Monday, July 29, 2013

Make your nonprofit website effective

On any given day, I can go to the web and find dozens of little more or less local nonprofits that most people probably never heard of that are struggling to survive and grow. Most of them will limp along for years but never really have much of an impact because they can't scare up enough funding. Why is that?

In some cases there just isn't much support for their mission in their area. But much more often it's because they don't understand how to appeal to and build a wider donor base. Contrary to many nonprofit expectations, grants aren't usually the only or even the best avenue to success. I look at a lot of nonprofit websites, and there are three things that I find common to many of them.

They don't understand why they have a website

Most of them are all about the nonprofit. There are pages about how they came into being, pages about the board members life, pages about their events, and that's fine, but the most important page is the home or landing page. I certainly don't want to imply that having your financial information, a list of your board members or even a short history of the organization isn't important. Institutional (foundation) donors and major gift prospects expect that, but those pages don't draw many individual donations. Telling the visitor to go  to some other website isn't a very good idea either.  Facebook is great for some things, but most people will find you through a keyword search, and that's probably going to go to your website first. Don't run them off.

The primary purpose of all of those pages is to increase financial support for the mission, impart a sense of credibility and maybe enlist volunteers as well. What people want to know when they donate is:
Who or what am I helping, why do they need help and what are you going to do with my money to make things better?

If your home page doesn't grab the visitor's attention with something relative to their interests in the first 10 to 20 seconds, they are very likely to move on before they ever get a chance to learn about your organization.

Contrast these two opening sentences.

1. The Blank County Animal League came into being in 2005 to fight for the rights of animals.

2. You can stop Blank County from killing 10,000 dogs, 15,000 cats and 8,000 other types of animals every year.

Which one gets your attention and makes you feel like you could make a difference?

They don't provide or predict results soon enough

The second paragraph needs to give at least a cursory look at positive outcomes. Tell them how the donations received to date have made a difference.

"Since 2005, our donors provided the means for the adoption of over 5,000 animals, and free spay and neuter clinics every month for the past two  years." Or, "By supporting our plans for a no-kill shelter you can save the life of a future pet." It depends on how new you are to the scene which will work for you. It's OK to add one to three photos that support your emotional appeal, just don't make the photos the only visitor connection on the home page.

They don't actually ask for money.

Go ahead. Give them a number. Tell them that you are looking for a minimum donation of $10.00 and put a second donate button link right in the paragraph. (Of course you should have one at the top of the page, and even on subsequent pages as well.) If you want monthly recurring donors, tell them that. And make sure that the donate button provides an easy way to give, such as a "text $10.00 to 12345 now" or a PayPal or credit card option for instance. It's fine to ask them to call in a donation, or to give your mailing address, but many smaller donations are spur-of-the-moment decisions. Don't lose the moment.

In summary

If this sounds like you should think of your home page as a sales page for a product, good. That's what it is. Your product is your mission. Sell it effectively.

There are other parts of your website that will, and should give in depth information about your organization. You can devote a whole page to testimonials. Your financial information should be accessible to those that care about it. But if you can't get the casual visitor engaged from the get-go, you may never have the chance to develop a more profitable relationship with those bigger donors. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Small nonprofits and charity rating organizations

Recently, the so-called "Big Three" charity rating or reporting organizations  (GuideStar, Charity Navigator, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance) have been in the news because they have publicly acknowledged that using a percentage ranking, i.e. a ratio of dollars raised to administrative costs may not be the best way to determine the worthiness of a charity. That prompted emails in my inbox that usually started out  with some variation of " I need help getting good ratings from (insert group here)".

There is no doubt that being rated could improve your visibility, and the number one complaint of small NPO's is that they feel invisible to, or passed over by, possible donors. That's understandable, given the sheer volume of nonprofits. On its website "About" page, states that they " …gather and disseminate information about every single IRS-registered nonprofit  organization", and they put that figure at 1.8 million.   And that doesn't even count the tens of thousands of organizations that are only state-registered.
In actual fact, many nonprofits can't receive a rating from these or many other reviewing groups. They are simply too small or too new to be rated.

