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I’ve been working with small charities and have been struck by the struggle they face when planning what do to with their websites. The big brand national charities have the luxury of employing web managers but smaller local charities don’t have the budget and there is often no in-house experience. So what should they do?

A website is essential to get mindshare even if it’s not driving direct revenue, so I started to think of a hit list small charities could work from to get their websites beyond the purely functional.

This blog gives my top six web marketing projects that small charities can undertake with confidence without the need to spend precious money on an agency. I've deliberately made this straight forward because you can't get to the sexy stuff until the basics are in place and working.

Clearly define your audience

You can't write relevant copy if you don't know your audience. The first challenge is to understand what type of visitor you want to attract - male v female, country, lifestyle, personality type etc - and then construct a basic customer profile.

From this you can understand what the motivations of this person are likely to be and shape your content accordingly. People often support charities that they have a personal connection with so the website has to appeal to those motivations.

For example, I recently helped a local children's charity in Nepal which wanted more visitors but when I asked who, they didn't have an answer.

The first morning was spent discussing who the primary target audience should be, including geography and demographics. The conclusion, drawing from their knowledge of the customer, was to focus efforts on people in the UK interested in volunteering abroad and who wanted the chance to work with local people to support children. Instantly we had a focus.

Define calls to action

The majority of visitors will not donate or sign-up for volunteer work on their first visit. It takes time to make up your mind who to support and when.

Many charity websites are confusing, making it hard for people to know where to take action. Every page should have clear calls to action, especially the homepage. To achieve this you need to define the hierarchy of actions i.e. do you want donations more than volunteer support?

Don't forget calls to action for indirect support such as newsletter sign-up, following you via social media or signing pledges. Make it as obvious as possible for your visitors which actions they can take and where to take them.

For the Nepal based charity I've just helped we've streamlined the information so that the primary call to action is online donation followed by registering for volunteering. These links will appear on every page in the same place for user journey consistency. Previously calls to action were all over the shop and hard to pick out from other content.

Keyword research for relevant terms

It's important to know what are the trending search terms for keywords relevant to your brand and services. The free Google External Keyword Tool will give you weighted monthly averages for local and global markets to help pinpoint where the best traffic is.

It's essential to target the keyword phrases you want your website to be associated with to ensure a high quality of traffic. It's also better to have less high quality traffic than more low quality traffic because if you attract the wrong people, they'll just leave anyway.

If people bounce the mighty Google will just mark you down as having irrelevant content for that search term. Start with low/medium volume terms with low competition - it's easier to make your mark and learn.

Let the search engines know you are there

Use sitemaps. The most important is to add the XML sitemap which Google will use to know which pages are relevant for indexing. You can pay a developer to build a custom sitemap but there are free tools out there such as Free Sitemap Generator.

It's important to set the XML sitemap up to auto-refresh every time new content is added to the website, so a server side script is recommended to avoid the tedium of manually creating each time your site tree changes.

Other suggestions:

  • Optimise your page titles and meta descriptions at page level with keywords from the keyword research. 
  • Add an html sitemap that visitors can use to navigate; though not as beneficial for SEO as it once was, it is worth doing.
  • Put your charity on the map with Google Maps; free and easy, it will help get you visible with potential customers.
  • Register for free directories that will help get your website indexed; DMOZ open directory is the most obvious, though it can often take months to get on the books.

Set up Webmaster Tools

For access you need a Google Account. It's free and takes a matter of minutes using the meta tag verification method. Use Webmaster Tools to see what keywords are driving traffic to the website. This will identify how effective your keyword targeting is and also help identify opportunities for producing fresh content to target specific keyword traffic.

The error reports are useful in highlighting where you have crawl errors. These need to be rectified to ensure the search engines can crawl the website effectively. Broken links need to be repaired and 404 errors investigated as pages not found don't reflect well on the site.

Also, if a page can't be found, potential visitors will be lost as it serves as a dead end to their online journey.

Use the Links to your site report to find inbound links. Evaluate the quality of link and anchor text (the clickable text) used.

If the link can be improved (e.g. link to a more relevant page than the homepage, anchor text optimised for a target keyword phrase), contact the web owner and request the changes, explaining the benefits of doing this.

You can also evaluate external links using the link:www.myurl.com prompt in Yahoo Search. For each domain providing a link, you can click on the "Inlinks" button and follow the trail. This is also really useful for competitor comparison to learn from other charities and adopt a "me too" strategy with relevant websites. External links are an important SEO factor; the more you have from reputable domains, the higher value Google will place on your webpages.

