All charities want to make the most of their websites, but with such a diverse range of organisations there is no single solution. Robert Gray looks through the options.
What can the internet do for your organisation? It's a simple enough question, but one that many people in the voluntary sector struggle to answer. The reason is that there is no single one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to developing an online presence.
How you take your website forward must be in keeping with your organisation's goals and priorities - and these differ widely from charity to charity. Add to this the fact that website budgets may be significant in some quarters, but small to non-existent in others and it becomes clear that it is impossible to prescribe an over-arching universal cure-all.
It is, however, possible - some say advisable - to learn from what others are doing. Particularly those who are making full use of the web's potential and using it for a wide range of purposes including the dissemination of information, fundraising, campaigning and building online communities among members and activists.
Amnesty International UK web manager Susie Wright knows a good deal about the challenges that other charities face, having completed a masters degree in online campaigning. She says the first step for organisations is to be clear about why they are investing in a website.
"Some smaller organisations don't start by taking a step back and saying, 'why do we want to do this? Who are we trying to communicate with? What do we want to achieve?' Things are often started because there's the technical possibility that something can be done, rather than seen for what it is: a strategic opportunity," she says.
Charity Technology Trust founder and chief executive Peter Sweatman says it is not only essential to be clear on what you want to achieve, but also to be informed about what your target audience wants or will benefit from.
"If organisations spent more time on website user research and less on the system, then more websites would 'work'," he says.
These sentiments are shared by Luke Brynley-Jones, managing director of Etribes, an agency with expertise in developing online communities for third sector clients. He takes the view that once you have figured out who you want to connect to, why, and what the benefits will be, the technology is simple. Etribes recommends that clients spend 50 per cent of their net budget on research and planning before they even talk to an IT company.
YMCA has recently worked with Etribes on developing the 'information architecture' of its website and introducing 'communities for practice'.
These are areas on its site that bring together internal audiences. Initially this was launched for four key groups: sport and fitness instructors, housing staff, federal chief executives and those involved in Christian or spiritual matters. If all goes well, YMCA may develop an online community for members of the public next year.
"We have quite a complicated federal structure with a lot of volunteers having input at a local level, so it's useful to have experts from the outside to take a look at things," says YMCA England information services manager Stephen Buckley.
Determining if and when to use external agencies is tricky. RNID developed its website in-house to considerable acclaim. But Carol Monoyios, director of marketing and membership, concedes that the in-house team are not necessarily experts in all the available tools. This means RNID looks to external consultants for inspiration, new ideas and expertise, rather than for complete outsourcing of updates and day-to-day management.
Shelter's web and intranet services manager, Joe Barrell, is a firm believer that working with external agencies is worthwhile, but warns that charities shouldn't become overly dependent on them. "You don't want to get into a relationship where a supplier has all the intellectual knowledge of your system and you don't have the skills to take it off them."
Service delivery has formed a strong strand of Shelter's activities online.
Its www.shelternet.org.uk website is a leading source of housing advice, while its www.homelessnessact.org.uk responds to the duty to consult, laid down by The Homelessness Act 2002. The latter site provides a forum for nearly 10,000 members, which includes every local authority.
We live in a world where people increasingly turn to the internet to find the answers to their questions. Genevieve Clark, corporate head of communications at Terrence Higgins Trust, points to a recent survey of gay men's internet usage, which reported that 83 per cent are regular users of the medium. A website plays a vital role in shaping the first opinions someone has of an organisation, she argues, and once formed, such opinions can be difficult to change. Consequently, the site is vital.
"It can enhance people's ability to get answers and information, get involved with your charity, and used carefully, can help manage demand on services, or help clients gain access to them."
Easy to navigate
Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) conducts regular user surveys and works with staff across the charity to monitor and evaluate the website's performance.
A recent survey showed that 71 per cent of visitors to the THT website found the information suited their needs, and 81 per cent reported the site easy to navigate.
Navigation and accessibility are important issues for websites, particularly those of charities where user expectation is that they should be straightforward, simple to use and inclusive for all. Dr John Dodd, projects and research director of Bunnyfoot Universality, an expert on online behaviour patterns and accessibility, says charities should make sure websites don't fall foul of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. "Having an accessible website means you can reach more people so that you'll be more effective," he says.
RNID is conducting a major research exercise with its website users to help determine its development plans. It has set up internal and external stakeholder groups to look at the site and address the main areas of need.
Using quantitative statistics and qualitative feedback, it has put together a phased development for the site. The aim is to see it as an ongoing scheme rather than an isolated project.
When revamping a website it can be tempting to try to heighten impact by using the latest graphics technology, such as Flash animation. There may be problems with such an approach, however. For a start, it may be perceived as too gimmicky. "Charities stand to gain more by using IT to better serve their supporters and build strength in that audience to deliver a new audience - maybe via the web - than by investing money in cartoons," says Charity Technology Trust's Sweatman.
"Gimmicks for gimmicks' sake rarely make a lasting impression," says RNID's Monoyios. "It depends what we are talking about. Flashy sound effects are inappropriate for our audiences, but using visual technology, such as video clips and animations are appealing. The trick is to go beyond the attention-grabbing and create something that is involving for the right reasons - usually because it offers something new and relevant. It's also important to remember that users need to access the site quickly and easily; it's no good assuming everyone has broadband."
Good design does not need to be ostentatious or expensive. And gimmicks risk being as much a distraction as a benefit. What really matters is what the website can actually deliver for the charity and its target audiences.
Online fundraising is one of the most measurable areas in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Amnesty's Wright says her charity raised £180,000 from people joining or making donations online, which was 3.5 times the amount Amnesty spent on design, technical costs and salaries of staff who look after the site. This was achieved without a major promotion of this element of the site, she adds.
The amount of money raised online should never be looked at in isolation.
Websites allow charities to build up opted-in email databases which present the opportunity to save money, and speed up communication, by switching some messages from direct mail to email. As well as acting as credible, comprehensive and up-to-date information sources - particularly useful for charities in disease-ridden areas reaching out to a vulnerable audience - websites can help lower the cost of gathering signatures for campaign.
"A website could be an organisation's most important communication tool," says RNID's Monoyios. "Looked at in those terms, reluctant or minimal investment should be challenged. We don't have the same attitude towards service delivery, because a quality, professional service is key and people recognise that investment is a vital part of achieving that. In the voluntary sector, organisations have really transformed their websites and their e-communications, and I am sure they will find increasingly cost-effective ways of doing this."
Brynley-Jones of Etribes adds: "The internet offers charities the ability to connect people and then allow them to communicate and collaborate. As an information-sharing tool and a mechanism for facilitating peer-group support, the internet is unrivalled. The only suitable alternative for many charity networks is real-life exchanges, which are limited by a combination of geography, time and money."
Unquestionably, large charities are far more sophisticated in their use of the internet than was the case only a year or two ago. Few are standing still. Rather they are continually looking to make improvements. Smaller charities cannot hope to compete at the same level, constrained as they are by limited budgets, but there is still much they can do to make their websites more potent assets.