Best Practices: Rescue Websites

This post is written by Kyla Duffy, founder of Happy Tails Books and director of Up For Pups. Kyla has dabbled in web designer for almost a decade. She built and maintains http://happytailsbooks.com and http://upforpups.org, in addition to several other websites.

Kyla’s Take:

A rescue organization should have a website that is either named after the organization (ex. http://www.bostonbrigade.com/) or easy to remember (ex. http://www.savetheboxers.com/). If your name is very long, you might consider an abbreviation (ex. http://www.brood-va.org/). If you think of several good web names that aren’t already taken, you can purchase them inexpensively and simply point them to your main domain name using your hosting service’s control panel. Organizations like Petfinder.com offer free websites with limited functionality, which can be a good starting point for new rescue organizations. Most rescues then look for something more robust, but even extremely versatile websites don’t need to cost more than $5-$7 per month plus $10 per year for the domain name.

There are many user-friendly web development platforms available that do not require the web-builder to have an in-depth knowledge of html. One very popular platform is WordPress.com. This platform can be installed via a hosting service and offers “plugins,” easy-to-configure functionalities like contact forms, broken link checkers, spam filters.

Site Design

When planning your website, the first thing to consider is why people will visit your website. As a good website is the single most important marketing tool for a growing rescue organization, it is important to spend some time and thought planning it.

Common rescue website mistakes:

  • Music and flashy content
    • Just think of a person opening your website at work.
  • Too many buttons/choices
  • Difficult to locate key pages (adoptable pets, donations, volunteers, events)
  • Patterned background behind text
    • Difficult to read
  • Many different fonts and font sizes

A good website takes into account the visitor’s purpose(s) and fulfills them easily. For the most part, people visit rescue websites for a few specific reasons:

  • To adopt a pet
  • To learn about the organization (and the breed, for breed-specific rescues)
  • To make a donation
  • To volunteer
  • To find out about upcoming events

Rescue websites should easily direct visitors to these key items. Links should be organized across the top of the page with related sublinks that appear when someone rolls his or her cursor over the main header. Organizing these key links on the left-hand side of the page is also acceptable. Pages should be identified by standard key terms. For example, “Adoptable Dogs” is a much better link name than “Furries Seeking Furevers.” People are at your site for a purpose, and if that purpose isn’t fulfilled quickly, they will move on.

Many people visit rescue websites because they want to make donations. The donate button should be visible on every page and should clearly say, “Donate.” Payment processing services like Paypal have a standard button that many non-profits use. It’s easily recognizable.

Here is a page-by-page review of the type of content visitors look for:

About: The about page is usually the first link on the nav bar (the vertical or horizontal main menu). This page succinctly describes the rescue’s mission, the area it serves, key points of success, and information about the founders. Often rescues will include a story of the animal who inspired the rescuer(s) to found the rescue. Photos of the founding pets and founding people are always a good idea. If you are a 501c3 non-profit, list it on the About page and in the website footer.

Adoptable Dogs: There are different schools of thought on how the adoptable dogs page should be organized. Some rescues have this link first take people to a list of their adoption rules. Other rescues have this link take potential adopters directly to a listing of adoptable dogs. The authors of this manual feel that the best thing to do is to have this link take visitors directly to photos and write-ups of adoptable dogs. Your website should make learning about rescue and finding adoptable dogs EASY. You can drop the hammer during the application process, but at this point, the visitor is just interested in seeing who you have available.

Using a listing website like Petfinder.com is a great idea because these listing websites have much better search engine optimization than most rescues and can help you to find potential adopters. Additionally, from a webmaster perspective, the listing websites generally have listing tools that anyone can use, whereas if you were to list your adoptable dogs through our website, you would need a qualified webmaster to change the listings.  Most pet listing websites have a way to embed your listing within your website while still updating it through their interface. If this all sounds like gobbodygook to you, then let’s just say you should definitely use a listing service.

Your Adoptable Dogs link can have several sub-menus. For example, you may have separate pages for adoption requirements, breed information, and the adoption application.