Webmaster Tools can do a lot more but these reports will add the most value initially and are easy to get to grips with.

Build a customer database and send regular newsletters

The quest for charitable support is highly competitive - take a peek on Justgiving.com to see how many charities are signed up for online donations.

Not every visitor wants to hand over money or pledge their support the moment they first stumble upon your website. Ensure you have a data capture process for email addresses. Advertise a free newsletter and sell its benefits e.g. Keep in touch with the children of the Foundation via our monthly newsletter.

The more names you have on your opt-in database, the greater the chance that you will secure a future donation or volunteer when that person is ready. Timing is everything; I know because when I receive an email when I'm feeling altruistic, I often click and pay.

Another way to build your customer database and engagement is to use social media. Charities like Dogs Trust use Twitter really well to build a customer base and promote the activities of their charity. As a minimum add social bookmarking, using a free service like AddThis, to every page of your website that can be shared. If you can get people to share your content, you are getting free marketing.

Comments & questions please

I hope this is a useful guide for those of you working for or with small and local charities. Each of these projects needs closer attention and what I've written is simply an introduction; it's impossible to give the full detail in a blog.

Please drop by with comments, questions and suggestions, it's always good to learn from other people. If anyone wants to discuss any of the steps further, you can contact me via Twitter below.

James Gurd

Published 4 January, 2011 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

49 more posts from this author

Comments (15)

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Pauline Randall

Pauline Randall, Director at Florizel Media

Great advice James, and it also applies to small commercial businesses that can't run web managers. If they aren't doing these things then they are missing out badly.

over 6 years ago

Peter O'Neill

Peter O'Neill, Founder & Lead Consultant at L3 Analytics

A potentially valuable resource for charities is The Analysis Exchange. This is a system that has been set up for people looking to get into web analytics to gain some experience with existing websites. They are mentored by experienced web analysts so any organisation who participates knows they have professionals looking at their data and they will get value out of the experience.  The quick summary of benefits is:

Non-profits, non-governmental organization, and other causes can help support analyst education by participating in Analysis Exchange projects. In exchange for participation, your group will receive valuable insights about your online initiatives and efforts.

  • No fees or charges
  • Work with experienced mentors
  • Help train future analysts

More details at http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com/ae/index.asp

over 6 years ago


Taryn O

I definitely agree with your first two tips, James. However, if these charities don't have a web manager, or the inhouse skills, they will find webmater tools and creating an XML sitemap quite tricky. I think definitely social media is a great way for them to connect with their audiences, as long as they have the resources to maintain it. Also I would add three more: 1. Install Google Analytics 2. Apply for a Google Adwords grant 3. Create and stick with a regular content plan (creating new content, revising existing content and deleting old content).

over 6 years ago



And don't forget seo for firefox

over 6 years ago



Perhaps try to weave these into the above advice:

  • make sure you own the rights to, and have a copy of all designs, databases, code, licences, agreements, contracts, etc (don't waste the investment)
  • ask developers to design, build and test the web product for common vulnerabilities (don't give your donors malware)
  • do data, code & content backups daily and store them somewhere secure (don't lose it all in the event of a disaster).

over 6 years ago

Dan Healy

Dan Healy, CEO at Real Opinions

I'd also suggest for charities to list themselves on charity donation websites such as The Giving Machine. They donate revenue received from affiliates:


Once this is done, leverage social networking websites to spread the word...etc.

over 6 years ago


Victoria Prince

Great advice James, thanks, and handy tips from the comments posted here too.

With regards to your comment: ''Not every visitor wants to hand over money or pledge their support the moment they first stumble upon your website'' I couldn't agree more, especially in these difficult times of recession and austerity.

One way of raising funds for charities, of any size, is through online shopping, where a commission of each sale made by the supporter is passed back to the charity. The supporter also benefits from lots of special offers such as 20% off and free delivery.

They are free to set up (at www.buy.at/fundraising) and cost nothing to run, apart from a little extra time promoting your site. Retailers include Amazon, eBay, Marks and Spencer and Thorntons.

buy.at works with charities as large as CLIC Sargent (www.buy.at/clicsargent) and as small as Trust PA (www.buy.at/trustpa) who work to help people with spinal injuries.

Small charities can typically generate over £1,000 a year through a buy.at Webshop, which piggy backs on their existing marketing activities.

