Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Are all charity websites bad?

A recent post at the Chronicle of Philanthropy's page by Saundra Schimmelpfennig has an interesting title -Does Your Charity’s Web Site Keep Donors in the Dark?

I think the general premise of the title is a good one for nonprofits to be asking, but the content of the article is too general - it assumes that nonprofits are all in need of the same type of site. While I do think there are key components of a good nonprofit website - see the 10 Pages Every Charity Website post - it doesn't mean that these will take the same form for each nonprofit.

Schimmelpfennig notes that most nonprofit sites "feature success stories with photos of happy people, information on how little money is spent on administration costs, and a 'click here to donate' button. If charities do include any information on standards, lessons learned, or evaluation results, they are generally so well hidden that few potential donors ever stumble across them."

I'm torn by Schimmelpfennig's comments. On one hand, I understand what I think she is trying to get at - having information that is a notch above the average nonprofit is good for any charity website and that administrative costs are not the end-all-be-all of nonprofit management metrics. I just don't know that the point is illustrated as well as it could be. For instance, one of the most important things I want to see when visiting a nonprofit website is impact. What is this nonprofit doing to meet its goals and improve the world. In many cases, that means photos of happy people. I mean... look how happy I am you're reading this blog:

Schimmelpfennig also notes that the primary source of information for prospective donors is a nonprofit's website. This is important and accurate information. While I appreciate the author's desire to have more about professional standards and organizational structure on a website, I am confident market research would indicate that these are some of the least important factors in a prospect's giving decision.

With regards to administrative costs - there is a problem with this metric in the nonprofit arena and Schimmelpfennig is right to point it out. While sites like Charity Navigator often rave about low administrative and fundraising costs, a strategic nonprofit will not strive for costs to be too low. In order to have long-term success, a nonprofit must invest in things like donor acquisition campaigns - which often cost more than $1 to raise a $1 - and database improvements, etc. If your nonprofit's costs are too low, you will have short-term success, but lack long-term sustainability.

Therefore, guidelines like these from Charity Navigator's Approach To Rating Charities page very misleading to nonprofit management:
We assess four key indicators to determine how efficiently and responsibly a charity functions day to day.

1) Program Expenses: Percent of total functional expenses spent on programs and services. (higher is better)
2) Administrative Expenses: Percent of total functional expenses spent on management and general. (lower is better)
3) Fundraising expenses: Percent of total functional expenses spent on fundraising. (lower is better)
4) Fundraising efficiency: Amount a charity spends to raise $1. (lower is better)
Frankly, all of the statements in bold are inaccurate for the reasons I mention above. Schimmelpfennig notes, "Inadequate information on charity Web sites creates the impression that all that is needed to run a nonprofit program are good intentions, lots of donations, low administrative costs, and a few happy stories." Again, I think illustrating impact and your case for support will help overcome these issues and misconceptions, not pushing nonprofits to have detailed reports online in lieu of... well, pictures of happy people.

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1 comment:

Devin Mathias - the author of the original post said...

Is there a reason you do not give credit or link to the blog posts you're lifting from other blogs? You should at least give credit to those who put the effort into writing the posts rather than passing them off as your own.