Why don’t nonprofit sites convert?

Living in New York and working in media, I talk to nonprofit organizations a lot. Big or small, they all say the same. No matter how much work they put into their apps and websites, they just don’t get enough new members. No matter how many expensive redesigns they undertake, they still don’t convert. Why is this?

Generally, it’s the same reason any site with a great product doesn’t convert: the organization spends too much time and effort on the pages and sections that matter to the organization, and too little on the interactions that matter to the member. (“Member” is NGOese for customer.)

Of course there are sites that don’t convert because they have a crappy product. Or an inappropriately priced product. Or because their content attracts people who are never going to be their customers, and gets missed by people who might want what they’re selling. Or because their content attracts nobody. Failure has a thousand fathers, and most businesses fail, so the fact that a website doesn’t convert could mean almost anything. (To know what it actually means, you need data, and you need to watch users interact with it.)

But with nonprofit sites, the product is almost always great, and the person visiting is almost always interested. So what goes wrong?

Never mind the user, here’s the About page

What goes wrong is that nonprofit stakeholders are so passionate about their mission—a passion that only deepens, the longer they work there—that they design an experience which reflects their passion for the mission, instead of one which maps to a member’s mental model.

NGOs lavish attention on their About page and mission statement and forget to work on their members’ immediate, transactional needs. And this is true even for those members who are as passionate about the cause, in their own way, as the stakeholders are in theirs. In the wake of a hurricane, a passionate member thinks of your site in hopes of donating food or giving blood. But nothing on the site calls out to that member and addresses her needs. All she sees are menus, headlines, and buttons trying to lead her to what matters to the organization — namely, the things it says about itself.

How to satisfy the user and convert at the same time

First, decide what one single action you, as the organization, want the user to perform. Should they sign up for your mailing list? Make a donation? Keep it singular, and make it simple. One form field to fill out is better than two; two is better than four.

Next, put yourself in the member’s shoes. What does that member wish to achieve on your website? Have you created transactions and content that allow her to do what she came to do? Have you designed and written menus, links, and headlines that help her find the content that matters to her? Forget the organization, for now. Pretend the only thing that matters is what the user wants. (Because, ultimately, it is.)

Do these things, and weave your singular, simple conversion opportunity into each screen sequence with which your user interacts. To optimize your chance of success, place the conversion opportunity at the very point where the user successfully finishes transacting the business that mattered to her. Not before (where it is only a distraction). Not in another part of the site (which she has no interest in visiting). She’s a lot likelier to sign up for your mailing list after you’ve helped her donate food to her neighbors than she is to sign up in an unsolicited popup window.

Thank you, Captain Obvious

All the above suggestions are obvious common sense, and have been known since transactional web design was in its infancy in the 1990s. And yet, because of organizational dynamics, internal politics, and our getting so close to our own material that our eyes go out of focus, we forget these simple ideas more often than we use them—and fail when success is so easy, and so close to hand.


I’ll be leading a panel discussion, Dispatches from the Future: Nonprofits and Tech, on Wednesday, 20 September, in Brooklyn.