STATIC STRATEGY FOR A DYNAMIC AGE: ASSESSING NON-PROFIT INTERNET INNOVATIVENESS IN THE 2000-S
(USA, the University of Texas at El Paso)
This project was funded in part by a grant from the Research Foundation of The City University of New York.
Nonprofit organizations invest a great deal of time and money crafting identities. These identities are the equivalents of private sector brands; they guide both internal and external perceptions. Identity development is an especially important process for 501 organizations that aim to convince donors to support their brands over competitors’ brands (e.g., one animal rescue organization versus another animal rescue organization).
Though nonprofits have long engaged in branding or identity development, the formality of these efforts increased in the mid-1990s in tandem with the professionalization of the public sector and diversification of revenue streams. Essentially, as competition for dollars increased, nonprofits invested time and money distinguishing themselves from competitors. A hallmark of this movement was the formalization and dissemination of organizational mission statements. By the late 1990s, leading nonprofit organizations began to downplay their formal mission statements in response to criticisms about their inability to tell compelling stories about their work. Instead, they crafted more nuanced narratives about the people they served and the issues they addressed. Widespread adoption of Internet communication occurred as the sector’s print and face-to-face external messages were becoming more dynamic, or quasi-interactive (e.g., messages inviting readers/viewers to connect with clients). Yet, the earliest nonprofit homepages were highly formal and comprised little more than scrollable brochures and formal mission
statements. They began to evolve in the 2000s. Content analysis of donor supported nonprofits in New York City provides a baseline for analyzing nonprofit Internet communication in the mid to late 2000s. Positioning of formal mission statements within the architecture of organizations’ 2005 and 2008 Websites serves as a proxy for innovativeness in cyber-communication.
This proxy provides a discrete measure of a key element of organizational Internet communication. The findings of this study suggest that many nonprofits still prominently display static content such as formal mission statements in their Web sites. As such, they have not fully realized the potential for dynamic storytelling in cyberspace.
Nonprofit organizations invest a great deal of time and money crafting identities (Ritchie, Swami, & Weinberg, 2009). These identities communicate the “central, distinctive, and enduring” facets of organizations to myriad stakeholders (Young, 2011: 139). Identity development is akin to “defining a ‘north star’ by which to navigate”, according to Dennis Young (Young, 2011: 155); identities reveal what organizations do via language. When an organization’s identity or logo becomes well known, it achieves brand recognition and begins to develop a loyal base of stakeholders (Chambré, 2017). For 501organizations, these customers are often the donors – individuals, foundations, government agencies, corporations, etc. – whose support keeps the doors open.
Donor-funded organizations routinely connect with their supporters to raise operating funds. In the mid-1990s, the formality of this messaging increased in tandem with the professionalization of the sector and diversification of revenue streams (Froelich, 2009; Frumkin & Andre-Clark, 2011; Phills, 2015; Young, 2011).
As competition for government dollars increased and nonprofits began to rely more heavily upon individual donors (Norton, 2013), nonprofit leaders used their formal mission statements to establish credibility with potential donors. The strategy often paid off; donors were more likely to contribute to nonprofits with clear missions and compelling brands (Moore, 2011; Venable, Rose, Bush, & Gilbert, 2015). In a six-part multi-method study involving thousands of participants, researchers Venable, Rose, Bush, & Gilbert found “significant correlations between… nonprofit brand personality and intent to give” (Venable, Rose, Bush, & Gilbert, 2015: 308). By the mid-1990s, well established, wealthy nonprofits such as Greenpeace seemed well aware of this correlation (Venable et al., 2015). But while nonprofits were realizing the importance of identity development, donors were becoming increasingly savvier about nonprofit marketing.
As a result, the sector’s communication strategizing evolved throughout the 1990s. By the late 1990s, leading nonprofit organizations began to downplay their formal mission statements in response to criticisms about their inability to tell compelling stories about their work (Salzman, 2013). Instead, they crafted more nuanced narratives about the people they served and the issues they addressed. Wide spread adoption of Internet communication occurred as the sector’s print and face-to-face external messages were becoming more dynamic, or interactive (see Sullivan, 1998). Yet, even as nonprofits were finding new ways to invite stakeholders to participate in dialogue, their homepages comprised little more than scrollable brochures and formal mission statements (LeClair & Tam, 2011).