These rating organizations came into being to attempt to give donors some sort of benchmark to assure that their dollars weren't going to be misused by a charity. Some, such as Charity Watch actually assign a letter grade to nonprofits. Some, such as GuideStar, simply provide a central location to access basic information about a charity you may be interested in and leave the evaluation up to you.
Typically, the reporting organization has a criteria that they follow when listing a charity on their website or in their database, and they usually require you to have at least one long form 990 form on file with the IRS. That's because they arrive at their rankings by applying simple math to your financial reporting in that form.

Some state up front that you must receive a certain total amount of public support. Charity Watch  ( states that they don't review nonprofits with less than one million dollars in donations,  and they don't report on report on churches, synagogues, mosques, political action committees (PAC's), fraternal clubs, colleges, or local institutions such as hospitals and museums.

 Other sites, such as GuideStar may simply allow you to update and/or complete your information on their website and rank you according to the completeness of  that information. However, since the 990 is typically the most common way that donors can view your reported income and expenses, not having that long form 990 is going to hurt you.

If you haven't reached the magic $50,000 mark in donations yet, you don't have to file the long form, and most small or new NPOs use the e-postcard or 990-N, which has no financial information whatsoever. Therefore, there is nothing for anyone to review. Any organization is allowed to file the longer 990 forms, but few small organizations can afford the accounting costs so they seldom do so.

My advice to any nonprofit that has received less than $50,000 in public support and has limited assets is to focus on your local reputation. Note:  income unrelated to your charitable purposes is another category. We are talking only talking about public support income directly related to your charitable mission here.

In the case of simple listing organizations such as GuideStar, you can review the posted information and update it if you think it will help your credibility. Just be aware that not having some of the information may result in your "star" rating being low, and that could be worse than not being listed at all.

To improve your visibility, you might want to join local business groups or the local BBB. Have financial statements available to produce on request, and keep the community informed by having a visible presence, such as events or at least through press releases to your local area media when something noteworthy happens. And of course, if you want to and can afford it, you can always file the applicable long form.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Is Your Website Wimpy?

Websites in the nonprofit world need to do more than just sit there. Many nonprofit websites I visit look like afterthoughts. They are not informative, they are seldom updated, they don't seem to make it easy to get substantive information, volunteer, or donate, and many focus only on one donor profile or subset.

Engage all your donors

One of the problems with nonprofit financial support is that the traditional sources are either drying up, or evolving. Your nonprofit needs to function in two unique worlds.

One is the world of what I call corporate-think. Serious players such as large foundations or the charitable arm of large companies are looking for hard data. They want formal outcome reports, hard financial data, and want to form what might almost be called professional partnerships. They want organizations that make them look good and that can promote the effectiveness of their mission. Many will look for donor recognition pages.

The other is the world of the so-called "millennial", that is the younger donors in their 20s and early 30s who grew up in the internet world. They use all the latest electronic media toys. They are socially conscious. They are very visual. They are often still very idealistic in their judgments about your effectiveness. They may be more interested in volunteering than giving money, and they may want to contribute small amounts on a monthly schedule.

The first group is interested in the traditional ways for evaluating success. While the emotional element has some weight in their evaluations and desire to participate in your mission, they still want data-based reports. These folks are going to look for, and place emphasis on things like your annual report, financial statements and outcome reporting that is more or less based on something akin to the scientific method. Your website's demonstrated ability to follow their train of thought is important. For them, having things like your financial data, 990 and annual report available on your website is a big plus.

Younger donors are looking for visual proof of your mission. In a 34-page research report  principally funded by the Case Foundation, young donors said they were turned off by stale content and a lack of visual images that show them how they can have an impact by participating. You can download the whole report from this link:

These potential young supporters are expecting instant electronic gratification when they reach your website. Show them your success, don't preach to them. One or two great photos or quotes will encourage them to look farther, but they won't stay long, at least not on the initial visit. They will either act, or leave.

Achieving a Balance

Many nonprofits try to bridge this gap by directing visitors to their Facebook page. I have seen a number of one-page websites that simply say "click here to follow us on Facebook." That ignores the entire world of corporate-think donors.  Most well established foundations were not born in the Facebook era, and don't see that type of connection as, well, business-like.

