In summer 2006 E-consultancy published a report called Online Charity Benchmarks, which was compiled by iConcertina, a London-based new media agency with a focus on the charity sector.

We talked to iConcertina’s Dean Russell to further investigate the study and the drivers behind it…

1. Why wasn’t accessibility the focus of the report?

Accessibility is incredibly important, but we didn’t want to produce yet another accessibility report.  Instead we wanted to do something more holistic, looking at the way the site was built and what information is provided about the charity.  In saying that, I was very surprised at the catastrophically low scoring in this area. 

Personally, I see no good excuse for this, especially considering the level of guidance available for free, including the launch earlier this year of the PAS 78 ‘Guide to Good Practice in Commissioning Accessible Websites’.

2. Why are the larger charities doing a better job than some of the smaller ones? Are they simply further along the web curve?

My assumption is that as a result of having PR & marketing budgets, larger charities have a better understanding of how to engage with their audiences online and therefore a far greater understanding of the power the internet provides them.  In saying that, there was a real mix, so it wasn’t just big charities that had good sites – there were some poor ones in there too.

For the smaller charities, I got the impression that some sites existed only because the charity felt they needed to put something online – instead of having a site to serve a real purpose.  I think this report will help smaller charities understand that their website may be the only interaction some people will have with them so it’s incredibly important it fulfils their existing and potential stakeholders’ needs. 

This includes an understanding that it’s not about paying massive agencies to create some fancy design. It’s primarily about their content and using web best practice online, which should be part of any agency, in-house or freelancers skill-set irrelevant of budget.  This includes taking responsibility for ensuring marketing communications are considered throughout the web or blog development process.
3. Were there any results that we expected to be much better?

I mistakenly expected accessibility to be much better on the assumption charities would be more aware and proactive in this area. So looking at such poor results throughout the sector was disappointing.

The lack of responsiveness from some charities was unexpected too.  As part of the report we contacted charities through their websites to request information about being a volunteer.  Out of the 110 charities reviewed, a staggering 34 charities did not respond to these requests or didn’t provide information on how to volunteer on their site.  However, more positively, many of the other charities responded within a day, which is much better relationship management.

Transparency was quite poor, especially when it came to showing financial or management & trustee information.  I expected charities to use their website to explain who makes decisions about how and where donations are used, backing this with financial information.  This is core to credibility and trust.  Disappointingly, 35 sites didn’t include any form of financial report.  16 sites didn’t show a charity registration number and a similar number didn’t explain what they do.

I also found the lack of blogging quite ironic, considering the original concept of the report was to investigate charity blogs.

Overall, no charity performed well in all criteria, so whilst the above points surprised me, there are a load of areas where charities should be looking to improve.

4. Why did you choose the objective criteria rather than subjective analysis? What, in your opinion, was the most important criteria?

The objectivity was to ensure a more accurate analysis of the facts, rather than applying potentially preconceived agency-based judgments about what is good or not.  Put any number of usability experts in a room together and you’ll have at least as many arguments.  We also used non UK-based research teams that didn’t have existing knowledge of the various charities, which again meant there was an absolute focus on the facts, rather than existing expectations.

Of course, many of the bigger charity sites have really great designs and lots of strong content such as case studies and testimonials, but this may be due to the fact they have more resources available and are able to spend more on marketing activities.  Based on the chosen criteria it could be argued that the benchmark study would be biased against smaller charities struggling with less resource and budget. 

However, we wanted to create a set of criteria that could be applied across the board, to any charity however large or small, which can be compared on an annual basis.  Our findings highlighted many small charities punching above their weight and really engaging with their stakeholders in this online medium.

Regarding the most important criteria, I realise I may sound like I am ducking the question, but it really is a case that all the criteria has equal importance in my view.  For example, a site with great usability but poor communication is damaging; it’s no good making the site easy to use but not having useful content.  So there really is no single important criteria, they must all work in harmony to be truly successful.
5. I’m not so sure that a Top 100 of the corporate websites would fair much better… what about you?

