Introduction | NTEN: Change, September 2015
What is our current relationship to the Web, and how will it shape our relationships to each other and to the organizations we care about?
The 19th issue of NTEN: Change explores the dynamic nature of the Web—how our communities evolve and develop, both on- and offline; what needs to occur in order to make the Web more accessible for more people, how a website redesign can catalyze a resurgent sense of purpose and alignment to an organization’s mission; and more.
- China’s Internet: Beyond the “Great Firewall” by David Onate, African Wildlife Foundation
- Web Accessibility: Knowbility and OpenAIR by Knowbility’s Marketing Team
- From Bitch Magazine to Bitch Media by Julie Falk, Bitch Media
- More Than a Ticket: Rethinking the annual report by Vivian Phillips and Chris Nelson
- Nonprofit Community Building: Taking the next step by Victoria Taylor, WeWork
- 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites by Matt Schwartz, Constructive
This issue also includes a reporting in info graphic form of the progress of .NGO and .ONG domains, made available to the international nonprofit sector earlier this year.
Thank you for reading! We welcome your insights in this ongoing, fascinating conversation.
Steph Routh is the Content Manager at NTEN. She has spent over a decade in the nonprofit sector, with a focus on organizational development, communications, fundraising, and program planning. Steph served as the first Executive Director of Oregon Walks for five years and is a published author. You can follow her on Twitter @stephrouth.
In a world with a seemingly ubiquitous Internet, one can easily be lulled into the feeling that a nonprofit’s website is globally accessible. However, your organization may well be invisible to 668 million active Internet users. The African Wildlife Foundation has been working on a China-specific website.
China’s Internet: Beyond the “Great Firewall”
Affectionately coined the “Great Firewall,” a series of complex online restrictions is blocking access to foreign sites and social networks in Mainland China. Interestingly, these restrictions have resulted in a massive internal flourish of China-specific, state-approved social media platforms and sites. The deep impact of these networks, combined with the preeminence of mobile technology, has resulted in a digital landscape as unique as China itself.
Have you started thinking about how to include China in your organization’s digital strategy? With 668 million active Internet users—twice the number of the United States—it‘s well worth consideration. Let’s start by answering some of the big questions.
Disclaimer: The Chinese Web is expressed entirely in characters, or Hanzi (汉字). You’ll need in-house language capacity or strong partner support. There are many great agencies that specialize in bringing western brands to market in China.
Q: How is social media different in China?
The fundamentals are the same, but the platforms are different. Western networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all blocked, but homegrown equivalents are thriving with over 650 million monthly active users (that’s more than the US and Europe combined). Sina Weibo is China’s Twitter, RenRen is the rough equivalent to Facebook, and Youku serves up cat videos just like YouTube.
The most popular, and forward-looking, network is Tencent’s WeChat, or Weixin (微信) meaning “micro letter.” Started just four years ago as a messaging app, WeChat now boasts around 600 million monthly active users. Mobile-first by design, WeChat has embraced it’s own app-within-an-app model offering access to light applications enabling users to get a cab, listen to music, send money to a friend—and yes, even donate to charities. But where do Chinese netizens first go to learn more about your brand and mission?
Q: Does my organization need a China-localized website?
It’s a really good idea. The Chinese Web is more open now than at any time in the past, but foreign IP addresses are still more likely to be flagged and potentially blocked. Unlike other parts of the world, Google Translate isn’t always available, limiting access to English-language content. Consider creating a scaled-down site focused on your core mission and hosting it on the mainland (it’s less daunting than it sounds).
This was our approach at African Wildlife Foundation to establish a “home base” and destination for direct, social, and search audiences. Adopting a .CN domain also lends credibility for Chinese users discovering your organization for the first time. From a design standpoint, principles around clean UX and compelling imagery are equally applicable as in the west. For example: http://www.awfchina.cn.
Q: Will my new site show up on Google in China?
Google and China have a complicated relationship. As it stands, Google search and related APIs (maps, etc.) are vigorously blocked. Baidu is China’s go-to search engine, and it’s huge. Despite all of the differences described above, one concept seems to be universal—paid advertising. Search engine marketing through Baidu is functionally identical to Google AdWords, including robust keyword metrics. A small initial investment can yield valuable intelligence on terms relevant to your brand and mission.
Q: The future of global philanthropy?
China’s philanthropic history is a recent one, and as such, it is growing and evolving. Charitable giving is on the rise, with prominent Chinese celebrities and executives bringing greater attention to individual philanthropy. Recent changes to legislation have increased tax deductions for donations to qualifying NPOs, which will further encourage individual giving. Given the sheer number of prospective donors, incremental changes in philanthropic activity have the potential to fundamentally change the shape of global philanthropy. What happens if and when the “Great Firewall” comes down? Will your organization be ready?
