Charity Begins at Home. It Can End Online

Charity is big business, especially at year’s end.

Americans donated $240.92 billion to good causes in 2002, according to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel (AAFRC) Trust for Philanthropy. That’s about 2.3 percent of the entire U.S. gross domestic product. Roughly a third of that vast amount is given in December, when hearts swell with holiday spirit (or recoil at the thought of looming taxes).

The recipients of that largesse are the 1.4 million charities in the U.S. It’s probably safe to assume most major ones use the Internet to raise money.

“ROI is relatively small from a dollar standpoint,” says Tom Watson, CIO at Changing Our World, an Omnicom-owned philanthropic services company. “It’s more about cultivating donors than bringing in large amounts of money.”

Saving the environment, feeding the hungry, and promoting other good causes are noble aims — and formidable tasks. When charities don’t take their sites’, or donors’, needs seriously, they can undermine the good they’re trying to do.

That’s how I ended up giving my favorite charity significantly less than usual last month (after briefly deciding not to donate at all). Here’s what happened:

The Cousteau Society, the charity I’ve supported longest, was also the only one I wasn’t donating to online. All the other causes I support, from the local public radio station to a global human rights group, have clear and easy sites with online transaction mechanisms. Surely, the Cousteau Society was up to speed by now. I resolved not to cut another check. Instead, I headed for a search engine.

Google’s top result for “cousteau society” is the organization’s French site at cousteau.org. To score that tax deduction, I needed the American site, so I clicked on an English-language cousteausociety.org link further down the page. That’s when things got bad.

A “donate” link brought up a page with a postal address, a toll-free number, and an email alias for inquiries, but no way to donate online. Grrr. I sent an email inquiring if there was a way to donate online. A week passed. No response. I revisited the site.

This time, I explored more deeply. To my very great unease, I learned the “news” page hadn’t been updated in three years. That, coupled with the unanswered email, led me to question the competency, even the legitimacy, of a charity that’s built around an enduring global brand: Jacques Cousteau himself.

I couldn’t bring myself to send money. Trust undermined, I gave elsewhere.

Curiosity finally got the better of me. I visited the French site and found it links to a brand-new English-language site search engines are oblivious to (it’s built in Flash). There are plenty of membership options, and online donation is easy — once you find it. By the time I did, my money had been donated elsewhere. Instead of being my number-one charity, Cousteau ranked dead last, dollar-wise, in my charitable contributions for the year.

What went wrong? I asked Clark Lee Merriam, who oversees research and communications at the society’s U.S. headquarters. “This is a battle that has been ongoing between us and France,” she told me with exasperation. “France thinks that we need no alternative to Flash.”

Besides posing serious obstacles to search engine optimization (SEO), Merriam says the Flash site also gets complaints from users with dial-up connections. They say the site is slow and difficult to use. Of course, those are the Americans who find the site. One could argue the English-language version should be made easier to find in search engines, since, on average, Americans donate roughly four times more per capita to charity than do the French.

The problem isn’t confined to French Flash. Rather than take the old cousteausociety.org site down, Merriam had redirected the home page (but only the home page) to the newer cousteau.org domain. That’s how I found myself clicking through an outdated Web site.

Why did I get no response to my email? “E-mail is routed through France. That one went to the Paris office. The one person who picks up all the email is the Webmaster,” she told me. “He’s supposed to forward anything in English to me. But he just left for the Red Sea expedition.”

I asked Merriam what impact all this has on fundraising efforts. “I don’t know” was the grim reply.

Following our conversation, Merriam removed the old site pages. Click on Google results, and you’ll get a 404 error. It’s hardly as optimal as a domain-wide redirect to the new site, but better than before.

I asked Watson if the Cousteau Society would be better off with no Web site at all. Its mission, after all, is saving the world’s aquatic environments, not search engine and email marketing.

“Every nonprofit should have a Web site,” Watson insists.” It’s an absolute must to have a site with the basic information. If you don’t have the resources to do something sophisticated and in-depth, then do a very simple, five-page site.

“There’s a huge gap between what nonprofits are bringing in online versus off-,” Watson assured me, “but that gap is definitely closing.”

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