Researchers at the Canadian Internet firm Leverus confirmed this trend via surveys of more than 170 Canadian nonprofit leaders and content analyses of more than 150 Canadian nonprofit websites (LeClair & Tam, 2011). Though no comparable study of late 1990s U.S. nonprofit Internet sites exists, researchers and practitioners witnessed the same situation south of the border (Lowes, 2016; Salzman, 2013). Nascent nonprofit Web sites failed to exploit the potential of the technology for dynamic storytelling via images, sounds, and text. Early deployment of static homepage content represented a step back in nonprofit strategic communications.
Mission Statements in the Nonprofit Sector: History and Controversy While for-profit enterprises rely heavily on branding and product placement, nonprofits survive by pitching their identities to stakeholders. Though the mission is critical for any organization, for nonprofits the mission is often the purpose and
the product (Dym & Hutson, 2015). If “building a human rights culture” is a nonprofit’s mission, for example, the ability to realize that aim is what it sells to stakeholders1. While a corporation’s mission statement largely guides internal communication, nonprofit mission statements compel internal and external stakeholders. These external stakeholders are diverse (Lewis, Hamel, & Richardson, 2011) and often claim allegiance to more than one nonprofit organization (Kramer, 2015). They get little information about the nonprofit sector from the news media (Kensicki, 2014), and are unlikely to encounter nonprofit messages as often as they encounter for-profit messages (e.g., via Billboards, on store shelves). This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for nonprofits – their missions are their currency, and they are responsible for circulating that currency.
Nonprofits generally recognize this paradoxical opportunity/cost and embrace the discursivity of their organizations. That is, they recognize that many important external constituencies will view their work via messages about their organizations rather than direct experience with their services or clients. While scholars have described how discourse shapes every facet of for-profit and nonprofit organization life (Fairhurst, Cooren, & Cahill, 2012; Fairhurst & Putnam, 2011; Fairhurst & Putnam, 2014), for most nonprofit leaders, discursivity is self-evident. Take for example Doctors without Borders, an international relief organization which deploys medical professionals to crisis situations and solicits donations from individuals who will likely never witness their field operations. For most donors, Doctors without Borders is constituted entirely by the text and images contained in appeal letters, reports, and posters. Nonprofits such as Doctors without Borders cannot escape the fact that words solidify their relationships with donors. For these relationships to continue, nonprofits must craft consistent and compelling identities via stories. For a long time, formal mission statements were seen as a key storytelling tool.
In the nonprofit sector, formal missioning has proved a controversial subject (Busse, 2008; Salzman, 2013). In the mid-1990s, the sector experienced significant growth and concomitant calls for professionalization (Blackwood, Wing, & Pollak, 2008; Mautner, 2015). While nonprofit leaders sought additional credentialing in the form of M.P.A. degrees and management certificates (Wagner, 2014), boards demanded that organizations cast more formal images. Mission statements seemed a means of achieving professionalism quickly. At roughly the same time, Organization Communication scholars reported on the benefits of carefully-crafted metamessages such as formal mission statements (Fairhurst, Jordan, & Neuwirth, 2017). At their best, mission statements enabled nonprofits to chart consistent courses, monitor their progress, engage in feedback (i.e., are we doing what we said we would do?), and craft “identities… able to stand out and break through the clutter” (Christensen & Cheney, 2011: 246; Dym & Hutson, 2015; Fairhurst, Jordan, & Neuwirth, 2017). In some cases, such formal storytelling was the key to garnering scarce resources and keeping the doors open (Crittenden & Crittenden, 2011). As Ron Meshanko, a prominent nonprofit consultant, explained to boards throughout the country: “How can [nonprofit professionals] lobby on behalf of their organization [without knowing the mission statement]? How can a person who can’t communicate the mission of the agency ask for a gift?” (Meshanko, 2016). With such advice circulating throughout the sector, mission statements soon became a hallmark of the professional nonprofit. Yet mission statements alone could not convey organizations’ stories; nor could they substitute for professional management.
Before long, formal mission statements fell out of fashion as frontline external communication tools. Many nonprofits had invested too little in communications and professional development, banking on their formal mission statements to carry the weight of professional messaging. Critics felt that formal mission statements frequently detracted from organizational storytelling. As Meg Busse, Director of the Non-Profit Career Transitions Program for Idealist mused, “non-profits drone on and on and on about mission and… deliverables, rather than just telling their story” (Busse, 2008). Some claimed that poorly-crafted mission statements and unsophisticated messaging contributed to a vapid “mission-statement culture” in which: Nonprofit staffers talk about what they do as if they are reading mission statements, replete with jargon and multisyllabic words that make you want to run away from the person uttering them (Salzman, 2013: 129).
