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May 17, 2002
Case Study

How the United Way of Greater Toronto Grows Online Donations

SUMMARY: If you are involved in your organization's Web site design andredesign decisions you will definitely enjoy this Case Study, asthe United Way's Michael Fuhrmann explains how they increaseddonations by revising their home page, twice. (Plus, ofcourse, if you are involved with online fundraising this is amust-read.)

When Michael Fuhrmann joined the staff at the United Way of Greater Toronto (UWGT) in 1998 as the Manager Graphic Design, his new boss asked him almost offhandedly, "Could you manage the Web site too?"

"It was tacked on to my job," explains Fuhrmann. (How many other, now-avid, Internet marketers fell into their jobs in the same way?)

While the site had several goals, including education and communications, one of the most important was fundraising.


Fuhrmann's very first move was to change the site's URL from to in hopes that more people would find it that way.

Why use a ".com" for a non-profit organization? Fuhrmann explains, "There are people who've never heard of .edu or .org extensions. Let's make it easy; what's the first thing that comes to your mind? .com."

Inspired by the battle that United Way of America went through to wrestle control of their .com extension from a porn site operator, Fuhrmann also registered ".net" and ".org" extensions for UWGT so no one else could get them.

Ease of use also dictated Fuhrmann's site design choices. His rule is someone on an old 386 computer with a slow ISP, and little to no Web surfing savvy should be able to load pages quickly, and easily figure out how to navigate around. Site design went in three stages as Fuhrmann learned what worked:

Design #1: Excited by the possibilities of sharing information online, the team behind the first site in 1999 jammed everything they could onto the home page. "It was way too busy, there was way too much information."

Design #2: In 2000, Fuhrmann rolled out his next home page iteration. This time he pared it back (see link below). The page is dominated by a single image of an elderly woman and the headline "The Best Way to Give." Navigation is clear, but definitely in second place to the overarching United Way brand message.

It is a great looking page (which is why it is still up now). However, Fuhrmann was not satisfied with resulting donations. "When you're on the page with Gladys, the donation link goes to another page and it goes to another page. It's fine from the perspective of people who want to learn more about us." Not so fine for people who just want to click and donate.

Design #3: In 2001, Fuhrmann decided to add a splash page that visitors would see before they clicked through to the home page.

Splash pages were popular in mid-90s site design, but quickly discredited when traffic reports showed how ineffective they were because visitors do not want to be forced to click through an image to get to the main home page where they can do the activity they are visiting for. (Note: Flash intros are this year's version of the old beleaguered splash pages.)

Fuhrmann's splash page is different however. Instead of branding, it presents a clear list of "Quick Links" for various UWGT sites and activities visitors may want to do. Basically it functions as an incredibly useful navigation tool, so you can get where you want to go to, and then see branded messages when you get there. Fuhrmann says, "It's kind of like a mini-portal."

The very top quick link is a donations button. "You click it and the donation box opens." No required surfing through lots of educational pages before you can hand over your money.

Some Web designers poo-poo saying "Click here" on links, because after all, do we all not know how to click by now?

Fuhrmann disagrees. "So many people still aren't Web savvy. I still get people calling up, 'I'm looking and how can I find this?' There's no reason to be pretentious about links. It's a system that has to be easy to use, and if you say 'Click here to get what you want', I'm sure they're very happy as opposed to funny little icons that nobody knows what they mean."

In addition to the main site, UWGT has launched several other sites to collect donations:

Inspired by The Hunger Site, UWGT lined up corporate sponsors who agreed to agree to donate a few cents every time a visitor clicked on UWGT's own version. (Visitors are cookied so only one click a day works per computer.) After you click, the page redirects you to a page with the sponsor's hotlinked logos.

Aside from PR and a viral element (the site includes a link you can use to email a friend to tell them to visit it), the site also drives traffic by placing button ads on sponsors and other supporters' sites.

-> United Way at Work
UWGT joined this program, which places special United Way donations microsites into corporate intranets. It was initiated and is technically managed by a consortium of US and Canadian United Way organizations. Fuhrmann explains that it is simply far too complicated to manage for a single agency alone from a technical standpoint, even with lots of high tech corporate supporters.

The system includes some fairly clever marketing tactics, including our favorite, online displays of company-wide and departmental fundraising goals and progress. Fuhrmann says, "People can watch how their campaign is doing amongst other departments. You have interoffice competitions happening."

Picking the right companies for this program and then convincing them to join is harder than you might think. "We have people go out and look through companies to see how their staff interact -- do they mostly work at desks? Is there a good PC network?"

He adds, "Companies usually ask how good our security is. That's why we're hosted by a 99% guaranteed uptime, firewall protected company. It's like a James Bond film there, they use thumbprint scanners to get into the server room!"

-> Special events donations sites
UWGT runs three special events each year, including the CN Tower stair climb and the Bay Street Rat Race, which people convince their friends to sponsor them in. Last year UWGT began launching special Web sites for each event that participants could use to collect donations.

Fuhrmann explains, "It allows for online registration, and has an email based system so you can invite people to sponsor you, or join your team. The toughest part of these events has always been collecting money, now they can pay with a credit card online."

In addition to these various sites, UWGT did consider partnering with some of the charity portals that have launched over the past few years, but declined. "When they approached us saying 'We'll put you as a prominent charity on our site', we felt they were getting the benefit of our brand which everyone knows in some form or another already. They would get a lot more benefit than we would. It also really dilutes our branding."

However, Fuhrmann notes, "These portals are great for people who are looking for a charity, and for smaller charities that can't afford to run their own ecommerce system."


With each home page redesign, donations leapt higher and higher. The main site's donations were:

1999 = $12,938
2000 = $44,775
2001 = $73,000

The average online donation amount is a whopping $300.

The ClickforUnitedWay site has definitely been successful, but requires the jolt of a cause-related marketing campaign to keep clicks coming in beyond the 800 regulars who return to click every day. Fuhrmann says, "We did a push last year around Valentine's Day linked to spousal abuse. It worked very well. We sent out an email and it got great viral pass-along."

In general, he has learned the more people are emotionally attached to the issue, the higher viral success a campaign will have. A similar campaign to help seniors did not do as well.

Fuhrmann's learned a similar lesson by watching click patterns on the sponsor buttons that many sites volunteer to run to drive traffic to "'Click here to help children in Canada' is a much better call to action than just an ad about United Way."

The ranks of companies involved in UWGT's United Way at Work intranet program have been slowing growing. The first year five tested it, the second year 15 joined, and for 2002 Fuhrmann expects 20-28 to sign on.

Fuhrmann is quick to note that UWGT has not handled all of these projects on their own. They have had help from many corporate sponsors, such as Web design firms and technology companies which have donated their services to further the cause. If you are also interested in getting involved, contact him at
or call 416.777.2001 x346.

Splash page:
Former home page:
See Also:

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