Giving money on charity websites is harder than spending money on e-commerce sites

Photo of Jakob NielsenThat’s the thinking of Jakob Nielsen, the guru of online usability.  His latest study is a 224-page report on Nonprofit Website Usability (2nd edition) complete with 116 design guidelines and 220 screenshots of sites that worked well or poorly in user testing.

Here’s my best findings from the study:

  • Non-profits must clearly communicate their value proposition if they want to attract volunteers and online donations. Sadly, such communication is the sore point in the non-profit user experience.
  • It’s harder to give money away than it is to spend money buying stuff: Completing the actual donation process took the users in our second study 7% more time on average than it took users to complete an e-commerce checkout process in our (separate) e-commerce usability research. Although a 7% degradation of usability is not horrible, it does show that non-profit sites’ user experience has fallen behind that of commercial sites.
  • On our 1–7 scale, users gave a stellar rating of 6.7 for the task of finding out how to volunteer at an organization. Most sites had a simple, direct link to this information from their homepages. And most provided straightforward information about volunteering, including descriptions of typical volunteer duties and hours, which are details that prospective volunteers want to see up front.
  • People don’t use Facebook to research non-profit organizations or make donations. When we asked users to do this in the study, they were annoyed by non-profits that tried to push products or donations, or tried to get them to sign up for other things, like email newsletters.
  • Although improvements are still possible for the donation workflow itself, our usability research clearly showed that this isn’t the main difficulty. To reach the potential quintupling of online donations over the next decade, non-profit sites must address the big problem: poor content usability.

Read a summary of the Nonprofit Website Usability report

Michael Stein is a Senior Account Executive at Donordigital, the online fundraising, marketing, and advertising company. Contact: or phone (510) 473-0364.