David Onate is Assistant Director of Marketing & Membership at African Wildlife Foundation. Since joining AWF from Discovery Communications, David’s role has grown to encompass strategic planning and management of organizational digital initiatives. David spent over ten years living in China and volunteers time to help local arts and community-focused small businesses build effective web presences and grow digital strategies. You can find David on Twitter @daveonate.
The Internet is only as useful to people as it is accessible. One aspect of accessibility related to people with disabilities, which can include visual, physical, auditory, speech, or cognitive impairments. How do we develop and test websites that achieve accessibility for more people?
Web Accessibility: Knowbility and OpenAIR
Web accessibility is the practice of removing any barriers to interaction with technology for anyone, including people with disabilities. Simply put, this means that when you create an application or a website, everyone should be able to access it.
The regulations that govern accessibility in the United States include Section 508 and the American with Disabilities Act. In 1998, the federal government amended the 1973 Rehabilitation Act that determined that “agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information that is comparable to access available to others” (Section508.gov). The American with Disabilities Act recently celebrated its 25th year of existence. These regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. The Supreme Court recently determined that the Internet is public domain; therefore, it must be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.
When implementing accessibility standards, web professionals must consider a myriad of factors. Disabilities can include visual, physical, auditory, speech, or cognitive impairments. Many websites, programs, and applications contain barriers that make it difficult for people with disabilities to use. A person with a visual impairment may use a third party program, like a screen reader, that will read aloud the text on the screen. Therefore, images should contain alternative text (“alt” text) that will describe the image the person cannot see. If a person is unable to utilize a mouse when using the Internet, the website should contain architecture that allows a keyboard-only user to easily maneuver through the site. Check out WCAG (Web Accessibility Content Guidelines) “Before/After Demonstration” to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t. As well, you can use WAVE (Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool) to test your website’s accessibility.
In order to continue developing a more accessible Internet, web designers and developers should consider the following factors:
- Page Title: Be sure the page has a simple, explanatory title that informs the user of the name of the site
- Headings: Each page should have at least one heading. Maintain a friendly hierarchy when coding
- Text Size: Some people need to resize the size of the text on the screen. To test this, zoom in on your web page to see what it looks like
- Contrast: Use a website like Check My Colors or Contrast Ratio. The former will check your page for proper contrast, and the latter will give you a WCAG-based score after you input the text and colors you plan on using
- Landmarks: Add at least three landmarks to your site: “Main,” “Navigation,” and “Search”
- Keyboard access: Every element of a website should be easily accessible if a person is only using a keyboard, not a mouse. Links should be easily tabbed through, and drop-down menus should also be able to be tabbed through
- Links: Each link should contain a descriptive name
- Forms: Be sure any forms you have on your website are accessible. Identify the required fields
- Do not use the phrase “Click Here”—it’s too ambiguous
One of the best ways to test for accessibility is to try it out yourself! Unplug your mouse; if you’re using a laptop, turn off the track pad. Many computers now come with their own screen reader software; turn this on. Toggle the “high contrast” switch, and zoom in or magnify a web page. How does the site look? Are there overlaps? Are the colors appeasing to the eye? Do you get stuck on a link or page when trying to navigate only using a keyboard? This should be a good test for accessibility.
Knowbility, an Austin-based nonprofit, is improving technology access for millions of youth and adults with disabilities all over the world with its many community programs. One such program is OpenAIR, Knowbility’s annual global web accessibility challenge. OpenAIR invites teams of web professionals to sign up for a global competition where each team has to develop an accessible website. These websites are made for nonprofits from around the world, who also sign up for OpenAIR.
OpenAIR began in 1998 in Austin Texas, as the Accessibility Internet Rally (AIR), a web design competition that would:
- Raise awareness among technology professionals about the need for accessible websites and software applications
- Provide a medium for nonprofit agencies to harness the power of the Internet and expand their reach
- Create meaningful connections between the unengaged technology sector and the rest of the community
Today, OpenAIR has evolved into a global teaching and learning competition that puts accessibility front and center, where it belongs. OpenAIR imparts advanced accessibility skills to web developers across the globe, creates a challenging atmosphere for participants to enhance these abilities, and keeps them engaged with games and networking events. By bringing in an experienced panel of judges and assigning leading accessibility experts as mentors to each team, the competition has been fine-tuned as an incubator of quality websites.
In its 18th year now, OpenAIR has nurtured the creation of hundreds of accessible community websites. The FCC recently honored Knowbility by bestowing upon them the Chairman’s Award for Innovation in Accessibility for this program. For many arts and nonprofit organizations, the AIR site was their first foray onto the Web. OpenAIR is growing and is on its way to becoming an established global event. OpenAIR 2015 is a technology challenge that fosters healthy competitive spirit to do good and make a difference in the world through knowledge of universal design.