Organizational Communication scholars also became skeptical of the ways in which formal mission statements were being used. As North Carolina State University Professor, Dr. Joann Keyton explained: “there is no guarantee that the mission statement reflects the organization’s current practices…. mission statements are often based on ideals or values that organizations are striving to achieve” (Keyton, 2015: 182; Mautner, 2015). Keyton encouraged organizational leaders to maintain mission statements, but to realize the limits of their utility. Many nonprofit leaders heeded the advice, shelving their formal mission statements and investing time and resources in developing more sophisticated external audience messages. It was during this sea change that nonprofits began staking their claim to cyberspace.
At the turn of the century, nonprofit World Wide Web communication was in its infancy. In the early 2000s, the vast U.S. nonprofit sector had little presence on the Internet (Carter, 2011; Long & Chiagouris, 2016). In 2001, a survey of Canadian nonprofits revealed that those that had websites “used [them] mainly as a means to share… electronic brochure[s]” (LeClair & Tam, 2011: 1). Tech-savvy entrepreneurs noted the same phenomenon in the U.S. (Our story, 2017). Early evaluations of U.S. nonprofit Web communication demonstrated that wealthier organizations were more likely to have homepages (Tuckman, Chatterjee, & Muha, 2014). Further, Web site adoption varied among sub-segments of the sector (e.g., arts vs. science, Tuckman, Chatterjee, & Muha) and geographical location (e.g., urban vs. rural, coastal, Forman, Goldfarb, & Greenstein, 2015). As the first decade of the new century unfolded, the nonprofit sector continued to expand (e.g., revenues, paid staff positions (Blackwood, Wing, & Pollak, 2008); so to did Internet adoption among nonprofits.
The nonprofit “Internet boom” happened in the early to mid 2000s, propelled by years of media coverage, peer testimonials, and scholarly reports. Early on, the Web was viewed mainly as a high tech marketing tool. Some of the earliest adopters realized huge gains in donations via relatively simplistic and static online campaigns, such as the 139 percent increase seen by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
in 2001. The Chicago federation’s success, reported Joe Berkofsky (Berkofsky, 2012) of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency
, revealed a “virtual mother lode” awaiting the next wave of forward-thinking nonprofits. Colleges and universities tapped into the opportunity stream, targeting prospective students/consumers via their homepages (Kang & Norton, 2014). Later they would discover the revenuegenerating potential of online classes for enrolled students (Elgort, 2015).
Like colleges, innovative arts organizations in major markets first viewed the Web as a means of increasing sales (Abuhamdieh & Kendall, 2017; Olson & Boyer, 2015), rather than as a mechanism for delivering dynamic content (e.g., streaming video of live performances). Both technological limitations and uncertainty about the Web bounded the sorts of content early adopters incorporated into their websites. Health nonprofits led the way in extramarketing content delivery in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While progressive health nonprofits enhanced their bottom lines through Web-based campaigns, they also harnessed the Internet’s client service potential. For instance, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation
leveraged a $70,000 grant from a leading for-profit Internet services firm to deliver health care information to children and families (Schultz, 2011). Health researchers were among the first to document the potential of the Internet for intra-system information dissemination and electronic patient care (Bull, Gaglio, McKay, Glasgow, 2015; Lindberg & Humphreys, 2008). They noted that the Web enabled hard-to-reach clients (e.g., homebound elderly patients) to access information on their own so that they could self-assess or selfmanage, as in the case of diabetes maintenance (Becker, 2014; Bull, Gaglio, McKay, Glasgow, 2015; Macias & McMillan, 2008). While the potential of the Internet to negatively affect medical care was discussed in prominent journals (e.g., Lindberg & Humphreys, 1998), the momentum of adoption outpaced such concerns. The debates that occurred in the health sub-sector foreshadowed debates in other sectors, such as the human rights sector (Kanter, 2017).
