified opportunities. Obviously, there are a lot of steps in between, but there are many resources such as blogs, webinars, and reports to help you along the way. And if technology is identified as a serious pain point limiting your growth, then leverage the benchmark report and your SWOT analysis to make the pitch to leadership for an investment in new online technology.

The Practitioner

  • Perhaps your organization is beyond dabbling and instead has:
  • Consistent monthly communications
  • Multi-message fundraising appeals
  • Messaging that is targeted and most of the time segmented
  • Coordinated offline and online communications
  • Social media playing a big roll
  • Integrated technology

If this is your nonprofit, my bet is that you already benchmark your results— if not quarterly, at least annually. Next time you do, use this report to compare how organizations of similar size are performing. I also recommend conducting a hard truths meeting, because before you can add new tactics or projects, you should stop doing something else that isn’t working well. Frankly, this self-editing process is one of the hardest for organizations to master, yet helps ensure the things you do can be well-executed and resourced.

Since your current plan is performing well and results are solid, you need to figure out what it will take to go from good to great. What you need now are fresh eyes—a consultant who can look at everything you are doing objectively and can provide strategic, actionable advice on what’s next. Perhaps you need to budget for Facebook ads in major appeals; profile your constituents to send more targeted, custom messages; expand your digital footprint with an engagement campaign; or tap into Millennials with peer-to-peer fundraising. Whatever new projects or activities you consider, be smart and weigh resources against opportunities.

One Final Tidbit

Here’s a little advice to help you on the journey of success.

People: The team is your most important asset. They are the glue that holds it together. Invest, teach, celebrate, and promote the group and the individuals.

Culture: You hear about this everywhere, with good reason. The culture has to be right to transform your success. Embrace risk, strive for innovation, have the courage to be honest, and embody the spirit of philanthropy.

Technology: Invest in technology that enables the organization to implement a program that meets today’s needs and is ready for tomorrow’s opportunity (and constituents). And please make sure the team has the training and knowledge to use the technology.

Strategy: It should be multichannel and integrated. The silos have to be removed; marketing & development must work in tandem and be focused on the greater good and greater goal.

No matter what your situation or status – stay the course; lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. To evolve your program, you need a practical (yet exciting) plan to keep everyone on track.

You can go download the report and compare your performance at Then stay tuned to for blogs filled with opinions, insight, and advice from internal and external experts.


Danielle Johnson
Danielle Johnson Vermenton is a speaker, trainer, blogger and passionate fundraiser. She is a Principal Consultant at Blackbaud and has helped more than 60 organizations in the US and Canada raise millions online. Prior to Blackbaud she worked for more than 13 years in the nonprofit sector in roles such as Director of Individual Giving at Boys & Girls Clubs and Leadership Giving Manager at the American Red Cross. You can follow her at @djvermenton.
November 23, 2015

A Community That Gives: Donate to support scholarships and accessibility

This year, NTEN has seen the launch of the Digital Inclusion Fellowship and expansion of the Nonprofit Tech Academy, new research projects on digital strategy and Internet use in nonprofits, and new staff and board members, all to support an increasingly diverse and growing community.

I’m inspired every day – by the NTEN team and community – by the level of openness, sharing, and genuine desire for everyone to succeed together. There is no community quite like the NTEN community and I am grateful to be part of this work.

Just as programs have launched or expanded this year, so have the number of ways we work to make all programs, membership, and participation as accessible as possible. And we do this with the support of your donations.

The scholarships offered for the Nonprofit Technology Conference are often the most visible impact of your support (and applications for 16NTC scholarships are still open!), and donations we receive throughout the year contribute to so much more:

  • scholarships to all NTEN conferences and educational events,
  • monthly stipends for local Tech Clubs,
  • memberships for organizations who otherwise would not be able to pay,
  • free access to research reports and resources.

Donations to NTEN – from $1 to $10,000 – are also an example of the incredible generosity in this community, with members giving back so that others have the opportunity to participate and give back next time.

We’ve seen NTC scholarship recipients gain knowledge and skills at the Conference and then get that job they had been hoping for, donating the following year so another community member could join them at the NTC. And we’ve seen long-time members donate to cover the cost of another organization joining the community for the first time.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to make a difference before the end of year, donate to NTEN and support a community of over 70,000 people who know that technology can help us make a real impact in our world.

Want to be inspired about the power of this community? Watch the 2015 Year in Review webinar that features community members talking about some of their favorite programs and events from the year – the same programs that your donation will support in 2016!

Thank you for being part of the NTEN community – your support is making this community what it is and we are so glad you’re here. Please donate today to help us bring even more people into the community transforming technology into social change.