This article was crafted by the Marketing Team of Knowbility: Jessica Looney, Community Programs Manager; Divya Mulanjur, Communications Associate; and Anne Mueller, Community Programs Assistant. You can find them collectively on Twitter @knowbility.
Anyone who has been a part of launching a new or redesigned website knows the feeling of joy and relief, when “check out our new site!” replaces “stay tuned for our new site – it should be live anytime now.” For the staff and supporters of Bitch Media, those words were nearly three years in the making. After launching a wholly redesigned bitchmedia.org in the middle of August, we’re still thrilled to point out features of the new site, even as we continue to make tweaks and create more opportunities for audience engagement and enhanced efficiencies for staff on the back end.
From Bitch Magazine to Bitch Media
Redesigning Bitch Media’s website wasn’t just one of our strategic plan’s most important objectives; it was also the embodiment of the plan’s vision “to position Bitch Media as a dynamic, go-to feminist multimedia organization.” As an organization, Bitch started almost 20 years ago as ‘zine before becoming known for our quarterly print magazine, Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture. The magazine remains a critical program at Bitch, but in order to grow and engage our audience, we knew we would need to evolve from a nonprofit magazine to a nonprofit multimedia organization that produced daily online content—including podcasts—and allowed our audience to interact vigorously with our content through social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
This transition is clear in our new URL, bitchmedia.org, from our former URL, bitchmagazine.org, but it really comes to life in the structure of our new homepage. Our old website had a blog-style format. This meant great articles were pushed off the front page in hours and long-form, highly-researched pieces were indistinguishable from quickly-written responses to the news of the day. The new homepage not only elevates our original online content, but it also highlights the magazine and the selected articles we publish online; promotes our podcasts, Popaganda and Backtalk; and allows readers to go to topic areas of their choice with our toolbar selections (i.e., activism, art & design, books, culture, music, politics, and screen). The secondary toolbar gives readers quick access to hot topics such as #BlackLivesMatter, Orange is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner.
We’re so excited about how the new bitchmedia.org displays our different content and media types and inspires readers to explore the depths of our archives through the “Best of Bitch” and “Read This Next” features. But this is not just a news or media website; it’s also the organizational website for our nonprofit organization. Creating a website that not only shows what we do, but how and why we do it was a challenge.
Our mission statement, “to provide and encourage an engaged, thoughtful, feminist response to mainstream media and pop culture,” is a bold, prominent constant on the new site. By contrast, on the old site, the mission statement was buried in the “about us” drop-down menu.
We also have a “Bitch HQ” tag, along with tags for content areas, so that posts about the organization are easily distinguishable from articles, columns, and reviews, and are easy to locate. Additionally, we created a big image and text block that is simple for staff to change on a regular basis. The area can promote subscription campaigns, our monthly giving program, a new product in our store, or our Bitch on Campus speaking program.
Taking a Risk, Taking Stock
Despite knowing in our gut that we couldn’t achieve our goal of evolving from Bitch Magazine to Bitch Media without a redesigned website (and we really did change the organization’s name, years before we changed the URL), we also were investing in an expectation that there would be a big return on this investment. We love the look and feel of the new site, but a year from now, how will we know and be able to demonstrate to our supporters that we made the right choices?
There are basic but important metrics we will look at, such as audience growth, time on site, and time on our homepage. But going back to our strategic plan, how will we measure our effectiveness as a “go-to feminist multimedia organization?” A key metric will be measuring whether visitors change their habits and begin visiting bitchmedia.org on a daily basis, rather than on the weekly basis that we saw in the past. Additionally, we will look at whether our readers are more engaged. Are they taking action? Are our readers helping to build our audience and our community by using share tools to promote within their networks the articles that make them feel inspired, challenged, or outraged?
In addition to redesigning the content pages for website, this redesign also included a significant upgrade in the commerce aspects of our site, which include: one-time and recurring donations, subscriptions, back issues, and other merchandise, including books by Bitch contributors and art from our print magazine. To bear out the investment, we will be looking to see higher daily financial conversions, increased income during targeted fundraising and subscription drives, and most importantly for evidence of growth in our monthly giving program. One key to ensuring growth is by ensuring retention, a chronic problem for any system relying on recurring credit card donations. As part of our overhaul, we changed credit card processors and built our sustainer donation pages on a platform called Springboard in order to create a more robust retention strategy.
In moving to the current version of Drupal, we also were looking to make creating content more efficient for our editorial staff. A clunky, slow back end means less time for writing, editing, and communicating with writers.