I totally agree.  If you look at all the various reports and benchmarks it’s clear that most of the criteria we look at like communication and transparency are rarely considered.  I was hoping that the charity sites would be markedly better than corporate sites on aspects such as accessibility and transparency – but sadly this was not the case.

6. Do you expect charities to be doing well in these areas, when many major corporates do not currently fulfil these criteria (eg accessibility, blogging)?

Yes I do – it’s not right for charities to ignore these aspects just because corporates do!  In my view charities should lead the way in pushing for a more open and accessible online environment – even if it’s only by ensuring their own website can be viewed by all. If you consider how many charities campaign for people marginalised in society or requiring support, then it seems crazy that they aren’t considering this more holistically and ensuring anyone who may want to donate or require support can access their website, regardless of age, ability or experience. 

On elements like blogging, I can sympathise with charities not taking the leap with this relatively new medium, but by ignoring these tools they are missing out on amazing opportunities to improve how they interact online.  For corporates, blogging is primarily a PR tool but for charities it can be so much more.

7. Can charities defend their results on the basis of cost (of the website/resources etc)? Or do you think they can generate a lot more donations by investing in their websites?

I appreciate the time and resource limitations that charities face.  However, I passionately believe that charities will benefit immensely from having a website that fulfils the criteria we looked at in the report.

I see no point in charities investing time & energy into a website if the online message is not aligned to the charity’s goals and purpose. This includes getting donations but also building awareness and making sure that if someone wants to support the cause they can easily do this from anywhere in the world by simply going online. This includes making sure supporters can continue to see the real-world benefits of the charity.  Just having a pretty website with no useful information doesn’t do this, nor does a site with copy that’s a year old or one that doesn’t allow donations online.

So in answer to your question, rather than asking charities to defend their sites I would prefer they really looked at what they have online and ask themselves if they really believe they are meeting the needs of their potential donors and users.  Of course, if they look at the criteria in the benchmark report too – that will help.
8. Should charities and other non-profit organisations be required to include specific information/content areas on their websites, as they would be expected to in published annual accounts?

This would have a huge impact on the way charities are currently communicating with their stakeholders.  Whilst I don’t think legislation should be in place, I would suggest charities attain a level of consistency and transparency as a sector to make it easier for all types of stakeholders to get the information they need.  Perhaps, given time, a voluntary watchdog could be set up to advise charities on the sort of criteria they should be aspiring to when setting-up or monitoring their existing websites.
9. What quick guidance would we provide to charities that might have performed poorly in some of these areas?

In a nutshell, ‘can potential or existing stakeholders find the information they need to support your activities on or offline?’.  Obviously, I strongly recommend reading the benchmark report – but even checking out the criteria listed on page 2 of the report would be helpful.
10. Do we believe the effectiveness of the website could influence perceptions of the charity of the whole? Is a bad web strategy a barrier to donations?

A poor site is more likely to risk damaging a charity’s credibility and this is likely to impact on online donations, especially considering the web is increasingly used to support how and where we spend our money.  As a society we are moving more and more towards using the web for online research and purchasing or donating.  Therefore it’s important that the website be used as a tool to support the charity’s offline charitable efforts and enables stakeholders to engage with their cause.
11. I found it interesting that the charity benchmarks report started out with a review of blogging in the charity sector. The findings were surprising. Why is blogging going to be valuable for this sector?

Blogging is a conversational medium, and builds a relationship with the audience which is crucial for charities when considering the retention of donors and volunteers. In the case of charities working for people without a voice in society, it gives the opportunity for a real-life insight into individuals rather than dull 6 month-old case studies.  Blogs also give charities a unique opportunity to listen to existing or potential stakeholders via the comments posted on the blog.

Blogging is the perfect match with the charity sector.  When done properly, blogging creates a direct dialogue with stakeholders, provides a support network for volunteers on the ground and allows people donating to get a genuine insight into what the charity is involved in, providing greater transparency into how and where money and time are being spent.

And on top of all that, blogs are generally more visible online via search engines and are not expensive to set-up or run – so it’s a pretty obvious thing to do.


Dean talked to Chris Lake, editor, E-consultancy.

Further Reading:
Online Charity Website Benchmarks