Amy Sample Ward
Amy Sample Ward is NTEN's CEO. She is also a blogger, facilitator and trainer focused on leveraging social technologies for social change. In 2013, Amy co-authored Social Change Anytime Everywhere with Allyson Kapin. She previously co-authored Social by Social: a handbook in using new technologies for social impact. She has worked in and with advocacy organizations, private foundations, and community groups in the US, UK and around the world.
November 23, 2015

Well-designed Nonprofit Donation Forms Help Raise More Funds

The following article was originally published on Creative Suitcase’s blog. It is republished here with permission.

A well-designed donation form is an easy-to-overlook, but critical component of an effective fundraising program. We all understand how important it is to get a user to our online donation form. What we sometimes fail to understand is that the design and experience of the form itself can be a major factor in whether or not our users actually complete the donation form, and whether or not they’d consider doing it again.

When they’re done right, online donation forms can elevate our users’ experience from a clunky, painful, overwhelming test of patience into a swift, effortless, and enjoyable act of sharing.

What follows are some broad tips and best practices that we try to implement in our projects. We continue to search for ways to make the form completion process easier and more engaging, and we recommend that any nonprofit that wishes to increase their online donor engagement do the same.

Clear a Path

This may seem obvious, but a donation form—no matter how well-designed—isn’t going to produce results if there isn’t a clear path to it for a user to follow. We want access to our donation page to be omnipresent without being annoying. We want our users to want to engage without being assaulted by calls-to-action (CTAs).

Making CTAs that draw attention without becoming pestering eyesores is a balancing act. We don’t want our donate messages to be a torrential downpour. We want them in healthy, measured bursts.

  • Design large “Donate” buttons that stand out on the page. Be consistent with the placement and style of your “Donate” buttons, and try to use a bold color that is unique from the rest of the design to grab a user’s attention.
  • Place “Donate” CTAs strategically, in places where people are more likely to click them. Avoid cluttering your pages with an overwhelming amount of “Donate” CTAs. Instead, focus on placing them strategically—near a particularly moving story, in the context of some powerful results-based metrics, or in a place where people expect to find calls-to-action, like in the header or footer.
  • Test the exact language of the button. While “Donate” is universally recognized and straightforward, a more emotional call-to-action like “Lend a hand” or “Bring hope to those in need” might be more appropriate in certain situations and prompt more action. Don’t be afraid to test button language (or color), and adjust on the fly based on the results.

Make It Quick, Painless—and for Pete’s Sake—Mobile-friendly

In today’s technological landscape, a responsive website isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. This goes doubly for a donation page, because we’re often trying to engage our audience at a moment when they aren’t at their computer but do have their phone handy. More and more, users are viewing our donation pages on their smartphones or tablets. If our websites aren’t optimized to work well on a small screen, we’re missing out on a large—and ever-growing—percentage of potential donor traffic.

The best thing we can do to keep our donation pages mobile-friendly is to simplify them. We should try to strip away as much non-required content from the form as we can, and focus on getting a user through the form fast and error-free.

  • Break lengthy forms down into smaller pieces. An easy way to make a large form less intimidating is to display it in segments (“Donor information” and “Payment information,” for example), whether it’s several segments arranged on one page or several individual segments displayed one-per-page. If you can get a user to fill out just one simple segment (perhaps by only displaying one segment to begin with), they will be more likely to complete the entire form. It gets them invested from the first step, and makes it harder to abandon the form later.


  • Provide pre-determined giving amounts. You can better guide your users’ giving by suggesting specific donation amounts. A pre-defined set of giving amounts displayed as easy-to-click buttons is not only a way to help speed a user through the form (one less field to fill out), but it makes it tempting to give more. It’s as easy as clicking a button!
  • Only include required fields in your form. If you find yourself wanting to include several “optional” fields in your donation form, be diligent and ask yourself if they are truly necessary. Assume that every optional form field you include on your form will increase the time-to-completion, add to user frustration, and decrease the overall completion rate. Oftentimes, the information we attempt to collect from optional form fields is information we could have just as easily collected from the user later, after they’ve successfully completed the simpler donation form and established trust. A user is surprisingly more willing to provide additional “optional” details after they’ve completed their transaction, as opposed to while they are in the process of completing it. Consider asking your users for follow-up details on the validation page (or email) that is generated after they’ve submitted their donation. They’ve already accomplished their goal and are invested in helping, so providing a few follow-up details feels like no big deal.
  • Keep your users on the form. When you get a user to your donation form, you don’t want them going anywhere. Proactively address any barriers to form completion that a user might encounter on the form page itself instead of sending them to a different section of the site (an “FAQ” page for example). Common concerns like “Will you keep my personal data private?,” “Is this contribution tax-deductible?,” or “What will my donation be used for?” are easy to address within the context of the form itself.
  • Use stepper controls and radio buttons instead of drop-downs. Drop-down fields require multiple clicks or taps and are cumbersome to navigate, whereas stepper controls and radio buttons are one-click interactions that are speedier, easier, and more delightful. Styled as buttons, features like this become even more engaging.