Furthermore, an explicit goal of the new website is to better highlight our writers and contributors, the great majority of whom are freelance and not on staff at Bitch. Amplifying diverse voices goes right to the heart of our mission, so that means better profiles and bio sections for writers, as well as tools that allow readers to find pieces by their favorite writers. In the future, you will be seeing more “featured columnists” on the site—writers who are lending their unique voices to topics, like race and social justice, as well as to specific media, like television and film. If we achieve these goals, we hope to see even more writers eager to contribute to Bitch.
Another important objective of this redesign was to, after this lengthy, costly and comprehensive overhaul, not feel like we are in a place where changes to the website necessitate a lengthy, costly, and comprehensive overhaul. Like all too many nonprofits of our size and focus (our budget is about $750,000), a lack of timely technology upgrades put us in a place where we couldn’t, for example, add share tools to our articles without an expensive conversion to a newer version of Drupal. With our great partners at Congruity Works and a technology plan that will align with our next strategic plan, our aim is to make regular, iterative improvements in the website so that we can regularly make enhancements to the site and be able to spread out the costs for those upgrades. That not only depends on the plan and the budget, but also on making sure that across the organization—from our editors, to our development director, to our art director and finance director—we are systemically gathering and communicating things that could be working better on the site as well as areas we want to experiment.
As I put it in a letter to our readers and supporters the day we launched, this new website embodies our commitment to and investment in being leaders in the feminist community and a powerful voice for social change for the next 20 years. With the ubiquity and power of social media, advertisers have near-24-hour access to consumers. With the continuing “one step forward, two steps back” assault on building a more feminist, equitable, inclusive society, Bitch Media’s mission is more needed than ever. Harnessing the tools technology has to offer will strengthen the power of our community to respond and enable Bitch Media grow and thrive.
Julie Falk has served as Executive Director of Bitch Media since 2009. She worked in nonprofit leadership in criminal justice, public health, and independent media. She serves on the board of Women’s Foundation of Oregon and on the Citizen Review Committee, which provides oversight of the Portland Police Bureau.
Every year, Seattle Theatre Group reaches thousands in the Pacific Northwest through music and theatre performances. But the audience for their annual report could be much greater. They recently took a leap and made their report digital, with support from Pyramid Communications. Here, a nonprofit leader and her agency partner share what they’ve learned by asking questions about how they can better tell and distribute their stories.
More Than a Ticket: Rethinking the annual report
Thousands of people in the Pacific Northwest interact with Seattle Theatre Group (STG) every day. Some of them are walking through the doors of the historic venues we preserve and operate: the Paramount, the Moore, and the Neptune. Others visit our website to buy tickets for performances of all shapes and sizes.
And yet, how well they know STG’s community-focused, nonprofit mission is a question.
Every ticket purchased helps us to do important work in our city and region. In other words, what people buy from us is “more than a ticket.”
How do we tell the stories of that work?
For years, the annual report has been a familiar tool for nonprofits to thank their supporters and celebrate achievements from the year past. But the traditional idea of annual reports feels antiquated. The phrase “annual report” itself causes eyes to glaze, even among supporters.
Still, the form is beneficial as a storytelling vehicle.
Telling our stories is absolutely necessary at STG—it’s part of how we help donors and ticket-buyers fully value our role as a nonprofit in Seattle and in the region and see their place as contributors to the other side of our work. We hold a considerably different position than for-profit entertainment promoters.
Our mission has three prongs. We’re best known for restoring and preserving three historic venues in our city. Maintaining and operating these stages secures our past and fosters a robust future. That’s particularly important in one of the country’s fastest growing—and changing—cities.
Secondly, we’re charged with bringing the highest quality art and culture to our community. We produce more than 500 events each year. As a nonprofit, we can take risks on work we believe is important for our neighbors to see, even if a performance is not guaranteed blockbuster ticket sales.
Finally, STG promotes equity in culture—both diverse artists onstage and diverse audiences in seats. We donate more than $300,000 worth of tickets each year to service organizations and low-income families to ensure that all kinds of audiences are engaged in Seattle’s cultural conversations. Our Nights at the Neptune program brings voices outside the mainstream to the mainstage.
A Fresh Approach
To better tell these stories, we turned to the web, with help from our partners at Pyramid Communications. We’d already taken the step of leaving paper reports behind in 2013 with a microsite digital report that was more convenient and shareable. That report was responsive, so it presented well on tablets and mobile devices, and we had video ready to embed.
But the format itself needed freshening. We needed a compelling presentation to get them to read, and perhaps even come back to report again.
Our most critical job would be getting people to the site. Our previous digital report suffered from low readership, which we ascribed to a lack of promotion.
