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9 Essential Nonprofit Website Design Features For 2020

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Making Your Nonprofit Website Design Work

Want to know how to build a website for your nonprofit? It isn’t that difficult but there are some things that matter more than others. By paying attention to what makes a good nonprofit website you will see the difference — that is, more online donations, more volunteer engagement, and more opportunities to partner with meaningful sponsors.

The Purpose Of Good Nonprofit Website Design

This is an important question that requires a thoughtful answer as well as some planning when you begin the process of designing or redesigning your organization’s website. I will outline the 9 essential features that your website should have. Some are no-brainers and others require some thought, if not professional intervention. So, let’s get started.

1. Define Your Audience

Having reviewed and researched hundreds of nonprofit websites, I find this to be the most overlooked component of most online marketing strategies, and the one that could have the biggest impact on your ability to attract and engage the people who should, and may want to, care about your cause.

You likely already have some intuitive understanding of the type of people who participate in your mission, either as partners, donors, or volunteers. The question is whether or not that intuition was considered or propagated into the design of your online presence.

You may have a list of people to communicate with, but it’s very possible you don’t know much or anything about them except their contact info. Do you know what they care about or what moves them, much less if they are interested in your cause? And yet, you decide to cast your net anyway. Surely, you would agree this doesn’t sound like a very effective engagement strategy.

How To Do It

Building a nonprofit target audience is as important to your fundraising strategy than anything else you do. Not only will it allow you to raise more money, but it will provide very specific pathways for you to connect with your target audience more authentically. Isn’t that really what running a nonprofit is all about?

Building Marketing Personas For Your Nonprofit

Marketing personas are just fictitious characters you define to represent the different segments of your audience (donors, partners, volunteers).

Your personas are not something you expose to the outside world. They are used internally for the purpose of understanding and refining the human characteristics of those who are likely to engage with your nonprofit. Doing a thorough job of defining these personas will result in your ability to employ effective marketing communications.

How To Build A Nonprofit Marketing Persona

nonprofit website design personas
Get To Know Your People

Get to know the people you already engage with (in your database). It’s safe to say that in this busy world we live in, you may not know your people as well as you should. You probably know your big donors and your volunteer champions, but it’s impossible to know everyone at scale. The next best thing is to understand how they fit into various demographics, so you can start by creating reports from your database that show things like:

  • Where they live (city, neighborhood)
  • Gender
  • Income
  • Age
  • Most frequent donors
  • Least frequent donors
  • Types of companies that donate
  • Event attendees
  • Do those who donate also volunteer
Start Reaching Out

If you want to understand your contributors, you’re going to have to do some talking. This shouldn’t take a lot of time. Don’t make it formal, but get to the point and be clear about why you’re reaching out. Shoot for at least 25 individuals with a good cross section. Here are some things you want to take away:

  • How they originally came to you and why
  • What motivates them to contribute time or money
  • Their preferred style of communication
  • Their preferred payment type
  • Do they typically give at a certain time of year and why
  • How do they find the causes they care about
  • What might cause them not to give
  • What are their expectations of a nonprofit
  • Do they support other organizations
Read The Data

From your interviews, you should have a valuable set of data that, if used properly, can help you understand the who, why, what, and when of your clients. In order to do this you will need to create a few buckets to categorize these clients. A few things you should be able to glean now are:

  • Contribution motivation
  • Personal values
  • How they make a contribution decision
  • How they like to be asked
  • Profession
  • Giving frequency
Define Your Personas

From here you should be able to create your persona buckets and attach applicable attributes. You do not need to create more than a few personas. Three or four should do it. Categorizing the people you’ve gotten to know a little better will help you in creating personas for each. An example category may be something like most potential to give or most likely to volunteer. You will create the personas and give each one personality traits and demographic identity. Define things like:

  • Name
  • Generic photo (even a cartoon)
  • Profession
  • Age 
  • Personal interests and motivations
  • Giving habits

The more (fictional) attributes you can accurately identify, the more effective your personas will be. Make sure you give them a name and even what a day in their life looks like.