So, going back to the quote, not every visitor wants to hand over money, but by visiting the online shopping store, they are donating whilst not spending any extra cash - what a lovely thought for the new year!

over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Afternoon all for sunny India,

Thanks for the comments and suggestions.

Peter - appreciate the info about the Analysis Exchange as I had not come across it but will take a look as it may well benefit some of my clients and contacts.

Taryn - thanks for the additional suggestions. I toyed with including GA but decided not to because it requires dedicated focus to get real value. Analytics only adds value if you know what you want to measure/analyse and can configure the account to provide that precise data. GA is a fantastic tool when used well, misleading and confusing when not. I personally think setting up Webmaster Tools and using those reports is more straight forward and have often needed only 1hr to get a client up to speed with the basics.

Clerkendweller and Dan - appreciate the recommendations, also useful for charities.



over 6 years ago


Seamus Morley


This is a great list. The problem is that in most organisations ( charity or not) the various teams and groups that should be the real owners of their web pages do not really engage with this stuff.

The challenge is to get them engaged. I suggest creating with them a Goal or two for their site section/pages - as in your `Define calls to action` para. Then send the team data on their most important pages eg where traffic has come from, Bounce Rate and how many Goals their pages have helped achieve. The hard part is putting this data in a context that they can relate to ie how are they doing relative to the competition or another in-house group.

It is a real battle to get them involved but once you can show you can help them achieve their business objectives it is surprising how popular you become !

seamus morley

find 50

over 6 years ago

Jerry Okorie

Jerry Okorie, Search Consultant at UK

Thanks for putting this together. I wasn't really sure about one thing, actually I've never heard of this apart maybe from a paid search POV "If people bounce the mighty Google will just mark you down as having irrelevant content for that search term."

Please can you clarify on this?


over 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Afternoon all,

Seamus - yes it is often a problem, not just in the not-for-profit sector, that the teams that should be engaged with ecommerce just aren't or don't want to because they see it as a burden or something they aren't skilled in. I like your idea about creating goals based on the specific pages/areas of the website that are relevant to them and then providing data that demonstrates how effectively these goals are being met. Relevance is essential.

Jerry - thanks for dropping by. To clarify the point your raise, Google also takes relevance into account for organic search when it uses its mighty algorithm to compute which websites are the best suited to specific search terms. If you keyword spam your page or target irrelevant keyword phrases just because they are trending and have high volume, you'll end up sending a high volume of untargeted traffic to destination pages. Search engines will know this by a high bounce rate or short time on site and make a note. If you keep getting low engagement (high bounce, exit rates) then it is likely that Google will downgrade your relevance for that search term and you'll drop down the rankings. I know that was a basic explanation but I've seen it happen when web owners get over excited and don't micro target keyword phrases for organic search.



over 6 years ago

James Elliot

James Elliot, Director at want2donate.org

Thanks for the great article, James... a good round up of the main things to get nailed for a small charity website... Another tip here I'd like to say is get them looking at an open source CMS (if they don't already have one) - buy a book and spend a week playing and learning and you can become your own in house web manager... I'm a big advocate for the open source cms and use them for two big sites for a large NGO. These really help cut down the need for agency help and all the costs that these can entail. In terms of making the most of search, I think this is where a lot of big charities aren't even on the pulse, so getting in front of good keyphrases by doing you initial research could really help a small charity get the digital edge over others in search... I think there's a lot of opportunity to be had with this...

about 6 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi James,

Thanks for dropping by. Interesting addition with the open source CMS - provided you have someone who can grasp the basics of HTML and content management, so can do wonders in-house. The biggest challenge is to know what you want to achieve from your content management so that you can select a relevant CMS. Not all CMS solutions have the depth of functionality a web manager may need, such as the ability to integrate community features like discussion groups. So yes, open source CMS can add value and help manage costs, you just need to know how to scope the functional requirements first.


about 6 years ago


Vince Golder

Hi James,

Great advice with useful, interesting and practical ideas which I found helpful in the preparation of a proposal for some volunteer marketing work I'm doing for a local charity in Berkshire, UK.

My main expertise is in word of mouth referral, joint venture and community marketing, but internet marketing is not one of my best skills so your advice was most welcome.

Keep up the good work,

Vince Golder

almost 5 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Vince,

Hope you are well.

Thanks very much for taking the time to leave a comment.

Good luck with the volunteer work.


almost 5 years ago

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