Non-Profit Organization Websites: Increasing Donations and Volunteering

by Jakob Nielsen on February 16, 2011

Summary: Giving money on charity websites is 7% harder than spending money on e-commerce sites. Donating physical items is even harder. For non-profit websites, social media is secondary; the top priority is to write clearer content.


Not-for-profit, charity, non-governmental organization (NGO) . . . most of the names emphasize what these organizations are NOT. And when we study .org websites, it's obvious that they differ from the clear value proposition offered by commercial websites. Typically, you visit sites because (a) you want some stuff they have and (b) you'll pay money to get it. Not so with non-profit sites.

Non-profits must clearly communicate their value proposition if they want to attract volunteers and online donations. Sadly, such communication is the sore point in the non-profit user experience.

New Usability Study of Non-Profit Sites

To find out more about improving the non-profit user experience, we once again turned to the basic method: watching representative users visiting a spectrum of such sites. In this case, our main recruiting criterion for the usability study was to find people who had donated to charities in the past. We also recruited people who had previously volunteered, and those who use Facebook.

The new research was a follow-on to our original study of people making online donations. It's been only 2 years since that study, and there are no reasons to expect major changes in user behavior over such a short period. (Usability findings change very slowly because they're mainly dictated by the limitations of the human brain.)

Still, to be sure, we retested online donations, and once again found the same usability issues.

Across the two studies, we tested a total of 60 non-profit, charity, and association websites selected to cover a range of categories:

  • Arts, Culture, and Humanities
  • Animals
  • Development and Relief Services
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Human Services
  • Public Benefit
  • Religion

Most of the sites represented major national non-profits, but we also tested smaller, local charities as well as international organizations.

We tested 7 tasks:

  • Choosing a recipient: Participants used two non-profit sites in a given category and decided which of the organizations — which had roughly similar missions — was most deserving of a donation.
  • Making a first-time donation: Using their own credit cards, participants made an online donation to the chosen charity. We reimbursed users for this expense after the study.
  • Making a repeat donation: Participants gave money to a charity that they'd previously donated to (prior to the study).
  • Making a non-monetary contribution: Participants located information about giving a tangible item, such as pet food or used toys. For this task, we didn't direct users to specific sites; they used the Web to find a suitable charity to receive their item.
  • Purchasing a product: Participants were asked to buy an item for themselves that a nonprofit sold on its website — such as a cookbook from the American Diabetes Association.
  • Volunteering: Participants researched information about volunteering at one of the organizations in the study.
  • Using Facebook to research charities: Participants compared two similar nonprofits on Facebook and selected one to receive a donation.

The first 2 tasks were included in both studies; the last 5 tasks were new for the second round.

Donation Process: 7% Worse than Current Best Practice

It's harder to give money away than it is to spend money buying stuff: Completing the actual donation process took the users in our second study 7% more time on average than it took users to complete an e-commerce checkout process in our (separate) e-commerce usability research.

Although a 7% degradation of usability is not horrible, it does show that non-profit sites' user experience has fallen behind that of commercial sites.

Non-Monetary Contributions: Bad

Users had much more difficulty making a non-monetary contribution than they had in donating money. One obvious reason is that giving physical items is a non-standard online transaction, so users can't rely on a mental model formed from previous experiences with other sites. (In contrast, giving money is quite similar to paying money, at least in terms of the buttons and fields you need to use.)

Anytime a website asks users to do something new, the user interface should be particularly easy to help users overcome the hurdle of understanding a new process. Sadly, most of the charities in our study actually provided particularly poor usability for this more challenging task; information about donating physical items was often hard to find and rarely sufficiently specific.

As a result of the low usability for non-monetary donations, users typically bounced between many non-profit organizations before finding one that they wanted to give their items to. Users gave this experience the lowest satisfaction score we recorded in this research: an average of 5.3 on a 1–7 scale (with 7 being the best).

Volunteering Process: Good

On our 1–7 scale, users gave a stellar rating of 6.7 for the task of finding out how to volunteer at an organization. Most sites had a simple, direct link to this information from their homepages. And most provided straightforward information about volunteering, including descriptions of typical volunteer duties and hours, which are details that prospective volunteers want to see up front.

Many sites also offered fairly simple forms for volunteering. However, people often want to talk to somebody directly before volunteering, so it's important to provide contact information.

Social Media: Secondary

People don't use Facebook to research non-profit organizations or make donations. When we asked users to do this in the study, they were annoyed by non-profits that tried to push products or donations, or tried to get them to sign up for other things, like email newsletters.

People weren't surprised that some non-profits or charities used Facebook, but they expected less information there than what they'd find on the organization's official site. In fact, after reviewing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)'s page on Facebook, one user said, "there's probably 10 times more stuff on the PETA site."

Instead of seeking information about the organization's mission and goals through social media, users were more interested in hearing from people who'd benefited from the organization's work. They wanted social networks to showcase stories about real people who'd been involved with the organization. For example, one user gravitated to stories about those who had been helped by Make-A-Wish Foundation, which were featured on the organization's Facebook page. Non-profit and charity organization should use social networks as a way to connect with users through real stories, conversations, and interactions. But they should also remember to include a clear link to the main website for users who want to research the organization more thoroughly.

The finding that using social media is secondary for promoting non-profits and attracting donations echoes findings from other studies:

  • Our original research on presenting company information in social media found that users were annoyed by too-frequent commercial postings and that people would rarely seek out companies on social media sites. Instead, users go to the company's own site when they want product information.
  • Our recent research on how college students use the Web found that students associate social media with private discussions, not corporate marketing. When students want to learn about a company, university, government agency, or non-profit organization, they use search engines to find that organization's official website — they don't go to Facebook.

Essentially, we have the same outcome from 3 very different studies, with different target audiences and different types of sites.

Top Priority: Present Information Clearly

In this study, our users gave a fairly low average rating — 5.3 — for the task of finding information about a non-profit organization and determining its trustworthiness. In comparison, users' average rating of the actual donation process was 5.7 (on a 1–7 scale, averaged across the tested sites).

Although improvements are still possible for the donation workflow itself, our usability research clearly showed that this isn't the main difficulty. To reach the potential quintupling of online fundraising over the next decade, non-profit sites must address the big problem: poor content usability.

Full Report

The full research report with actionable design guidelines for non-profit and charity websites is available for download.


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