Charities and the Internet

Part one – “Charity begins at the home page.”

If the internet has one lesson to teach it is that a good web presence will always be an advantage to an organisation. Companies like Amazon and Ebay have no physical presence whatsoever relying completely on their web sites and e-commerce to make money. iTunes supplies millions of downloads of music tracks every month and needs only a site to download the client software and storage for the media files

Many charities, through a lack of resources or know-how or simply a failure to understand its benefits do not use the internet to their advantage. Part of this problem is that the internet has evolved at a quite astonishing rate and in the last 6-7 years has come to support a much wider set of online resources. Java and flash based applications are now the norm for the internet rather than the novelty of the beginning of the century.

Internet users have become an increasingly sophisticated group demanding far more from their visits online than a static unchanging site extolling them to send an email or phone a telephone for more information. The highly polished and professional online presence of companies like Youtube, Amazon and Ebay have done much to change the way that people

Often organisations rush into the development of a website without first considering what they want to achieve or worse still consider their website to be something they “have to do,” but little forethought or long-term effort goes into the project. Like everything else a website needs to be part of an overall plan. Directors unwilling to commit time and energy to ensuring the look of the website might want to consider that it could be the starting point for several thousand visitors every year and far more than newsletters and annual reports will represent the company to the outside world.

Organisations often struggling to manage in times of recession will be the first to claim that they derive little benefit from a web presence because they lack the time and resources to explore the possibilities in any detail. At the other end of the spectrum some charities have unrealistic expectations and come to believe that a simple web-page and a presence on Facebook is all they need to be assured of a long line of givers. In both cases, they may also lack staff with the technical skills to accomplish these aims and under pressure to achieve other targets; the web presence is often relegated to something they will “get around to”

The creation and maintenance of a professional website has long since moved from simple knowledge of HTML[1] to the complications of perl, java, C+, SEO[2] : the seemingly never ending task of ensuring that your site is ranked highly in Google, Bing etc. But the increasing sophistication of the internet means that it is entirely possible to create professional website without spending weeks learning how to write and use these tools, companies like WordPress offer out of the box site either free or paid which mean you can have a professional presence in a few short hours!

Some companies spend time developing a site but then do nothing to promote it. Having a well designed website is excellent but if no-one ever finds it then it’s unlikely that it will achieve much and as I suggested earlier, a visitor is more likely to come via the net than through a phone call or personal visit.

A charity might expect to have any of the following make regular visits to their web-site:

  • potential donors;
  • volunteers;
  • professional bodies seeking information about the company;
  • trusts performing their own research;
  • Visitors wanting to gain a better understanding of key issues in the field.

Companies can build their social worth by simply becoming the place where it is know that useful and pertinent information can be found. Be it articles, opinions or download links to other sites. In providing this information the company is more likely to be in a position to start the long term engagement process with potential supporters.

Any company needs to take all this into account when formulating the elements of their website. The final strategy may include a wide range of tactics from third party tools, email marketing & social networking, to online marketing and tools to engage the audience once they reach the site.

SaaS and the oft touted “Cloud” mean that although development and initialization may still need the assistance of the technological literati once this has been accomplished the skill levels needed to keep that presence are relatively low and in many cases will amount to little more than logging in and typing!

Integration of online application is far more wide-spread than it was five to eight years ago. A 21st century web designer would fully expect to build a site that includes, RSS feeds, posts from Twitter and/or Facebook; links to an external blog and professional looking picture galleries installed from photostreaming sites like Flickr. He or she may also be asked to provide inserted video hosted by Youtube and links to audio podcasts such as those hosted by Podbean.[3]

Web users have come to expect a far greater level of professionalism when visiting sites. This is especially important when the aim is to engage with the visitor and ensure that a) return and b) donate. These expectations need to be taken into consideration when developing a web presence strategy.

[1]   Hypertext mark-up language, the basic code for building websites.
[2]   Search engine optimisation – a subset of website creation which focuses on good ranking for web pages especially where the site depends on either paying customers or PPC (pay per click)
[3]   It may be worth just saying that podcasts, photo-hosting and blogging can all be done using the company server. The reasons for not using client side hardware is simply that it moves the technical element away from a small number of people and enables staff with little or no technical skills to use the software spreading the load and limiting the impact of illness and annual leave.