Web Application Form Design

“Input elements should be organized in logical groups so that
your brain can process the form layout in chunks of related fields.”
the Definitive Guide

Quite rare is the Web application that doesn’t make extensive
use of forms for data input and configuration. But not all Web applications
use forms consistently. Variations
in the alignment of input fields, their respective labels, calls to
action, and their surrounding visual elements can support or impair
different aspects of user behavior.

Form Layouts
When the time to complete a form needs to be minimized and the data
being collected is mostly familiar to users (for instance, entering
a name, address, and payment information in a check-out flow), a vertical
alignment of labels and input fields is likely to work best. Each label
and input field is grouped by vertical proximity and the consistent
alignment of both input fields and labels reduces eye movement and processing
time. Users only need to move in one direction: down.

vertical labels

In this layout, it’s advisable to use bold fonts for input field
labels. This increases their visual
and brings them to the foreground of the layout. When they
are not bold, labels may compete with input fields for a user’s
attention as they have almost equal visual weight.

When the data being collected by a form is unfamiliar or does not fall
into easy to process groups (such as the various parts of an address),
left-justifying input field labels makes scanning the information required
by the form easier. Users can just scan the left column of labels up
and down without being interrupted by input fields. However, the distance
between the labels and input fields is often elongated by long labels,
and as a result, completion times may suffer. Users have to “jump”
from column to column in order to find the right association of input
field and label before inputting data.

Left-Justified Horizontal Labels

An alternative layout, right aligns the input field labels so the association
between input field and label is clear. However, the resulting left
rag of the labels reduces the effectives of a quick scan to see what
information the form requires. In the Western world, we read from left
to right, so our eyes prefer a hard edge along the left side.

Right-Justified Horizontal Labels


Using Visual Elements
Due to the advantages of a “left-justified horizontal label”
layout (easy scanning of input labels and reduced vertical screen space),
it may be tempting to attempt to rectify its primary shortcoming: the
separation of input fields and their respective labels.

One such
features the addition of background colors and rules: the
different background colors create a vertical unit of labels and a vertical
unit of inputs; the horizontal rules form a relationship between each
label and input field pair. Though this approach may seem desirable,
it actually creates a few problems.

Through gestalt (our innate rules
of visual perception
), an additional 15 visual elements are added
to the layout: the centerline, each background box, and each horizontal
line. These elements begin to distract our eye and make it more difficult
to focus on the most important elements in the layout: the labels and
input fields. As Edward
Tufte points out
: “Information consists of differences that
make a difference.” In other words, any visual element that is
not helping your layout ends up hurting it. This can be seen when you
try to scan the left column of labels. Your eye repeatedly pauses to
consider each horizontal line and the box created by each combination
of line and background color.

Backgrounds & Rules

Of course this doesn’t mean that background colors and rules
should never be used within form layouts. When there is value in pointing
out related groupings of information to users, a thin horizontal rule
or light background color can visually unite related data. Both of these
elements (rules and background colors) can be especially useful for
drawing attention to the primary call to action of a form.

Seperating Related Content


Primary & Secondary Actions
The primary action associated with a form (most commonly “submit”
or “save”) needs to carry a stronger visual weight (in the
example above bright color, bold font, background color, etc.) than
the other form elements and should vertically align with the input fields.
This illuminates a path for users and guides them to completion of
the form.

When a form has multiple actions such as “Continue” and
“Go Back” it may be wise to reduce the visual weight of
the secondary action. This minimizes the risk for potential errors and
further directs users to completion.

Primary & Secondary Actions

Though these guidelines can help better position a form for your specific
purpose, the combination of layout, visual elements, and content that’s
right for you should still be verified through user testing or data
analysis (completion rates, errors, etc.).


Web Site Surveys

I was making a survey in SurveyMonkey and found a Web site visitor template that may be a good start (look in the general business template category if you are a subscriber). Here are the questions:

  • Is this the first time you have visited the website?
  • What is the primary reason you came to the site?
  • Did you find what you needed?
  • If you did not find any or all of what you needed, please tell us what information you were looking for:
  • Please tell us how easy it is to find information on the site.
  • What is your overall impression of the site?
  • What is the liklihood that you will visit the website again?
  • Please add comments (suggestions on specific areas for improvements, features, examples of good Web sites).

