Going Mobile: The Importance of Mobile Apps for Nonprofits

When considering the development of a native mobile app for any of the app stores, you should start by contemplating what it is you really want to get out of it. In my experience, most for-profits are after some combination of three main goals, ideally focusing on just one:

  • Direct revenue generation
  • User acquisition
  • Providing an additional feature to your users

From the very beginning, my company Speek has provided native mobile apps for iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone. While this is highly atypical for a company at this stage, we’ve always viewed app development as essential, for one simple reason: over two-thirds of our new users come through mobile app stores organically. “Organically” as in “without us spending a single dime in marketing!” That’s a customer acquisition cost of $0 (not counting app development and maintenance costs, of course, which are very low).

Obviously, as a for-profit startup, our goals and strategies will not be identical to those of nonprofits, but I believe that there is actually a great deal of overlap, and nowhere is this more true than with the importance—for for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike—of utilizing mobile apps to maximum benefit.

Going back to the three main goals, let ‘s go through each of them one-by-one and look at their counterparts in the non-profit sector.

Direct Revenue Generation

At first glance, this would seem to be the goal that is the least easily translatable to non-profits. But not so fast! Several key methods of non-profits are actually nicely analogous to pursuit of direct revenue. A donation-based model, for example, is essentially seeking direct revenue—only the non-profit in question is not keeping all of that revenue. Obviously, many apps in the for-profit world have direct revenue as their main goal, for example a game like Flappy Bird, which charges users a few dollars for a one-time download. But there’s a catch to pursuing direct revenue as a main goal: Flappy Bird with its meteoric rise is hardly representative of the field as a whole: when Flappy Bird was taken down from the Apple App Store, people were almost instantly selling phones with Flappy Bird installed on eBay for up to $90,000. Now that is demand! Not many companies can expect such a high demand for their product or service. To be effective with direct revenue as your main goal, you need to have an app that is in itself so compelling that users will pay money on the spot to have it.

More likely, you’ll want to think of your app as more of a user acquisition channel or a value-added feature.

User Acquisition

As a mobile app goal, user acquisition is essentially the same for non-profit organizations as for everybody else: you want new users to discover through their smartphone app stores just like they’d discover you on the web through Google searches, social media, or online ads. At Speek, user acquisition is our #1 goal, and we think of the app store as yet another user acquisition channel. And a very valuable channel at that.

With user acquisition, it makes a lot of sense to list your app for free in the app stores. The app is the medium—not the message. We focus extensively on the registration funnel and converting people who have downloaded the app to registered users of our product. This can be much harder than you may think; expect a ton of iteration to get right. And be prepared: iterating can be much harder on a native mobile app than on a web app due to app store approval timelines.

The good news is that there are millions of users in the various app stores and they are there specifically looking for apps of a certain type. If you optimize your keywords, make your app look compelling in app store search results and even—the holy grail—get featured, then you will find yourself the beneficiary of a super cost-effective user acquisition channel that is going to be much more steady and predictable than search engine optimization.

Providing an Additional Feature to Your Users

This may be the most relevant mobile app goal for non-profits. As a non-profit, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to interact with your organization whenever and wherever they want. Users become volunteers, donors, and advocates—and you want to provide them with as much information, access, and connectivity to fellow users as possible. A mobile app allows for maximum engagement from a user, and making sure that contributors feel valued and invested is essential to a non-profit’s success: a good mobile app can make this acknowledgement and recognition not only immersive but immediate.

If your primary goal is to provide a feature to your users in the form of native mobile apps then your key success metric should revolve around retention. You are providing a feature that will further lock-in your users by making them happier and less willing to leave/less likely to be distracted by the next shiny thing that comes their way.


I cannot emphasize the importance of reconciling a sole goal with your native mobile apps. This goal will dictate every decision you make around user experience, pricing strategy, product/feature roadmap, product marketing, and more. Do you list the app for free or paid? What’s the goal in your registration funnel? What’s the conversion rate from download to registration to activation?

Your answers to those questions will allow you to refine your approach and decide which mobile app strategy is the best fit for your organization. Whichever method you choose, you will be well-served by developing an effective mobile app. In non-profits, you are appealing to people’s moral senses: duty, justice, generosity. You are asking people to listen to the better angels of their natures. It is of paramount importance, then, to make sure they can hear those angels loud and clear: a great mobile app is a great way to make sure that line of communication is clear.

Danny Boice
Co-Founder & President
Danny Boice is the Co-Founder & President of Speek. Speek lets users do conference calls with a simple link (speek.com/YourName) rather than using phone numbers and PINs. Danny attended Harvard, is a Forbes columnist, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown and was recently named a Tech Titan by Washingtonian Magazine. You can find Danny on Twitter @DannyBoice or LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/dboice.