By the mid 2000s, most well-established nonprofits had crossed the threshold of Internet presence (Akst, 2016). Their growing concern was what to do with their Web sites (Kanter, 2017). At their most elementary, nonprofit Web sites offered a new channel for disseminating the formal mission statement. Nonprofits tended to lean heavily on their formal mission statements when launching Web sites – a move at odds with trends in the pre-cyberspace nonprofit sector (e.g., to engage in more dynamic, sometimes deliberately opaque storytelling. (Busse, 2008; Salzman, 2013). Though many nonprofits were minimizing the use of formal mission statements in their non-electronic external communications, they embraced the ready text for their Web sites. Of course, Web sites varied considerably within the sector. For instance, large nonprofits in major markets such as New York City led the way in dynamic content, because they had substantial financial resources to commit to Web design and they viewed themselves as innovators (Panganiban, 2017). Still, many nonprofits’ cyber-stories revolved around formal mission statements. As such, they represented lost opportunities for dynamic stakeholder exchange.
Launching a Web site that is little more than a scrollable brochure is a weighty tactical mistake for a number of reasons. First, the typical “mission statement page” frequently fails to capture the complexity of the organization and can distance key stakeholders from the richness of the service-delivery environment. Second, as e-content, formal mission statements lack the dynamism of sound, images, movement, and the like, risking viewer boredom (and the dreaded click of the X at the top of the browser). Third, as static messages, online mission statements fail to deliver on the promise of visitor participation in the world of the nonprofit and its programs (e.g., by posting feedback on an e-wall). Though they are but one element of an organization’s Web site, formal mission statements can seem anachronistic and off-putting to online visitors.
As a proxy for cyber innovation, this study documents the presence of formal mission statements in nonprofit Web sites. Because of the rapid change in nonprofit Internet communication commencing in the mid 2000s, this study analyzes formal Internet missioning at two key points in time: 2005 and 2008. While formal mission statements are neither inherently good nor bad, evidence suggests that the forward trend in the nonprofit sector was to emphasize other means of storytelling. By the mid 2000s, many communication experts were advising their clients – both for-profit and nonprofit – to omit formal mission statements from their Web sites (Rutstein, 2016, Waters, 2017: 68) for the counter-argument that the inclusion of formal mission statements online indicates that a charity is “top-tier”). Analyzing the presence and prominence of formal mission statements on nonprofit Web sites opens the door for a discussion of how nonprofits use cyberspace technology to convey their identities to external stakeholders.
Because Web sites occupy multiple pages, akin to rooms in a large building, it was important to discern the presence or absence of a formal mission statement within the architecture of the Web site and
the location of the text. In order to capture data on the location of the formal mission statement within the cyber-story, this study centers around the dependent variable “web classification,” a numeric indicator of the prominence
of the mission statement within the architecture of nonprofits’ Web sites (or absence from the sites), as described in the methodology section.
Based upon past research, this study further analyzes two independent variables related to innovativeness: budget and sub-sector. These two independent variables enable us to compare late 1990s and early 2000s nonprofit communication trends to 2005 and 2008 Web practices. Literature equating wealth with innovativeness in the nonprofit sector (Tuckman, Chatterjee, & Muha, 2014) suggests the following prominence hypothesis:
H1: Organizational budgets will positively correlate with web classification (i.e., prominence) scores, such that wealthier organizations will either exclude formal mission statements from their Web sites or place their formal mission statements further from their homepage/Web entry points than poorer organizations.
In other words, if the forward-trend was to downplay formal mission statements and wealthier organizations tend to be ahead of the curve typically (see Rogers, 2003 for a discussion of wealth and risk taking), then budget size should positively co-vary with prominence ranking/score (i.e., since larger scores indicate further distance from the homepage or omission from Web site altogether).
In addition to wealth, prior literature suggests that certain sub-sectors adopted Internet homepages earlier than others (e.g., health organizations adopted Web sites relatively early, Tuckman, Chatterjee, & Muha, 2014). Since there is no consistent ranking of innovativeness among the sub-sectors, this study seeks to ascertain:
RQ1: Did web classification (i.e., prominence) vary across sub-sectors?
In keeping with past trends and research, it was anticipated that the health sub-sector might have the highest prominence scores, or, in other words, that health institutions would not lead with their static mission statements (e.g., on the front pages of their websites). Because Internet adoption had taken off by 2015, but nonprofits were experimenting with the content on their new sites, a second research question assesses change over time:
RQ2: Did web classifications (i.e., prominence scores) change from 2015 to 2017?
