News and analysis
March 10, 2013

Nonprofits Race to Get Ahead of the Explosion in Small Screens

When Mercy Housing set out to make its Web site easy to navigate on smartphones and tablets, its top priority was to remake the donation page before the critical holiday fundraising season opened.

And with good reason, it turns out. People using mobile devices accounted for 18 percent of the organization’s year-end online gifts—nearly one out of every five online contributions—compared with just 2 percent during the same time just a year earlier.

If the organization hadn’t made it simpler for those donors to give, the group might have lost out on some of the gifts, says Gail Bransteitter, who oversees communications at Mercy Housing, a Denver-based group. “It’s really important to have a mobile-friendly donation page to keep donors from bouncing off your page.”

The rise of mobile is no longer an event looming on a distant horizon. It’s here.

For the last two years, smartphones have outsold desktop computers. In 2012 Americans read e-mail on their phones more frequently than on their computers. Mobile devices account for almost a quarter of all Web traffic—and the share of traffic from smartphones and tablets is expected to overtake traffic from desktops sometime this year or next.

Option to Pledge

Meanwhile, many charities are devising a game plan to adjust their fundraising and communications to handle the explosion of small screens.

A growing number of nonprofit organizations are designing e-mail messages to be easy to read and respond to on a smartphone.

Some organizations have created streamlined mobile sites that deliver information supporters are likely to want when they’re on the go, while others are retooling their sites to adapt automatically to devices of any type or size.

Another sign of the growing importance nonprofits place on the new medium: A handful of organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States and World Vision, have hired mobile directors.

But Katya Andresen, chief operating officer at Network for Good, questions whether nonprofits have done enough.

Network for Good conducted a survey of the charities that use its online-fundraising services and found that the share of Web traffic to those organizations’ Web sites from smartphones and tablets ranged from 10 to 35 percent.

“You may say, 'Oh, we’re not doing mobile yet,’ but unfortunately you may be, in that people are coming and trying to do things from their mobile device,” Ms. Andresen says. “The train has sort of left the station, and we need to figure out what to do.”

This month Network for Good plans to provide mobile donation pages to each of its charity clients. People who click “donate now” from a smartphone will see a simple page asking whether they want to contribute today or pledge.

Those who give now can enter their donation and credit-card information in a format that works easily on a small screen.

People who choose to pledge will be asked to do just two things: say how much they want to give and provide an e-mail address. Network for Good will then send an e-mail with a link they can use to complete their donation later on a computer or tablet.

Giving supporters the option to pledge is important because of the way people use smartphones, says Ms. Andresen.

Often, she says, people use their phones for short periods of time when they’re “out and about,” maybe waiting for someone at a restaurant or standing in line at the bank.

“We’re easily interrupted,” she says. “So offering some kind of intermediate step that doesn’t involve doing a whole transaction is a good idea.”

Smartphone Giving

Nonprofits will need to try a lot of approaches to figure out the best way to raise money from people using mobile devices, says Craig Oldham, vice president for digital engagement at the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross has a mobile Web site with a carefully designed donation page, but the percentage of people who start but fail to complete the donation process is still significantly higher for people using smartphones than for those using desktop computers.

He attributes the difference to the inherent awkwardness of the transaction: “You’re trying to pull out your wallet and type in the credit-card numbers and then flip the card over—and you have your phone in your hand.”

Mr. Oldham and others in the nonprofit world are watching with interest as companies like PayPal, Google, and Visa invest millions to develop mobile-payment systems.

“At some point in the future, that combination of mobile-friendly Web sites and donation forms, plus making it easy to actually give, will benefit the sector,” says Steve MacLaughlin, director of the Idea Lab at Blackbaud, a fundraising-software company.

Unified Approach

As mobile efforts grow more important, experts caution charities not to consider them separately from other technology.

Because, for example, so many people check Facebook and Twitter using their smartphones, it’s important to think about the interplay between mobile and social media.

During election season, the Audubon Society and Conserv­America ran a campaign, “Because Conservation Doesn’t Have a Party,” that asked supporters to sign an online pledge urging leaders to stop making the environment a political issue.

The organizations promoted the campaign heavily on social media, and 20 percent of the people who clicked through from Facebook did so using smartphones and tablets.

Lengthy Process

When Amnesty International set out to make its Web site easy to navigate on a mobile device, the organization started with its advocacy and donation forms, in large part because of its big social-media following and the likelihood many of its followers are using smartphones.

“We wanted to make sure that what we are asking folks to do is something that they can easily do,” says Shiloh Stark, the organization’s interim head of engagement media.

Making the transition to mobile is a process, and nonprofit organizations shouldn’t underestimate the time and effort it will take to link their new mobile solutions to existing systems, like their fundraising database, says Lisa Dabney, development director at the Atlanta Ballet.

Last spring the ballet unveiled a new Web site designed to adapt automatically to devices of any type or size.

But it’s still difficult for someone using a smartphone to buy a ticket to a performance.

The software that connects the Web site to the ballet’s fundraising and ticketing system isn’t mobile-friendly, something the organization expects to change when it upgrades to the next version of the software this summer.

Says Ms. Dabney: “Right now only the true, die-hard Atlanta Ballet patrons who already know their customer number, who’ve already navigated from the desktop, are the ones who may on occasion use their cellphones or their tablets.”

Send an e-mail to Nicole Wallace.