How and When Should Your Nonprofit Organization Invest in Mobile | Beth's Blog

How and When Should Your Nonprofit Organization Invest in Mobile

Digital Strategy

Note from Beth: In preparation for my book launch,   I hired Rad Campaign to do a redesign of my blog.    Aside from changing the color scheme to match the new book cover,  I was ready to invest in “going mobile.”    After watching the percentage of mobile and tablet readers grow from 5% in 2010 to 17% in 2012 and receiving more than a few emails from loyal readers telling me that my blog was practically unreadable on their mobile device, I was ready to take the plunge into a mobile strategy.    What I needed was responsive web design code that helps websites recognize what browser and device someone was using and serve up a version of the site that was readable and easily to navigate on that device.

Recently, I got into a discussion with several other nonprofit tech consultants about guidelines for nonprofits to embrace a mobile strategy and specifically what to recommend.   I thought the conversation was definitely worth a blog post to share with a wider audience and Heidi Massey agreed to write a guest post.


Apps, Responsive Design, or Both: Some Important Guidelines for Going Mobile for Nonprofitrs – Guest Post by Heidi Massey

Nonprofit organizations are under the gun to keep up with current technology. Social media. Analytics. Websites. Data. However, many organizations are working with very limited financial resources, particularly when it comes to technology. This requires organizations to set priorities in how they will spend their technology dollars. Often, organizations have a limited understanding of technology, which makes setting priorities more than challenging. A recent conversation with nonprofit tech colleagues in a Facebook group provided just the kind of information that nonprofits need to make those kinds of decisions.

Farra Trompeter started the conversation by asking how people felt about nonprofit organizations creating applications.  As someone who lives in Chicago, I was very interested in this topic. We have a very active open data movement here and the city has made huge amounts of data now open to the public. However, the data is overwhelming and not always very useful in its current format. By creating applications utilizing this data, it becomes more useful to the community. So to me, it seemed clear that nonprofits should be embarking on app development, utilizing this open data.

At first, I was surprised as one person after another responded to Farra by saying that nonprofits needed to work on responsive web design before moving on to app development. I hadn’t thought about whether app development might drain important financial resources that are needed for more basic technology. Many nonprofits are still struggling to create quality websites that provide visitors with positive experiences and effectively tell organization stories. With the growing number of people accessing websites, email, blogs and more via mobile devices and tablets, sites must be equally easy to navigate, regardless of how visitors get there. If this isn’t the case, visitors will leave the site. Although an app may be a valuable tool, the website is probably a higher priority for most organizations.

The conversation then switched back and forth between when a nonprofit should consider working on responsive web design and what kinds of apps a nonprofit should consider creating. Sometimes, when a nonprofit organization is considering app development, it is just to convey information, which could be done effectively through a mobile site. This makes the information easily accessible for users on the go, without the added expense of an app.

But how does an organization decide if it is time to move to a responsive design site? General consensus in the thread seemed to suggest that when somewhere around 20% of traffic is coming from mobile devices, it is time to update for mobile users. A number of  participants said that they saw a steady uptick in the trajectory of mobile users over the past few years.  Several people also suggested that input from site visitors, such as complaints about difficulty accessing the site via a mobile device, should also be considered when making the decision to update the site. I would also add that organizations that are either building their first site or considering a rebuild of their site, should include responsive design. It doe not add significantly or even at all to the cost of the project and will avoid much more expensive changes later on.

If an organization is ready to build an app, it is important to remember that the app should focus on a specific task that helps the user. Unless an app makes a person’s life easier or better, the app won’t be used. To be certain that this is what will be accomplished, a nonprofit should clearly determine its goals for a project before embarking on the development of an app. If it is mission based and serves the needs of the audience, then an app might be a worthwhile solution.

For me, this Facebook conversation was an extraordinary learning experience. Although I knew about mobile compatible sites, I had never heard of responsive design. And as someone who is very involved with nonprofits and technology, it was a great reminder to consider the goals that an organization is trying to achieve before determining the solution. There is always a shiny object in the world of technology. It is very easy to be distracted by the latest and greatest. But this can easily lead to utilizing resources in ways that are not necessary, and more important, perhaps do not provide the best solution.