  • Avoid user “Submission Error” messages. Submission errors are deadly to form completions. Help your users avoid painful red error messages by providing useful hint text for fields that may give a user pause (e.g. “What does a ‘recurring donation’ mean?”). Use inline validation to provide a user with real-time feedback; this will let them know if they have filled out a field correctly, or help them correct a mistake before they get to the end. And if a user does generate a form that has an error, do not, for all that is holy, make them fill out the entire form all over again.


Twitter's registration form uses inline validation to let users know when they've made a mistake.

  • Don’t settle for technology that doesn’t work for you. Many nonprofits have contracts or long-standing relationships with donor platforms or payment processing services that are not easily broken or overhauled. If your service is having trouble implementing the functionality you desire (“Why can’t we combine the ‘First name’ and ‘Last name’ fields?”), be diligent and try to work with them to implement the changes you seek. Streamlining your donation form and getting as many users through it as successfully as possible is not only a benefit to you, but to them as well. Your ability to collect online donations is critical, and should not be hindered by the technological limitations of a third party.

Make a Human Connection

The functionality of our donation forms is one critical component to their success. A less obvious component is the emotion baked into that functionality. Emotional, human interaction is just as critical (perhaps even more so) to the long-term success of our online fundraising as smooth functionality. As a nonprofit, it’s important that you make a human connection with the people who choose to donate to your organizations (through something as decidedly non-human as a computer interface), and engage them beyond the moment.

  • Show the impact of giving. Transparency is important to donors, and tying real-world impact to specific dollar amounts is an easy way to show donors where their money will go. When a donor selects a $100 donation, show them what that $100 will do in easy-to-understand, relatable terms.


This form from Saturday Place lets users see what kind of real-world impact their dollars will have.

  • Make the most out of confirmations. After a donation has been received, don’t miss the opportunity to confirm your donor’s gift and thank them for their contribution through a confirmation page or email. It will assure them that their transaction was successful, but more importantly it will recognize the importance of their contribution and show them the gratitude they deserve. Take every opportunity to engage with them further; ask them for some of that “optional” follow-up information that you removed from the donation form!
  • Make every donor feel like a big-dollar donor. By giving your organization money—no matter the amount—a donor has performed an incredibly generous act. It is critical (especially since we know that current donors are your best source of future contributions) to make sure they really feel and understand how important their contributions are. Find creative ways to celebrate every $10 donor like they were a $10,000 donor, and do it in a personal and emotional way that feels real. Consider sending them a personalized “Thank you” video via Instagram. Automatically enter them into a lottery drawing for an exciting prize. The possibilities are endless. If you can make each donor feel like a big-dollar donor, you’ll be well on your way to securing even more lifelong givers.

While neither comprehensive nor gospel, these are a few of the general best practices we attempt to implement in forms that we build. We are always searching for ways to evolve our best practices and keep them current. You can do the same.

Don’t be afraid to observe how people interact with your forms, even if it’s casual. Be proactive about fixing common issues or problem spots that you see. Follow form design experts like Luke Wroblewski to stay updated on current best practices in form design, experience, and technology (his work informs much of our thinking on form design, as evidenced by the numerous citations in this post).

Any improvement to your form that you can make will be worth it, no matter how trivial it may seem. Even incremental increases in form completion percentages can lead to noticeable differences in your organization’s bottom line—which translates to more real-world impact that your organization can generate.

Rachel Clemens
Rachel is the founder of Creative Suitcase, an award-winning, strategic design firm that helps cause-driven organizations manifest their mission. Fusing smart strategy with killer creative, Creative Suitcase focuses on opportunities that allow nonprofits to build better relationships with their donors, clients and supporters. Creative Suitcase is located in Austin, TX and has proudly done work for United Way, the YMCA, Habitat for Humanity, Whole Kids Foundation, Love is Respect and The University of Texas.  For more information, visit
November 23, 2015

Member Appreciation Month – Week 3 Recap & A Look Ahead

MAM logoIt’s a holiday week for many, and here at NTEN we’ll also be spending time with family and friends. Speaking of traditions, Member Appreciation Month is one of the most important events of the year for NTEN and a time during which we give thanks to our incredible community!

