A strong web presence is paramount to maintaining a strong organization, and having a mobile-friendly web presence is increasingly an important element. Currently, 85 percent of Americans own cell phones — and more than half of those use them to access the Internet. Industry analysts expect browsing the web on mobile devices to become more common than browsing on traditional desktops and laptops as soon as next year. Idealware’s research intern Tyler Cummins looked into the matter for the NonProfit Times, which originally published this article as a special report in its March 1, 2013, print edition. Read it in its original format here.

For organizations with a large number of constituents accessing their websites from mobile devices, those sites must be mobile-friendly — in other words, as welcoming and useful to people viewing them on small smartphone screens as to those browsing on larger desktop monitors. For mobile users visiting poorly optimized websites, the text might be too small to read, images might be too large, and links might not work, all good ways to alienate visitors, including potential donors and volunteers.

Web hosts can help organizations determine how many people visit their sites using mobile devices, as can Google Analytics. But, it’s a good bet that whatever that number is now it’s only going to increase as the world continues to embrace mobile technology. By outlining a strong plan for attracting, engaging, and mobilizing these constituents, even small organizations can take advantage of their growing popularity and avoid being left behind.

There are a number of options to embrace mobile users, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Websites for Mobile

Most websites can be displayed on tablets and touchscreen computers with minimal alterations, but the small screens of mobile phones pose different challenges. One option for organizations is to maintain separate websites for mobile users. This method provides a simple, readable way for mobile users to visit while still retaining a comprehensive site for non-mobile browsers.

Mobile sites typically are single-column to allow users to scroll vertically instead of requiring them to scroll horizontally, and feature only the most important text, images, and links to reduce clutter on small screens. This approach also lets organizations add benefits and features not available on most desktops and laptops. For example, mobile users can swipe through pictures and articles, scan QR codes, or click on addresses to get directions to an event.

Many Content Management Systems (CMS) offer templates for mobile websites that can be used in conjunction with existing sites and that automatically determine which site to use based on visitors’ devices. This option is free, as long as an organization’s CMS supports it. Heifer International in Little Rock, Ark., an organization focused on ending worldwide poverty and hunger, worked with a consultant to set up a mobile-optimized site to offer users critical information with several links to donate from mobile devices. There is also a link to the Heifer “gift catalog,” a major component of the nonprofit’s mission.

“You always need to be aware of what’s on the horizon so you’re not using staff time or resources to create something that’s going to be obsolete,” said Rich Cason, Heifer International’s director of Internet marketing. Organizations unwilling or unable to tackle larger mobile efforts can adjust their existing sites to welcome mobile visitors with a bit of effort or cost. Websites can be made more mobile-friendly by limiting links and navigation on the home page to only those most commonly used or most necessary — including a way for users to donate, information about the organization’s work, and links to social media pages. News, videos or photos, and other information on the home page should fit on a single page, with little or no left and right scrolling required to further annoy mobile visitors.

Key information can also be duplicated on organizations’ Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. As such sites are already optimized for mobile phones, users can find what they need there more easily.

The most comprehensive option for creating a mobile web presence is to create a website from scratch using responsive design, which allows the site to react and adapt to users’ browsers. Such sites include different orientations for desktops, tablets, and smartphones in a single website, and the pages will shrink from four columns of text and images to two for tablets, for example, or one for smartphones. This approach usually requires a complete redesign, which means additional cost, but can provide greater benefits moving forward as web browsing continues to evolve. Building a site from scratch using responsive design can add from $500 to $1,000 to the cost of a redesign, depending on the complexity of an organization’s needs.

The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) in New York City, for example, has put its annual report online with a devoted website built with responsive design, including photo galleries, progress evaluation, financial information, and opportunities to donate. “People were offended that their donations were going to create something that most people were going to recycle and not even look at,” said AJWS Associate Director of Communications Hadassah Max. Aproximately 18 percent of constituents were accessing the report on the AJWS website from mobile devices, so the organization designed a site that made the report more welcoming.

While creating a web presence using responsive design can be an intensive undertaking, reasonable goals and plenty of patience can make it feasible for any organization. For the AJWS, the decision-making process took roughly a month to complete, including conceptualizing layout, organizing content, and identifying goals for the annual report site. Max said incorporating the responsive design element to the site likely doubled the time needed to complete a standard website.

Beyond Websites: Apps

Websites are just one way organizations can engage and interact with mobile users. Another is to design and build mobile applications, or apps, that users download to their phones. Successful apps offer users something beyond what they can get from a website. For example, you can let them access certain features even when they are offline.

Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., designed Seafood Watch, a useful application that engages constituents and helps to further the nonprofit’s mission. Seafood Watch provides a list of sustainable seafood choices and guides users regarding what to order and what to avoid. It’s quickly accessible for download at any restaurant or fish market. The aquarium recently added Project FishMap, a new feature that lets users browse restaurants where sustainable seafood is available. It also lets them add new ones, which improves the app and creates a dynamic relationship between the organization and its constituents.

