Should You Be Online?

by Darren Collins
Tuesday, 13 August 2002

For most non-profit organisations, budgets are extremely limited. Before you spend money on providing a new service, you need to assess the potential benefit it offers and ensure that staff, volunteers and directors agree that the new initiative is a sound investment.

Creating a web site is no different. It will cost money, and it will require either volunteer effort or paid labour to build and maintain. You need to decide whether creating a web site is right for your particular organisation.

The potential benefits and costs outlined in this article will help you make an informed decision.

This is a long article, packed with information. Instead of splitting it across several pages, I've decided to leave it as one page to make it easier for you to print out and keep as a reference.

Benefits Of A Web Presence

There are four main ways your organisation could benefit from a web presence. Bear in mind while reading this that not everyone has access to the internet. You'll need to judge whether enough of your clients, members, supporters and volunteers are online to make the resources you provide worthwhile. You should also take pains not to exclude those without web access from your organisation.

Information

People use the internet to locate information. More and more, people are turning to the internet to do their own research when diagnosed with a disease, facing a personal crisis, hit with a legal suit, or even just planning a holiday. If your organisation offers help or advice to people, the internet is an effective way to make that first contact.

Once people have found your website and read some of your information, they may be interested in either joining your organisation as a volunteer or member, or in receiving whatever help you offer.

Most organisations also need to provide information to their members. Things like newsletters, meeting minutes, committee updates, social events, published research, government resources, and links to useful web sites can all be effectively distributed to members through email and archived on the web site for future reference.

From time to time most organisations will have reason to be contacted by members of the press, whether it's the local newspaper or a national TV network. Your web site can provide background information to help make sure reporters get their basic facts right (and spell names correctly!), as well as give them contact details for interviews or further information. If you send out press releases, you should post copies of them on your web site.

Potential donors will often look up charities and non-profits on the web to see how their money will be used. If your site showcases your successes and explains your programmes, donors will be reassured that their money is being well-used.

Mailing lists are an effective way to keep in touch with all of these groups of people. If you collect the email addresses of interested people, you can send out notifications when new information is added to your web site. This periodic update of the good work you do keeps your cause fresh in peoples' minds, brings them back to your site regularly, reassures them their donations are doing good, and may help increase peoples' level of involvement.

Communication

Your organisation will usually either be made up of people who share a common interest or a common problem. In either case, contact with other people in a similar situation is valuable.

Mailing lists and online discussion forums are great ways to share information and experiences among members. Sometimes experts can also be persuaded to participate, bringing a whole new level of communication and learning.

Communication between organisations can also be facilitated online. You can swap information with similar or complimentary organisations, and coordinate combined efforts that benefit everybody.

Action

If your organisation needs to get action out of your supporters, the internet can be an extremely effective tool. If you provide a form letter and email address on a web page, then any motivated supporter can easily fire off an email to their local government representative, or send a protest to the CEO of the company you're lobbying. By making it cheap and easy for people to get involved, you greatly increase both the participation and awareness of your supporters.

Research shows that people who get involved in the activities of a non-profit organisation, however small those activities might be, come to feel they are a part of that organisation and will be more likely to make a donation in the future.

You can also use your web site to publish answers you receive from the government department, political faction, or business you're lobbying. Publishing the names of businesses and individuals who are sympathetic to your cause helps supporters identify who their allies are, too.

Fundraising

On the internet, you have a potential audience of tens of millions of people. Of course, only a small percentage of them will be interested in your cause, but that's still a huge pool of potential donors. And people with internet access tend to be at the middle to high end of the income scale, so many of them can afford to support you.

If your web site looks good and provides useful information, it will increase your credibility with the general public. Showing where donated money is spent and how it benefits recipients reassures potential donors. If you need to raise money for a specific purpose, mentioning it in your regular newsletter or email communication can also spur supporters on to action.

You don't have to limit yourself to simply asking for donations, though. You can sell merchandise such as calendars and clothes. You can join affiliate programmes, where you refer people to various online stores and receive a small referral fee when they make a purchase. You can even offer paid advertising on your site to businesses related to your cause.

It's extremely hard to predict how successful your online fundraising efforts will be. For most organisations, it's best to start with something small, simple and inexpensive. Measure your results, and determine what works for you.

Costs Of A Web Presence

Hardware

If you want to maintain a web site and use the internet, you'll need a computer of some kind. It doesn't have to be very modern — anything less than 4 or 5 years old will do, although a more recent computer will be more responsive and will run applications faster.

Some organisations provide computers to key members, such as the president or secretary. Organisations that have a permanent office often have a computer they use for word processing and other tasks, which can also be used to access the web. You may have to buy a modem if you don't already have one — just make sure it's a 56K modem, as anything less will be noticeably slower.

By far the majority of non-profit organisations don't own any computers, and rely on members using their own computers for their activities.

