October 28, 2019 Reading time: 8 minutes
This post kicks off a 3 part series on “Growing your non-profit like a for-profit”. The series covers three website strategies that for-profit companies are using today. Your nonprofit can put these in place to better engage your followers and improve online fundraising.
The focus of this article is on understanding how a great user experience can dramatically impact the perception and effectiveness of your nonprofit. We’ll also be diving into some of the more common problems we see in the nonprofit website space and what you can do to help address them.
At Mindful Creative, we’ve been working with small businesses and nonprofits for the past 10 years and have come to see first-hand the power of what a great user experience can achieve. Our clients have come to see dramatic improvements in their traffic, time-on-site, and online donations; so today we would like to share with you some of the ideas and strategies that have made that possible.
But before we go into all of that, I would like for you to first perform a little test. This test works best with a friend or colleague as your guinea pig, but for the purposes of this blog post, let’s assume it’s just you. I recommend having a notepad handy or a new word document open to write down your thoughts as you conduct the test.
The following test should take about 15 minutes. Start by opening up the website of a local nonprofit who you have never donated toward before. It is important that it not be your own organization or one that you have previously donated to in the past as this can skew how objective you are in your responses.
Next, try to complete an online donation all the way through. A simple $1 donation will do. During this process, try to verbalize your internal monologue and take notes anytime something feels pleasant or challenging along the way.
After you have completed the donation, try to briefly answer some of the following questions:
While these may be a lot of questions to consider, I hope you are beginning to understand the mindset required to properly identify common issues that could lead to a great or poor user experience.
User experience refers to the thoughts, behaviors, and interactions an individual goes through as they complete a task relative to your organization. As you saw in the previous example, the entire online donation process is a common user experience path that needs to be as frictionless as possible to ensure a donation is completed.
At Mindful Creative, we like to look at the similarities between an online donation for a nonprofit and an e-commerce transaction at a for-profit company. Comparing and contrasting these two types of transactions helps us better understand the expectations that donors have become accustomed to when completing an e-commerce transaction for a physical product.
For example, in a typical e-commerce transaction the buyer is happiest when their product arrives in the mail a few days later. An online donation however has no physical product that is being delivered; the act of the donation is the reward for the individual. The highest point of satisfaction and happiness a donor feels is the moment they decide to make a donation on your website. So in a way, the user-experience is the reward.
Kate Kaplan of the Nielsen-Norman Group states it best in her article “Brand Experience in the Digital Age”:
“Most people can’t differentiate how they feel about a brand from how they feel about the experiences they have with that brand, so in many situations, [User Experience] becomes the brand differentiator. It can be part of — or all of — the reason a customer chooses to engage with a company or its products.”
If you're a development director at a nonprofit, then you’ve experienced a donor’s satisfaction first-hand when they decide to make a donation. You also understand the importance of the 1-on-1 time you spend cultivating, asking, receiving, and thanking a donor for their donation. It is important that all of these interactions and touch-points are faithfully translated to the online experience. Online donors need to digitally feel that you care and are responsible with their donation.
Today’s audiences equate a website’s user experience as a direct reflection of an organization’s competency. A poor online user experience can impart the message that your organization doesn't care, or worse, that it isn’t very good at fulfilling its mission. And while this couldn’t be further from the truth, it is important to recognize this correlation now as it can affect how individuals feel when interacting with your organization. Interactions such as an individual deciding to apply for a job at your nonprofit or even a donor deciding if they will donate again the following year.
A landmark online giving study from Network for Good and TrueSense Marketing analyzed 3.6 million gifts to 66,470 different nonprofits from 2003-2009 and found that:
“Just as the strength of the donor-charity relationship heavily influences offline giving, the online giving experience has a significant impact on donor loyalty, retention and gift levels. Small improvements to the online experience can make a big difference in donations.”
When our company redesigned the website for our client the Foundation for the Diocese of El Paso, one of our goals was to grow the amount of online recurring donors. We quickly discovered that the existing process for setting up a recurring donation was not going to cut it. It was slow, cumbersome, and confusing. Donors were being taken off-site to a 3rd party website and they were required to fill out a lengthy form to create an account before they could even type in their donation.