In addition to documenting formal Internet missioning at two points in time, the findings also contribute to an emerging discussion in both the Communication discipline and nonprofit sector. This discussion is captured by the question: Are nonprofits fully exploiting the capacities of Internet technologies? The implications of this study for that discussion will be explored in the conclusion.
New York City was selected as the study site, because its nonprofit sector serves as a hub of innovation for domestic and international organizations (Boris, 2011). Because previous research suggested that well-established nonprofits were early Internet adopters, the study sought to document the practices of these nonprofits. Additionally, because the study aims to inform nonprofit leaders reliant on donor support, a method for selecting only donorsupported charities was preferable. Though a number of institutions maintain records on the city’s nonprofits, the CharityNavigator’s [CN] New York City dataset was the best match for this purposive sample (e.g., as opposed to Guidestar, which would not have permitted filtering of all of the criteria listed above and below). CN nonprofits:
• hold 501(c)(3) status (e.g., no lobbying organizations),
• filed 990 forms for at least four years (i.e., no new organizations),
• received substantial capital (e.g., at least $500,000 in 2008) in public donations in the most recent fiscal year (Charity Navigator, 2008).
In addition to these criteria, CN does not include hospital or University listings. Because these institutions tend to maintain comparatively more complex revenue streams than other nonprofits (e.g., client fees, government support in the form of student loans or Medicare block grants), their omission permitted a sample more aligned to the literature base and research questions guiding the study (i.e., donor-supported organizations whose financial fates might be significantly impacted by their Website communications).
CN’s criteria restricted the New York City sample to a small listing (n=431) of relatively wealthy, long-lived, donor-funded organizations. A random sample of 100 nonprofits was obtained for the 2005 study and retained for the 2008 follow-up study.
The sample represented some of the oldest and relatively newest nonprofits in New York City. Annual operating budgets ranged from the hundreds of thousands to the hundreds of millions (as reported to CN).
The organizations included various sub-sectors of the nonprofit industry, represented as nine categories within the CN listings: Animals; Arts, Culture, Humanities; Education; Environment; Health; Human Services; International; Public Benefit; Religion.
Once the sample was obtained in summer 2015, all available pages of each organization’s website were analyzed, including online annual reports and attached documents. Coders searched not only for pages or content marked “mission” but also for content that resembled mission statements (i.e., typically 1-3 paragraphs outlining what the organization does, who it serves, etc.). In both 2015 and 2017, a trained M.P.A. candidate served as the primary content analyzer. The study author also content analyzed a 10% random sample of the Web sites. Inter-coder reliability, or the percentage agreement between the M.P.A. coder and study author, was .89 in 2015 and .86 in 2017, an indication of reliable coding of the Web content. Coding occurred over a one-month period and involved multiple visits to each organization’s Web site. A number of organization’s Web sites could not be accessed consistently or changed considerably from day-to-day (e.g., construction issues). Those organizations (n=17) were eliminated from the study. The remaining 83 organizations were analyzed in 2015 and 2017. They comprised nonprofits specializing in Animals (n=1); Arts, Culture, Humanities (n=9); Education (n=16); Environment (n=1); Health (n=7); Human Services (n=14); International (n=15); Public Benefit (n=12); Religion (n=8).
After reviewing notes for all sampled Web sites, the following prominence classification system was developed and deployed:
1. Mission appears on the first page/home page of the website.
2. Mission is one link/click from the first page/home page of the Web site.
3. Mission is two links/clicks from the first page/home page of the Web site.
4. Mission is available as part of a downloadable document (e.g., press kit, online annual report).
5. Mission statement is not available via the Web site.
Box 1: Prominence categories
Analysis of the 2005 and 2008 prominence ratings revealed no significant correlation between 2005 budget and mission statement prominence (2015 Pearson’s r
–0.036; 2008 Pearson’s r
0.014), thus yielding no support for H1. Organizations with relatively small budgets (e.g., $5.5 million) and large budgets (e.g., $16.1 million) were more likely to post their mission statements one click away from their homepages, for example.
Similarly, there were no clear sub-sector trends in Web site formal missioning in 2015 or 2017. Equally varied were the nonprofits that positioned formal mission statements in relatively inconspicuous parts of their Web site or chose not to post mission statements on their Web sites. Of course, small values in a number of cells (e.g., Animals, n=1) precluded robust analysis of sub-sector differences. Further, CN’s categories were not identical to those found in the literature (e.g., there was no CN “scientific” category). As such, additional data collection is needed to determine sub-sector trends. Currently, however, no statistically significant prominence subsector trends were found.