Last week was chock-full of free-to-Members webinars, including Crafting a Formal Volunteer Program on November 16; Five Steps for a Successful Online Strategy on November 17; and Podcasting Strategy for Nonprofits on November 19.

There were also lots of new winners, to whom we wish numerous congratulations and #ntenthanks:

  • Dan Greenman, Loren Drummond, and Tristan Hanson took home flash drives from Tech Soup Global loaded with NTEN reports
  • Simon Mosheshvili won the chance to post a free job on NTEN’s Job Board
  • Chris Frascella and Daniel Olatunde each won a swag bag full of NTEN goodies
  • Kimberley Whipkey scored a book thanks to the Foundation Center
  • Kai Williams’ awesome tweeting took home the engagement award and a set of magnetic poetry, socks, and stickers

Still ahead this week are Member-authored Connect articles and the Grand Prize giveaway! Don’t forget to join or renew your NTEN Membership by Nov. 30 for your chance to win a free NTC registration.

To keep up with all the latest MAM happenings, follow the #ntenthanks hashtag, and don’t forget to share your #ntenthanks for another person you appreciate! Why not send them an ecard?

As always, many #ntenthanks to our generous sponsors this year who’ve helped us celebrate the NTEN community:

MAM 2015 sponsors


Eileigh Doineau
Arriving at NTEN has been a happy bend in the road for Eileigh, who comes from a background in environmental design and English literature. After a year in AmeriCorps teaching environmental education, a summer in Africa working with communities to protect local natural resources, and a master’s thesis on design and community engagement, she ventured into the nonprofit realm. Though Eileigh loves to get her hands dirty out in the real world, she recognizes that technology is a transformative tool of empowerment and is delighted to be helping others make the most of it.Away from her computer, Eileigh enjoys short stories, wilderness ramblings, and getting the most out of her ice cream maker.
November 23, 2015

Horse Before Cart: Don’t start with the solution

Project planning & collaboration that supports your mission

This article is a modified version of “Assessing Needs & Finding Solutions,” published on October 23, 2012 on It is republished here with permission.

Understanding an organization’s needs is one of the most exciting parts of technology consulting. Unfortunately, it’s also be one of the most challenging parts of technology consulting!

In my work designing and developing websites for nonprofits in Seattle, I’ve spent countless meetings, emails, and phone calls ascertaining the website needs of my clients. Oftentimes, those needs don’t always align with the website features they say they want.

The lessons I’ve learned the hard way can help your organization avoid the mistakes I’ve made and make technology decisions that support your mission.

What Do You Really Need?

A few years ago, a conference talk introduced me to the ideas of Richard Saul Wurman, an architect who helped start the field of “information architecture.” In his book, The Nature of Recreation, Wurman wrote:

A common obstacle to understanding and communicating our needs, and to realizing solutions to them, is our habit of asking for a specific product we have used or seen (even if it has been a failure) rather than analyzing our need.

When building a nonprofit website, a “need” is the reason an organization has for building a website; a “product” (or “solution”) is the feature or design that best addresses that need. I frequently find that my client or me skips to selecting solutions—like an event registration form, infographic, or interactive map—before sufficiently assessing the need that the project is intended to solve.

“Mobility, Not Highways”

Wurman was kind enough to create a fable that illustrates this idea. The fable is set in a town which has many needs that they are struggling to meet because they jump to solutions:

“The issue was learning, not schools.

“The issue was safety, not the number of police.

“Mobility, not highways.”

The town’s ideal mobility solution might be walking, rail, or hovercraft(!), but if highways are the only mobility solution you know, it’s easy to short-sightedly build more of them. (This sounds awfully familiar to anyone who’s been in Seattle for the past few years…)

If I were to rewrite this fable about nonprofit websites, it might go like this: The issue was fundraising, not the size of the donate button. The issue was capacity, not content calendars. User engagement, not slideshows.

If we always jump to solving problems in familiar and comfortable ways, we may—to use another metaphor—try to jam a square website into a round series of tubes!

User Engagement, Not Slideshows

An extremely common request for nonprofit websites is to have a big slideshow at the top of the home page. You probably see the problem by now: The request is for a solution before identifying a need!

Slideshows, or “sliders,” are almost never a good solution for nonprofit websites. Even when they are technically sound—which is quite rare—the primary “need” they often address is an organizational one: giving everyone space on the homepage. Does that help the user? Is that really a need you want to invest in and prioritize over others?

Identifying needs is a crucial task when making honest and sound technology decisions for your organization. Without doing so, you may find yourself investing staff time and precious resources on solutions that don’t help you achieve your mission.

To Avoid Problems, Don’t Start With “Y.” Start With “why?”