A Real Persona Example

To give you an idea of what a persona looks like, here’s one we call Doctor Donna.

Doctor Donna, Middle-Aged Donor
Married, female; 42 years old
Education: M.D. from state university
Title: Radiologist 

Professional goal: To become a partner in medical practice specializing in pediatric radiology.

Personal profile: Donna has been practicing as a contract radiologist for 12 years and is ready for the next step. She has always gravitated to pediatrics and has a love of children (she has two of her own). She wants to make a difference for those less fortunate, especially young children. She has been somewhat active in a couple of local organizations but is time-constrained. She feels that her financial bandwidth gives her the best opportunity to contribute to causes she believes in.

When Donna does have free time, she likes to travel with her family. She also dedicates 2 weeks/year to participate in Doctors Without Borders, and this is very fulfilling. She doesn’t spend any time watching TV other than a couple of favorite shows, which she records. She does rely on social media and other online sources for news and staying connected with family. Her smartphone is with her at all times and is used for work and personal tasks — mostly social media, email, and texts with family.

Before Donna commits to making a donation, she does thorough research and wants to see financials of the nonprofit organization. Being able to donate online is important, and she also wants some social proof by reading reviews of other donors and volunteers.

Why Doctor Donna donates to local charities and nonprofits:

  • She is committed to her local community and has a strong desire to make it better.
  • She personally connects with the mission of the nonprofit. That usually means that the nonprofit helps children in some way.
  • She has a belief that her monetary contribution will make a difference.

How Donna likes to give: Once her criteria are met, she prefers to either give a one-time sum or set up an automatic withdrawal for donating over time.

What we want/need from Doctor Donna:

  • To sign up for our recurring monthly donation.
  • To subscribe to our outgoing email for news, updates, and special donor events.
  • To communicate to her network our nonprofit mission and why it’s important to her.

The underlying reason Donna finds our nonprofit appealing:

Because she believes that we are good stewards of the donation resources and we make a real difference in the lives of our recipients.

In A Nutshell

Don’t forget this is only one persona that you should have derived from the exercise. You should have similar personas for volunteers, partners, and any other important contributor to your organization.

Understanding your contributors at this level allows you to engage them with pinpoint precision, and everything you do online should correlate to the audience for which it is intended. One size does not fit all.

2. Engage Your Audience Where They Are

Your clients come to you through different pathways and your nonprofit website design should reflect that. Only when you understand your audience can you engage them on their path. Before defining your audience, you must first clearly state and understand your goals. Does that mean 5% more donations, a 20% increase in volunteer support, or 3 new corporate partnerships? When you can articulate these goals you can begin to define your audience and build content for your website to appeal to them, specifically.

If you’ve never defined the personas that represent your nonprofit target audience, there is no time like the present (go back to number 1, just above). Building a nonprofit target audience is as important to your fundraising strategy as anything else you do.

Not only will it allow you to raise more money, but it will provide very specific pathways for you to connect with your target audience more authentically. Isn’t that really what running a nonprofit is all about?

How To Do It

First, think about your desired outcomes. If a volunteer-minded individual finds your website by searching Google or on social media, what do you want that person to know about your mission, and what action do you want them to take? That may begin with a landing page that talks about your cause in a way that the visitor connects with emotionally (remember, if we know the audience, we can do this effectively).

Once you’ve made the connection, guide them to the action you want them to take. Maybe that’s a monthly volunteer meetup/orientation, or maybe it’s a signup form for your next volunteering opportunity. Of course, you will also include some imagery of what it looks like to volunteer, what benefits your current volunteers get from participation, and even some highlighted testimonials.

Create a landing page for every target audience, then rinse and repeat. Meet and engage your audience where they are. Don’t expect everyone to pass through the same door and know exactly what you want them to do.