If you are doing internal surveys, I highly recommend,

the companion to the book Web ReDesign 2.0: Workflow that Works. There’s a whole bunch of very useful downloadable surveys, especially on


Company K Media


“They want to move from a content company to an audience company, giving the audiences control and learning…”

Martin Stiksel, one of the founders, explaining why CBS just bought his company.

Now that is really putting the audience at the heart of everything you do!

However wonderful broadcasters think they are at Making Great
Content, this content’s success in reaching big audiences came in a
world of very constrained live-only distribution, where scarcity of
spectrum resulted in incredibly limited choice.

As Bob Eggington, the mercurial BBC lifer who launched, puts it:

“Broadcasters often think their popularity stems from their own merit,
when in truth much of it is down to the control they exert. That
control is being lost, due to the internet.”

CBS has clocked the existential nature of the threat, and is busy
reinventing itself, and its relationship with the people it used to
call an audience.

Murdoch has a couple of years head start, following his MySpace coup.

Others are still deluding themselves that their uniquely wonderful content will see them through.

Monks and bibles, my friends, monks and bibles…



The BBC’s Fifteen Web Principles

We developed these as part of the BBC2.0 project.
I’ve been meaning to publish them for a while since they were
signed off by the BBC board. They’re perpetually draft.

1. Build web products that meet audience needs: anticipate needs not yet fully articulated by audiences, then meet them with products that set new standards. (nicked from Google)

2. The very best websites do one thing really, really well: do less, but execute perfectly. (again, nicked from Google, with a tip of the hat to Jason Fried)
3. Do not attempt to do everything yourselves: link to
other high-quality sites instead. Your users will thank you. Use other
people’s content and tools to enhance your site, and vice versa.

4. Fall forward, fast: make many small bets, iterate wildly, back successes, kill failures, fast.

5. Treat the entire web as a creative canvas: don’t restrict your creativity to your own site.

6. The web is a conversation. Join in: Adopt a relaxed, conversational tone. Admit your mistakes.

7. Any website is only as good as its worst page:
Ensure best practice editorial processes are adopted and adhered to.

8. Make sure all your content can be linked to, forever.

9. Remember your granny won’t ever use “Second Life”: She may come online soon, with very different needs from early-adopters.

10. Maximise routes to content: Develop as many
aggregations of content about people, places, topics, channels,
networks & time as possible. Optimise your site to rank high in

11. Consistent design and navigation needn’t mean one-size-fits-all:
Users should always know they’re on one of your websites, even if
they all look very different. Most importantly of all, they know they
won’t ever get lost.

12. Accessibility is not an optional extra: Sites designed that way from the ground up work better for all users

13. Let people paste your content on the walls of their virtual homes: Encourage users to take nuggets of content away with them, with links back to your site

14. Link to discussions on the web, don’t host them: Only host web-based discussions where there is a clear rationale

15. Personalisation should be unobtrusive, elegant and transparent: After all, it’s your users’ data. Best respect it.


Common Pitfalls of Building Social Web Applications and How to Avoid Them

By Joshua Porter

In the last several years we’ve seen the rise and fall of many
social web applications. While most of our attention gets paid to the
hugely successful ones like YouTube and Facebook, we can also learn a
lot from those that have failed. Here are some of the common pitfalls
that lead to failure when building social web applications.

1) Underestimating The Cold Start Problem

If you build and release your social web site and nobody uses it,
you have the cold start problem. This problem affects most social
sites, and directly results from designing for the network. The
effect of the network is that nodes on the network (web sites) have
attention momentum. We pay attention to certain nodes (sites)
already, and so if you’re trying to add one to the network then you
have to build your own attention momentum over time. This is not

Too often, though, this hurdle is underestimated. The first step is
to admit there’s a problem. Say “This is not working. Our early users
are not using the site how we want them to.” You would be surprised
at how often this doesn’t happen. Instead, what often happens is that
more money is pushed into features or marketing, which is precisely
the wrong move.

Strong social sites build value one user at a time. If one user finds
value, then they’re much more likely to tell others or invite their
friends. Strong sites don’t succeed by attracting “markets,”
satisfying entire groups of people with a certain feature set.
Instead, they succeed on a smaller level, really focusing on
individuals and their immediate social network. Then they can branch
outward. One strategy in particular is to design for your friends,
get the system working well for them, and then release it to a
broader audience.