When someone tells me they want a slideshow on their homepage, I always ask, “Why do you need that?” With that question, I’m trying to avoid the “XY Problem” from tech support:

“You’re trying to do X, and you thought of solution Y. So you’re asking about solution Y, without even mentioning X. The problem is, there might be a better solution, but we can’t know that unless you describe what X is.”

This is awfully similar to Wurman’s warning to avoid “asking for a specific product we have used or seen…rather than analyzing our need.” The slideshow is the premature “Y” in the “XY.”

So I ask “why?” of my clients all the time to find the “X.” (Sorry clients! I ask it with love.)

Taken to the extreme, when starting on a new project, I like to ask people why they need a website at all! It’s not that I don’t think they do, but I want to start the conversation from a place where we’re discussing needs and not solutions; find the X, not the Y.

It’s About Working Together

Defining the needs and goals of your organization when starting a technology project will save time, reduce frustration, and vastly improve any project’s result.

When I’ve found myself debating the merits of two mutually-exclusive decisions—”We should have a red button!” “No, it should be maroon!”—I try to back up and remember why we’re talking to begin with. Does one color emphasize the brand better? Are users more likely to see a button if it’s a certain color? (And can we test that?) Is this just a matter of personal preference?

Three Tips to Improve Nonprofit Technology Project Collaboration

So here are three concrete ways you can improve the results of your next project:

  1. Always start new technology projects with a planning phase. Even if it’s informal, make sure to identify the organization’s needs that this project will address.
  2. Refer back to your goals when making decisions. Particularly if there’s disagreement, remind your team why this project is important for the organization and evaluate decisions with that in mind.
  3. Ask “why?” Any time someone suggests a particular idea or solution—especially early in a project—ask them to describe how that meets your organization’s needs.

Collaboration—especially on nonprofit technology projects—can’t be successful without identifying the needs of your organization. Identifying a need doesn’t guarantee that collaborators will immediately agree on how to solve the problem, but having that debate in terms of needs rather than solutions makes the discussion less contentious and the chances of finding a good solution much higher.

Mark Root-Wiley
I am a freelance web designer based in Seattle, Washington. With many nonprofit internships, volunteer stints, and nonprofit coursework under my belt, I've developed an immense interest in and appreciation of the sector. Accordingly, I seek to work with nonprofits to build or revamp their websites to better achieve their mission, reach their stakeholders, and work toward their visions of the world.
November 20, 2015

3 Key Elements of a Digital Campaign Plan

Campaigns are big, daunting undertakings. When you’re starting with a blank sheet of paper, it can be hard to know where to begin.

There are a number of campaign components to arrange and polish—donation pages, email templates, Facebook advertisements, calls-to-action, etc. It’s tough to figure out how to put it all together into a coherent, concerted, and (hopefully) successful campaign.

By focusing on these three key campaign elements, you can organize your resources into a winning strategy and join the ranks of some seriously awesome digital campaigns.

Campaign Objectives

The objectives for your campaign will guide all communications and outreach, and will serve as a baseline for measuring your success.

Start out by summarizing the context in which your organization is launching your digital campaign. This should be written clearly, in no more than two pages, and in a way that’s easy to skim.

Within the summary, describe your approach to crafting a campaign strategy that will accomplish your goals. Make sure to address your stakeholders, significant external influences, and any obstacles you can foresee.

Make sure to highlight some high-level advocacy priorities for the campaign, such as fostering relationships with influencers, engaging with your grassroots supporters, or lobbying on relevant and timely policy initiatives.

If you notice your campaign objectives are a little too general, remember that they should be SMART—specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. This should help keep you on track and your objectives achievable!

Target Audience + Key Messaging

The next step is to figure out who you’re trying to reach. Remember, targeting a group as broad as “the general public” is far too inexact and can be a recipe for campaign disaster. Your digital campaign should target a specific, primary audience and its motivators.

Although you should continue to test and adapt your messaging throughout your campaign, having clear agreement on to whom you’re speaking and what’s important to them will get you started in the right direction.

Here are some things to consider:


Describing your target audience in terms of a fictional character that represents them in general can help you gain a better understanding of the groups you’re engaging with. This also helps you better plan your communication with them.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What sort of job might this person have, and in what industry?
  • What are their demographics? (age, income, location, etc.)
  • How do they find, consume, and share content?
  • What are their biggest challenges; and how do they work to overcome them?
  • What goals might this person have?


Get a deep understanding of what motivates an individual in your audience and the group as a whole to take action.

Using this understanding, try to align your campaign goals around what these audiences care about.

Key Messaging

Establish a single, clear message you want to get across to an audience, and treat it as a core tenet of each part of your campaign.