While there are examples of organizations succeeding with apps, in general, it’s an expensive undertaking with a lot of risk. Though Heifer International has found success with its mobile website, the organization’s initial foray into mobile was an iPhone app offering a scaled-down version of its website, information about the organization, and a link to donate. When constituents showed little interest in learning about the organization with such frequency, the organization abandoned the app it had developed at significant cost.

Very simple apps can be created for a few thousand dollars, but for a fully customized, detailed application an organization should expect to spend at least $10,000. That number can climb into the hundreds of thousands depending on the complexity of the application. Heifer’s app cost about $4,000 and 30 hours of staff time.

Apps need to appeal to users enough to be downloaded and used, and it’s easy for them to get lost in the sea of existing applications. Making constituents download applications can also create an additional barrier between them and the organization, which can be the critical difference in whether an app is successful.

In addition to apps, many organizations are establishing a presence on such mobile-based social media as Instagram and Flickr, the popular photo-sharing platforms where users upload, share, and edit smartphone pictures. Yelp and Google Places let users search for physical locations on mobile phones and find reviews, contact information, or turn-by-turn directions.

Foursquare is another application built with mobile devices in mind. Users can “check in” to physical locations, share their experiences, and earn points and badges. The American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., used Foursquare to thank users for donating blood and remind them to donate in the future. Constituents can check in, tag themselves on Facebook, and use Twitter hashtags to promote events on their mobile phones in real time.

SMS and Texting

Text-to-donate and SMS (short message service) messaging campaigns were popular ways of engaging constituents via mobile devices before cell phones were able to access the web. Statistics show that texting remains popular with all age groups — especially the young. Some international organizations and those with databases of constituents’ mobile phone numbers still see positive results from text-related campaigns. Having an option where mobile users can text a particular phrase to donate can be useful for organizations that have many events, or situations where impulsive donation is common.

In addition to providing mobile users quick information about their missions or events, organizations can use text messages to ask them to answer survey questions, visit links, or sign petitions. Save the Children, for example, has had great success with a text-based campaign reaching out to text subscribers once each month, and constituents can donate $5-$10 from any mobile phone with SMS messaging enabled.

Such text-to-give campaigns are primarily successful on a large scale to raise funds for highly publicized crises, like the 2010 Haiti earthquake, where timely, impulsive giving can make a big difference. Texting is not a replacement for traditional fundraising, but a supplement to the tried and true methods of constituent outreach. “You want to start building a relationship with subscribers before you start asking them for money,” cautioned Kalyn Paul, Internet marketing specialist for Save the Children in New York City.

Inexpensive solutions for mass texting and mobile giving are available. For local campaigns, an organization can expect to spend anywhere between $10 and $100 per month. This number can climb higher, however, depending on the size of the campaign and the number of recipients. Two-way texting can also increase cost.

Other organizations are using mobile technology to engage constituents in ways that better meet their mission. Day One is an anti-dating violence organization in New York City that delivers direct services and prevention around teen violence. It uses mobile to communicate with the teens that make up its audience. When teens need the organization’s help, they often need to reach out in a confidential setting or to ask anonymous questions, said Executive Director Stephanie Nilva.

“We do that through either instant messaging or texting,” she said. “Some-times they’re even, as teenagers, limited in their ability to travel for services, or by financial resources, or because of their parents. A lot of our clients are communicating with our social worker by text message. We offer information and what we call ‘safety planning’ by text message and links to instant messaging. By communicating with youth in this way, they become more comfortable discussing their situation and may more easily decide to pursue face to face counseling.”

Nilva said that counseling by text might sound foreign to adults, but makes perfect sense to teens. Anonymous safety planning helps them learn to stay safe in relationships, which can be life-saving in many circumstances. Texting makes sense for Day One on a number of levels: It meets the needs for confidentiality and anonymity; it’s convenient and inexpensive; and, it’s the teens’ preferred medium. “We can’t not do it,” she said. “This is the best way to reach them, and it happens to have that confidential component. All those things are really critical to the issue and to the age group.”

Despite its reliance upon, and success with, text messaging, Nilva said her organization is not as far along the mobile curve as it would like. “We’re a youth-servicing organization, so that means we can always be doing more with mobile,” she said. “When your population is existing primarily online and in cell phone spaces, there’s no limit to what you can be doing. I do see us moving in the direction of other mobile uses. We’re right in the middle of redesigning our website, and I think that’s going to have a mobile component to it as well, but we’re not doing as much as I’d like.”

It’s becoming more and more important for organizations to maintain a mobile-friendly presence, regardless of what form that takes. Given recent slumps in desktop computer sales – and a corresponding boost in mobile sales — it makes sense for every organization to consider how it appears to mobile users. Young people are using mobile devices the most, but not exclusively. More than half of all adult cell phone owners have smartphones, and women between the ages of 35 and 54 are the most active group in mobile social media. Overall, everyone with a mobile device is using it for more than just playing games and checking the weather. They’re using them to donate to organizations, conduct important business, and to stay informed. Organizations should weigh their abilities, evaluate the culture of their constituents, and consider their missions and budgets before deciding on which front they want to engage mobile users first. Otherwise, they risk leaving behind a large potential audience.