2) Focusing On Too Many Things

I got this email in my inbox the other day from a well-meaning
entrepreneur who was building a new social web site:

“(our site) aims to combine the best elements of Digg, and StumbleUpon, as a mechanism of social discovery
and personal expression – but with the unique element of

I get so many of these it’s not funny. This is a clear case of
focusing on too many things. If you can’t describe what your site
does with a single, clear idea then you’re trying to do too much. In
addition, a comparison to other sites in this way is a bad idea,
because they’ve already beat you. They already have a strong brand
while you have a weak one.

The ease of adding social features makes overload likely. Development
frameworks make adding friends, tags, profiles, blogs, or a host of
other social features much easier than it was even a couple years
ago. This is the opposite to a barrier to entry, where the hard part
is building something at all. Instead, the ease of adding social
features is a barrier to focus. If you have every feature under the
sun you’re probably not focused as well as you could be.

So, focus on one thing that isn’t being addressed. It can’t be
something like “the unique element of real-time.” It has to be
something inherently valuable, like a common frustrating activity.
Nail that one thing to the ground, and show people how you do that
one thing better than anybody else.

Think of the most successful social sites out there. They usually
focus on a single thing. YouTube (video), Netflix (movies), eBay
(auctions), MySpace (friends), Flickr (photos),
(bookmarks) and most of the social features on those sites are aimed
at making that one activity better. These are just the giants. There
are many more niches that are successfully designed that are even
more focused: for examples, threadless focuses on t-shirts,
on music, etc…

3) Lack of Sustained Execution

What makes Google so terrifying to their competitors is that they
never stop getting better. They’re executing each and every day to
make their software the best it can be. For example, in September of
last year they did the unthinkable: they completely killed off the
interface paradigm of a solid, growing product, their Google Reader
software. But they replaced it with an even better interface that
was universally acclaimed.

It’s too easy to fall into the desktop software mindset of build,
release, and wait for the next cycle. But with social software, you
don’t have the opportunity to stop improving. Your community is
always growing and changing and so your management has to as well.
There will always be things to do, screens to improve, questions to
answer, wording to tweak, and support docs to update.

This can seem daunting, but it’s mostly about mindset. If you see it
as a sustained problem, then it will be one. If you see it as an
opportunity for continual improvement, your outlook will be more

4) Pointing the Finger When Missteps Happen

When you mess up on a social web app, as you undoubtedly will, you
have to come completely clean or your users will smell your fear and
hate you for it. Social sites are not typical software…they ebb
and flow depending on the community and how it evolves over time.
You, as the manager of a community, must act accordingly.

Consider the recent Digg dustup in which the Digg community pushed
back on the site after they tried to remove a certain DVD-cracking
code from user-submitted entries. At first, Digg tried to explain
the situation away by saying they were legally obligated to as the
result of a cease-and-desist letter. The basic message was “our hands
are tied.”

But then the Digg community overwhelmed the site and got the DVD
crack code up anyway. The failure of Digg management to stand up for
their users initially resulted in the user’s aggregate behavior.
Digg didn’t lose out, however, as this community passion provided an
opportunity for them to ride the wave, so to speak, reversing their
course and standing up to the cease-and-desist. Their apology letter
and reversal suggests they quickly realized that pointing the finger
wasn’t the right course. Only by accepting responsibility for their
user base could Digg keep their respect.

Here’s a template for how to say you’re sorry.


Surge in Online Giving!

The ePhilanthropy Foundation estimates that total online giving in the United States reached approximately $6.87 Billion (USD), a 51% increase over 2005 estimates, driven by significant increases in online giving for both small and large organizations and the unprecedented use of the Internet by individuals for non-disaster and disaster support efforts. The United States represents slightly more than 50% of the world-wide giving online. Global giving is estimated to have surpassed $13.2 Billion (USD).

Chronicle of Philanthropy Article:

Online giving to the nation’s largest charities continued its steep ascent in 2006, according to a new survey by The Chronicle.