Next, craft a few “bylines” or sub-messages that can include specific wording you’d like to incorporate into your marketing collateral. These should be specialized for certain channels, like Facebook or email, as well as specific segments of your audience.

Calls-to-Action (CTAs)

We all know the importance of including CTAs throughout a campaign. It’s easy to forget, though, that each CTA should call for a specific, intentional action that aligns with your key messaging. As with your sub-messages, craft these CTAs for specific channels and audience segments.

Most importantly—especially if your aim is fundraising—be sure the CTA directs your audience to a donation page that doesn’t suck.

Media Mix

All of the media assets at your disposal fall somewhere in the framework of what’s called a “converging media mix.” This represents all of the communications channels and outreach efforts you’ll use during your campaign.

There are four key strategy areas to this media mix: paid media, earned media, owned media, and shared media.

Here’s a little more information on each one, including pros and cons.

Owned Media Strategies

Owned media strategies use the channels that your brand controls. This may include your website, campaign microsite, blog, videos, or other assets that you maintain as part of your content marketing strategy. (Events fall under owned media, too.)

  • Pros: great way to create long-term relationships with existing contacts; usually the most cost effective
  • Cons: take the longest to scale

Shared Media Strategies

Shared media includes any channel where you have some ownership, but not complete control. All social channels fall into this category, because you “share” the media with those that choose to engage with you. Shared media is vital to creating a conversation around your campaign—it’s much easier to get earned media (coming up next) if there’s chatter online about your campaign.

  • Pros: best platform to create a conversation; helpful when trying to get earned media
  • Cons: while you control what you say, you can really only control one side of the conversation

Earned Media Strategies

Traditional PR, buzz, word-of-mouth advertisement, and blogger outreach all fall into the earned media category. Once you get buy-in from key influencers in your sphere, they will then share your content with their audiences, greatly boosting your campaign’s reach.

  • Pros: external endorsement from outside individuals and orgs; can significantly amplify the reach of your campaign
  • Cons: hardest to measure because you have limited control

Paid Media Strategies

You guessed it: paid media strategies require payment to use a channel. The most effective ads will drive your target audience to owned media in order to create more earned and shared media.

  • Pros: harness the power and reach of social media (Facebook ads, Twitter promoted posts, Adwords, etc.); paid ad campaign opportunities are nearly endless
  • Cons: it may take some time to establish a working knowledge of digital ad platforms

Finally, finish off your campaign plan with a two-phase timeline (setup and implementation) and a resource plan that explains how your project team will operate. Include each member’s responsibilities, staff time allocation, any resources you’ll need, and of course, a proposed budget.

There you have it! Once you’ve defined your objectives, identified your target audience, and cooked up a good media mix, you’ll be on your way to running a stellar campaign (and impressing your boss).

Marcella Vitulli
Marcella Vitulli works in Community & Creative at EveryAction. She writes about trends in nonprofit technology, marketing, fundraising, and more on the EveryAction blog. She believes in climate change, a woman’s right to choose, and that nonprofits should love their software.
November 20, 2015

How Nonprofits Can Increase Engagement Through Gamification

If you work at a nonprofit organization, you know it can be tough to engage your supporter base. Even though the work you’re doing to save the world is critically important, it’s hard to compete for people’s attention. This is particularly true for engaging supporters online, when you’re up against exploring Tumblr blogs of adorable animals, playing Candy Crush Saga, and watching the latest TV episodes on Hulu.

Fortunately, there are ways out there to increase supporter engagement. A particularly powerful one is gamification.

What Is Gamification?

Gamification is the process of taking tactics often used in games and applying them to serious activities. Games do a great job of engaging people. The idea of gamification is to capture that appeal and use it to make non-game activities more interesting and fun for users.

You’ve probably used gamified systems before, even if you haven’t realized it. Fitbit and Fitocracy employ gamification to encourage people to exercise more; Treehouse gamifies the process of learning new skills; and frequent flyer programs with airlines often add game elements to accumulating and using flight miles. If you can think about some time when you’ve received points for doing a non-game activity or have competed against friends on some serious task, you’ve experienced gamification.

One common point of confusion around gamification is to think that it means creating a game with a focus on a serious topic. While this can be a powerful way to spread a message (check out Spent and Tax Evaders as two great examples), meaningful games are different than using gamification to increase the appeal of non-game tasks.

Points, Badges, and Leaderboards

So what kind of game tactics can make serious activities more fun? We’ll start with the big three:

Points: Rewarding points is one of the easiest and most common elements of gamification. They attach a clear value to taking specific actions and make it simple for users to track their progress. By awarding points for completing them, otherwise menial tasks can be turned into compelling activities. A good example of points in gamification is how Treehouse awards users with points for taking quizzes and completing courses on their site.