As a solution, our team created an “accountless” experience that dramatically speeds up the process for creating a recurring donation. The new donation form doesn’t require an account to be created or a password to be remembered. And when it comes time for donors to manage their ongoing donation, they just type in their email address in to a web form and an email with secure links to manage their donation is sent to their inbox. All of this is done without the fuss of having your donors save and remember a new username and password.
While the previous example shows how far we’ve gone in improving the online experience for recurring donors, there are still plenty of other opportunities to reduce friction in the online experience. Below is a list of common user experience issues we see in nonprofit websites as well as some steps you can take to improving them today.
As I’ve mentioned above, the donation experience is one of the most important issues to address, specifically the form itself. If you are still using PayPal or a system that sends your donors to a different website then I highly recommend you ditch it and start utilizing a form system that can be embedded directly into your website. Keeping donors on your website, or on a branded giving page that looks like your website, can lead to 7X more dollars raised per year.
If you have the ability to embed a Paypal button on your website, then you should be able to embed a different donation form system. Donation form systems such as the one provided by Raisedonors are a great example of a service that can quickly provide you with a high level of usability and functionality while still keeping donors on your website. If your nonprofit uses a donor management system, those systems will often come with their own forms that you can also embed on your website.
If volunteers are a big part of your organization, then it is even more important to invest in a good user experience. Clear directions and a straight-forward online application process are the minimum online users expect. Also make sure there is an FAQ section and that potential volunteers know exactly what they need to do once an application is complete. There are many volunteer management systems that have applications and login forms that can be embedded on your website to provide a more seamless user experience. But even if your nonprofit can’t afford a whole separate volunteer management system, a little clarity in the website’s content regarding what volunteers can expect can go a long way in making sure they start off with a great user experience.
Many websites now have a “responsive” design that adapts to the device it is being viewed on, but not all responsive designs are created equal. Usability issues can become exacerbated on mobile and can be even more frustrating for a user due to the small screen size and slower loading times. It is important to test your website's mobile experience, independent from its desktop experience.
As of 2019, our own nonprofit clients see anywhere between 65% to 80% of their users coming from mobile devices. This is a stark reminder not to fall in love with the way your desktop site looks. I would even argue it’s time for your organization to start treating mobile as your audience's primary experience.
To see how your website stacks up, try performing the same usability test from the beginning of this article but on your mobile device. Make a list of anything that felt cumbersome or challenging and send this list to the person or company that does your website updates.
Another common issue we see across nonprofit websites is when the menu navigation reflects an organization’s internal department naming structure. This can be problematic and affect the user experience because your visitors are arriving at your website with a predetermined task in mind that they want to complete. They do not know the names of your programs or which department can help them. By changing the naming of your navigation to be user-centric and task-based, you dramatically improve the user experience of an individual looking for help on your website.
So for example, say your nonprofit provides therapy and consulting to families who have fallen on hard times. An individual coming to your website may be looking to learn more and contact you for this service. But if the name in the navigation menu is the marketing name of your program, say the “Stronger Together Program”, then you significantly decrease the chance of someone finding that program. Having a more straightforward name such as “Therapy for Families” will win out every time and improve the level of satisfaction when using your website.
All of these areas of improvement can begin to feel overwhelming. But before deciding to try to tackle it all at once, the question you should be asking yourself is
“What’s the smallest, simplest change I can make that’s likely to keep people from having the problem we observed?”
Progress over perfection. By just consciously making small tweaks to the communication and experience today, you can significantly change the first impression your donors have of your organization tomorrow.
That’s it for today! Be sure to check out Part 2 of “Growing Your Nonprofit like a For-Profit” series as we explore how for-profit companies have come to dominate the CRM space and how nonprofits can utilize similar systems by integrating donor management software with their websites.
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Octavio is the head of business development at Mindful Creative and has spent the past 5 years working with nonprofits & foundations to help them better communicate their impact, engage their audiences, and improve online fundraising. He is also a board member of the El Paso Center for Children.