We made three strategic decisions:
- First, and perhaps most importantly, we reached out to readers when we believed they’d be most receptive to stories about our work in the community: after buying tickets to an upcoming event
- Second, rather than release our content wholesale, we presented it episodically, releasing it in tandem with offline events
- Third, we invited social sharing with a hashtag that was integrated throughout our stories
If it worked, we’d attract new audiences to the STG mission; we’d keep existing supporters engaged in a new way; and we’d give everyone a vehicle for sharing their own connection to what we do.
Embedding in the Everyday
To think about driving traffic to the microsite, we asked ourselves: Why do people go to STG’s regular website? That was easy. Most came to buy tickets. But we couldn’t simply put a link to the microsite on the ticket homepage. Why would someone coming to purchase seats for Wicked or Abraham.In.Motion interrupt herself to read about what we do?
We could, however, attempt to capture buyers’ attention on the other side—after they bought their tickets.
Every STG ticket purchase generates a pop-up confirmation window with the order number, seating information, and so forth. To help drive traffic to our microsite, we added a new message to that window:
Did you know you bought more than a ticket? Supporting STG means guaranteed world-class art and culture for Seattle. Learn more at stgpresents.org/stories.
At that moment, supporters and potential supporters had more incentive to click through to learn about STG’s work. They were finished with their purchase, so the invitation was not an interruption. They were excited about their show, so they were feeling good. Maybe in that context, they’d like to hear a bit about the good work they just helped fund.
Ticket buyers got another chance to learn more about our work just before their show, when we sent a “Know Before You Go” email with event information that also included the “more than a ticket” message.
Aligning Digital Stories With Analog Outreach
We also challenged ourselves to think about the report format. What if we delivered our mission stories in a way that didn’t feel so much like an annual report? What if we delivered them episodically?
Like any organization, Seattle Theatre Group conducts special outreach to the community at particular times of the year. Rather than release our stories as a whole, we would stagger them throughout the year, to coincide with our existing outreach events. It gave us reason to mention the stories in person and online to fans and potential supporters at several points in the year, rather than once with the release of a traditional report. Additionally, those who searched for STG in connection with the outreach would also come to the new content.
We timed the first installment with STG’s annual fall telephone drive. Callers mentioned it when asking for donations from supporters. Even with that small push, readership ballooned—in 15 days, it reaching four times the people reached by the previous report. The average time spent was four minutes, one second.
The fall content release focused on the mission to deliver premier art to our community. The second release came in February, when STG announced its season of Broadway shows. That time, the content focused on the mission for equity in the arts. The final installment came with the April announcement of STG’s full season, and focused on our historic preservation work.
Encouraging Social Sharing: #MyVitalArt
Digital stories naturally lend themselves to sharing, so featuring a hashtag in the report was a natural fit. We chose the theme “#MyVitalArt” to run across the three content releases. The structure of the report includes space to pull in continually new posts tagged with #MyVitalArt.
We wanted a hashtag that could also live outside of the report—one that dedicated STG supporters and casual show-goers alike could use to highlight their experiences and the role that culture plays in our community. We included #MyVitalArt on the marquees at our venue, on signage and collateral for our annual fundraising event, and in our YouTube video series, STGtv. “Vital Art Lives Here” became the theme of our 2015-2016 season.
By June 2015, the report had garnered 2,137 views from 1,610 users. Now, we know those aren’t RedCross.org numbers. We’re a city-based arts org. The numbers do, however, represent a 97 percent increase in readership over the previous year—many of whom are likely new readers. This experiment has been a huge success and learning opportunity for both STG and Pyramid. STG Executive Director Josh Labelle called it the best work Seattle Theatre Group had published in its 20-year history.
We will, of course, continue with this format and distribution model into the next year. Now, we’re exploring how it should further evolve: What is the right balance between maintaining the powerful work we’ve created and debuting new stories? What other channels can we leverage to reach even more people? How can we use the format to illustrate dynamically the impact STG has on our city and region?
If this is something you’re wrestling with, too, we welcome you to email us and we can continue the conversation together.
The art we present touches the community around us, and that community, in turn, fuels STG. We will always have important stories to tell. Our job is to find the best tools and avenues for telling them.
Vivian Phillips is the Director of Marketing and communications for Seattle Theatre Group, where she oversees marketing for three historic theatres in Seattle. Vivian chairs the Seattle Arts Commission and serves on the Puget Sound Public Radio board of directors. An avid arts advocate, Vivian is dedicated to assuring access to enriching arts and cultural experiences and mentoring upcoming arts leaders. You can find STG on Twitter @stgpresents.
