Get off the Nonprofit Rollercoaster, Part 2: Constant Improvement and Your Website

Get off the Nonprofit Rollercoaster, Part 2: Constant Improvement and Your Website

Get off the Nonprofit Rollercoaster, Part 2: Constant Improvement and Your Website

Image source: Public Domain Pictures, labeled for reuse.

When planning and budgeting for tech, there’s an inclination to spend big chunks of money every few years to launch a new website, which leads to lengthy periods of frustration with your website. I wrote about this previously, Get Off the Nonprofit Rollercoaster, Part 1: Rational Budgeting for Nonprofit Tech Projects.

It can be especially tempting to undertake a fast overhaul all at once if your website has reached that point where you don’t even like sending people to it. Many nonprofit communications directors have felt this pain, including me.

But the reality is that if you’ve had a crappy website for a while, you probably don’t have the information you need to build a website that serves your programmatic and fundraising goals. The specifics of what will constitute an effective website for your organization depends on your specific programs, your engagement plan and how users interact with your content. Without clarity about these elements, you may be changing your website, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are improving it. Let’s talk about how to invest your money along with your time and energy, in a website that keeps improving, instead of staying stagnant and therefore steadily declining. And the qualities that will help make improvements a “new normal.”

Introducing the “Constant Improvement” approach and your website

Before you have an actual new website, all you have are theories about how users will react to it. Constant improvement gives you a way to test out your theories about what your members and donors want from your organization, what digital tools they will use to have that interaction, and then keep fine-tuning your organizing approach.

A continuous improvement approach means focusing less on a singular definitive feature list and requirements, and letting user experience and user feedback (either solicited or observed) guide your decisions about what’s most important for your website.

A continuous improvement approach means starting with a website (or app) that has the minimal user features needed to engage your target audiences. The website doesn’t have to have every piece of content and every feature you imagine. It just has to have enough to start to engage your audience based on their top level interests.

This new website is your “Starting line” for a process of ongoing testing and improving the experience of users. The ongoing improvement happens as you test and improve, test and improve. This sort of incremental approach to change, constant improvement, is what we’re describing when we talk about “iterating” a website.  

It can be hard to imagine enjoying a work environment where you’re constantly iterating: continually asking yourself, “how good is this?” as you test out one aspect of the website after another. And if you’re doing it right, the tests don’t end.

However, with these three qualities — patience, confidence and ambition — you can make continuous improvement the center of your digital approach, and use it to guide your investments in your website

1. Constant Improvement Requires Patience

Here’s why you need patience: the first website you launch on a constant improvement model won’t be perfect, it just has to be “good enough.”

You have to hold back on trying to get everything that bothers you fixed. Instead, make sure that you meet the basic requirements of your site from a user perspective, and that you are well-situated for testing.

Testing what? Your theories about your users. I’ve worked on so many websites where there were disagreements — ranging from major to minor — about what was going to work. We all have our opinions. In some cases, these opinions are based on an individual’s experience as a user (“I hate popups! All users hate popups and we can’t have them!”) and in some cases, they are based on cumulative experience (“Research shows that popups work for email list acquisition if deployed correctly. But what ‘correctly’ means varies from site to site.”) But still, each of these are generalizations that may or may not be true for the users of the particular website you’re working on.

Testing your theories with live user data is the only way to find out what is actually true. And stopping to test all your ideas takes some patience.

2. Constant Improvement Requires Confidence

You’ll need confidence because continuous improvement means constantly finding out things you’re doing that don’t work. Depending on your relationship to your work, and to curiosity, a focus on constant improvement can feel like a constant litany of what you’re doing wrong.

For those of us who have entered the digital workforce hearing about how we’re already inadequate (for example, the numerous ways in which the contributions of women in tech are devalued because of sexist tropes), proving that our ideas are wrong doesn’t sound like much of a bargain.

However, we get to proceed with confidence. We get to keep our eyes on creating a constant series of changes where we are finding what works well and building on it. Because of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, the ability to acknowledge mistakes, even big ones, has become a privilege reserved for some but not all leaders. Ironically, the best way to unpack that particular privilege is by sometimes proving that all of us can be wrong.

We need confidence to remember that being wrong and discovering incorrect assumptions about our users is part of the process of moving towards digital excellence.

There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.”
— Brené Brown

3. Constant Improvement Requires Ambition

Without ambition, our continuous improvement approach can’t make big leaps. Testing theories that always only provide modest improvements (let’s say, the color of your donate button) will result in slow growth that might not be worth all the extra time you’re investing on setting up and maintaining a testing structure.

Balance out your moderate theories of what could lead to deeper user engagement with some riskier, more ambitious experiments that can provide higher payoffs in terms of reaching your programmatic or fundraising goals. The main examples here would be to ask your team, “what sort of changes would you consider if everything was potentially on the table for change?”

For example, what if you redesign your action pages and move your call to action to the top of the page, before any issue background text. “Who would take action based on a page title alone?” you may be asking incredulously. “Not me.” But in some cases, testing has borne out that this approach can work.

Before saying “absolutely not” to possible big changes, ask yourself if this change is actually off-brand for you, or just unfamiliar. And then test the concept and let the users tell you whether it works. Be ambitious by putting all your assumptions about what works to the test.

Conclusion: Continuous Improvement is the Future of Nonprofit Communications

Continuous improvement is part of the modern web. The ability to iterate — creating new, hopefully improved versions of a website or digital product over time — is one of the things that keeps the web exciting, and your content can be part of that excitement.

It takes time to get it set up and it takes energy to keep you in the continuous improvement mindset, but it’s a central part of creating a digital presence that can engage your constituents, leaders and donors and move your organization to a new level.

Make sure to read the previous post in this series, Get Off the Nonprofit Rollercoaster, Part 1: Rational Budgeting for Nonprofit Tech Projects!

Kathleen Pequeño (@kpequeno) is Senior Account Manager at Fission. Drop her a line at kathleen [at ]! 



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