Electronic gifts to the 187 organizations that provided figures for 2005 and 2006 grew by 37 percent, from $880.7-million to $1.2-billion last year. Online gifts grew by more than 50 percent at 85 organizations. Of those, 34 saw Internet gifts more than double.

Donations to the individual groups grew by a median of 45 percent last year — meaning that half of the organizations had larger increases and half had smaller increases or declines.

“The organizations that are working it continue to bring in more and more money online every year,” says Nick Allen, chief executive officer of Donordigital, a consulting company in San Francisco. “Even for the organizations that aren’t doing that much, more people are online. More people have broadband. More people are used to using their credit cards online.”

The extraordinary sums of money donated online for relief efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunamis and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita had a mixed effect on this year’s survey.

On one hand, electronic contributions for Gulf Coast relief efforts accounted for $464.4-million of the $496.2-million the American Red Cross raised online in the 2006 fiscal year.

But at the same time, the Internet fund-raising totals for 38 organizations decreased in 2006. Many of those are charities that raised large sums of money for tsunami or hurricane relief in their 2005 fiscal years.

For example, online giving dropped nearly 60 percent at CARE. The Atlanta international-development group raised $5.4-million online in 2006, a drop from the $13.5-million it collected in 2005. But in 2005 it raised $10-million online after the Indian Ocean tsunamis, making a year-to-year comparison misleading.

‘Awkward Adolescence’

Fifteen organizations raised $10-million or more online in 2006. Of those, four groups raised more than $40-million. In addition to the American Red Cross, United Way of America raised $240-million, the American Cancer Society took in $58-million, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society collected $45.1-million.

But despite the significant gains many charities have seen, Internet donations still account for a very small portion of overall giving.

Online giving represented less than 1 percent of total contributions for 103 of the 147 organizations that reported both the amount of money they raised online and their total contributions in 2006.

Only 13 charities collected more than 5 percent of their total contributions online. For five of those groups, electronic gifts made up more than 10 percent of total donations — Heifer International (21 percent), Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (20 percent), American Red Cross (15 percent), Mercy Corps (12 percent), and National Multiple Sclerosis Society (12 percent).

“I feel like we’re at the beginning of knowing what we’re doing” when it comes to online fund raising, says Mark Graham, director of electronic media at the American Friends Service Committee, in Philadelphia. “Maybe we’re all in our awkward adolescence where we’re not just happy with having a form up, but we’re still grasping at how to do this in a more mature way.”

Making sure that the postal appeals, e-mail newsletters, online solicitations, and magazine that the American Friends Service Committee sends its supporters all tell the same story has been an important goal for the aid and development charity.

For about two years, the organization’s staff members who focus on online appeals and the employees who produce direct-mail appeals have been holding joint planning meetings and have set up a calendar to map out when supporters would hear from the charity via e-mail and when by postal mail.

Without that cooperation, says Mr. Graham, the charity wouldn’t have been able to develop a campaign that combines both the Internet and direct mail — and has proven to be successful in gaining new donors.

The postal appeal was mailed in January in an envelope that unfolded to become a sign that reads “Friends for Peace.”

Both the sign and the appeal referred people to a Web site ( on which they could create their own signs. So far, more than 800 people have posted photographs of themselves — and sometimes their children and pets — holding signs like “Beekeeper for Peace,” “Greyhound for Peace,” and “Numbercruncher for Peace.”

Of the 100,000 prospective donors who received the postal appeal in January, 1.5 percent made a gift. Mr. Graham says that figure is a significant increase over past solicitations designed to garner first gifts, which for the past five years drew donations from about 1 percent of recipients. The charity is so pleased with the results that it has since mailed the appeal to 400,000 more people.

Combining Appeals

Save the Children, in Westport, Conn., wants to make sure that its postal and electronic solicitations work together, and officials at the charity think that the best way to do that is to make sure its fund raisers work together.

In addition to setting individual revenue goals for direct-mail and online-giving campaigns, the organization set a goal to raise $390,000 through campaigns that combine the two types of solicitations.

As of the end of April — five months before the end of the charity’s fiscal year — the organization had raised $378,000 toward meeting the goal. Save the Children plans to increase the combined goal for next year.

“When you have collaboration and cooperation among departments, you usually get better results than when you have competition,” says Brian Sobelman, an associate vice president at the charity.

