Not so long ago, websites were a fringe activity for most voluntary organisations. Now they are a key part of most charities' fundraising and communications strategies. Yet there remains much debate about what actually makes a good charity website.
For Matt Blake, website manager for Sightsavers International, it's all about understanding your audience.
"From our experience, in order to create a successful website you first need to know your audience and exactly what they might want out of your website," he says. "You then need to think about a design and structure that reflects the way your users think rather than the way you think as an organisation. At Sightsavers we have found that a simple, straightforward design generally works best; it means people can easily find what they're looking for without getting frustrated."
Jason Potts, director of digital services at Think Consulting Solutions - a digital consultancy that has worked with charities from small hospices through to UN agencies - believes there are two crucial elements to a successful site.
"First, charities need to ensure a single person takes on the responsibility for running the website and keeping it up to date," he says. "Second, they need to avoid the mistake of trying to cram far, far too much content onto their sites."
Simplicity is clearly a key element in a successful website, but there is a growing number of applications that can be bolted on to a site, some of which can bring enormous benefits for little investment. Some are more useful than others, of course. A number of experts gave their views on the better ones.
The Mersey Basin Campaign is a community-based organisation that has a 25-year plan to improve the rivers, streams and canals in the Mersey area of north-west England. Kate Fox, new media manager at the organisation, is responsible for managing its website, and she is keen to use some of these new tools to make her site more interactive and interesting.
Like many website managers, she is now looking at how to move the site on from being an 'on-screen brochure' and believes that publishing a blog has helped.
"We began on a small scale with a blog that was focused on Mersey Basin Week, an annual week of activities," she says. "We blogged about the build-up to the event, and we posted reports during the event itself. After this positive experience, we decided to establish a more permanent blog on our site. We selected a Typepad account, which costs us £7 a month, and there were no other set-up costs."
Fox reports that the blog has introduced a more informal, friendly voice to the website, and has given members of staff a space to tell their stories. Her advice to anyone wanting to add a blog is to update it regularly. She concludes: "It's noticeable that interest has spiked when we've been posting regularly, and it's fallen when we've slacked off."
2007 was the year of Facebook. Although other social networking sites such as MySpace and Bebo had been around for a while, the audiences they attracted were mainly teenagers. Facebook, by contrast, drew in millions of people over the age of 20. With such a large, enthusiastic and high-income membership, it soon attracted the interest of charities.
Katie Brake, account manager at digital direct marketing agency Squeeze Digital, says: "A 'Share on Facebook' button can be very useful to a charity. It puts the button on its website, users click on it and it adds information to the user's Facebook page.
"For example, with St John Ambulance, the user is able to add useful first aid information to their Facebook page. For minimal cost, a charity can use the viral nature of Facebook to get their marketing message to a much wider audience."
When the British Red Cross wanted to promote national Red Cross Week in May 2007, it decided to set up a game on its website. Dorothea Arndt, new media manager at the charity, says: "We were already doing a PR stunt with female skydivers forming a cross in the sky, but we needed a way to engage the media outside London, where the stunt was taking place, and we needed to do it with very little money. So we developed a game that was fun and addictive, and that linked through to the Red Cross Week site."
It cost the charity £12,000 to develop, and maintenance costs were minimal. Crucially, it has attracted 650,000 unique visitors, of whom 4,400 have clicked through to the Red Cross website and 1,500 have gone on to the donations section.
Arndt is unwilling to reveal the value of donations received by means of this activity, but she offers this advice on making an online game work: "You have to ensure that they're linked to your brand. Organisations often do something topical and popular, such as a Euro 2008 game, but the public then remembers the game, not your brand. It must be integral to your entire campaign, not just an add-on."
One of the most direct ways to make money from a website is to sell products on it. Of course, this is not appropriate for every charity, but for those with commercial wings, e-commerce provides some great opportunities for interacting with customers. The RNID has been selling online for some time. Two years ago, it added a facility for users to add comments on products, and last year it added another whereby users could ask questions about those products.
Laila Takeh, online marketing and website manager, says: "This means customers can get a really clear idea of what a product does and whether it will meet their needs. It does cost a bit more, but many e-commerce applications will already have this function - all you need to do is turn it on.
"For a charity, I think this transparency can really help to set you apart from the competition and add a great deal to your e-commerce function."
Video and audio streaming
Stuart Maister, managing director of digital agency BroadView, believes that more charities could benefit from using video on their websites.
He says: "Video is a way of bringing people and stories to life. Having video on your website provides better engagement with your online audience. You could start very modestly, with some home-made material, but if you want to do it professionally you should be considering a minimum investment of £20,000.
"You should think of your website as a television channel producing programmes specifically for your target audience. Video-rich sites tend to be more sticky and engaging. People view the content for longer and are much more likely to respond in the way you want them to."
Drew Griffiths, managing director of digital agency eMosaic, agrees. He says: "Video can really bring the charity closer to its users. For example, you can show donors progress on a new building to which they've contributed.
"We've worked with the Youth Sport Trust on this; it uses video to show how children with disabilities can play sports - for example, how someone with multiple sclerosis can catch a ball. The key to getting it right, though, is to keep the clips updated. You need to introduce fresh content or it will soon look out of date."
There is a simple way to keep your site regularly updated with video content at very little cost. Overseas development agency Cafod was involved in the World Can't Wait event at Westminster in June 2007. About 10,000 people came onto the streets in a bid to maintain pressure on international government forum the G8 to follow through on promises made in 2005. Cafod asked those attending to send their pictures and videos to content-sharing sites Flickr and YouTube, and then to tag that content so it also appeared on the event site.
Branislava Milosevic, online communications manager at the charity, says this was the first time Cafod had tried using the format, and admits it was a big experiment.
"It didn't cost us anything to add the widget to our site," says Milosevic. "The only cost was about a week of time in project management and site design. We were delighted with the quantity and quality of content we were sent. We got some fun, unexpected pictures, and it was all so quick. I'd recommend this to every charity that wants to engage people and produce a lively, relevant website."
CASE STUDY: REFUGEE COUNCIL
When Barbara Keating joined the Refugee Council as new media manager in 2006, she knew that the website needed some development.
She recalls: "The site was first launched in 2002 and was just a few very flat HTML pages. We needed to build something that would give information to visitors about refugees and our work. Unfortunately, we had a budget of only £15,000."
Keating made that budget stretch a long way by buying a very basic solution that gave the organisation the necessary website structure, although it did require her to spend six months adding all the content. It now includes podcasts, blogs and a range of polls.
She says: "I think all these add-ons can be great, but you have to carefully consider the time it will take to manage them and the enthusiasm of visitors for using them. All too often, organisations add these things to a site simply because they can."
That said, Keating now plans to explore the use of social networks for raising awareness of refugee issues. She says: "Social networks are interesting because they cost very little. However, we will continue to ensure that we do only those things that our audience wants us to do."