Points accumulated on Treehouse

Badges: Badges are a visual reward for completing a certain task or set of tasks and are designed to give users a sense of accomplishment. While points provide a more gradual measure of progress, badges give the sense of suddenly taking a big step forward. Swarm (formerly Foursquare) makes extensive use of badges, called “stickers,” to reward users for “checking in” at certain locations.

Some examples of Swarm stickers

Leaderboards: Competition can be a major motivator in games, and the same holds true for gamification — being able to compare yourself to other players through leaderboards can drive users to spend more time and effort on the desired activities. Leaderboards pair particularly well with points, since they provide a clear quantitative indicator of success. A good example is how Fitbit shows you how you rank against your friends in total steps taken over the previous week.

The Fitbit dashboard, with a leaderboard of steps taken by friends in the last week

Points, badges, and leaderboards (often abbreviated PBL) are the most commonly discussed gamification elements, but there are many others as well. Leveraging social connections can make activities more fun and can enhance the effect of other game elements, like badges. Challenging users to “quests”, where they must complete a certain collection of tasks, can be a big motivator for people. And mixing in surprises, where certain badges or virtual rewards are given unexpectedly, can keep things from getting boring and engage the reward centers of users’ brains.

Gamification in the Nonprofit Space

While not terribly common, gamification has been used by various nonprofit organizations to engage more supporters. Here are a few examples:

Commit to Vote Challenge (Democratic National Committee): In 2010, I was working as the director of the web development team at the Democratic National Committee, and our department was tasked with turning more people out in the midterm elections. After some brainstorming, we decided to do this using a gamified Facebook application to encourage people to vote that November. We asked supporters to commit to vote, and then encouraged them to recruit their friends to commit as well. Users could track how many people they’d convinced to commit (points), receive virtual trophies for recruiting more people (badges), and see how their total recruitment count compared to their friends (a leaderboard). The results were impressive; over 600,000 people committed to vote in the election, with more than 500,000 of them having been recruited by friends.

The Commit to Vote Challenge application

RePurpose (AFL-CIO): In 2012, the AFL-CIO rolled out a new system to increase volunteer engagement called RePurpose. The premise was that people who spent more time volunteering for the organization would have a greater say in how the organization’s money was spent. The means of managing this was via volunteer points, which could be “repurposed” to fund specific efforts. The AFL-CIO introduced additional gamification elements to the tool leading up to the 2012 elections, including volunteer challenges and surprise point awards for using the tool multiple days in a row. They ultimately engaged more than 10,000 volunteers through the site.

The RePurpose website, on Election Day 2012

Sustainable Seafood Challenge (Greenpeace): Every year, Greenpeace USA produces a report on how different supermarkets compare in making sure that the seafood they sell is sustainably-sourced. The goal of the report is to encourage consumers to adjust their shopping habits to favor more sustainable seafood, but Greenpeace had been having trouble reaching a wide audience with it. To increase visibility, Greenpeace teamed up with ShareProgress to create a gamified Sustainable Seafood Challenge. The website asked users a few questions about their shopping habits, gave them a “Sustainable Shopper” score, and then encouraged them to ask friends to also take the challenge and see if they could do better.

How sustainable are *your* shopping habits?

Using Gamification at Your Own Organization

Alright, you work for a nonprofit, and you’re interested in using gamification to engage more supporters. How do you make that happen?

While there are certainly common tactics, gamification isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach—you need to think about your specific audience, what will motivate them, and how that connects to the actions you want them to do. Will they be motivated by tracking points? Are there certain “quests” you can send them on? Can you leverage their social network to make their activities more interesting?

Just as designing a compelling game requires a lot of careful planning and effort, designing a compelling gamified system is a difficult task. But if you can get it right, it could mean that your supporters decide to stop looking at those cute kitten photos and spend their time engaging with your organization instead.

Thank to Kevin Werbach, whose Coursera course and book For The Win provided a lot of guidance on the principles of gamification.

Jim Pugh
Jim Pugh is the founder and CEO of ShareProgress, a startup that helps progressive organizations use the power of data to grow their base and win campaigns. He is the former Chief Technology Officer for Rebuild the Dream, and previously served as the Director of Analytics and Development at Organizing for America and the Democratic National Committee. Jim has a Ph.D. in distributed robotics from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland.
November 19, 2015

10 Things to Consider When Planning a Website Design (or Re-design)

This article was originally published on the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management E-News. It is republished here with permission.

