Don’t just focus on donors

Chris Esh


Many nonprofit websites focus exclusively on appealing to donors. It makes sense. You invest money in a website hoping that it’ll pay for itself in additional revenue. The more revenue you get, the more resources they have for carrying out your mission.

This exclusive focus on donors, however, may be a big missed opportunity if your organization’s mission is to provide services to people. Rather than a narrow fundraising tool, your website can be a tool to directly serve more people and amplify your impact.

You have two key audiences

Compared to nonprofits, business websites are relatively simple. There is one primary audience: the customer. They are the ones that pay and the ones that receive the products/services.

Nonprofit websites, on the other hand, have two distinct audiences: the funders/donors and the beneficiaries. When a typical web designer looks at a nonprofit project, they usually treat the donors like the customer and largely ignore the beneficiaries.

This is problematic for a couple of reasons:

  1. It excludes the people you serve and treats them like props rather than speaking to them as people. When organizations appeal to donors, they often simplify the issues and patronize their beneficiaries as a result.
  2. You miss a prime opportunity to expand your impact. Almost everyone has a smartphone these days. The houseless in Philly, farmers in rural Africa, etc. If your beneficiaries don’t seem to be a primary audience on your website, it might not be an access/interest issue. It may be because the website doesn’t offer them much, or doesn’t speak to their needs.
  3. Overemphasis on donors can backfire. Donors want their money to go to effective work. While they appreciate your interest in them, they’re more interested in seeing how you serve your audience. If your website is nothing but a fundraising appeal, smart donors will see through it and move on.

How to better serve your beneficiaries on your website

Use your website as a tool to connect with the people you serve. Here are a few ideas:

  • Speak directly to your beneficiaries using second-person language (”you”).
  • Empower them to take action and get the services they need. Position yourself (the organization/staff) as equal to those you serve, rather than simply people dependent on your services.
  • Make them feel understood and respected to set the tone for positive interactions.
  • Include calls-to-action to get involved in services programming, instead of making “Donate” your only call to action. Make these prominent on the home page as well as on relevant pages.
  • Use action language when speaking about your services (e.g. “Get Help Now”).
  • Provide answers to their questions and help them determine if they’re a good fit for your services.
  • Consider a landing page or section of the site that outlines the full menu of services you offer.
  • Make sure your site is fully optimized for mobile. If your demographic is in a lower income bracket, it’s possible their phone is their only access to the internet.
  • Keep it up-to-date. If your program is full and you aren’t currently accepting new applicants, make that clear.
  • Optimize these pages for search engines as well. If people are seeking the services you offer, make them findable on Google.
  • Make it easy to apply, get in touch, or otherwise request services.
  • Make it easy to share these pages on social media, via text, etc. so people can spread the word to people who need these services.

Case Study: Domestic Abuse Project of Delaware County

Here’s a site we built last year for the Domestic Abuse Project that strikes a good balance between serving beneficiaries and appealing to donors. Above the fold (the area shown before a user has to scroll), there are 5 items (outlined in red on this screenshot) focused on people in the county who are facing abuse and in need of help.

Then just below, we include blurbs of all of their service, each leading to a landing page with clear instructions for how to receive those services.

If someone needs help, we want to make sure they can immediately find the information they need without having to dig.

Do you think donors feel neglected or turned off by this focus on people in need of help? Of course not. The organization’s ability to provide these services is the reason they’d consider supporting this work. And showing them the full menu of services they offer, along with the compassionate way they speak to their beneficiaries, is probably the best way to make that appeal for donations.

Paradoxically, devoting more emphasis toward beneficiaries instead of donors will actually result in more donations.

Why? Because donors want to know their money will be used to help real people. When your website devotes substantial real estate to providing information to beneficiaries, you aren’t neglecting donors.

You’re letting potential donors look directly at your work and your commitment to the people you serve. There will still be plenty of room to speak directly to donors as well, but when a nonprofit website is focused exclusively on donors, the appeals can feel a bit hollow. The ideal approach is to let your website be a full representation of your mission and work.

There’s no tradeoff here. You don’t need to decide whether to sacrifice donations in order to better serve your beneficiaries with your website.

It’s a win-win. When you focus on your beneficiaries, you not only better serve them, you make a powerful and authentic case to your donors about why they should support you.


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