Volunteer: Your website should convey the idea that volunteering with your rescue is easy, fun, and rewarding. List as wide a breadth of volunteer opportunities as possible so that potential volunteers can see all of the different ways they can help your organization. Include a link to your foster application, which ideally is a form on your website that is easily submitted with the click of a button. This page can be regularly updated to reflect your current volunteer needs.

Donate: Do NOT list 500 different ways for people to donate, and do NOT hide this page under a different main menu listing. If someone is coming to your website to donate, make it easy for them! It is acceptable to have two different donate options: One-time and Recurring. It’s also a good idea to list how different donation amounts will help your rescue. For example: $25 buys annual vaccines for one dog, $85 buys one neuter, $350 buys a cherry eye surgery, etc.

There are many different services that will process payments for you. Paypal.com, Amazon.com, and Justgive.org have no annual fee for their basic service and they take a reasonable percentage for each donation. Buying your own credit card processing service can be costly. Not offering some kind of credit card processing service will result in diminished donation, but you should also list an address for people to mail checks.

Events: This page should list any adoption and fundraising events you’ll be attending. Google calendars allows you to embed your calendar in your website, which makes for easy updates and that can be accessed by volunteers other than the webmaster. Some rescues simply list the dates and times they will have representatives available at events.

Contact: This is usually the rightmost link on the nav bar. The page should include an email address, phone number, and a physical address, at the minimum. Some rescues list several different contact people for different purposes, which is fine so long as the list doesn’t exceed five people or so and a “general inquiries” contact is listed. Make sure that someone is responsible to reply to general inquiries within 24 hours.

Other Pages: Some rescues list a Buy page if they sell things to help with fundraising. Check into local and federal regulations about whether you need a retail license to sell things on your website. A resource page where people can find additional information and alumni pages where people can read “happy tails” (usually a sub-menu under Adoptable Dogs) are also popular.

Site Maintenance:

Websites should be regularly checked for broken links. There is software available to do this for you, or hiring your friend’s computer-savvy 10-year-old works. Websites should also be regularly reviewed for outdated information. Search engines like keyword-heavy websites that are often updated with new content. Visitors like websites that are up-to-date, easy to navigate, and concise.

In Closing:

Following this advice does not mean that every rescue website should look the same, but by keeping it simple and clearly organized in a way that people expect, you will increase adoptions, draw in more volunteers and donors, and better fulfill the educational aspects of your rescue.

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5 Responses to Best Practices: Rescue Websites

  1. Shereen says:

    Great info and it puts a seemingly overwhelming task into perspective. So many great rescues could be overlooked if they don’t have a good, user-friendly website. It’s kind of along the same theory as meeting a person for the first time…there’s one chance to make a good first impression. I’ve heard that it costs more to have a .org and .com, is that correct?

  2. Kyla Duffy says:

    So true. A bad website will turn people away immediately, even if your rescue is super duper. It doesn’t cost any more to have a .org or a .com. Websites generally cost about $10 per year plus $6 a month for hosting. I really like http://hostmonster.com. They have great customer service.

  3. Great info Kyla!
    When I first started up my rescue this was my number one priority. And it was VERY stressful for me to do!
    I built our first site with Microsoft Web Expressions. It was fairly easy to use, but it still took me a considerable amount of time to figure out.
    Now our website is in Word Press. I actually didn’t do any of the actual building myself. Luckily for our rescue, my sister was doing an internship with a design firm in Omaha, Eleven19, last summer and for her project she redesigned our entire site. We spent a lot of time brainstorming what we wanted and looking through various other rescue sites to pull ideas from. In the end our website turned out amazing and it just keeps getting better and better.
    We have always viewed our website as a top priority, because for us it truly is the face of our organization. There are of course more things we want to add to the site, but haven’t had the time to incorporate.
    I’ll send this link along to my sister to see if she has any other tips to add:)

  4. Vicky Mazyn says:

    There are 2 extremely things that must be remembered about your web site. First, it absolutely must be kept current. I can’t tell you how many adoptions we have done that other organizations missed out on because our website is updated daily and is easy to use with no broken links. I hear it all the time. The other is good, up-to-date photos. Every rescue should invest in a good digital camera and find a volunteer to take the photos and do any cropping, etc needed to post. Remember that puppies grow fast and you will need to update their photos on a regular basis.

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