I’ve been developing websites for just over 17 years, mostly for nonprofit organizations. Frequently, nonprofits ask me, “What should we consider when planning a new website (or a re-designed website)?” Here’s is a list of the answers I give most often:

1) Site purpose. Like a mission statement, a website’s purpose gives the primary reason for the site’s existence in the world. Whether for education, advocacy, service provision, community organizing, etc., the main purpose of the site will ultimately inform design and content decisions.

2) Target audiences. Frequently I’ll ask nonprofits, “Who is your target audience?” and they’ll respond, “Everyone.” While I understand the logic behind that answer, it’s a simple fact that you cannot design with “everyone” in mind (that’s why there are so many different kinds of cars, clothes, computing devices, etc.). If you identify and design to your top two audiences, the site is more likely to accomplish your organization’s goals.

3) Site objectives. Like the objectives in your organization’s strategic plan (and if you don’t have one of those, you have bigger concerns than your website!), the objectives for your website outline the main goals of the site. I like to ask my nonprofit clients to answer these questions for each target audience: What actions will this audience want to perform when they visit your website? What actions does your organization want this audience to perform when they visit your website? Be sure to re-visit your objectives during the design and content creation processes to ensure they are being met.

4) Responsive, mobile-friendly design. Responsive design means that a website’s design automatically re-sizes to fit the screen size on which it’s being viewed. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to retrofit an existing site with responsiveness; and it’s mostly more cost effective to do a complete re-design. The days of two separate websites – one for viewing on a monitor and one for viewing on a mobile device – are over.

5) Fresh content. Imagine if museums never changed up their exhibits. Why would you ever return after your first visit? We go back to museums over and over because of new exhibits and programming – new stuff to see. We go back to websites if we know the content will change and there will be new stuff for us to view. Work on a content strategy for your site that will ensure people keep coming back.

6) Engaging content. It’s a documented fact that people only read about 20-28% of the text on a web page. Hence the shift to shorter blocks of text, lots of photos, and use of multimedia on websites. The great thing about non-text content these days is that all you really need is a decent smartphone and you can quickly create your own photo and video content.

7) Features. Features are the elements that make a site dynamic and interesting, like donation buttons, online forms, embedded video or podcasts, online quizzes, social media buttons/integration, and all other manner of gadgets and widgets.  It’s important to figure out as many of these in advance as you can for the sake of a more coherent design. (As opposed to figuring out later that you really wanted social media buttons and now don’t have a good place to put them without removing or squishing other elements.)

8) Search engine optimization (SEO). 48% of Internet users start their online experience with a search engine. This means you’ll want to make sure your site is optimized for search. While there are companies who do SEO and nothing but, their services tend to be beyond the budget of most nonprofits. Fortunately, there are quite a few SEO tasks you (or your web developer) can DIY.

9) Site maintenance. There are two main costs associated with a website design project: the cost for site design, and development and ongoing site maintenance costs. Site design tends to be a lump sum cost. Site maintenance can vary greatly, depending on the developer. I used to do websites using Dreamweaver, and clients either learned that complex software or paid me to do their updates.  I moved to the open source content management system WordPress about seven years ago so that I could change this model. Now, my nonprofit clients do their own updates and they rarely need me for anything after site launch. Another site maintenance concern to think about in advance: Which staff member(s) will be responsible for maintaining your site after launch? Will that person be responsible for uploading content that others create, or is that person doing it all?

10) Accessibility. By this I mean compliance of a nonprofit’s website with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While I think it’s important for all websites to be accessible, I feel like the nonprofit sector especially has a moral obligation to this. Inclusion and social justice are in our sector’s DNA, which should carry over in the design of our websites.

If you’ve made it this far reading it, I hope this list will come in handy on your next website project!

Cindy Leonard
Cindy Leonard is the Consulting Team Leader at the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University. She works with the consulting team to maximize client satisfaction and identify areas for growth. Additionally, she creates and teaches a variety of Bayer Center classes, convenes Bagels & Bytes meetings and organizes the annual TechNow conference. Cindy’s consulting specialty is helping nonprofits to leverage technology to meet their missions. An experienced website designer, she adds website planning, design and assessment to the portfolio of services at the Bayer Center. She has presented at conferences for a variety of organizations, including the Nonprofit Technology Network, the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, the Pennsylvania Association for Nonprofit Organizations, the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Pennsylvania Pathways for Victim Services. Cindy is a co-founding member and vice-president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network and serves on the Editorial Committee for the Nonprofit Technology Network’s professional journal Change. Cindy holds a B.S. in Computer Science, an M.B.A. and a M.Ed. in Instructional Design Technology, all from Seton Hill University.