Other websites seem to have been designed to look like  board meeting minutes. No pictures, videos or albums that can be downloaded. Very formal language, stolid black and white copy, and only updated one or two times a year. No interactive event calendar that also provides a way to sign up as a volunteer or donate.
You need both donor subsets

There is more monthly volume (think cash flow) and personal interaction available from the younger set, while the big lump-sum supporters exist in the older group. Courting one group over the other results in a donor profile imbalance. Nonprofits need to understand both audiences and target them on the website.

The perfect blend, if there is one, is a website with financial and data page tabs visible on the home page, a section with lots of photos, links to videos, and human interest stories, as well as donation buttons that allow easy one-click ways to donate. Text to donate strategies work well with the millennial age group, while more traditional donors may even want your street address to be available. Including a phone number in your contact information will allow donors or prospective volunteers to talk to a real live human. If that number goes to a phone message, let them know that you will respond in no more than 24 hours, and do call back promptly.

Consider Functionality

Mechanically, you don't want things on your home page that take a long time to download for either group. You only have from about five to thirty seconds to capture their interest. Since so many people use tablets or phones to surf the internet, your website needs to work well on those platforms, i.e. be based on what is called a responsive template (it resizes to fit the tool being used). For the DIY website builder, there are a number of inexpensive templates available that incorporate this feature. (From personal experience, I do not recommend most free ones, since they may come with hidden advertising links.)

Leave the flashing words, 2-minute videos and complicated graphics on pages other than your home page, but include links or tabs so they know there is more to see. A FEW (That's less than four!) well-chosen jpg images specific to your mission are OK if they load quickly. Show your social media links prominently, but don't chase the visitor off to a social media site either. And never, ever, have a home or landing page that starts out with "Click here to enter our website".

SEO, or search engine optimization has evolved quickly.  The best language on a website will be mindful of it, but won't look like a search term dictionary. Take a moment to understand guides like Google adwords, but don't let your site become boringly obvious. Good content still plays well.

By all means test-drive  your website.  If it takes a long time to load, or doesn't work well in some browsers work with it to have it load promptly.
Both groups are savvy to the "enter your email here" mailing list builder ploy on the home page. And no one wants a boatload of sneaky advertising links downloaded to their computer, so watch out for the affiliate marketing links. Invite them to leave an email later, but don't make their email a ticket into your site. To get them to return, have a simple "follow us" button available but don't make following you a condition of viewing the website.

Nonprofits have to evolve. Making your website a living, breathing, informative and effective donor tool is one way to do that. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Outcome Measurement - How to Do it, and Why

In the past dozen years, the term outcome measurement has become a part of the language of funding. For some reason, nonprofits, particularly local or smaller nonprofits, are having a hard time understanding the difference between documenting outcomes and providing attendance figures. As a grant professional, I see literally dozens of programs that simply don't provide the type of program reporting that grantors expect. I can write the most carefully crafted application in the world, but if your programs don't demonstrate real effectiveness, you are probably not going to be funded.

Outcomes are not measured by how many people you present your program to, they are measured by whether each person improved in some area because they received your services, i.e. the impact of the program. To a large extent, the quality of your outcomes is determined by how carefully you design  your program.

To measure outcomes, you have to have a coherent, measurable goal for your program. For instance, let's say that your nonprofit focuses on improving early childhood learning by getting parents involved. To set up an effective reporting metric, you define the desired end result, and work backwards to define the steps necessary to achieve that goal. For example, if the goal is to teach conversational English, you define what will prove the student learned the language, and what level of proficiency they have attained. Then you develop program steps that produce the desired result.

So, let's apply that to a hypothetical early childhood learning skills program. First you need to define and prove the current state of early childhood learning in your geographic area. Why is your program necessary?  If you don't know what the current state of the problem is, you don't have a baseline from which to measure improvement.

