5 Ways Nonprofits Can Build an Engaging Online Presence

Needed: The right balance between content and community
In today’s tough economy, organizations of any size need to maximize their resources. The mantra is to stay lean, be focused and improve efficiency. This is particularly true for nonprofit organizations, where competition for funding dollars is intense and puts stress on all facets of the operation, including web initiatives.
Nonprofits seeking ways to make the most of web technology need look no further than the lessons learned by the for-profit sector. Savvy commercial companies have been using the web to find new customers and retain existing ones for years. More than Fortune 500 corporations and small/medium businesses (SMBs) are scrambling to find unique ways to tap into the social networking phenomenon to increase their efficiency. These companies have invested considerable time and resources to figure out what works, and nonprofits can benefit from their experience.
Striking the right balance between content and community unleashes the power of social networking for a common cause.
Of course, all organizations need to start with a professional-looking web presence. Recognizing the importance of first impressions, most nonprofits do invest in site design and aesthetics. However, even the most attractive site loses much of its value if content is disorganized, outdated, one dimensional and lacking in engagement and interactivity. Most organizations do not have access to the tools or necessary experience to maintain the site and deploy fresh content. The cost of a weak web presence is profound: It can alienate clients, members, volunteers, supporters and funders. It affects the bottom line.
Finding a web platform to support your goals may be easy, but realizing the full online potential of your site is more complex. This is why forward-thinking organizations like the Envelope Manufacturers Association (EMA), Nonprofit Connect, The Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) and Homebuilders Association of Maryland (HBAM) have turned to a proven software solution to stay ahead of the curve. These organizations have learned significant lessons in their quest to optimize their web investments, and have agreed to share the following five significant lessons.
Lesson One: Simplify technology requirements
It’s never too late to get up to speed with web technology. Options are plenty, and so it is important for organizations to select solutions that meet their needs and further their goals.
Because budget is usually a key factor in the decision-making process, commercial companies with limited in-house technical skills and IT budgets have for years turned to Software as a Service (SaaS). A SaaS-based software solution helps keep organizations abreast with the latest technology without the infrastructure expenses, thereby reducing costs and limiting exposure to risk.
Moreover, SaaS supports outstanding web services at a deliberately lower cost. SaaS solutions are scalable and let organizations adapt quickly to changing requirements while concentrating on their core competencies, without having to worry about web technology. The underlying benefit of SaaS is that it does not require hardware purchases or software installation that ties up money or staff.
HBAM chose a SaaS Web platform solution over 19 years ago to build a Web site that was easy to manage. While the initial site was designed solely to visually appeal to HBAM members, it has since scaled and matured significantly to become the organization’s central information portal, with both a public-facing site as well as a members’ only intranet.
An easy way to simplify requirements is to focus on the priorities, follow the 80/20 rule and not invest in customized solutions.
Lesson Two: Think like a business
Through online income-generating programs like Nonprofit Connect’s JobLink — the premier nonprofit job board in the Midwest — Nonprofit Connect has enhanced its position as the best-known and highly respected nonprofit training provider in the region. On any given day the organization has over 200 job openings posted on their completely revamped website. The JobLink page receives an average more than 150,000 page views per month which translates to more than 1.8 million page views per year.
Creating earned-income strategies while keeping focus on Nonprofit Connect’s purpose was a critical consideration from the beginning when deciding to provide a jobs board on their website. As with most successful sites, when it comes to investing in a Web solution, return on investment (ROI) was one of the primary requirements. JobLink revenue from postings has skyrocketed as the demand for job placement has increased in the nonprofit industry sector. The benefit with this business decision provides a valuable service to the nonprofit community as well as the company to generate a ROI. A definite “win-win” scenario!
Lastly, as an added boost to ROI, all nonprofits can often negotiate or take advantage of valuable savings by simply asking the company that offers the product or service the nonprofit needs if the company provides associated discounts for nonprofit organizations. For example, many software companies offers special discounts for nonprofits. You never know, unless you ask.
Lesson Three: Leverage community/social media applications
Since nonprofits and trade associations are built around communities passionate about a cause or an issue, the convergence of social media and content management provides nonprofits with the perfect environment to leverage their key traditional strengths. Long before there were blogs and tweets, community-based applications like discussion boards, chats and calendaring had already become indispensable community-building tools for businesses. The whole promise of social media is to facilitate collaboration and sharing within a community of interest, in effect, harnessing the collective intelligence of the users.
Nonprofits looking to adopt social media applications should first consider implementing proven community tools. Community-based forums are particularly beneficial to nonprofits for program support, event planning, online training and fundraising. Nonprofits can realize the strength of a community when they empower users to share, interact and participate.
For example, the Oncology Nursing Society (ONS) has built over 250 chapter- and special-interest sites to support its active membership. These sites have grown and become more interactive over time as ONS has received feedback from members, implemented changes and re-launched the sites. ONS did not require additional resources or funding to accomplish its vision: The Company chose a flexible and feature-rich solution for their web site, then leveraged the community features to engage its members socially.
Lesson Four: Vision comes from leadership
In the for-profit world, the corporate web site has been elevated from an afterthought to an essential, strategic branding and marketing vehicle to drive revenues back to the company. Creating and maintaining an effective web presence is no longer left to the technical team but has the direct attention of the organization’s leadership team.
Leadership — whether in the corporate or nonprofit space — has the responsibility to translate the mission of an organization into a visually appealing, interactive and engaging web presence. The key word here is “engaging.” The importance of strong messaging and a well-considered web presence cannot be overstated as well. Customers, clients, prospective employees and business partners intuitively form their first impressions of an organization from its web site within in seconds of visiting the first page they land on. So, the experience must make an impact on the user to ultimately increase return viewership.
Nonprofits often cite lack of funding or leadership support as primary reasons for a stagnating and unappealing web presence. Frequently, however, it’s lack of results from an earlier web initiative that keeps management from allocating scarce resources to improving the web site, a classic “lose-lose” scenario.
While a successful web strategy is most often driven from the top, if a passionate web site partisan works to get management buy-in, the initiative has a far better chance for success over the long term. But it’s important to point out that regular maintenance of the website’s content and corresponding search engine optimization (SEO) must be maintained by knowledgeable personnel.
Lesson Five: Stay in control
No matter how attractive a web site, bells and whistles alone are useless in the absence of updated quality and curated content. Organizations lose control of their web presence when content is difficult to access or change; when changes must be brokered through an external IT group; or, particularly in the case of nonprofits, when technically savvy volunteers build exotic sites that nobody knows how to maintain once the volunteer moves on. Far too often, short-term decisions to accept free services or engage third-parties to manage content changes and uploads means organizations are unable to make even the simplest text changes on their own, resulting in web content that may be weeks or months out-of-date.
Choosing a content management system that suits the capabilities of the content contributors in your organization — especially if those individuals have limited web skills — is critical. By choosing a web solution designed to meet the needs of your users instead of relinquishing control to an external source, your organization can effectively protect two of its greatest assets: community and content.

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