3. Tell Your Story

nonprofit storybrand

To tell your story, consider where your organization came from and where it’s going. Which accomplishments define the organization? What is the vision of the organization, and most importantly, what is required to get there?

Once you have a story, think of the imagery that best conveys the underlying message. Nonprofit website images are critical in conveying the story, the cause, and the vision.

Use your story, along with your nonprofit website design, to demonstrate the hard work that has already taken place. Use video from past events if possible. The idea is to allow the visitor to your website to see for themselves without feeling as though they are being told.

Why It's Important

Telling your story is important because, while there may be other nonprofit organizations like yours, only you can tell your unique story. Storytelling appeals to human nature much more than information. Let’s admit it, supporting nonprofit causes is most often a pursuit driven by personal passion and emotional connection. Only storytelling can do that in the short amount of time you have to engage an audience online.

4. Make Your Donation Button Available

nonprofit donation button

This one is short and sweet. I can’t tell you the number of nonprofit websites I see that have a donate button as the very first thing I see, prominently placed front and center on the websites root page — no story to support who should donate or why. If I click the button I’m taken to a bland PayPal form on a page with little accompanying information. Huh?

Your donation button should be made available persistently, but not as a call-to-action without lots of context. If you’ve defined an audience that is likely to donate and you’ve presented them with content that appeals to them, then a donate call-to-action may be appropriate there. However, asking someone to donate before they even know who you are may be considered by some as just downright rude.

How To Do It

Create a well-styled donate button that “rides” in the header of your nonprofit’s website so that it is ever-present, but not in-your-face intrusive. It’s possible to add a similar link or button in the footer if design discretion is applied. The reason for header and footer is that the button will be present and accessible regardless of the page to which a visitor navigates.

From there, judiciously use a donation call-to-action in your content that is created specifically for an audience that is likely to donate. That’s it.

5. Use Real Images Relevant To Your Cause

nonprofit volunteers in garden

This is nearly self-explanatory. While stock images are abound, there are too many iPhones in the world to not use your own images. I would suggest that you even hire a freelance photographer for special events. It’s a minimal expenditure and will make the difference on your website, landing pages, and social media.

Why It's Important

A picture is worth a thousand words and sometimes more than a thousand dollars when it comes to website design for your nonprofit. Images convey emotion that words simply can not. That said, we’re all internet-savvy enough now to know when we’re seeing authentic photos vs. purchased stock. Stock photography has its place, but when you are trying to connect your website visitors emotionally to your cause, there is no better way to do that than through authentic images that represent you uniquely and realistically.

6. Connect Your CRM

nonprofit crm

Most nonprofits we talk with understand the importance a CRM (client relationship management system) adds to the organizational capabilities. It is a crucial system for managing donations, donors, events, volunteers, etc.

If your CRM is not tightly connected with your website you may be missing a key step that could eliminate redundant tasks and automate things that now take you hours or days to manage. This may include donor and volunteer communications, event communication and marketing, client notifications, and in and outbound marketing efforts.

Here is Capterra’s comprehensive list of CRMs for Nonprofits.

Why It's Important

With donations, volunteer signups, event registrations, and other online forms, your nonprofit will probably be receiving a lot of data through your website. By integrating your website and your CRM, you’ll eliminate the need for time-consuming data input and management, which can also be prone to errors. Instead, the data you collect will automatically be put into your CRM, making the process a snap.

7. Add Matching Gift Capability

nonprofit matching gift

To add matching gift capability to your website, you will need to identify a provider first (i.e. DoubleTheDonation). 

You may need to work with a professional to integrate a matching gift tool into your website but it should be a fairly easy job. Most websites will require a small amount of code to complete the task. If you are using a CMS like WordPress, there may even be a plugin, depending on which matching gift provider you choose.