What is the magnitude of the problem? You might use available data, such as government surveys, or maybe you hold a series of meetings with educators, law enforcement, social services workers and other professionals who deal with the effects of poor learning environments. What is the average age of the parents in your target population? What socio-economic conditions seem to produce poor early childhood learning difficulties? What do children entering the school system for the first time lack to make them successful?
Don't be lazy here. It isn't enough to say "Everybody knows that poverty causes poor school outcomes." Put a number to it. Say, "Our local research shows that 72% of the children entering first grade in our school system do not know their alphabet, can't count to 100 and don't focus well on tasks. The average age of their parents is 22. 78% of the affected children live in single parent households. 34% of the parents do not have a high school education. 94% of the households receive some type of public assistance." That type of targeted data will require research and documentation of the current problem.
What is the goal of the program? Don't say, "we will present our programs to 100 family units annually" That sets your program up to accept attendance as a goal. Say, "We will involve 100 parents of five-year-old children in a comprehensive six-month  program that teaches parents how to teach learning skills to their child. We will assess the current skill levels of each child in the areas of reasoning, self-control,  and problem solving, and measure the improvement in each program area. Our goal is to have every child improve their basic ability to learn. We will follow the children through their first year in school to assess whether the program provided the children with better learning skills and collect data to assess whether parents continue their involvement in the learning process".  Now you have the basis for real measurement of real outcomes
To set up measurable goals, you might have program elements that look something like this:
1. Parent will spend at least one half-hour hour daily supervising activities that require concentration. (Have the parent keep a log of the time with a description of the activity)

2. Parent will read with their child at least two hours weekly, or if the parent is not reading-proficient, will take their child to the library reading program and stay with them while they participate in the activities. (Have the parent record the times and places where reading is emphasized)

3. Parent will learn techniques to improve the child's ability to sit still and concentrate on a simple task, such as learning to color neatly or count objects. (Measure the length of time the child concentrates now, and evaluate through testing whether those times have improved. Have the parent document the application of the techniques.)

You get the idea. By defining specific "lessons" for the parent, the by-product, i.e. the child's improvement can be measured. By requiring the parent to prove they are actively involved, you minimize the chance that they will just go through the motions, since the child's improvement is a direct result of the parent's involvement.

Each of the theoretical situations above will also require you to develop and document methods to present the initial concepts you are trying to measure. That documentation will provide data that justifies the grantors contribution to your nonprofit. As a by-product, you will find that your costs may actually decrease, since you won't be wasting time and money on unproductive methods.

That's the type of hard data that grantors are looking for you to provide. If your current program doesn't capture this type of data, spending a few hours with your program team and setting up a measurement strategy and implementation schedule will vastly improve your funding success.

If you need help, or would like to have your program grant language reviewed, drop me an email at If you have comments or opinions  please enter them in the comment section. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

How to turn off your donors

Recently I tried to reach a semi-local nonprofit to donate something to a silent auction. I went to their website, but there was no specific contact information, just a web form that went probably went to a generic address. I never got an email back, so I don't know if the form even works. I found an email address for their executive director online that said it went to their dot org mailbox, but it had apparently been closed, because my email bounced back. On top of that, before I could even send the email form from the website, I had to go through the whole captcha thing, twice. There was a phone number, but it was an answering machine and no one ever called back. There wasn't even a street address so I could just send the item with information and my contact information. Even their donate button required a captcha process.

The organization is 50 miles away, so driving to it wasn't an option. This isn't a small organization. Their budget is well into the millions. They've been around twenty years. They have a staff.

I finally just said the heck with it, and put my item back in the closet. That's a shame because it probably would have generated some good money for their cause.

I see this all the time. Why would any publicly supported nonprofit do this?   Don't make it difficult for people to reach you. Have someone's organizational email on the website. If you use a web form, at least allow it to send an acknowledgement of receipt. Don't make your newsletters private-list only. I get the reasoning behind captcha, but it makes you look as though you don't really want to connect with anyone.