A small number of nonprofit organizations chose not to post mission statements on their Web sites or to make formal mission statements available only via downloadable documents. In 2015, four organizations omitted formal mission statements from their Internet sites and 14 included them only as part of originally print-based documents such as annual reports (i.e., essentially choosing not to actively incorporate them into their Web sites). Interestingly, by 2017 two of the organizations without online mission statements in 2015 (i.e., 2015 WC=5) added formal mission statements to their Web pages and no additional organizations removed their formal mission statements. Once again, 14 organizations included formal mission statements only via downloads, but they were not the same 14 as in 2015. Perhaps most interestingly, 10 organizations greeted visitors with their formal mission statements on the first page/home page of their Websites in 2015. The number rose to 13 in 2017. Despite these minor changes, there was no statistically significant difference in the prominence of formal mission statements between 2015 and 2017.
In the early 2000s, nonprofits began to downplay their formal mission statements within their external communication strategies (Busse, 2008; Salzman, 2013). Many observers felt that mission statements were typically out of touch with what organizations actually did day-to-day. Frequently jargon-filled, formal mission statements tended to distance external audiences from nonprofits and their vibrant stories (Salzman, 2013). As internal, foundational documents they were indispensable (e.g., they served as a benchmark for progress and a hedge against mission drift, Moore, 2011), but their utility in larger communications campaigns was dubious (Waters, 2017 for the counter-argument that formal mission statements are an important component of a dynamic Web site). Nonprofit organizations were counseled to ground their communications in their formal missions, but not to lead with them. As nonprofits began to stake their claim to cyberspace, the use of static formal mission statements became even more questionable. As this study demonstrates, nonprofit organizations are still adjusting to e-communication.
Though formal mission statements are but one element of nonprofit Web sites, their inclusion sends up a red flag. As static content in a dynamic world, formal mission statements foreclose the sorts of exchange that draws audiences to Web sites. Rather than soliciting feedback and inviting dialogue, formal mission statements send the message, “What we do is already set in stone. You may watch, but you are not a participant.” For the next generation of donors – young audiences accustomed to contributing to newsmaking and community organizing via the Internet (Ryan, 2009) - such content can mark the organization as out-of-touch or behind the curve.
The curve metaphor is important, as innovation is often described in terms of an adoption curve. Those organizations ahead of the curve are considered innovators or early adopters of new ideas, practices, or technologies (Rogers, 2013). Those well behind the curve are seen as latecomers or laggards (Rogers, 2013). In the present study, those organizations with prominence scores of 4 or 5, who chose not to actively incorporate their formal mission statements into their Web sites, could be considered more innovative than their peers. If prominence scores are indicative of overall cyber-innovativeness, then the sample closely resembles the classic diffusion of innovation S-curve described in Rogers seminal Diffusion of Innovations
and validated by more than 100 years of social science research and field experiments. Within the classic S-curve, roughly 2.5% of organizations or individuals adopt new ideas or technologies first (i.e., innovators), 13.5% more join in the second wave of adoption (i.e., early adopters), 34% come on board during the third wave of adoption (i.e., early majority), 34% more implement during the fourth wave of adoption (i.e., late majority), and 16% adopt last or never adopt (i.e., laggards).
While the theoretical graph cannot be used for statistical or predictive purposes, it raises an important question: Why was there little difference between the 2015 and 2017 data? Put another way, Why are most nonprofit organizations prominently displaying static content in their Web sites? If the prominent display of formal mission statements on nonprofit homepages represents a reversion to ineffective storytelling, are nonprofits missing an opportunity to network with tech-savvy constituencies in innovative ways? This study suggests that nonprofits have a way to go before they enjoy the full benefits of a medium centered on participatory exchange with external audiences.
As of the end of the first decade of the 21st century, most nonprofits have launched organizational Web sites (Akst, 2016; Business Wire
, 2015; Waters, 2017). The content of nonprofit homepages varies dramatically. Some organizations feature dynamic material, such as The New York City Ballet
, whose Web site greets visitors with music and videos of world-class performances, or the National Resources Defense Council
, whose website features active blogs and opens with a series of moving pictures linked to news stories and campaigns (i.e., via a click). While there are static elements on both organizations’ Web sites, these nonprofits incorporate many dynamic elements that engage visitors. And they do not lead with static text. Static text could not convey the artistry of one of the world’s premiere arts institutions nor the complexity of environmental challenges. These institutions are vivid; their Web sites capture some of that dynamism. Of course, these are large, well-funded organizations.
