Tough talk on negative messaging

publication date: Jul 20, 2012
author/source: Ryann Miller, Kori Brus
Each month the Web 2.0 jury has reviewed the website of a Canadian charity for fundraising effectiveness. Since December, 2010, Fraser Green, Ryann Miller and Kori Brus have helped 20 Canadian charities sharpen their website-based fundraising through Hilborn's Web 2.0 Jury program. The series concludes with this month's candidate, Seniors Assisted Transportation Society of Greater Edmonton.

Kori: Hi Ryann. This month we're looking at Seniors Assisted Transportation Society of Greater Edmonton (SATS). This is a straightforward and good cause - a charity offering safe and affordable transportation to senior citizens 80 years old and up. For just $15, SATS offers a two-hour round trip in a private vehicle driven by a SATS volunteer.

A lack of mobility, isolation and loneliness are problems no person should live with, and SATS is providing a clear, concrete way to help at a lower cost than any other options. And despite a website built on an outdated platform, they're getting their key messages out. With one look you know who SATS is and what they do. They're even providing a clear way to donate.

Unfortunately, things start to go off the rails after that. I have a few concerns about the site, but most are overshadowed by the glaring and fatal flaw in their fundraising strategy - their predominant use of the "poor me" card. I'll call out two examples.

The "Appeal from the President"

One of the first things you see is a nice little graphic featuring a letter and pen alongside an inviting cup of coffee. The text tells you to click ahead for an "Appeal from the President." I thought they could have given it a warmer title, but it caught my eye and I was looking forward to hearing their pitch. I was shocked to see an opening salvo that, after a rudimentary thank-you, launched into a reprimand of SATS constituents for their lack of participation. It's worth printing in full:

I would like to start this letter by thanking you for donations you or any organizations you are involved with have made in the past. On a very serious note, I am very concerned with the lack of members that are participating in SATS functions; such as Board Members, Volunteers, Participants and Supporters at our events. These are all seriously required!!  Who else but those receiving the services would know what is actually required. 

I don't think they could have done a better job alienating all of their key constituencies, though I assume this wasn't their goal.

An "Important notice for SATS members"

Somewhat less egregious is the highlighted notice rationalizing their decision to hike driver's fees from $10 to $15. In addition to taking up the entire middle portion of the site in blazing red and yellow, the notice ominously ends with, "We apologize for the required fee increase but had no option other than the inevitable."

A greater statement of futility you will not find.

Here's a better idea. How about using current challenges as a fundraising opportunity? Cost per ride has gone up to $15? The funny thing about that number is that it perfectly aligns with the average gift for many charities' monthly donors.

How about asking people to buy one ride per month for a senior in need? Could we ask people to sponsor a genuine individual? "With a monthly gift of just $15 (or $180 per year) you can make sure Mary sees her grandchild Robbie play soccer every month." Or how about, "Your monthly gift will let Tom continue to volunteer at the First United Church, passing on the generosity you've given through his work for his church community." There must be a hundred examples like this.

It sounds like the organization has faced some hard times financially. If this is the case, they certainly should be communicating their need to the public and their supporters. But people are going to give out of a desire to do good, not to save charity employees who are feeling sorry for themselves. 

Their site limits are liveable if they get their messaging right. Until they do, I give them a C-. Ryann?

 Ryann: Dude, you're pretty harsh. But I basically agree with you.

My advice to SATS is to target their audience and think through an actual communications strategy. What do they want to say to people and what do they want them to do? I'm guessing their world is divided into two camps: those who don't know or care about them, and those who do know them and specifically found their website in order to support their work. So their site should speak to those people.

Let's get to some specifics.

The purpose-driven page

What do they want each page to accomplish? Is it information? Donations? More volunteers? Plus, what other pages might you want? For example, I think they should have a page with photos and quotes from the seniors they help and seniors' families who are grateful for SATS because SATS does what they can't. Nobody will make the case for support better. They need the best of these photos or quotes on every other page. They should also have a page for their events, and where people can join and/or volunteer.

Giving page makeover

They do need a bit of a donation page makeover, with less, but more compelling, copy and images of who they help. Where does $50 go? $150?

I like the Appeal from the President idea, but the appeal itself, not so much. Kori's tangible monthly ask is brilliant. It promotes monthly giving, and it connects the donor emotionally with the recipient (or someone like them).

Why does SATS use both PayPal and CanadaHelps? My vote is to lose PayPal entirely, because CanadaHelps lets people make monthly gifts as well as single ones. Then lose the Canada Helps paragraph. That will raise the sponsorship (major giving) opportunities higher up on the page, which is important. SATS should be promoting that program - in fact, it should have its own page.

Social purpose a great match with social media

They actually seem to make use of social media, so I'd encourage some kind of campaign to build awareness and grow their fanbase/Likes/followers. Since they're always looking for more volunteer drivers, a campaign to find more people is a great use of social media. It's also a great way to share the SATS personality.

I'm giving them a B-. They fill a real void, have a clear need, and have a great volunteering opportunity. They just need to look at their website with a fundraising and communications lens. It's not a brochure; it's a donation and volunteering appeal. The sooner that becomes the mantra for the website, the sooner they'll be inspired to make some critical improvements.

Ryann Miller is director of nonprofit services at Care2, where she helps charities and nonprofits recruit online supporters. She is the former managing director of DonorTrends and was a senior fundraising consultant at HJC New Media.

Kori Brus is philanthropic counsel and marketing specialist at Good Works, where he focuses on nonprofit campaign strategy and online engagement. He's the former communications director of Ecojustice Canada and former community manager for Web of Change.

Their websites are and - in case you want to pronounce your web jury judgment on them!

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