Chris Nelson is arts and culture and editorial director at Pyramid Communications, a strategic communications firm serving nonprofits, foundations, and tribes. A former award-winning journalist, Chris marries his skills as a writer with his passion for social causes and the arts. As board chair at The Vera Project, Chris is an advocate for youth in the arts in Seattle. You can find Chris and Pyramid on Twitter @_ChrisNelson and @pyramidcomms.
Creating an ecosystem of support for and trust in a nonprofit has shifted with the advent of social media and multi-channel communications. How can you bridge the gap between online and offline engagement in order to build a strong community and better meet your mission? Victoria Taylor shares best practices from her years of online engagement experience.
Nonprofit Community Building: Taking the next step
As a nonprofit, your goal is to maximize the opportunity for people to connect with your cause and help empower change—whether online or offline. A big part of those efforts can be supported through community-building activities. These comprise a huge part of the traditional nonprofit experience—from 5Ks to volunteer days, from summits to dinners. With the advent of social media, they extend the reach and scope of community-building even further.
Some of the issues that traditional community-building nonprofit activities had to contend with included:
- Timing: the timing of an event could make all the difference in terms of its success. If your 5K (or bake sale, or meetup, or screening) was held on the same day as a school day, festival, or city-wide closure, that could completely affect its ability to help build a community and extend the reach of your existing organizational community.
- Cost: putting on a community-building event traditionally has multiple not-insignificant costs associated with it, including the cost of renting space or obtaining space to meet up, food and beverage costs, raising awareness of the event itself, incentivizing participation, and more, depending on how elaborate the event could be.
- Attendance: You can put together a spectacular activation, but if ¾ of your RSVP’ed guests are unable to make it, that will make your nonprofit’s community suffer as a result (whether in an organizational sense—less funds raised—or in a holistic sense—from participant frustration and lack of connection).
By adding social media & digital platforms to traditional community-building, you’re able to deal with these issues in a variety of ways:
- Asynchronous communication: if your members are using resources as varied as a Facebook Group or message board, you’re reaching people at different times with the same messages and creating a centralized place to share updates, connect with fellow supporters, and more. These can be tremendous resources to tap into for community-building, as with increasingly hectic schedules and diverse constituencies, your community members can span a wide variety of groups—making social media a great way for them to communicate consistently.
- Low cost of use: Starting a social media account—whether Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other platform—is free. Customizing your channels of communication and creating an engaging content strategy is where the majority of your effort and resources will need to be invested, and can be a sliding scale depending on what you have available to you.
- Metrics and sharing: When you’re extending your community to include a digital component, with some exceptions (such as livestreamed events like Google Hangouts), you’re not going to be focusing on attendance. Rather, you will be focused on increasing the overall growth of your community, the sharing of the content your organization is putting out there, and the engagement of both your existing community members and new potential members with your message.
The vast majority of nonprofits today combine traditional community-building endeavors with social media & digital community-building to reach their largest potential audience.
Some strategies for success that I’ve seen work over time include:
- Using your biggest events and gatherings of the year as “tentpoles,” around which you structure all of your entire community-building efforts, both on- and offline: these events that are the most well-known or well-recognized can provide a great way to build and leverage your community. You can begin sharing member-facing information early to get your existing supporter base energized and involved, and create digital-specific extensions that can help extend the reach and the impact of the event itself.
- Think about where your supporters live online and how they behave, and develop community-building strategies accordingly: Before taking the plunge, do some research to see if your target audience (demographically-speaking) is present on a particular platform. For instance, are you trying to reach parents? According to a July 2015 study from Pew Research Institute, 81% of parents who use social media try to respond to good news others share in their networks—meaning if you’re an education-related nonprofit that wants to reach parents on Facebook, you may want to look at ways to inspire and warm the hearts of parents so they are motivated to see your message.
- There’s no “one size fits all” solution to reach and build your community online: You may need to get creative and try a variety of mechanisms to connect and build your online community. A single Twitter account tweeting out facts may not enable you to connect with your largest community, but a hashtag-based campaign that redirects you to a petition site where people can sign up to join your organization, donate, or volunteer, as well as share on their personal social media platforms, could.
- Don’t be afraid to brainstorm and recognize the “lightning in a bottle” effect as you prepare: During my time at reddit, I saw quite a few charity campaigns that did resoundingly well by connecting with the reddit community, many times in an unexpected way (hence the “lightning in a bottle” effect—there’s no way to anticipate what can happen when a campaign suddenly catches like wildfire). Is your idea or campaign one that can translate into a long-term community, should lightning strike? Or would it be something that wouldn’t translate into a long-term community very well?
