Charity Site Design Considerations

thank you girlIn this post I describe aspects I like and dislike about different charity / not-for-profit web sites.  In follow up posts I will describe how Magento can be used to support such functionality.

Apart from my normal disclaimer about working for eBay and Magento and PayPal are a part of eBay, I wanted to add that in the following I picked a few web sites out there as examples.  I personally have no connections with these sites and do not personally endorse them.  I am using them only as examples of site layout.  I am also not claiming to be an expert in charities and how they should be run.

So let’s look at a few approaches sites use.

No Online Contributions

Gonaives Christian Mission in Haiti has a site, has a contact page, but the content is pretty static and not always well formatted.  The site offers no way in which to collect donations online.  The unfortunate reality is friction reduces conversion, even for a good cause.  To maximize contributions, make it easy for visitors to learn who you are and contribute to support you.  Note that such a site does not really need Magento – a WordPress or similar site would be sufficient.

Donation Button Sites

Donate 50 USDTijuana Christian mission is a bit more sophisticated in that it accepts online contributions.  It does this by having multiples donate buttons at different price points.  Putting prices like $50, $100, $300 gives a hint to the expectation or what others give.  If only an input field to type in a dollar amount is supplied, you may end up with smaller donations.  It is fine to suggest some amounts and allow people to enter how much they want to
give.  Again, such sites do not really need WordPress.  PayPal makes it easy to add a donate button to a site if all you want to do is collect donations.

Itemized Needs

Personally I prefer sites that list explicit projects that need funding and how much they would cost to run. A school in Africa seeking international support could list low end items (pencils and books for students to use) to allow those with smaller budgets to still offer support, and large items for those willing to donate more (like an electric power generator).  The following are some example sites like this:

The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission lists a range of projects from school supplies to a new building ($100K), with an indication of progress so far towards targets.

water system

Let’s Build an Orphanage lists several major projects that individuals can contribute towards.  Targets were from $5K to $25K.  But there was not good visibility into progress so far.


International Ministries lists a number of larger goal projects.  My main problem with this site is the list seems to be long – there is no clear way to determine if the projects listed are still active or not, and with such a long list with items from several years back it raises questions.


Haiti Jetaime used a similar approach, but added a section I really liked – the ability to buy a picture done by the children you are supporting.  This can be a reminder for yourself or a great talking point.

kids drawing

You should consider whether some of the needs are more important than others. Visitors to your site might not know where you face the greatest need – you need to think about how you are going to explain to them.

Here are a few key points I suggest considering:

  • Have projects explaining how supporters can support your cause with small to large donations – not all the same amount.  Visitors can decide what to support based on their budget, and know exactly what their funds are going to be used for.  I think of getting a class room of kids to support a cause.  It might not raise much money, but it can have other great outcomes.
  • Have a list of different projects, but don’t have *too* many.  A list of 50 different projects would become daunting.
  • Photos are critical.  Don’t rely on text alone.
  • Keep text short, where possible.
  • Keep sold items visible on the site, so visitors know that other people are contributing.  For multi-quantity items, show how many have been purchased so far and how many more are still available.  This can encourage visitors to contribute, knowing that others have done so already.

Blog / Newsletter

kids examConsider whether you want a blog or newsletter on your site.  A blog is on the web site and readable by all new visitors to your site.  A newsletter is where you mail out status updates to registered supporters.  You can (and probably would) send the same content out on both channels (blog and newsletter).  Blogs, while useful, can be easily ignored or forgotten about by your supporters.  Emails are more proactive about getting in front of people.

If you do start sending out regular emails, make sure you don’t overdo it, and make sure you make it easy for your supporters to unsubscribe.

If you are going to have a blog or newsletter, you need to commit to the ongoing effort it takes to write interesting content. A site which started out publishing an article regularly, then stops, raises questions about the viability of the cause or how well run it is.  It is better to have less frequent but regular updates rather than have an initial flurry of activity that then reduces to a trickle.  People feel happier supporting a well-run cause.  If your cause does not come across organized, there are plenty of other charities that your supporters could choose to support instead.

Personally I think a blog or newsletter is a critical resource. A regular once a month update can be very interesting to your supporters. Think about what they are interested in. Add personal touches like photos whenever possible. A blog gives signals to visitors to your site about how active your site is.  But if you cannot afford the time to keep reports coming along, you may be better to not do any at all.

Child Sponsorship

For an orphanage or school, consider whether you want to offer a chance to support a nameless student or whether you want to provide information about specific children and establish a closer connection between your supporters and the child being supported.

donate 600Listing each child individually is a major undertaking.  If you cannot afford to photograph every student and write some details about them, you might want to start with having on the site a more generic “support a child” approach (without mentioning which child). Later you can consider allowing supporters to sponsor specific children. There may also be privacy issues to consider – do you want to publish information about children in your care to the whole world?

If you do include photos of children looking for support, consider whether you want them to look happy or sad.  Think about what message you want to give about financially supporting a child.  If a school, do you want the class to look happy or sad?  Personally I start to question how well a school is being run when all the students look unhappy.  On the other hand, if asking for famine support, happy laughing children may not come across as being truly in need. 

Happy Sad Children


In this post I have talked about some different considerations when designing your site.  In future posts I will get into describing how Magento can be configured to support these approaches.

In addition, think about how people are going to trust in your site.  You are asking them to hand over their hard earned money after all!  If they know you from an event that gives them some trust. 503(c) accreditation helps too.  Without trust, setting up a site could be a wasted effort.  I came across Charity Navigator which evaluates different charities and describes the methodology it uses.

And finally, once you have a site what will you do next?  Most people won’t just happen to find your site.  You need to promote it.  The site is to collect money from and engage with your supporters, but you need to let people know of the site first.

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