Why It's Important

Matching gifts is an obvious and easy way to increase online donations. You will basically receive two donations — one from the donor and one from the matching gift, that is if the donor knows about a qualified matching gift. The problem is that many do not.

Thousands of companies across the US offer some form of matching gift program to their employees for qualified charitable donations. This equates to millions of employees being eligible to participate. In addition, more than 65% of Fortune 500 companies offer a matching gift program, and some companies will more than double an employee’s donation!

By adding a matching gift tool to your site, you can be sure that donors know about the possibility of a matching gift and provide them the resources needed to find out and learn more. This will not only funnel more resources to your mission, but may also be the factor that motivates a new donor.

8. Use Analytics To Understand Your Users

google analytics for nonprofits

If your nonprofit website design was done by a qualified professional, it is possible, even likely, that your website is already connected to Google Analytics. The big question is whether or not you, or someone else, is using the data generated to optimize your site, understand the behavior of your site visitors, and most importantly, find out if there are deficiencies that are preventing your prospective contributors from following through.

Google Analytics could consume a comprehensive post on its own, so I will use this opportunity to simply underscore the importance of not only having it, but using it. A thorough article on Google Analytics can be found here on Moz’ site.

Why It's Important

Safe to say, it’s more than important. By understanding even the basic data that comes from Google Analytics, you can answer questions like:

  • How many people visit the website?
  • Which locations do my visitors come from?
  • Is our website mobile-friendly?
  • Which websites refer traffic to our website?
  • What marketing programs are driving the most traffic to our website?
  • Which pages on the website are the most popular?
  • How many visitors have converted into donors or volunteers?
  • Where did my converting visitors come from and go on my website?
  • How can I improve our website’s speed?
  • What content do our visitors like the most?

Answers to these questions and much more will help you understand and align your website design, content, and calls-to-action for the best results over time.

9. Improve Your Nonprofit Website Performance

nonprofit website speed

There is a lot to unpack here, but I will keep it pretty simple. First, and most important, Google cares about your website’s performance. Your nonprofit website design may be beautiful, but Google doesn’t care about you. They care about their consumers, so they want to provide the best user experience for those consumers, and they do that by giving higher rankings to websites that perform better.

Granted, performance is not the only ranking signal to which Google pays attention, but it is a big one. You may have a website that is beautiful in design, optimized for all of the right keywords, and structured in a way to perfectly guide your users in the exact pathways you want them to be guided. But, if you’re paying for hosting on GoDaddy (as an example) and have a minimal hosting package, chances are your website is paying the penalty. The same is likely true for DIY sites on Wix and Squarespace. There really is only so much juice you can squeeze out of these platforms.

It’s one thing to have a website, and an entirely different thing to have a website that people can find. Performance matters, so pay just a little more for a premium hosting package with a great host like Siteground (our favorite) and reap the benefits.

There are many other factors besides hosting that can impact your website performance: things like image optimization, minifying HTML, CSS and Javascript code, using a CDN (content delivery network), and making sure your site is not overly-burdened with page animations and lots of over-the-top CSS tricks that cause slow page loading.

How To Do It

First, you can find any number of free checkers to see how your website is performing. Most will not tell the entire story, but will point you in the right direction. A couple I recommend are:

GTMetrix
SEOptimer

Both have paid options but you can get a great head start for free and really don’t need to pay anything to learn what you need to know.

Once you have Google Analytics connected to your site, you can also learn a great deal about your site speed and performance including how it performs on mobile devices, a key performance metric.

Wrapping Up

Congratulations if you made it this far! While there are many other things you can do to affect positive change for your nonprofit website, I feel like these offer a great start and the most bang for your buck.

When working with nonprofit clients, we stress two core concepts that are most important — elevating your visibility online and deepening the engagement with your clients (donors, partners, and volunteers). Our agency — Delegal Digital — offers nonprofit marketing solutions to help you do both, and we would love to share a few ideas with you. Contact us at 912-388-1440 or hello@delegaldigital.com

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