Incorporating the Internet into other types of fund-raising activities has proven successful for some nonprofit groups. The money that participants in fund-raising walks, bike-athons, and other events raise through personalized Web pages has fueled many charities’ online tallies.

Last year, people who ran a marathon, competed in a triathlon, or rode in a 100-mile bike race as part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program raised $110-million, more than $34-million of which came in online. In 2005, electronic gifts accounted for $18.5-million of the $94-million participants raised.

Offering Incentives

The ease and reach of the Internet is helping participants collect more and larger gifts, says Dwayne Howell, chief executive officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, in White Plains, N.Y.

Participants in the organization’s Light the Night walks, which take place in the fall, raised $4.3-million online in 2006, compared with $2.4-million in 2005. To encourage people to register and start raising money early, the charity offered participants gift cards they can use to buy gas as a reward for raising at least $250 via their Web sites during the month of August. The promotion was so successful that the organization will be making the same offer during both July and August this year.

Compassion International, in Colorado Springs, works with Christian radio stations to hold one- or two-day radiothons to encourage listeners to sponsor a poor child overseas through the charity. During the broadcasts, listeners are referred to both a toll-free telephone number and a customized Web site the charity has built for each station’s fund-raising event.

The number of child sponsorships — gifts of $32 a month — made through such Web sites has grown over the past three years. So far, listeners have started 4,554 sponsorships online during the charity’s 2007 fiscal year, which ends this month, up from 3,217 in 2006 and 2,003 in 2005.

The organization has also found that sending an e-mail message to donors who have not responded to a direct-mail appeal they recently received can elicit both online and offline gifts.

Tom Emmons, manager of Compassion International’s Internet marketing program, believes that online fund raising is most effective when it’s reinforced by another medium. Donors, he says, are wary of stand-alone e-mail appeals, because they wonder if the message really is from the organization that purports to be sending it. “E-mail that follows up a print campaign serves as a reminder, and then they can follow up offline or online as they choose,” says Mr. Emmons. “It adds a bit more credibility.”

Tailoring Solicitations

As the tools that many large nonprofit organizations use to manage their e-mail marketing have improved, some groups are experimenting with sophisticated techniques to increase the amount of money they raise online.

The Humane Society of the United States, in Washington, has been able to divide the 900,000 people on its e-mail list into categories by the issues that are of greatest interest to them, such as the treatment of farm animals or ending horse slaughter in the United States.

The organization created the groups based on an analysis of which e-mail messages supporters open, which appeals prompt them to give, which missives they forward to others, and even which links they click in e-mail newsletters.

The data the organization has collected shows that its best advocates and donors are often part of more than one group, says Geoff Handy, vice president for media and online communications at the Humane Society. For example, he says, a supporter who responds to messages about animal fighting may also respond to those about mistreatment of horses.

In December, the Humane Society created four versions of an e-mail appeal it planned to send out — a general appeal plus versions that focused on the group’s work to combat horse slaughter, animal fighting, and seal hunting in Canada — to test whether donors would be more likely to give in response to an appeal that was tailored to their interests.

Each version of the appeal had the same basic design, and the same animal images along the top of the message. But the subject line, the photograph and text of an inset box, and the first few paragraphs of the appeal differed. For example, while the subject line for the general message read “Charging ahead for animals in 2007,” the one on the message about animal fighting read “Stopping animal fights and charging ahead for animals.”

More than 50,000 people fell into the group interested in pushing for tougher laws against animal fights. A little more than 40,000 received the appeal about animal fighting, while roughly 10,000 received the general message.

Of the people who received the issue-specific appeal, 2.8 percent clicked on a link in the e-mail message that took them to the Humane Society’s Web site, and 0.8 percent made a donation on the Web site — an increase over the 1 percent of the recipients of the general message who clicked through, and the 0.5 percent who made an online gift. The organization found similar, although slightly less pronounced, differences among the groups interested in the other topics.

“If you have a file of people who have a multiplicity of interests,” says Mr. Handy, “it makes sense to tailor your communication based on either their past behaviors or what they’ve told you they’re interested in.”

Investing in Online

As charities have increased the amount they raise online, some have decided to invest more time and money in their Internet appeals.

