I ran a charity website (and indeed whole digital department) for six years (for War Child). I had come from a communications background (at Comic Relief) and was reasonably IT literate, but had never been solely responsible for a charity’s website before. In the years since I have worked with, and spoken to, dozens of charity people who are tasked with the development and content of their website.
There’s some things I learned ‘in the trenches’, and plenty others I only realised in hindsight when I’ve had the chance to learn more about how lots of other charities are set up.
1 Put a value on your website, your emails, and your social media posts.
I don’t think you need to sweat too much about figuring out what this exact monetary value is, but if you don’t value it then no-one else will. That way you’ve got a yardstick to measure whether to say yes or no to people who want to use them as marketing channels.
So if a person or company comes to you and says we’ll give 10% of the profits of this/that if you put it in your news/email/social – then you’ve got a means for deciding whether to agree. As you get popular you’ll notice that you and your team start to get flooded with requests to promote something that might generate you some money.
My take on it is that a good corporate partner should be sending new traffic and potential supporters to you, not vice versa. There are loads of new schemes out there whose entire marketing strategy is essentially ‘you do all the work and send us your audience, and in return we might give you some money’. Maybe I’m a bit cynical, but I’d tend to avoid most of these as they never seem to last long.
And once you start getting a bit bigger you’ll be approached by more fundraisers with ideas such as ‘I’ll donate you 10% of the profits from my new self-published book/album/brand of homemade jam etc.’
After a while you get a sense of how much income these things tend to generate. Often it’s not much. So you might have an internal benchmark that a mention in your email newsletter is worth £500. Or £5,000. A Facebook post could worth £100. A page or logo in your ‘Our partners’ section might be worth £1,000. If the mention isn’t likely to generate at least that much for you in income from the promotion, then it doesn’t get included.
What’s the harm in promoting these things – it doesn’t cost us any money? That’s true, but it does cost you in terms of your supporters’ interest and trust in what you do. The more you’re flogging stuff that doesn’t interest them, the more likely they are to switch off from the good stuff.
2 Don’t let a predetermined format and frequency drive your digital comms.
In other words, don’t be a slave to your monthly email newsletter or a quarterly mail-out. Trust me, no-one is sat there eagerly waiting for it! It can become a millstone around your neck and it’s completely counterproductive. Have you ever sat at your desk thinking:
‘Is it that time again already? What can we think of it to put in our newsletter this time? We had something about that project already. I’ll email the other teams to see if they’ve got anything that could go in this section’?
I’ve talked elsewhere about making your comms audience-centric, not organisation-centric. And they definitely shouldn’t be format-centric or calendar-centric.
3 People don’t really care about your ‘projects’.
I bet that even your most ardent supporters would struggle to name your different projects, or the different places you work for instance. Don’t feel compelled to talk about all your projects. Do feel free to pick the best ones (from a comms perspective) and shout about them. Although the different projects are considered as separate entities within your office, it’s a pretty arbitrary distinction to everyone else. Find your best stories and tell them in an engaging way. People respond to people, not projects.
As an example at War Child, we found it easier to find and tell some really interesting stories in D.R. Congo and Uganda than in Iraq or Afghanistan. They’re very different environments and cultures to work in, and some local staff were more open to this kind of work than others. If we were to try and be fair and talk about each project/country with equal space on the website, then we’d have had to leave out some of our most interesting and engaging content.
4 If you need money, don’t be shy about asking for it.
This is something I wasn’t always good at. Asking for money can seem a bit awkward, and building a community and creating interesting content doesn’t always sit well with constantly having your hand out.
Just having a prominent donate button on your website isn’t enough. If you want people to give you money you have to plaster it all over your site and your emails.
The number one reason people donate to charity is ‘because someone asked me to’. If you don’t ask, people most likely won’t bother donating. And if you’re a charity then they expect you to ask them for money. Just remember to make your donors the star of the story.12 things I learned from managing a charity website Click To Tweet
5 Show a bit of personality.
I’ve worked in and with the charity sector for decades. It’s home to the funniest, most passionate and most creative people I’ve met. And home to the kind of life-changing and awe-inspiring stories that the highly paid marketers of every major brand can only dream about.
But somehow we’ve not traditionally been very good at translating that into compelling web content.
As a website visitor, let me meet some of your staff. Inspire me. Make me angry. Make me laugh. Stories can do that. Your mission, vision and values don’t.
6 Do SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) – almost no-one else does!
You don’t need an expensive agency to do it for you, you just need to invest a little bit of time learning what it is and how to do it. Whilst many companies invest a lot of money and attention in their SEO (because their bottom line often depends on it), I rarely meet any charities who even understand what SEO is, and that it’s an ongoing pro-active process.
One of the good side effects of doing SEO is that it puts you into the mindset of your audience. It’s about what they are searching for, not what you do. It puts you in their shoes, not yours.
Read our blog post with tips about charity website SEO.
7 There isn’t a good charity CRM system. There’s only less-bad ones.
It sometimes feels like these days everyone else has a whizz-bang CRM system that does everything for you. That’s seamlessly integrates your website, finance and fundraising systems into one seamless pipeline that automates everything – thanks to the magic of ‘the cloud’.