- How will you thank your community? A big part of community-building is good will, both online and offline. In-person, you can thank your biggest supporters through everything from trophies to t-shirts, certificates to speeches; but online, that may not translate. Think about how you want to incentivize and build good will for your community online—many crowdfunding campaigns have great examples of this through incentives for supporting a campaign and building a pseudo-community through continuing updates on a project’s status and thanking their supporters.
- How has your community traditionally been built, and will digital media bring in new constituencies? If your organization is one for school alumni, for instance, your mission affects how many people who have not attended will be motivated to take part. But if those alumni can bring along a digital network of their families, coworkers and friends, that increases the reach of your message.
- What does your ideal community look like, and what does success look like for you? There are ebbs and flows in all sorts of human behavior —from shopping to travel to charity involvement—so think about what your ideal community looks like with that in mind. Are you providing check-ins every 3 weeks, 3 months or every 6 months? Does your weekly newsletter help foster that sense of community, or do you use a Facebook group to keep your biggest supporters involved and motivated?
On a different note, some of the biggest social media success stories in the field of nonprofits—from natural disaster telethons put together in record time to respond to a crisis, to a more long-term giving back campaign that happens every holiday season—are tapping into existing communities on a temporary basis, not necessarily building their own communities. If you’re not looking to create your own community but rather tap into “temporary” communities elsewhere, all of the above ideas still apply.
An empowered community is the ultimate gift to a nonprofit, but building communities takes time, diligence, and dedication. As you go along this journey, don’t be afraid to get creative and to reach out to others – and best of luck!
Photo credit: Amber Case
Victoria Taylor recently joined WeWork as their Director of Digital Community after previously serving as reddit’s Director of Communications and Director of Talent and assisted with AMAs and more with the reddit community. Prior to reddit, Victoria was on the digital team at ID PR and helped work on digital strategy for a wide variety of nonprofits, individuals, entertainment and more. She is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is based out of New York City.
For most nonprofits, websites are integral to helping execute organizational strategy. A website is the lynchpin of branding and communications, and the hub of operations and back-office systems. So why do so many nonprofit websites fail to deliver on one or more of these measures?
4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites
When it comes to advancing their missions and generating social impact, how well nonprofits conduct research, operate programs, build partnerships, and other activities are rightly front-and-center. Equally important, but sometimes undervalued, is the role websites play in making change possible. Not only are websites a cornerstone of branding and communications—helping nonprofits raise awareness, share knowledge, build trust, and generate support; they are also integral to operations—tied into multiple mission-critical systems such, as CRM, document management, data and analytics, donation processing, and more.
Websites live at the epicenter of organizational strategy—brand ambassadors that welcome audiences in and build relationships; trusted advisors that provide valuable thought leadership and counsel to the field; and operations managers that help make sure everything’s running smoothly. What’s more, when it comes to helping audiences understand an organization and believe in its mission, for many, a nonprofit’s website both makes the crucial first impression and is the primary driver of their ongoing experience with the organization.
Common Failings With Most Websites
Unfortunately, in my experience reviewing RFPs, speaking with new clients, and surveying the field, too many nonprofits suffer with websites that hinder, rather than help, their efforts. What’s worse the list of website problems are so consistently similar that it reads like a who’s who of worst practices:
- Confusing and difficult to navigate
- Content that fails to engage
- Underwhelming design
- A CMS that’s painful to use
- Clunky systems integration
- A poor representation of the brand
Could you imagine if people had a similar list of complaints about the ability of other key areas within their organization to achieve their most fundamental goals? It would be a miracle if anything got done! So, why do design firms fail to deliver—and why do nonprofits invest in—websites that fail to support their strategic objectives? It’s my belief that first, both clients and design firms often undervalue or misunderstand a website’s importance; and second, even when they don’t, a lack of strategic collaboration and subsequent breakdowns in execution undermine even the best intentions.
The Risks in Getting it Wrong
As Stanford’s Web Credibility Research demonstrates, websites have tremendous power to persuade and to change what people think and do. Externally, every part of a website—content, design, and technology—contributes to how strongly a person believes in an organization. Internally, websites and technology play an important role in aligning operations and creating organizational efficiencies. For organizations seeking to elevate issues, steer conversations, and build support to help tackle our biggest challenges, the negative impacts of an ineffective website are profound.
A weak message. When a website fails to properly tell a brand’s story with a strong voice, speaks in organizational terms and jargon, or simply suffers from being poorly structured for online reading, the result is a brand that lacks clarity of purpose with a message that fails to resonate and a website that fails to engage.
Damage to the brand. When a website is difficult to use, isn’t mobile-friendly, is hard to read, or just suffers from inconsistent and low-quality design, the bad user experiences it creates online undermines an organization’s credibility, eroding valuable trust in the brand and its mission.