Donations at Ohio State University, in Columbus, jumped from $375,000 in 2005 to nearly $1.9-million in 2006. A big part of that jump — $1.2-million — was the result of a new online-donation option for the Buckeye Club, boosters of Ohio State’s athletic program. Even so, online gifts to the rest of the university nearly doubled.

That kind of growth has allowed the university’s development department to add two new full-time positions: a Web programmer and an Internet-marketing specialist.

But figuring out exactly how much money to invest in online fund raising is tricky, says Vivianne Potter, a top fund raiser at Amnesty International USA, in New York.

“With direct mail, we all know the formula,” says Ms. Potter. “You put this much money in, you get this many donors out.”

Fund raisers even have a pretty good idea of how much money those mail donors will give over the course of their relationship with the charity. But with online fund raising, she says, everyone is still feeling their way.

In 2006, Amnesty increased its investment and began working with a consulting company to help the organization become more systematic in its approach to Internet fund raising, says Ms. Potter.

With the consultants’ help, the organization has developed an automated system to send out membership renewal notices via e-mail at the same time similar notices go out in the mail, set up a long-term calendar for online communications, and plan campaigns that mix fund raising and advocacy.

Amnesty is currently working on an online campaign called The America I Believe In, to protest “extraordinary rendition,” in which the federal government turns over people it has detained for questioning — and possibly torture — to another country, and to call for the closure of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. In January, the group ran a campaign that persuaded 20 donors to make online gifts of $1,344 each, the amount it cost to sponsor an advertisement in a Washington bus shelter for a month.

As four- and even five-figure online contributions become more common, a growing number of nonprofit organizations are thinking about ways to integrate e-mail and the Internet into their efforts to raise big gifts.

During the holiday season, 110 people who over the past year had made gifts totaling $1,000 or more to the Make-a-Wish Foundation, in Phoenix, received a special e-mail message about the organization’s Adopt-a-Wish program, which gives donors the opportunity to cover the full cost of granting a sick child’s wish. Several donors decided to pay for the cost of providing what the child asked for, and the solicitation brought in an additional $10,000 in unrestricted funds.

“We’re trying to be more targeted and figure out who we’re talking to, and talk to them appropriately,” says Andrea Glatzer, who heads the group’s online fund raising.

In November and December, online gifts of $5,000 to $50,000 each totaled $890,000 for the American Red Cross.

Whenever a contribution of $10,000 or more is made through the Red Cross’s Web site, the system automatically sends an e-mail alert to the organization’s major-gifts department, so that someone can thank the donor personally for the contribution. Over the next year, the Red Cross plans to research what kind of information major donors want to see online and then build a Web site geared to their interests.

The nonprofit world is just starting to wrestle with the question of what role the Internet should play in seeking large gifts, says Jeff Patrick, president of Common Knowledge, a consulting company in San Francisco.

“The original premise when all this started was, ‘Nobody’s ever going to give you $25,000 online,'” says Mr. Patrick. But now that an Internet gift of $25,000 isn’t all that unusual, he notes, “we’re all sort of looking around going, ‘Well, maybe that’s not so true.'”

Noelle Barton and Sam Kean contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2007 The Chronicle of Philanthropy,b3wLtCM7


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The Silver Plate

June 12th, 2007 by Gavin

Over on the NTEN blog, there’s been a discussion of charitable giving — posing the question: “Does online engagement lead to more money?” A simple question, but further down in the discussion there was an implication that online engagement generated not just “more money” for the individual organization but “more in general” — actually increasing the total charitable pie, so to speak. I think not.

I’d like to throw some facts into this discussion, just for the fun of it. I do this because I think there is romanticism with online fundraising and “online engagement” that perhaps borders on fiction.

Now I caution you here. Facts can be tricky things. To quote the ever quotable Mark Twain: “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” My investment here is rather trifling, but I’ll risk it for the wholesale returns, conjecture or otherwise.

First, when you look at the facts, it’s clear that “giving,” writ large, has been changed by the internet. We’ve got “donate now” buttons, viral campaigns, and all sorts of tools for direct engagement. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that this internet thing is all about having a one-to-one personal conversation with thousands, if not millions of people. It changes and expands the nature of the conversation. Fund raising, community organizing, social networking is all about that conversation, as is engaging people, engaging their collective ideas, and their collective energies.

