How To Get Your Foundation's Website Right (And Wrong)

Until last year, I was the executive director of a high-tech NGO that I founded just over a decade ago. During my time as a non-profit exec, I spent an enormous amount of time on the websites of foundations and institutional grantmakers, looking for clues that would help me work out whether or not to make a pitch. However, unlike most people scrutinizing those sites, I was looking at them through the eyes of someone who was both a fundraiser and a digital professional, schooled in all the ways that websites can succeed and fail.

Now that I have moved on from my role, I no longer have the conflicts of interest preventing me from passing comment on what I saw. So for the benefit of funders everywhere, and ultimately for their grantees, here are some top tips on how to run a successful foundation or grantmaker website.

1. Either a large “How to Apply” or "We Don’t Accept Applications’’ notification should be a central feature on your homepage. This is because a huge proportion of the visitors to your site have come to find out if they might apply to get money off of you, and many may not be familiar with funder-speak. If it isn’t instantly obvious whether or not you fund particular kinds of work, you'll receive email and telephone correspondence that you could have avoided with the right homepage messaging. Given that this is the No. 1 need of most visitors to such sites, it is fascinating how few major foundation homepages position these items prominently and “above the fold,” visible when the page loads. Special credit is due to U.K. funder UnLtd, as the first words at the top of its homepage are “Looking for Support.”

2. The second-most important feature to get right on your site is a grants list or database of projects that you have funded. Potential grantees need this data to interpret the tea leaves of your “About Us” section—nothing really communicates the wants and desires of a grantmaker like a list of awarded grants, their size, duration and purpose. Without making this data quick and easy to find, a grantmaker is more or less guaranteeing a low quality of applications and off-target approaches than they otherwise might receive. Kudos, here, to the Hewlett Foundation which has a big “Grants Database” button clearly visible on its homepage.

The first two items on this list are so much more important than anything else that I actually hesitate to make further recommendations. However, there are other features that, while less important, will contribute funder effectiveness.

3. Publish a clear statement of your mission, objectives, program budgets, and—if possible—deliverables. Many (but not all) funders do a good job of publishing their mission and goals. However, very few even attempt to make transparent the success criteria that they have set themselves and their staff internally. If you have a program that has a grantmaking budget of X, with the goal of achieving Z, you should be as transparent about this as you can be, because it will prevent applicants from having to guess what program officers want or how much money they have to work with. I fully acknowledge that this might be a shock to some of your colleagues, but the reason to do it is actually self-interest, not altruism. If I know your entire year’s program budget is $1 million budget I’m not going to send you a $1 million application. And if I know if you’ve already committed all the funds in your grantmaking budget for the year, I probably won’t bother you at all.

4. Publish a clear list of things that you won’t fund. Some foundations already do an excellent job, here, so I’d encourage you to consider making your own version of the list published by Esmee Fairbairn, or its fun little interactive quiz.

5. Publish copies of your annual report, if you have one. These are great for understanding how a funder has changed over time, where its money generally goes, and what its priorities are now. However, if at all possible, don’t publish your annual report only in PDF format. Those are nearly impossible to read on smartphones, and massively decrease the chance that this time-consuming document will be read by many people. Instead, publish your annual reports as mobile-responsive HTML pages. I’m afraid I cannot actually find any foundations that currently do this, but this example from Mailchimp provides a good example of design for reading on phones.

6. Publish evaluations of individual projects you have funded, or entire programs you have been running. The rarest commodity in the social impact world, even rarer than money itself, is frank, high-quality information about interventions that are working, or not working. The value of such knowledge is immense for NGOs and other funders, and yet there is normally little to go around. If you’ve got any such evaluations floating around internally, you should really push them. You might be surprised, but in 2016, you’re considerable more likely to get credit for honestly reporting failures than you gain from “managing your reputation” by burying the bad news. Here’s a great example of clear, concise honesty and learning from the Indigo Trust.

7. Publish a stream of news announcements about every new grant you can talk about in public and why you have chosen to make that grant. In human rights funding, this is not always possible. But such announcements not only sense as useful signals to other funders, they allow potential applicants to understand what areas you are supporting right now, rather than in the past. When you explain why you made these grants, do so in plain English, as Good Ventures does through the Open Philanthropy Project.

There are also some things you can omit from your website, saving time and money along the way:

8. Don’t go overboard with too much photography symbolising the kinds of people you aim to support. A few pictures is OK, but too many makes your site lose its focus as a useful information tool, and can echo slightly of old colonial explorers collecting natives to bring back home.

9. Don’t publish project wrap-ups and conclusions without information about what didn’t work in the project. Reporting what didn’t work is valuable data for other people. And you should also include this information because you actually want people to read your stories—otherwise they’re just a waste of everyone’s time and money. Stories written from an uncritical perspective are just boring. Don’t be boring.

10. Use web traffic data to deterimine whether your think pieces, reports, news and analysis comprise good value for money. People really do want to know what Bill and Melinda Gates are thinking, and their letters are well written, challenging and engaging—this fact will clearly show in their web visitor data. But much writing on foundation sites doesn’t excite the public and probably doesn’t merit the money paid to author it. Web analytics provide answers regarding whether you should be publishing think pieces at all, or whether you’d be better off donating to actual news organizations, think tanks, and academics.

Nothing I have said here represents an exclusive, Earth-shattering insight about the nature of technological innovation. All I’ve done is apply the discipline of modern user-centered web design (a discipline I definitely did not invent) to a special group of websites—those run by philanthropists and grantmaking organizations. Ultimately, all of the points above come down to carefully listening to users, empathising with them, and changing your website to focus on what your users need. I hope that this piece stimulates some internal conversations about why funders operate websites, and how they can be better used to align with those organisation’s goals, and the goals of the people they seek to support.

Tom Steinberg was the founder and director of the international social enterprise mySociety. He is now a consultant and writer on tech and social impact issues. See his previous post for IP:

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