Clarion call: how pro-social organisations can rally support online

There are a number of important elements pro-social organisations need to consider in their online presence in order to improve volunteering, philanthropy and activism outcomes

The explosive growth in the online world has meant that organisations of all kinds have become reliant on websites as their primary point of contact with their audience. But while the effectiveness of websites in the commercial sphere is well understood, their effectiveness in the non-commercial sphere is less so.

“It’s a very under-researched and under-resourced area,” says Peter Slattery, a former PhD researcher in the school of information systems at UNSW Business School.

“For-profit organisations usually have both money and support to research how to improve their websites, while pro-social organisations are expected to have a tiny operational budget and give all the rest of their resources to those they help.”

Slattery – along with UNSW Business School professors Patrick Finnegan and Richard Vidgen – has been researching how non-profit websites can be more successful in attracting support and the findings are in a new paper, Creating compassion: How volunteering websites encourage prosocial behaviour.

It identifies a number of factors that come into play, ranging from the familiar ‘ease of use’ and ‘visual appearance’, to the less obvious ‘trust’ and ‘negative affect’.

“Things are different with pro-social websites,” says Slattery. “It’s often assumed that what works for pro-social websites is exactly the same as what works for commercial websites, whereas in fact different approaches are needed. Often different factors matter, and the factors that apply in both contexts can apply to different degrees.”

Encouraging emotional engagement
One key difference is that, in a pro-social context, creating emotions such as compassion, sadness or guilt can encourage pro-social behaviour, if used properly.

“In commercial contexts, this is generally not the case,” says Slattery.

Equally, on issues such as trust, the ‘products’ or ‘services’ featured in pro-social websites are often more trust demanding than their commercial equivalent.

“You’re likely to be more concerned when volunteering than shopping online [because] by agreeing to participate, you’re potentially putting yourself at risk,” Slattery says.

‘They often rely on the idea that, if they want to help us, they will, and if not, then they will leave the website regardless’


And there is often significantly more uncertainty about the ‘fulfilment process’. Most people understand the process and outcome of, say, ordering a product from Amazon. But the process and outcome is often new and unclear in the case of a pro-social website.

Slattery cites the example of the highly effective charity, the Against Malaria Foundation. “People might ask questions like how, where and when are the nets delivered? How do I know? Such unknowns create a greater need for trust.”

And that trust is often something the website is primarily responsible for creating.

So what practical use can pro-social organisations make of Slattery’s research? And can organisations make use of this now, or is more research needed?

Behind Positly’s online presence
Following a long career in advertising, marketing and website design, Luke Freeman is the CEO of research study recruitment organisation Positly. He is also on the board of the charity, Effective Altruism Australia, and collaborated with Slattery on a project for the charity, where Slattery designed the research.

Freeman feels that, even in these early stages, Slattery’s research has much to offer charities that want to improve the effectiveness of their websites.

“A lot of the suggestions are intuitive, things like clarity and trustworthiness,” he says. “It almost reads like a checklist – am I doing this? Am I not doing this?”

Freeman points out that anyone designing a website has limited space to work with, and this limitation is generated by a user’s attention: “How much time will someone spend before making a snap judgment, commit to something or give up? Users ask the question, ‘is this worth my time?’”

Importantly, while this is exploratory research, anyone with the expertise to set up a website could make the kind of changes that Slattery is talking about.

How much time will someone spend before making a snap judgment, commit to something or give up?


“This sets the field up to do more quantitative research on the magnitude of the differences of these features, and the trade-off we make when we prioritise one over the other,” says Freeman. “You might not understand the magnitude of the issue, but you can tell now if you’re doing something right or wrong.”

Creating value for pro-social organisations
Importantly, for Freeman, Slattery’s research can serve as a starting point for pro-social organisations undertaking their own research about the effectiveness of their websites.

“It’s actually possible to run parallel websites to see if a change makes a difference – a simple suggestion might be to place a donation button at the top or the bottom of page, and see if there is any variation in donations.”

(Freeman regularly sends out different mail-outs to two halves of his donor list, to see if it makes any difference).

“This research has laid the groundwork so that charities have a framework to assess the quality of their current websites, with some direction as to how to test potential improvements in volunteering or charitable contributions in the future,” says Freeman.

“A lot of pro-social organisations avoid trying to persuade people,” says Slattery.

“They often rely on the idea that, if they want to help us, they will, and if not, then they will leave the website regardless.

“[But] there are definitely things that they can learn from commercial websites as these do a lot more to understand, attract and retain visitors and to give and get value during visits.”

And where might this research go in the future?

“I’m interested in testing the effectiveness of different kinds of online appeal for pro-social behaviour, and seeing how well these appeals work for different groups, and in different contexts,” says Slattery.

“Also, to understand the relative importance of different website factors, such as comparing the behavioural impact of a website being seen as attractive versus being clear or emotive.”

“Pro-social websites create a lot of value, but we’re not currently realising that value in full because of these limitations. There are a lot of easy ways to improve those websites, which can in turn help them to save and improve more lives, and increase their positive impact on the world,” says Slattery.


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