Moreover, it seems a no-brainer to say that the more you engage with your constituents the happier, more involved, more “part of the action” they are. At least if that engagement is within reason — you start spamming me every day about anything and I’ll shut down pretty fast, even if I like you.

(Note to self: Stop spamming friends — you’re probably not as witty as you think you are.)

And, it’s also a no-brainer that the “fresher” the address the better. Email addresses are like fish — they don’t age well. Regardless of how you got it, or what you paid for it, old tilapia is pretty worthless.

Nevertheless, I find the argument spurious that online engagement would increase the size of the pie. There are plenty of things on the internet that claim to increase the size of this or that, but this ain’t one of them. Clearly, online engagement might affect the individual organization ability to fundraise — the organization that does it better, delivers a better message, a better appeal — but there is no evidence of the pie changing shape or size because of it; not the pie; nope.

[Note: this is not true in the area of politics and online fundraising. I’m talking charitable giving here. Political contributions — to 527’s, to your congressperson, or to your local party, whatever it may be — are not considered charitable. Political contributions — money and politics — have been substantially altered by the internet. More money than ever before — that bigger pie does not leave a good taste in my mouth.]

With charitable giving, in fact, I would argue that online giving, regardless of what for or where, has merely shifted dollars from existing modes, adding more nails to the direct mail coffin, workplace giving, and the like.

However, so far the “shift” online is relatively trivial. According to Giving USA – 2006 online giving was around $2 billion in 2004. To put that in perspective, that’s less than 1 percent of total individual giving for that year; 1 percent.

So far, that means we’ve gone from 0 percent (pre-internet) to 1 percent. I’ve heard that number for several years now. I expect it to increase, but only at the expense of other, traditional modes of giving. Just between you and me, it’s not been growing that fast — I keep expecting it to grow, but it hasn’t — especially considering the overall growth of giving in general.

The analogy that pops to mind here is retail sales — namely book sellers and bookstores. If there is any industry that has been radically turned on its head by the internet it’s the book business. Rhetorically, I ask:

Has the book industry been changed by things like Amazon?

Absolutely, I answer. There is no question. Just ask Borders, or Crown Books, or Barnes and Noble.

Has the internet changed the total market for books, increased the pie, so to speak?

The answer is probably no. Individually I can safely say no. My capacity to read, and hence my appetite for books remains the same regardless of whether or not I order the book online or find it at my local Borders Books. Amazon did not increase the world’s appetite for books; instead, they just took business away from the rest of the pack. This reminds me of one of my favorite sayings: “The lead wolf eats no bones.”

The facts are: giving tends to be a function of three things, and these things don’t seem to be changing:

General economic wealth, measured, for example in terms of GDP
Demographics – as one ages, one tends to give more. Part of this is due to the fact that as one ages, one tends to be wealthier (see item 1). As always, demographics are destiny.
Disasters – specifically the Christmas tsunami, and the hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The good news is the pie is getting bigger. Consequently online giving is growing. But online engagement does not seem to be the cause. Giving is a function of the wealth of the nation, our aging boomer population, and is “spiked” now and then by Mother Nature (as well as an inept government or two.)

Let’s look a little closer. Adjusted for inflation, the charitable pie has grown from $91 billion in 1965 to a whopping $260.28 billion in 2005. The high, by the way, was in 2000 with $260.53 billion – and then the tech bubble burst.

[Of note: during this same time period — 1965 to 2005 — the number of 501(c)3 organizations looking to divvy up that pie has grown from around 626,200 in 1965 to over 1,045,979 in 2005. That’s almost double.]

Regardless, when you control for the factors that do change the pie-size — increases in overall wealth in the US and the aging, raging boomers — looking at, for example, giving as a percentage of GDP, the lines are pretty flat.

Technology, the internet, and all those “donate now” buttons ain’t done diddly to change that. If the size of the pie were steady, I think you’d clearly see that online giving is just stealing someone else’s slice. I’d bet it would go far to explain the ever decreasing returns from direct mail, for example.