I’m always amazed though by how many charities still rely on Excel spreadsheets to keep track of their donors/members. Even the bigger seeming charities that you would think would have the resources to build a bespoke CRM. I’ve used Salesforce, Raiser’s Edge – and plenty others, and have yet to come across one that everyone in the charity loved. They’re more often loathed by half the people tasked with using them.
Expensive CRM systems entice us with the promise of automated pipelines and workflows that free up hours of manual data entry work every week. In my experience though, loads of big charities still rely on exporting data in CSV files and uploading it manually to their CRM.
8 Don’t let your website become a mental straightjacket.
The structure of our charity sites are usually quite rigid. And we create content to go into that structure – be it news items, what we do pages etc. The navigation menu ends up determining the content we create. I find though that the best content tends to fall between these cracks.
If you have an interesting/inspiring anecdote or story to tell, then write it down, or film it. Don’t worry about where on the site it will go – you can find somewhere for it, and direct people straight to it from social, emails, Adwords etc.
9 Book some time in your calendar for proactive work.
When you’re responsible for managing a charity website you often wear many other digital/comms hats as well. Any time that we have to work on our website is usually devoted to doing reactive work – responding to requests from colleagues to add news items, updating pages etc.
You end up concentrating all your efforts on your internal stakeholders because they’re the ones asking you to do stuff. Your website audience aren’t asking you for anything so it’s easy to overlook them. But they’re the most important stakeholders.
If you can, you should book in some protected time in your weekly calendar to do some of this proactive work – an hour or two a week to work on content that no one is asking you to do. Adding latest news doesn’t really count. 90% of your ‘news’ is important to you, not necessarily important to your audience.
Proactive work might be doing SEO work. Improving current pages, but better still, creating content that resonates with what your audience is interested in and what they’re searching for. Tell us something interesting about the issues you’re tackling, not just what you’re doing.
As I said earlier, don’t be restricted by thinking in terms of the structure and layout of the content you’ve already got. What was the last conversation you had with a colleague that piqued your interest or reminded you why you love working for your charity?
At War Child I turned these things into feature articles, though that approach doesn’t necessarily translate well into other charities’ work.
10 JustGiving’s 5% fees aren’t really the problem.
I don’t have any relationship with JustGiving and no incentive to endorse them. A lot of charities aren’t so keen on JustGiving’s fees and are interested in using something else. From a user’s (i.e. donors and fundraisers) perspective though, JustGiving’s interface is really user-friendly and the result of lots of testing.
People are familiar with it and the donation process is very easy and ‘frictionless’. I don’t have any data to back it up, but I’m sure that most charities would lose more money in terms of lost donations than they pay in JustGiving fees. You just need one or two people a month who would have donated to someone’s JustGiving page but decided against doing it via your website – to mean that you lose out.
Withholding your supporters’ data is the main problem with JustGiving, and in this new post-GDPR era it will be interesting to see which way things pan out. This may relate to the CRM issues earlier, but in my experience most charities don’t actually make use of the data they do get.
Whenever I sponsor someone on JustGiving I always tick the box to allow the charity to contact me. They almost never do. I don’t recall ever having received an email from one welcoming me as a potential supporter, let alone one that says ‘Hi Ben, thanks for sponsoring Steve – here’s the difference your money could make…’ Yet that data is right there in the JustGiving .csv files, and even if you don’t put it into your CRM you could set up a Mailchimp automation or something similar.
11 ‘Building a community’ has an opportunity cost.
The time you invest in building a community on social media is time that you could spend doing other things. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do it, or that it isn’t important. But it’s often quite time-intensive and its results are nebulous.
Don’t do it just because everyone else seems to and it seems like fun. You don’t know how much resource they have behind it, and you don’t know if it actually works in bringing them in more donors/fundraisers/petition signers/cat adopters etc.
A glance at the recent drop in reach for non-sponsored Facebook Page posts is a reminder that you don’t control the platform or the audience, so it’s a risky basket to put too many of your eggs into. There’s no reason to think that a similar thing won’t happen with Twitter, Instagram and whatever else comes along.
Whilst you’re chatting away on Facebook and Twitter, you could be doing something else instead. Social media is way more interesting and immediate than SEO, but you should remember to strike a balance between the two.
12 No-one really knows what they’re doing!
You might think that bigger or seemingly more successful charities have all this expertise and insight about the what/why/how of websites and digital marketing. In my experience though, it’s surprising how many of them are actually making it up as they go along.
Imposter syndrome is alive and well in our sector, particularly because the digital landscape changes so often. I feel it all the time. Blogs (like this one), conference speeches, seminars, Slack Groups etc can easily make us feel like everyone else seems so knowledgeable and has this vast well of experience to draw from.
You’re doing a good job. We should all aim to do better – the causes we’re working for deserve that. But don’t let any of these blogs (mine especially) make you think that you’re doing it wrong, or doing a bad job. We’re all figuring it out as we go along because the land is constantly shifting beneath our feet. Ultimately we’re all on the same side.