Websites for Service Organizations: What You Are Doing Wrong, and How to Fix It


Not for Profits
Websites for service organizations

I am a member of my local area Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (often referred to as “the Elks” for short). I've also been a web architecture and web implementation consultant for nearly a decade now.

As the old saying goes, "If you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." Whenever I come across a new organization or small business, I inevitably look at their online presence, and begin to wonder how the internet and an online presence (in the rare case that they don’t already have one) could help improve their fortunes.

So one of the first things I did after becoming a member three years ago was to take a look at my local lodge’s website.

Long story short, I found it to be in a dreadful state, something that would have been considered dreadful and cringe-worthy even by 1997 standards.

So just over two years ago, I rebuilt it for them. And in the course of doing that, I learned a few things about what service organizations like the Elks can do to grow membership through online marketing.

The Problem

Although my lodge is doing well membership-wise, it is a distinct outlier as service organizations go. For many of them (like the Elks,  RotaryLions, and the Knights of Columbus), membership overall is in dramatic decline.

This article in the Journal & Courier from 2014 states that membership in the Elks alone dropped by nearly half, from 1.6 million in 1980 to just over 800,000 by 2012. In his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community  Robert Putnam documents the decline of civic and community life in America, including the decline in membership organizations like the Elks.

A good website could help in a big way. But despite this worrying trend, the local chapters of most of these service organizations relegate their website (to the extent they even have one) to the lowest priority. Often it is built by a volunteer, who has little or no time to maintain it, who may not be current with the most modern technologies, and who might have little experience with the art and science of visitor conversion  (how to get a visitor to the website to at the very least make an inquiry on how to become a member).

So this article is for those in leadership of such organizations that are sufficiently concerned about declining membership that they wish to have a look at new ideas, and at what online marketing can do.

It is not a comprehensive guide, but just a few ideas that will help get the management of a local chapter of one of these organizations started off on the right foot.

The Usual (and Wrong) First Step

I see a lot of people who start into getting a website built, who start off the wrong way.

They first person they call is a “web designer.” To start out with, and as I detail in my book on the subject, this is a nebulous term, and there are no really good standards that specifically define what type of skills you have to have to call yourself a “web designer.”

These discussions with “web designers” often start with which technology to use (Wordpress? Squarespace? Drupal? Joomla? Some DIY sitebuilder?). There is also a lot of discussion about what it should look like (the colors, the fonts, etc.) There might be a lot of looking at the web designer’s other work (“Oooh look, I really like that.”). Of course, there is some talk about what types of features should be placed on the website, like news, events, etc.

These are all the incorrect first steps. A lot of it is educated guessing, What you need before you even pick up the phone to call this “web designer” is some data.

The Right First Step

The first thing you need to think about before you have those conversations is the fundamental question of getting lots of visitors to the website, and getting them to click through to make an inquiry about membership.

Until you have thought that process through, any conversation  about the website’s graphic design or choice of technology is premature..

The first step in that process is to do some market research in your local area to see what people are looking for online. This is known as keyword research.

We’ll get keyword research in a minute, but before we go there, the organization has to do a bit of self-analysis.

What Are They Buying?

Ask yourself: What is your organization “selling?” And what is your prospective member looking to “buy?”

With for-profit organizations, the question is fairly easy. With a non-profit like the service organization, the "sale" is much less concrete and tangible. And it can be a hard sell. The prospective member will be expected to pay dues, volunteer time, and also make financial donations to various charitable causes supported by the organization. In exchange, they will expect to get something.

The most obvious benefit for their money and time will be that warm feeling one gets from a spirit of charitable giving. Each of your organization’s areas of charitable giving should be evaluated from this point of view. Think through how you would describe the benefits you are creating for the group or category of people your charitable cause aims to help.

With many service organizations, you also are selling a place to socialize and network with like-minded people. Elks lodges have a decidedly social aspect to them. Membership includes access to a club room, essentially a bar where members can drink adult and soft beverages, and perhaps eat some light fare.

Other organizations, like Rotary, focus on their regular schedule of meetings. They do not feature a defined physical location, often holding their meetings in rented or donated space, which features a breakfast or lunch without alcohol. But the ability to socialize with other members is a key material benefit.

In a sense, as distasteful is it may be to some to phrase it this way in the context of a charitable organization, you are in competition with other charitable organizations in your area for both donations and the time of volunteers, which these days is at a premium, depending on your community. So you need to go through this process in detail, and know what you have to offer.

The Secret Ingredient

After you’ve done all that, here’s where the rubber meets the road, and where things get interesting when it comes to websites.