Special thanks to Nancy E. Schwartz, Chris Tuttle, Jereme Bivins, Kami Watson Huyse, Beth Kanter, Michael DeLong, Sue Anne Reed, and Claire Murray for participating in the Facebook conversation which provided the background for this post and Danny Brown and David Svet for providing supplemental information.

Heidi Massey is Chief Connector at Community Connective and lives at the juncture of nonprofits and technology. She is the founder of Chicago Counts, an initiative to help organizations in Greater Chicago learn more about technology and create meaningful connections with others in the sector.

24 Responses

  1. We write about this a lot, Heidi. Apps require marketing, just because you build them doesn’t mean people will come. Well-optimized mobile sites (I’m already tired of hearing “responsive design” because it means many different things), however, are crucial. No matter WHAT your business. Nonprofits included.

    Great post, m’dear.

  2. Arié Moyal says:

    I think that the advent of mobile is a great thing for organisations and their websites. I advocate starting web design or redesign with the mobile version of the site. It helps keep things simple and focused on the most important things you need people to see when they come to your site.

  3. Heidi Massey says:

    You are one of the best teachers in my world. I learn from you every day. I had never heard of responsive design before the Facebook conversation. I like responsive design because my understanding of it is that your site responds to the device the person is on, be it mobile, tablet, desktop, etc. Additionally the conversation was about optimizing email, and everything else, not just sites.

    The important detail is that we are all clear about what we are talking about. And we all agree about the importance of having sites, email, etc. that visitors are able to navigate successfully regardless of how they arrive. Otherwise, those visitors are likely to leave and to leave quickly.

  4. Mickey Gomez says:

    “Sometimes, when a nonprofit organization is considering app development, it is just to convey information, which could be done effectively through a mobile site.” EXACTLY!

    I shared this today with our nonprofit audience, Heidi – thank you!

  5. Sue Spaight says:

    VERY well stated, Heidi. Completely agree with you and Shelly, so many organizations just want to be able to say “we have an app” without thinking through that downloads and usage aren’t like to happen unless there is some REAL user utility involved. I’m sharing your post with some people right now as proof that it’s not just me telling them this. Thanks for the great post!

  6. Heidi,

    I think you nailed it when you said “..consider the goals that an organization is trying to achieve before determining the solution.” Couldnt agree more. That thinking applies across the board, to for profit and no profits alike.

    Well done, you!

  7. Kelly McIvor says:

    Good post, Heidi. Non-profits often struggle not only with technology choices but in the implementation as well. This is where responsive design – as an approach to mobile – can hang things up. Responsive design requires a redesign of the entire web presence so that the experience is optimal depending on the screen size. This can and often does require a significant expense. As an alternative, organizations should consider building a separate mobile site and keeping their current site as-is until a complete redesign is in the cards. With simple device detection, their current site can re-direct mobile devices to the mobile site.

  8. David Svet says:

    Nice job, Heidi. I’m with Shelly Kramer on being tired of “responsive design.” Variable data modifying designs has been around a very long time – early 80s. Flexible grid structures too. Maybe it’s easier to sell if it has a new name. 😉

  9. Eliza Olson says:

    Thanks for the update. It fits with what we are doing. We redesigning our website so that the information can be easily accessed on any thye of product.

    A little over a year ago, I was approached by a company wanting to design an ap for the society–the goal was to design an game and sell it online. He wasnted $20,000 to design a game for the Society. He is still waiting.

  10. Krishan Murti says:

    Dear Heidi
    I think you have very well made your point. Not-for-profits should first of all make sure that their web site looks nice on mobile devices before spending scarce resources on apps. The question however is: Where do you get responsive web design services at a price that not-for-profits can afford? I am a volunteer for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), and I have been shopping around for such services in the Geneva / Switzerland region. Unfortunately, I haven’t found very few specialised offerings, and prices are way beyond what we can afford.

  11. Krishan, in response to your question about where to get the tools to make your website responsive to mobile devices, begin by asking your webmaster what platform the website has been designed on.

    This Nov 2011 article,, talks about it from the Joomla web platform, but do a search for Joomla & responsive design and you’ll get more updated info, especially templates that have already been designed to find out what device a reader is using and provide a web interface that is appropriate.

    If they use WordPress, then this July 2012 article will get you started: Again, Google WordPress & responsive design for more on the topic.

    Good luck!