Update - today, three days after the silent auction, and three weeks after my initial attempts to connect with them, someone from the organization, who identified herself as the donor relations manager, did call me but of course by then they had no need for my item, and the person's suggestion that I could just send in a donation instead simply rubbed me the wrong way. When I complained about the process, she said, "well, you  know, if our email was public, people would just bombard us with junk email". They might also bombard them with money or at least interest. What if I wanted to volunteer? What if I was with a foundation that wanted to know more about them? This is donor relations?

As a consultant I find this unprofessional. As a prospective donor, being this impersonal makes me subconsciously wonder what they are trying to hide, and makes me think they don't need my support.  This charity is off my support list. Permanently.

Don't be this nonprofit. Make it easy, painless and efficient for people to connect with you. The friends you make will be worth the junk email. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

When you need a big grant

Your small nonprofit has a three-year plan to create, manage and expand services for a program. Your estimate is that it will require $500,000 to fund the program for three years. Your average annual revenue is about $100,000. What's next?

The first place most nonprofits turn to for funding is THE GRANT. You know, that single-source, highly committed funding partner that can make this program a reality. I work with quite a few organizations that start out with the idea that one grant is the only acceptable outcome.  About 1% of the time it actually works out that way.
There are definitely big foundations out there that can fund at this level, and some of them actually will spread the funding out over three years. The trick is to make them want to support your program.

The hardest part of expanding from a small nonprofit to a bigger nonprofit is funding. Big foundations tend to support big nonprofits, and they almost never want to be your sole source of funding. So the first step is to give up. No really…you have to give up the idea that one grantor is going to be your angel investor. You are going to have to approach several possible partners, and you may have to fund your program in phases.

The first thing you have to do is have a rock-solid program strategy. Big foundations didn't get that way by chasing rainbows. They have great name recognition because the programs they support get results, the uses of the funds are well documented, and the outcomes are measurable.

If you haven't done a feasibility study on the program you must start there, and all the data needs to be verifiable. Who or what will the program benefit, how will it benefit them, what kind of reports or research will you employ  to measure effectiveness, what resources do you already have to get started (including human resources)?  Start by proving your statement of need and detailing your method to measure outcomes. When I am working with an organization, this seems to be the part that causes the most heartburn. What's good enough for your board meeting is probably not going to measure up with a major grantor. 

You have to have realistic budget figures. If you say that you need $100,000 for equipment, list it with price estimates in detail. In construction or manufacturing, they call this a bill of materials. What do you need, what benefit is it to the program, when do you need it, and what will it cost? Is it a consumable (paper, ink, food)  or is it a depreciable acquisition (building, racking, vehicle, server)?  Is it a subcontracted service?  Is any of it potentially or actually going to retained past the life of the funding cycle?  Even if the initial grant application or LOI doesn't request this much detail at first, you will have to produce it eventually, and it will be useful during the program as well.
How much of your own existing funding are you going to invest in this program?  Don't forget that volunteers can often be used as matching capital. They have a monetary value.

Don't try to hide normal operating costs in the program. If you are expecting some of the money to be used for program-related additional daily costs (such as an increase in utility costs, fuel or supplies) be sure that you keep the two classifications separate. It is perfectly fine to include things such as utility costs in a grant request, as long as they are program-related. It is not OK to expect the grant to pay your normal operating costs unless you disclose that up front.

It should go without saying, but if you are already operating in the red, you don't stand a ghost of a chance of  getting funding. Audited financials that show enough existing income to keep the doors open are a must.

Along with that premise, if you are a truly tiny organization, with revenue under $50,000, there is little chance that you will receive major funding for a big program. You would be far better off to scale back your plans to something that local foundations can get on board with, succeed with those and build your revenues and donor relations to the point that you can move up to bigger programs. Many foundations do not even accept the e-postcard as a valid 990 filing, because they know that means you don't have a lot of capital to invest in a big program.

A major funding campaign is a lot of work. It will cost money up front. Be sure that you can sustain the effort before you invest too much time or money into it. Some very large foundations will tell you right on their website that they can only fund about 10 or 20 percent of the requests they receive. Do your homework, qualify the foundation as a viable candidate to approach, and don't assume that because your program is worthy it will be funded. Sometimes, the best outcome will only be getting on that particular foundation's radar for a future year.