Nonprofit Guide to Online Engagement: Do These Things First


Nonprofits often redesign their websites, volunteer portals, or other digital products with the goal of increasing engagement. Unfortunately, “engagement” is one of those buzzwords that is so poorly defined that it loses all meaning. 

When referring to engagement on social media, stakeholders are typically referring to followers, likes, shares, and reposts. But, in nearly all cases, our nonprofit clients have no idea how social media actually plays into their overall goals. It’s not a matter of taking their social media strategy to the next level—they’re just looking for a strategy that’s better than throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.

Website engagement is a nebulous concept altogether. Besides page views and average visit duration, most nonprofits have no idea how to measure and align what people do on their website with their organizational goals.

So how does a nonprofit define and measure engagement?

1. Before you do anything else, ensure your team can succinctly describe what you do and how you do it. This is a consistently massive roadblock we see over and over again with the nonprofits we work with. If users can’t get these answers almost immediately on your website, they won’t move forward. Engagement, however you describe it, is impossible to achieve before your users can ascertain what you do and how you do it. 

Try this:
Conduct a short test with representative users who aren’t familiar with your organization. Put them in front of your homepage and have them to describe what your organization does and how they do it. Can they describe what you do and how you do it in a couple sentences? If not, fix this critical issue first.

2. Don’t make assumptions about what people will or won’t do. Just because you want users to do something doesn’t mean they will. Don’t expect people new to your organization to behave in the same way as people who are already advocates for your cause. Our recent research indicates that behaviors around media consumption are changing. For nonprofits, this means that it is more difficult to reach the people who your mission will resonate with the most.

Try this:
Develop personas for your core audiences and create customer (or donor/volunteer) journeys for each of them. These should be based on qualitative research like interviews or diary studies. Personas are a one-page document that provide a consensus for your team that describes the behaviors, motivations, and goals for different types of users. 

A customer journey maps out a persona’s entire experience, relating to a specific goal. Customer journeys help break down a complex series of expectations, decisions, and actions into digestible chunks and insights that are far more likely to lead to action. Most importantly, personas and customer journeys help your team understand what audiences will and won’t do and what channels and messages are the most effective in reaching and engaging them.

3. Online engagement is different for every nonprofit. Engagement should tie directly to your pre-defined organizational goals, which will change over time. Based on the expectations, preferences, and actions you’ve uncovered in the personas and customer journeys, you’ll uncover unique ways to measure the specific types of engagement that will help your organization achieve its goals. 

Try this:
What get’s measured get’s optimized. However, measuring too many things often means a lack of focus and nothing gets optimized. Look at what behaviors, motivations, and goals ideal donors and volunteers have in common. There is a Venn diagram where your organization’s goals are in the left circle, your personas’ are in the right, and engagement is the overlap in the middle. There’s an action—or, more likely, a series of actions—that indicates a website visitor is more likely to become an advocate for your nonprofit. Knowing this, we can optimize for that person and we know what it means to “engage” them. More importantly, we can help move that person towards deeper engagement, turning a donor into a volunteer or an event attendee into an advocate.

What does engagement mean for your nonprofit? We can help you develop personas, customer journeys, and define engagement metrics to help your nonprofit achieve its goals. View our case studies or send us a note to learn more.