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Resources – Articles

How to Boost Usability of Your Nonprofit Website
by Karen Zapp

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Don't lose donors and members simply because your nonprofit website content is unclear, fuzzy, or ambiguous. And don't lose them because site visitors can't find what they want almost instantly.

The home page of your site is the focus of this article, but it touches on all pages. And whether you're a charity or a nonprofit membership association . . . the information that follows will help you satisfy your visitors' needs.

There are several content, design and navigation elements to consider when developing or revamping a website. But I've identified 4 fundamentals that will ensure you meet the most pressing needs of most visitors.

I've expressed these 4 nonprofit website fundamentals in the form of questions. Specifically, these are questions in the minds of your visitors. And you must answer all of them in 3-5 seconds or else they will most likely abandon your site.

1) Where am I? - The header answers this question on every page. The answer comes from your logo (if you have one and it's not essential you do); the name of your organization (do NOT use acronyms - this seems more prevalent with associations than charities); and a simple plain language statement of what you do (at least give people the general idea). And if you're a local or regional nonprofit you may want to give some idea of where you're located or the area you serve.

Remember that people often do NOT land on your home page. This is one reason your header needs to address everything from the previous paragraph.

There's another way you must also answer the question, "Where am I?" Use your navigation scheme - it's like bread crumbs. It should obviously reveal what page of the site the visitor has landed on, and orient them to the rest of the site. In the example below they landed on the "History" page within the "About Us" section. One way to help visitors know where they are is shown below. Here the left column nav link is a different color and bold for the page they're on.

About Us
Mission and Vision
Board of Directors

2) What does the organization do? - Numerous usability tests, studies and research reveal that the majority of nonprofit websites leave this question unanswered; or they bury it too deep within the site. On the home page consider having your first paragraph outline what you do. Use plain language and don't quote your mission statement. This is because mission statements are usually written by committee and are not easily understood. In fact, I've read dozens where I couldn't figure out what they do - the mission statements are that fuzzy.

3) How will my money be used? - This content also belongs on your home page. For example: Tell your visitors quite simply that donations help pay the utility bills, and buy supplies so kids in the gang-ridden neighborhood have a safe place to go after school. And it also means that a gift of $25 gives a hot supper to 3 kids once a week; $100 pays for 12 meals so these kids don't go to bed hungry. You could have several examples of what different amounts accomplish. Use a few stories; give examples of specifically what their money will help you do. Again, be very clear and use a conversational style of writing.

If you're a professional membership association the question is this: What do I get for my dues . . . what are the benefits of joining? Use personal, reader-focused, benefit filled copy to answer the question. You'll find a short article about this personal writing style on my Periodic News page, but I reproduced the example below:

Non-personal tone taken from an actual letter (I changed the name of the assn):

"Acme Association's continuing education programs assist members with life-long learning. We offer more than 275 continuing education seminars and computer workshops across the country in a variety of technical, management, and regulatory topics. Acme programs can help you meet your state's continuing professional competency requirements .."

Warmer, more personal tone:

As a member of Acme Association you'll have ready access to over 275 continuing education seminars and computer workshops. This means it's not only a whole lot easier for you to remain current in your field - for more career advancement opportunities - but this also helps you meet your state's continuing professional competency requirements Easy for you because you can choose from customized on-site training, webinars and a number of other distance learning programs. And they include a wide variety of technical, management and regulatory topics all at your fingertips.

4) How do I donate? - Make it obvious. Have a navigation link that says "Donate Now" or "Donate" or "Give." Avoid phrases like "Support Us", "Join Us", or "Help Us" - because testing shows very few people think this way. Also have a donate button on every page of your site. And when visitors click on the button or the nav link take them DIRECTLY to the form. Don't delay them with a page of copy on why they should give. In addition, only ask for information you absolutely need. Many people abandon because you ask for their phone number, for example. This may be information you want . . . but you don't need it right now (ask for it later). What you need first and foremost is their donation.

If you're an association the question is: How do I join? Believe it or not I've had to search for this on many sites. And you ought to have a "Join Now" button on each page. This is NOT the web page where you explain the benefits of membership. "Join Now" for associations is analogous to "Donate" for charities. They know why and have made the decision - now they're ready to act.

Plus, when they click on the button take them directly to your registration form and get their credit card information FIRST. Then if you want to ask for optional demographic information do that AFTER you've accepted payment.

Revamping your website so it does a great job answering these 4 questions doesn't require an expensive overhaul. Much of it is in the copy - the words - you use. Your reward once you've incorporated the changes is happier visitors. And this leads to more donations and more members!

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see where the stumbling blocks are for your visitors. I'd be proud to help you by being that objective outsider. Here's a rather unique service I offer: I'll evaluate your home page and tell you at least 5 changes you can make to improve usability; and to do a better job answering the four questions from this article. Call me, 1-800-794-1609 or send me an email with your URL to I'll send you an affordable quote the very same day.

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