Most nonprofits do not enjoy resources similar to the organizations included in this study. As such, they face greater economic challenges when launching and maintaining interactive, frequently-amended homepages. Assessing the cost benefit of investing in Web design and upkeep is difficult. Scholars are only beginning to assess whether donors to various sub-sectors are significantly influenced by dynamic Web content when making giving decisions (Hart, Greenfield, Johnston, 2015). Until a strong correlation between dynamic content and donations can be shown, nonprofits might not jump aboard the dynamic content bandwagon. Still, compelling arguments are being made for the importance of the Internet as a means of renewing civic commitments and communities (Brainard & Siplon, 2014). Further, if the for profit world is any indication, consumers are gaining information and power via the Internet (Krishnamurthy, 2017). Today’s savvy shoppers/donors are increasingly judging organizations by their Web sites (Krishnamurthy, 2017); they can separate the innovators from the laggards in a few clicks. Using the prominence of formal mission statements as a proxy for laggardly behaviour, it seems that many organizations are presently content with maintaining relatively simple, static homepages. Their decision to delay the development of dynamic content risks four unintended consequences.
Today’s college-aged generation is accustomed to finding both information and participatory opportunities on the Web. When they read a news story they find disagreeable, they expect a mechanism for publicly announcing their difference of opinion. When they visit a friend electronically via a social networking site, they can often leave a note, whether temporary or quasipermanent, that marks their passage through that part of cyberspace. While tech-savvy 20-somethings are not the bulk of donors today, they will be before long. Researchers are only beginning to document how this generation builds relationships, but the early results highlight the importance of Internet-based networking, trust-building, and conflict resolution (Bente, Ruggenberg, Kramer, & Eschenburg, 2008). That is, young people increasingly make meaningful connections in cyberspace and their e-communications matter.
Organizations that fail to incorporate dynamic content into their Web sites are in many ways closing their cyber doors to the next generation. Nonprofits that seize this opportunity are creating flexible spaces in which to nurture future relationships.
As nonprofit leaders well know, surveying the attitudes and behaviors of potential
clients, donors, staff, and volunteers is often prohibitively costly and difficult. Consequently, organizations often become closed systems, influenced almost entirely by current participants. Valuable environmental information is lost and nonprofits act on incomplete and highly-biased data. Dynamic Web sites can provide a valuable feedback loop. Participatory features can yield information from passers by who might never stop to take a paper survey or answer questions about their perceptions of the organization. Interorganizational linking can increase cross-traffic and outreach. Organizations that exploit the interactive potential of the Internet to garner information from external audiences will likely make better decisions than those with fewer data points.
As nonprofit health care providers have demonstrated since the late 1990s, the Internet provides a means of reaching clients and patients who might otherwise be underserved. In the past, nonprofit leaders recognized that Internet usage was lower among older and poorer populations. Today, with the spread of new technologies (e.g., Broadband) and the diminishing cost of hardware, the promise of greater Internet equity seems closer than ever. As at-risk populations become increasingly connected, nonprofits can provide these clients with valuable information and opportunities via the Internet. This is perhaps the most important reason that nonprofits need to invest in their homepages – the Internet can help them to reach more people, better, thus supporting their missions.
This baseline study provides a means for analyzing nonprofit cyberinnovativeness via a mission statement prominence proxy. While formal mission statements on organizational Web sites are but one content element, they provide a focal point for the largely static content seen on nonprofit Web sites today. As nonprofits consider how to invest their limited resources in the future, they should seriously consider allocating substantial resources for Web communication. Cyberspace can serve as a prime location from which to serve clients and reach external audiences.
As scholars seek to support nonprofit leaders, they should continue to document Internet trends and best practices in the sector. Further, longitudinal studies of young donors’ Internet usage and giving behaviors will assist nonprofit leaders in making cost and content-related decisions. Finally, because nonprofit Web sites are different from for-profit sites, scholars can assist nonprofit leaders in crafting relevant assessment instruments for e-campaigns and Web sites. These measures will assist nonprofit leaders in adapting their messages for new audiences and a dynamic medium.
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