Again, according to Giving USA – 2006, with the exception of a few years on either side of 2000, giving as a percent of GDP runs between 1.7 percent and 2.1 percent. The years either side of 2000, and 2000 itself, were unique — exuberant I think was the word. At that time, those numbers were bumped up by record contributions to foundations, religious organizations, and educational institutions, over $24.7 billion in 2000 alone. A substantial amount of that is directly linked to the market conditions and a few large donations. (Such as a new foundation in Seattle — I’ll let you guess which one.) Since then, the numbers have fallen back to just around 2 percent for 2005.

So, the pie is growing. But it’s not a function of the internet. Some fundraising has just shifted — much like retail has been forever changed — to a more efficient way to reach and engage their constituents. We can expect that trend to continue. And, I suspect we can safely forecast the death of direct mail in the next decade, but don’t tell anyone I told you.

Looking more closely, according to Giving USA – 2006, the number of online donors increased significantly in 2005 over the previous year. Over 13 million people donated online after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for example. Moreover, among post-boomers, 15 percent of donors actually prefer email appeals over direct mail. I personally prefer anything over direct mail.

But be cautious with those facts, most of those increases in online giving were a function of Katrina and Rita, not the internet per se. Whether those donors come back remains to be seen. The traditional trends say otherwise. Disasters are unique.

Finally, when you look at where the money goes, and where the money comes from, then facts get pretty interesting:

The majority of donations come from individuals. Those pesky foundations only account for somewhere around 11 percent, individuals account for almost 77 percent. The rest is corporations and bequests.


The majority of the money goes to religious organizations. That’s right; the best form of fundraising is using a silver plate and passing it around a passel of pious people. Over 35 percent of all donations go to religious organizations, followed, in turn, by donations to educational institutions (the ol’ alma mater), and then to health organizations, like the American Cancer Society.

Of note, giving to religious organizations is dropping — down from a high of over 50 percent in the late 60’s to 38 percent today. Strangely, that number has been balanced by increased giving (as a percentage of total giving) to educational organizations, now over 15 percent, and foundations at almost 10 percent… Go figure.

So, what’s this all mean? It means fundraising is about message, about substance, not about technology. To the extent that the technology enables that, well, that’s a good thing — especially because doing it online is (or should be) cheaper, faster, and easier than sending out masses of trash disguised as direct mail. If you can engage your constituents, enable that one-to-one personal communications, and do it online, well you’re ahead of the game, but remember: the technology is irrelevant. It’s the message damn it, not the method. It’s not the silver plate, but all that goes with it that makes the difference.


Does online engagement lead to more money?

Does online engagement help nonprofits raise money?

At first glance, this seems like a pretty straightforward question: engaging potential donors with your nonprofit’s mission is one of the most powerful cultivation tools you can employ, so it stands to reason that offering people a way to get involved through online advocacy, and keeping them informed with an online newsletter, would naturally garner more money for your organization.

Of course, when deciding how to spend your staff’s time and your organization’s money, you want more to go on than “it stands to reason”. There have been a number of studies that address this question, but when we start to unpack the results, things get a bit murky.

Last year, M+R Strategic Services conducted the very useful eNonprofit Benchmark Study, which found that organizations with online advocacy programs had annual averages for online giving that were three times higher than organizations without such programs. When you combine this finding, however, with the fact that two thirds of the members of the e-mail lists of nonprofits who use online advocacy are classified as activists — not donors — it becomes unclear whether the success they have with online fundraising is because people who take online action are really more likely to give, or because those organizations simply have larger email lists.

Convio recently released the results of a study which found that people who received information both on and offline have higher long-term value, retention, and lifetime value as donors than people who receive information through only one channel (regardless of whether the channel was online or off). As they point out, however, the study used only one organization, the SPCA of Texas, and therefore the findings cannot be generalized with confidence. It is heartening, though, that these results seem to indicate that online giving does not simply cannibalize offline revenues.

Narrowing the focus a bit, Care2’s froogloops takes a look the finding of a 2005 study by Informz that recently acquired email addresses yield much higher click through rates than older addresses. Building on this, M+R Strategic Services tested a three part series of emails — starting with a welcome message, then a survey and finally a fundraising appeal — against an initial fundraising appeal, in order to measure what kinds of initial contact yield the best fundraising results. They found that the initial hard ask resulted in more people donating, and reduced list churn. This is a good reminder that a short lag time between acquiring a person’s email address and asking them to give remains an effective fundraising strategy, whether the medium is paper mail or email.