Digital Ecology: The Future of Nonprofit Websites

Submitted by Brett on Tue, 10/12/2010 - 9:18am

By Phillip Djwa, Founder, Agentic

As part of their digital footprint, Mercy Corps, a prominent NGO that acts to alleviate poverty and suffering throughout the world, has seven major websites, including their main site, campaign sites, and regional sites in the UK, China, and even Mongolia. They have a Facebook page with 18,000 members, a Twitter account with 5000 followers -- and they even have an enviable mention as a Top 100 Charity for social media promotion.

Considering that a few years ago, they had only one site, how did this happen?

The Digital Ecology 

The way nonprofit organizations use the web has changed. Ten years ago, most organizations didn't even have a single website, and often struggled to create them. With the increasing use of online channels, however, many organizations -- especially larger ones -- have shifted radically to having multiple web properties today. 

For some of these organizations, the notion of a single standalone website isn’t right. Their web strategy can be more accurately described as a "digital ecology". For many of these organizations, like Mercy Corps, having five to ten websites is not unusual.

This idea of a digital ecology speaks to the organic interplay between all of these elements. It should be thought of in the same terms as a real ecology: your websites, often grown independently, have a life cycle and together form a complex interdependence that together have lots of resemblance to a real life ecology. Plus, each needs its own care and feeding!

This digital ecology must be part of any strategic approach to your organization’s digital thinking. The interplay and interconnections between websites -- for messaging, branding, technology, and coordination -- becomes important when there’s more than one.

A digital ecology is the way that web visitors experience your organization’s digital footprint online.

Important Considerations 

Technology is the most obvious consideration, as many organizations realize quite quickly that having seven hosting companies for seven different projects on seven different technical platforms becomes a nightmare to administrate and maintain. Having an effective strategy to host some of these together on a single platform -- try a VPS instead of shared hosting -- and starting to standardize on one technical platform can save a lot of headache. Still, this isn’t an insignificant task, especially if you’ve already invested in multiple platforms. The transition can take some time.

Then there's the end-of-life problem. Consider the issue of campaign sites. Organizations create campaign websites for a specific purpose and a call to action. These campaign websites have to keep in mind how a website visitor would find the campaign website from the main website of the organization, as well as how they would return. Issues of style, graphic identity, logo treatment, and the precise call to action all become important when thinking about the campaign site.

Eventually, keeping all of these campaigns updated starts to be really difficult. Many of them do have a natural life and should be shut down once their usefulness has expired, or archived with a statement of that. This is not often the case. Dead links anyone?

Many organizations leave these orphan websites up with the hopes that it will convert traffic to their main website -- or worse, have simply forgotten about them. Unfortunately, orphaned websites can actually do the opposite – drain visitors away from the main site and even leave visitors with a negative impression of your organization when the messaging is several years out of date.

Another aspect of the web ecology, beyond the websites that the organizations support directly, are the websites of related organizations. Often, these partnerships end up on that horrible page called “links”. This is not an effective way to leverage relationships with similarly-minded organizations. The new digital ecology demands that partnerships be strategically oriented to drive traffic to and from the various websites.

Finally, the growing importance of social media in a digital ecology is really exciting. Social media is a key ingredient these days for engaging audiences. This engagement usually takes the form of a page on Facebook or a Twitter feed.

This means your organization has to think about the time it takes to have a “conversation”. And it can take real time to convince folks in the field how important it is to try to develop a social media following. Even more, a digital ecology has to address naysayers and opposition that can also leverage the same tools to counter your message.

Visualize Your Organization's Digital Ecology 

A simple way that any organization can illustrate its own digital ecology is to take a piece of paper and draw in the centre the organization’s main website. Next, draw different circles around that website to indicate all of the different properties and partners and social media sites that are involved with the organization. 

Then, it’s a simple matter to connect the various websites together -- but indicate the how and the why on each of those connections. Why would someone leave and why would someone come back? Even this simple exercise can radically shift the way in which organizations understand how their web ecology is important.

You might even remember a website you’ve forgotten!