  12. Dear Krishan,
    Very important blog and your comment pricked me ears.

    Perhaps I can help you out with this; maybe you are looking in the wrong place to find a company that can offer a price range non-profit organizations can afford. in the Philippines have been working on making websites look good on the smaller screens people so-often look at these days.

    Outsourcing to the Philippines also has its advantages as fare as offering non-profit organisations a price range they can afford and perhaps even paying back some of the work non-profit organizations have done for their countrys.

    I do believe that you should not forget mobile apps as they are the newest form of media but also suggest you can find a way to get a good deal overseas.

    Best regards,

  13. Beth says:

    Heidi thank you again for an informative blog post! Whatever it is called, the ability to be able to serve up content on this blog to readers in a format that they can easily navigate is what I was after when I upgraded this blog. I just couldn’t ignore the complaints about the blog being unreadable on mobile devices.

  14. […] week in Beth’s Blog a guest poster, Heidi Massey, blogged about how and when nonprofit organizations should switch to […]

  15. […] Blog: How and When Should Your Nonprofit Organization Invest in Mobile Kivi’s Blog: How to Plan a New Website Without Your Head Exploding Inspiring Generosity: The […]

  16. Hi Beth –

    I love your blog and have been an avid follower/reader for over a year now; I can’t tell you how excited I was to read your [re]post on responsive design…

    I am a founding team member at in Boston and 9 months ago we took the leap and completely rebuilt our platform from the ground-up on responsive technology – meaning everyone who uses our site to raise money or sell tickets has an equal opportunity to a responsively designed page (pull our site up on a smart phone or tablet and you’ll see what I mean).

    We truly believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to effectively fundraise online.

    Aside from the development costs and the choice to develop for iOS vs Android, it also takes up to 14 days to have changes made to the app in the app store, and apps are also extremely limiting in there’s one more step to converting a donor – “Please download our app and THEN donate.”

    Pumped to hear more nonprofits talking about exciting new technology and how using it to our best advantage can both lower operating costs and convert more supporters into donors.

    Thanks Heidi & Beth!

  17. Beth says:

    Kerryn: Thanks for taking the time to stop by and leave a thoughtful comment. Appreciate it. Yes, I took the plunge too – and it was the right thing to do – to invest in that sort of upgrade. Much better investment than an app or something else.

    Also, Heidi wrote the post, I just framed. I was thrilled that Heidi offered to write a post based on this discussion and write such a great one!

  18. […] design is cheap compared to building two or three separate sites, but it’s not free.Read “How and When Should Your Nonprofit Organization Invest in Mobile” on…The second article comes from Smashing Magazine. Their point, though stated from a different […]

  19. […] Beth Kanter: How and When Should Your Nonprofit Organization Invest in Mobile TechSoup: App Resources for Nonprofits and Libraries Mashable: Building a Mobile App on the Cheap SocialBrite: Building Mobile Applications for Social Good Nonprofit Tech 2.o: 12 Useful, Well-Designed, Worth-Downloading iPhone Apps Created by Nonprofits Share and Enjoy: This entry was posted by admin on December 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm and filed under ISIS Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. « ISIS’ 1-2-3-4 Guide to Rolling Out a Social Media Campaign […]

  20. Justin Avery says:

    Hi Beth,

    I did this screen cast way back when you wrote this article but I never actually posted a comment and share with you 😉

    This is the screen cast,, and it just goes through a suggestion to possibly further expand the content area of your articles to maybe improve readability.

  21. Brenda says:

    Hello all and I came upon this article and just wanted to say great read and awesome subject. Yes I wish all nonprofits would really look at creating mobile sites or responsive web design for their websites as well as an app. It is not a great user experience having to constantly re-size or hit the wrong thing trying to get at something else. As a tech ministry leader for my church and a tech worker for over 20+ years in corporate america I am pushing our church into the mobile landscape finally as it has really improved and increased our web traffic as well as our giving because now members are able to support and keep up with church activities on the go without having to always call the church to get information. So thanks you for writing this article as it is so on point.

  22. […] tech consultant Beth Kanter, the first place to start when working on an app for a nonprofit is to identify a purpose. Too often there is a likelihood that an app will be created without having a goal behind it. This […]

  23. […] your organization does decide to build an app, make sure the app holds some value, or performs a specific function, for the user, like the Red Cross and Audobon apps do. The Red Cross apps provide potentially life-saving […]