Software

The only essential pieces of software you'll need are a web browser (such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator) and an email program (which comes with most browsers). I recommend Internet Explorer, simply because it's already installed on most Windows systems and is the one most other people on the web use. Both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator are free.

If you want to create and maintain your own web site, you'll need some extra software. At a minimum you need a basic text editor to create your web pages, and an FTP program to upload them to your server. Windows already has both of these installed. You can also download a wide array of more powerful HTML editors and FTP clients, ranging in price from free to many hundreds of dollars.

To maintain this site, I use a low-cost desktop content management application called CityDesk, which provides both site editing and FTP functions. The free version can be used to publish sites of up to 50 pages, and the US$299 Pro version will handle anything bigger than that. I highly recommend CityDesk.

Internet Access

To get on the internet, you normally dial into an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The cost and conditions of internet access packages vary widely from country to country and region to region, so you'll need to do your own research here.

Site Hosting

Your site needs to live somewhere.

While it is possible to create a web site and publish it for free, it's not usually the best approach. Having your site hosted at a free service makes you look less credible, and you may also have to put up with annoyances like site outages or banner advertising. The features available to you will also be more limited.

If your organisation pays for internet access, you probably have 5 or 10 megabytes of space with your ISP package. Check with your ISP to find out how to access that space. Your site would typically have a URL something like www.myisp.com/~myorg, which looks slightly more credible than a free hosting service, but not as credible as having your own domain name. Even if you intend to register your own domain name at some stage, you can use this space to get your site up and running while you shop around for a hosting deal that meets your requirements.

If you want the most respectable-looking web presence, you should register a domain name and pay for proper hosting. The cost for such a setup starts at less than US$100 per year. You shouldn't pay any more unless you really need the extra services on offer.

Increased Demand For Your Services

If you go looking for more people that your organisation can help, be prepared to find them! Are you sure you have the resources to help more people? If your services are limited to a particular geographic area, make that clear on your web site so you don't get inquiries from all over the world flooding in.

Content

Once you have a nice web site built, people will (hopefully!) visit it and read what you've written. They're not going to keep coming back to read the same content, though, so if you want people to return, you'll need to continually provide fresh content. Timely articles related to seasons, festive holidays, and other cycles (e.g. tax time, back to school, the start of football season, elections, etc) are good for attracting visitors.

In order to continually provide new articles and fresh content, you need someone to write them. If you're lucky, you'll be able to talk members of your organisation into writing articles. Otherwise, you may need to pay a professional writer to create content for you, or purchase reprint rights to suitable articles.

If you can't get members to write articles and don't have money to spend on content, there are a few alternatives. Many web-savvy professionals are happy to provide free content, in return for a brief biography and link back to their own web site. For example, a professional debt cousellor might provide you with an article on paying off credit cards, in return for a link back to her web site. This gives you useful content, and may provide her with new business and increased professional credibility. If you see an article you really like on someone else's web site, it can't hurt to email the author and ask if you can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Never publish content without permission. This breaches copyright laws, and could land both you and your organisation in hot water.

Maintenance

Whenever you need to add new content or update old content, you need someone to create or modify the HTML files for you and upload them.

Most non-profit organisations can't afford to pay an outsider to do this for them, so usually a computer-literate member volunteers to take on the role. The downside of using a volunteer is that they may become busy, go on holidays, or lose interest in the organisation, leaving you temporarily (or worse - permanently!) unable to update your site. Make sure whoever takes on this role leaves written instructions and passwords with other members of your organisation, just in case.

Another problem with using members is that they might not turn out to be as web-savvy as they first seem. Web page authoring is not as easy as it appears — there are usability, maintainability, and cross-browser issues to be aware of. I don't want this to sound like an advertisement, but the CityDesk desktop content management system I mentioned above makes web sites much easier to maintain for the average user. Once your site is set up, CityDesk is no harder to use than the typical word processor.

Professional web developers will usually charge either by the hour or per page for site modifications. In either case, it will usually work out cheaper if you can send through your updates grouped into batches, rather than sending individual requests one at a time. Prices and abilities vary considerably, so shop around and ask to see some example sites before you sign up.

Summary

In the end, it's simple to decide whether or not your organisation should be online. If the expected benefits outweigh the expected costs, it'll be worthwhile. If the expected costs are greater than the value of the expected benefits, it would be a waste of your time and money.

Only you can judge the value of the benefits you expect to gain from having a website. Hopefully this article has given you a realistic understanding of both the costs and the benefits, so you can make an informed decision for your particular situation.

Over the coming months, I'll be writing a series of articles to help you put all this theory into practice. They'll give you simple guidelines to increase your site's effectiveness, and easy-to-use tools to keep the costs of setting up and maintaining your site down.

 


Related Articles
Index
- Should You Be Online?
- Build Your Own Website
- CityDesk Templates For Non-Profits

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