So much of fundraising is built upon public perception that it shocks me when an organization ignores the importance of self-presentation on its website. An organization’s website is the first place people go to learn about the organization. If the website doesn’t deliver the goods, it can be the last place they go. A weak nonprofit website will be interpreted as a weak organization. That said, I want to stress the importance of reality. Presentation is not about exaggeration or braggadocio. An organization is what it is. And that’s where an understanding of creating a positive perception starts.

Is it a public philanthropy or a family hobby?

Some months ago, I was asked by a new nonprofit to assist in telling its story. Unfortunately, there was a flaw in its organizational credibility that it refused to address. Its board consisted of four members. Two had the same last name and were related. Boards that small are a fundraising credibility problem in themselves. But when half a miniscule board comes from one family, an organization simply cannot look like a credible public charity deserving of contributions from a broad base. It runs the risk of being perceived as a hobbyhorse or even worse a scam.

I have never known a major gift to be made without the donor checking out who was on the board. If a board looks like a family endeavor, it probably will be perceived by potential donors as deserving only of funding from friends and family.

Why isn’t your annual report on the website?

More than once, I have dealt with an organization that failed to post its annual report on its website. An organization’s website is its public record of first resort. All nonprofits must make their annual reports available to the public. Why then would an organization do anything other than make its annual report as readily available as possible by posting it on its website?

If I’m a potential donor being asked to contribute to an organization that does not post its annual report on its website, I’m likely to perceive that this failure of transparency results from one of two conditions:

  1. The organization is inept and lacks sufficient aptitude for me to consider it as a steward of my philanthropic contributions.
  2. The annual report conveys information that shows the organization to be a poor steward of donated funds.

Who are your board members?

It is not sufficient for an organization to merely list board members names and professional titles on its website. The organization needs to “credential” its board members. Their credibility lends credibility to the organization. But even that’s not enough. Board members need to say why—in their own words—they are supporting the organization by taking on its governance responsibilities. An organization needs to tell the story of its board and the people who serve on it.

Where’s the meat?

When I go to an organization’s website, I don’t what a plate of marshmallow fluff. I’m looking for a meal. I want all seven courses—everything from soup to nuts. And I want this meal to be accompanied by a good story. (Enough with metaphor.)

An organization’s website is for all intents and purposes the organization itself. It’s not the tail on the dog. It is the dog. (Sorry, just can’t resist a good metaphor.) Why then do some organizations persist in offering brochureware websites?

Back in the beginning of websites in the bad old days of the 1990s, an organization would post its most basic informational handout and call it a website. That was brochureware then. Brochureware now is a little more sophisticated—in appearance. But it continues the tradition of the brochureware of yesteryear in that it does little or nothing to present the organization in all its multifaceted breadth and depth.

There was an excuse for brochureware back in the day. The Web was a new medium. The decision makers who ran nonprofits didn’t have a clue how to use it. They were told they needed a website and agreed to build one—if it didn’t cost a lot. Someone said, “Hey, we’ve got a brochure. It’s been our medium of introduction for years. Let’s make that our website.”

That was then. This is now. Today’s brochureware masks itself in attractive photography, and flashy effects. But it’s still empty calories.

Organizations need to get rid of the brochureware. They need to be online in all their glory, seriousness of mission, and humanity. That means the website needs to be as lively as the physical organization. Why would an organization want the public to perceive it as a pale, incomplete rendering of itself. Make your website real.

In the end

Perception is not something you create. Perception is created by the receiver. You put it out there and the receiver determines how it—whatever it is—is perceived. On the Web, an organization is what it presents. An organization that presents its reality inadequately will be perceived as an inadequate organization.