Ineffective operations. When websites suffer from clumsy integration with back-office systems or publishing workflows that frustrate your staff, it harms operations, places a burden on teams, and makes websites a cost center, rather than a tool that improves efficiency.
If an ineffective website can create so many problems, the inverse is also true. Effective websites deliver equally profound benefits—greater clarity of purpose, better brand alignment, deeper engagement, stronger support, increased efficiency, and ultimately, greater social impact.
What It Takes to Get It Right
What, then, can clients and design firms do to make sure that the considerable time, money, and effort put into websites is well spent? It’s important to first state this: the thing that most determines website success is the people working to create it.
All the talk in the world of strategies, process, and best practices isn’t worth a whole lot if the team behind it doesn’t have the necessary skills, acumen, and passion to effectively put them into action. Equally important is a successful client/design firm relationship, built on active listening, transparency, collaboration, and accountability so that everyone can execute at the highest level.
A New Approach to Strategic Collaboration
Every website is created with four essential ingredients: brand, content, design, and technology. If you’re a practitioner in any one of them, there’s no shortage of resources to help perfect your craft. But what if you’re responsible for design or content and need to understand how your choices will impact the work of developers? What if you’re a developer who needs to understand how your code is supposed to translate the nuances of brand strategy? And what if you’re a client trying to make sense of this all when you barely speak the language?
Too often, discussions about what’s important and necessary to accomplishing goals in one area are self-contained. Perhaps not all of them are siloed, but enough that, in a process spanning months, important decisions—both big and small—are made before the right questions are asked about their impacts on other teams working on the project.
Simply put, individual strategies aren’t enough. Teams need an integrated approach that aligns their thinking, bridges knowledge gaps between disciplines, and improves awareness of how choices will work together and impact a project’s scope, budget, and effectiveness.
How it Works
The 4 Strategic Foundations to Effective Websites is a multi-disciplinary approach that’s been refined by many at Constructive (formerly MSDS) through 15 years of hard work (and hard lessons) helping nonprofits develop websites that help strengthen their brands and support their organizational strategies.
It is driven by two core principles:
- Establish a set of strategic organizing principles that focuses all decision making on supporting and translating a nonprofit’s organizational strategy into an online experience
- Prioritize cross-disciplinary collaboration and build a team culture of shared learning that leads to better choices, more efficient process, and more effective work
The thinking that drives brand strategy work should be baked into the interactive process, because branding is a translation of organizational strategy. Design, content, and technology must all work in support of advancing this strategy.
To meet the first principle, The 4 Strategic Foundations uses an understanding of a nonprofit’s organizational and brand goals as the central organizing principle for both team and clients. Meeting the second requires close-knit, collaborative teams that allow for the right kinds of exploration and shared learning across disciplines.
Here’s an overview of how the process works and the mindset teams should bring:
Starting with a deep understanding of organizational strategies and how a nonprofit’s brand translates into experiences is the foundation upon which everything is built. A Strategic Brief details organizational and brand priorities—listing goals and priorities for developing content, design, and technology in relation to supporting these overarching goals.
Once we’ve answered questions like, “What content do we have?” “How good is it?” and “How will it be produced?” we need to determine what the implications are, and how content will live on the site until initial design comps are done. Firm up the things that are unlikely to change and make sure everyone (especially writers and developers!) understand that there likely will be adjustments during design.
Both UX and visual design work are the connective thread between content and technology in service of the brand. As a result, they need to be incredibly integrative of the other three strategic foundations. Features, page templates, editorial design devices, and other details must be regularly reviewed to make sure the team is not failing to tell the brand story, nor creating something that will blow up the budget.
Technology gives life to nuanced brand and design details online and connects to the systems needed to make operations hum. Start with a core installation on the right platform that meets most of the needs of your teams; then help inform content and design execution rather than waiting to be handed specs and comps. Proactivity is critical to making sure budgets don’t get blown up or corners get cut.
Ultimately, nonprofit websites serve as a gateway for people to experience and embrace a nonprofit’s brand and to support its mission. As a critical tool in executing nonprofit organizational strategy, they are vehicles for helping the world make progress on some of our most significant challenges.
This demands that design firms be as strategic and ambitious in their efforts as their clients are in their own. If a design is to be successful, then the content, design, and technology created must all work together seamlessly to accomplish the goals and help achieve significant social impact.
For 20 years, Matt Schwartz has worked as a brand strategist, designer, and writer—specializing in the nonprofit and education sectors. As Director of Strategy of Constructive, Matt plays a hands-on role partnering with clients and Constructive’s teams to develop integrated brand strategy, design, and content that help advance organizational goals and connect people to their missions.
On May 6, Public Interest Registry (PIR) launched two new domains specifically for nonprofits—.ong and .ngo. Four months later, we asked about their progress.