I’m fortunate to have worked with large philanthropies on their public-facing websites and related digital properties for over 20 years. It’s safe to say I’ve formed an opinion or two about the websites of major foundations—what they do right and what’s wrong. Here are five opportunities most major philanthropies are missing:
Clear terminology and language
Naturally, many foundations want to articulate how their program-related work is unique. However, the desire to be differentiated can’t come at the expense of clarity. If the website uses terminology that doesn’t align with accepted terms in the field, professional peers, grant seekers, or prospective employees may not be able to understand how their work might intersect with the foundation’s.
To easily get a sense if your website has this problem, talk to a few of the foundation’s recent hires and ask them how well they understood the foundation’s work before they started compared to a few months later. In many respects, they are ideal people to interview because they are interested in the foundation’s work and can share their observations as both insiders and outsiders.
Foundations should embrace Candid’s Philanthropy Classification System and use it as much as possible. It’s designed to help philanthropies communicate better.
The magnetic power of the grants database
The grants database is typically the most visited section of a philanthropy’s website. That means, from a content strategy perspective, it’s an exceptionally valuable asset—a powerful magnet that draws users to the site. Yet most foundation websites do little or nothing to take advantage of this.
The opportunity for foundations is to connect their grants database to other content on their website and vice versa. One way to approach this is to document user journeys starting on the grants database and then develop content and UI components to bring users to high-value content in other parts of the website.
Make the grants database a cornerstone of a philanthropy’s content strategy—it’s where your users are.
Unleash the data
There is a lot of valuable data locked up in foundations that external audiences never get to see, particularly peers, influencers, and collaborators that major philanthropies ultimately want to reach. But most of the content on foundation websites (grants database aside) is words and photographs and sometimes videos.
We all know that well-presented data can engage people far better than words or video alone. Just look at the New York Times website graphic section and ask yourself if the Times would invest as much as they do on data visualizations if there wasn’t an excellent return on investment.
It’s hard to work with data visualizations on a regular basis. One way to make it easier is to build up a library of UI elements, such as maps and bar charts that can be reused for different data stories.
Calls to action
The most valuable interactions with a website are when users respond to a call to action—filling out a form, downloading a PDF, etc. Yet, the number of calls to action on most major foundation websites can be counted on one hand. Sometimes there is only one of any real value, and that’s to sign up for an email newsletter that is intended to send people back to the website every month or so. Then what?
Given the dearth of calls to action, it appears that most foundations rely far too heavily on traffic metrics, such as visitors and page views, to measure engagement. Unless you are in the business of selling advertising impressions, page views and visits are among the least valuable forms of engagement.
A more engaging website starts with understanding your audiences and crafting a content strategy that meets their needs and the goals of the foundation. And then, for every page of content or email you make, agree and document who it’s for, what you want them to do, and how you will measure it. And don’t say page views!
Large foundations that work across a wide range of issues and regularly publish issue-related content may be able to leverage personalization. The basic idea is if a visitor expressed interest in a given area of work, for example, content related to that work would be presented most prominently to them.
Effective personalization requires a content strategy that is well-planned and documented, with a decent number of repeat visitors to work with. Certain behaviors, such as repeat visitors viewing only the home page, may suggest how people engage with the site and if personalization might make sense. Fundamentally, a clear understanding of the value of a user’s action (see Calls to action above) is required to understand if it’s worth the investment.
Personalization does veer into a commercial realm that may make some organizations uncomfortable. It can be complex to execute and may require new technologies and ways of working, but under the right conditions, the benefits can be enormous.
By using clear technology, leveraging the power of the grants database, unlocking their data, and finding new ways to engage with audiences, large philanthropies will more effectively work for social good.