The key item of data you need to pin down is the volume of searches on search engines that suggest an intent to donate to one of your local charitable causes in your area. That’s called keyword research, which we referred to earlier.

Why keyword research? The fact of the matter is a very large portion of the traffic to any given website comes through a channel billed as “organic search.”

This traffic comes mostly from a page on your website popping up in a search performed in Google, but can also be from Microsoft’s Bing search engine, Yahoo. There are others out there.

And here’s the kicker: That number of visits from organic search, as a percentage of visits to your future website, can be anywhere from 40% to as much as 65%.

Many are surprised by the size of this number. But when you think about it, there are a limited number of channels through which an individual can find a charitable organization’s website.

They can:

  • Have the website address directly (from a business card or brochure) and type it into the browser address bar; or
  • They find a link to it in an email, on another website, or on social media.

Those are really the only two other options, and they are limited.

That leaves the traffic you get from search engines. So you have to focus on that traffic as a priority.

Your goal is to have your website’s pages rank as highly as possible for keywords that demonstrate an intent to find the charitable causes your organization supports.

So how do you find out who is searching for what?

How Do You Do Keyword Research?

Although you can do keyword research yourself, it often helps to talk to an SEO expert and ask that person to perform some keyword research for you. An SEO Expert may have some better ideas on how to initially phrase a keyword phrase that can show the necessary intent.

He or she will have access to various free and commercial keyword research tools to not only check search volumes, but come up with closely related keyword phrases.

These tools can provide you with information like

  • How much recent search volume there is for a particular group of keyword phrases; and
  • How difficult it is to rank highly for those keyword phrases

Armed with this information, you can now begin to plan your website with an eye toward ranking highly for those keywords.

To provide an extreme example, using two charitable causes which are important to the Elks: let’s take ‘Special Needs Children’ and ‘Veterans’:

Suppose you do some local keyword research and learn that there are 10,000 searches a month in your area for people looking for programs for children with special needs, but only 100 search a month showing an intent to donate to veterans causes.

The results would suggest that you put more emphasis on children with special needs programs on your website, with a specific strategy geared toward ranking high (ideally on page one) of search results.

I'm not suggesting a value judgment here, that one charitable cause is somehow better than another. But your main goal is to get new members. Once you get the member in the door who is more interested in special needs, you have a greater chance of "selling" them on providing support for veterans as well. So go with the more popular search terms in your area first, get the traffic, get the membership, and earn support for your other activities later.

You should always enter a proposed keyword phrase into a search engine and check the results, to see which websites show up on the first page (which is the page for which you should aim for your website’s pages).

If you already have a website and your organization is showing up, congratulations! That’s the first and biggest step. If it shows up on page four, then you’ve got some work to do.

All of the website pages that come up on page one of that search can be analyzed to see for which keywords they rank. You can ask your SEO consultant for help with that.

Keyword Research Done. What Next?

If you’ve already retained an SEO consultant to help you with the keyword research, he or she will have contacts in the profession and can direct you to other website professionals who understand this process. They will plan, design, and build your website to these specifications.

The SEO consultant can also help optimize the site’s important pages for search engines with the keywords you have decided are the best ones (the ones you wish to “go after,” in other words, rank highly for), and can also show you how to measure results, and the like.

Last Thing: Start Small

One last, very important point. Do not feel that you have to start by spending thousands of dollars on a website. These days, there are several so-called “DIY Site Builders” that can provide excellent starting sites for small organizations. Platforms like Squarespace (which I would consider the leader in DIY site builders right now) are a great example. You can get a website now for a fraction of the cost of more traditional platforms, which will not only look good, but which will have the necessary infrastructure in place to optimize your pages for search engines.

If you are truly a struggling chapter with a very tight budget, be wary of web professionals who automatically recommend a platform like Wordpress, Drupal, or Joomla. These are more costly to build, have a higher periodic costs to run and maintain, and provide no added benefit over a Squarespace-type platform. They might be more appropriate once your Lodge starts growing again, at a certain point further on down the line,

You’re better off starting out small, getting some results, and periodically reviewing your web presence for continuous improvement.


Although membership might be declining in the local chapter of your service organization, all is not lost.

Following the above guidelines can get you well on your way to a cost-effective online marketing program centered around a new website that can bring membership back up. And that would be a good thing for all involved.

Got a question? I love talking about this stuff. Feel free to write me with any questions you might have.

A big shout out to Jen Hopkins of the Springfield, NJ Elks Lodge #2004 for her feedback and comments to a draft of this post. Thanks, Jen!

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