David Bowen: Charity begins on the web

I have been looking at sites that cover the Darfur crisis in Sudan, and have concluded that however worthy your aims, it is no longer enough to have a web presence. You have to have a good web presence. This may be bad news for small charities and lobby groups, but it should not be surprising - standards are rising, and you cannot escape the upward pull.

I started, as most people would, by putting the word ‘Darfur’ into the Google search engine. Even though I used the international site (www.google.com), rather than my local one (www.google.co.uk), it spotted where I was and displayed three British organisations in the ‘sponsored links’ bar. They were the British Red Cross appeal (www.redcross.org.uk/sudan), Unicef’s UK arm (www.unicef.org.uk) and the Catholic charity CAFOD (www.cafod.org.uk). Another sponsored links was from The Passion of the Present site, of which more later, and a satellite mobile service which shows, I suppose, that Sudan is not just about crises.

Aside from the sponsored links, there are 10 results on that all-important first page of Google. Only one is for a charity. The others are for information or pressure groups, which raises the question of whether charities should be putting more effort into ‘search engine optimisation’, rather than buying their way on to the page. The other issue is the sites themselves: however visible they are, they are unlikely to do much good if they are not also credible.

Take the one charity that makes it on to page one of Google. The Darfur Relief and Development Association (DRDA) is a UK-based operation that has been trying to help the region since 1999. But it has a marketing problem. Its site (www.darfur.org) is simple, crude even, and is not kept up to date. The quotes on the home page are all three years old. DRDA may be keeping its overheads down by making do with a minimalist website, but it is also failing to provide the confidence the big guys exude.

The Red Cross, Unicef and CAFOD all have slick sites that must be effective money-extraction machines. While the DRDA asks people to send a cheque to a mailing address in Manchester, the big charities are covered with links offering to take money by phone, web or post. The Red Cross does not even bother to provide background on the crisis. It simply says that it will use the money to ‘pay for shelter and essential household items’, before diving into the donation procedures.

The DRDA’s problem is one of brand. It is not as well-known as these other NGOs, so it needs to work extra hard to build trust - and that, among other things, means putting extra effort into its site. Whether visitors are aware of it or not, they will put more faith in a site that looks good and works well; just as they are more likely to buy from a slick e-commerce website than a shabby one. And the inclusion of at least one new quote would provide evidence that it is still going. Is it? I can’t tell.

It is a similar story for the information and lobby sites covering the crisis. The Google results page offers two broad choices: mainstream media and specialist. The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk) and Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com) are both there, providing a rich mix of news, features and pictures. I find the Post’s intrusive advertisements rather incongruous amid such stories, but its executives would no doubt point out that they do not have the luxury of citizens’ money to keep the site ad-free, as the BBC does.

I suspect most people will be content with one of these two providers. Not only are they trusted, they provide good information in a digestible format. Most of the specialist sites suffer from the same problem as the DRDA. They do not have established brands, and are not quite professional enough to give the comfort most truth-seekers will require.

The Darfur Information Center (www.darfurinfo.org) is run by a Sudanese academic based at the University of Pennsylvania, and says that its aim is to provide balanced views and news about the current events in Darfur. It links to many articles, though in an unstructured way, and also to sites ranging from the UN’s Sudan Information Gateway to the Sudan Movement for Justice and Equality. It is a valuable resource for those who need to dig deep - but the average visitor will skip on, if only because the packed text format is hard to read for any time.

Similarly Sudan Update (www.sudanupdate.org) is a UK newsletter whose site has interesting background material, including an explanation of the ethnic complexities of the Darfur region. But it is again in solid text, and has a confusing home page saying that ‘we are now upgrading the site and expect it to be fully functional by mid-September’. I need more comfort, or I will return to the BBC.

One of the sponsored links leads to a site called ‘Sudan: The Passion of the Present’ (www.passionofthepresent.org). Here is evidence that you can be small and still offer credibility. The centre column is a form of ‘blog’, or web diary, while the rest of the site is covered with links to Sudan-related material. The site makes a big mistake in generating external sites in the same window - which means it can be impossible to return - but the look is highly professional. Who runs this strangely-named operation? It says it is “a labor of love by a small group of people and is totally non-profit”. Whatever, it is undoubtedly a good-looking site run at low cost, and is therefore likely to be taken seriously. Small charities, small publishers, small anybody, take hope. You can keep up with the big guys: you just need to have a modicum of design sense, and to work a little harder.

David Bowen is a website effectiveness consultant for Bowen Craggs Co (www.bowencraggs.com)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.