I just posted an article on Examiner.com about Operation HOPE, a nonprofit working for economic justice by facilitating private businesses to operate in under-served communities. At least, that’s what I think they do.

As I was researching my article, I kept running up against a lack of clear brand identity and sub-optimal web design. Let’s look at the identity issue first. Take a look at Operation HOPE’s About Us page and tell me what they are, what they do or how they work towards their mission. Having trouble? I know that I did.

Under History and Mission we can see their mission statement pretty clearly: “to eradicate poverty in our lifetime through the ‘Silver Rights Movement'” We can tell right off the bat that they are an anti-poverty organization. That’s good. So, what exactly is the “Silver Rights Movement”? One might think that a definition or description could be found by following History and Mission link. But,no. Instead, the visitor gets a small paragraph with three defining statements. Operation HOPE, Inc. (HOPE) is:

  • a non-profit, public benefit organization…
  • America’s leading provider of economic tools and services
  • an effective facilitator, lender, advocate and educator…

No mention of Silver Rights is made (and won’t be made for the rest of the page). The claim to be the “leading provider of economic tools and services” is entirely unbelievable without a qualifier.  Are we to believe that HOPE really provides more economic tools and services than Fannie Mae, the SBA, Bank of America, Citigroup, Western Union or PayPal? I’m sure there is some niche or collection of tools and service for which HOPE is the leading provider, but I can’t believe that they are number 1 in the country (notice it’s not “one of America’s leading …”).

The third statement is helpful and seems to define their role, although not very narrowly.  It is a complex organization that is working on many fronts, so we can forgive them for that.  However, the statement ends with the opaque term “the other America.” It isn’t until the third paragraph that the reader sees another mention of “the other America” and there’s no definition of the phrase until the end of that paragraph. Worse still, the paragraph in between is a dense brick of text with sentences that sum up to; What we do, some part of our mission, redux of last sentence, somewhat paradoxical, different mission component, data-poor marketing statement.

If we wade through all of that and get to the bottom, we still don’t have a clear picture of their mission or history.  The closing paragraph has more overlapping or contradicting mission statements; “HOPE’s mission is empowerment. [aha! Thank you! Shoulda been bullet point #1. Now, for whom, how, when, why?] The objective of HOPE’s work is …” No one should be expected to wade through all of this text to find the core idea, especially on the web.  Then, they end with what could be a wonderful mission statement that could be a list with links to each item at the top of the page. Overlooking the typo there, the last sentence still ends with a clunk.  Bridge what gap?

I find this really disappointing for an organization that is doing such important work.  They are hamstringing themselves by being abstruse.  I have worked for nonprofits with varied programs and complex identities before. I know that it can be difficult to distill the essence of the whole while accurately including the many varied parts. Operation HOPE’s website is an especially unfortunate and acute case of ill-defined (or poorly expressed) identity. There’s no simple statement of who they are, what they do and how they do it.  There’s not even an elevator pitch encapsulating their identity in a paragraph or two.

The design of their sites, and there are multiple ones for their projects, also contributes to the obfuscation of their greatness.  The navigation bar on the left is not ugly, but it pushes important, attention-getting buttons way down below the fold.  Each item expands in to several subheadings, but how is anyone supposed to know which of those they are interested in prima facie? It would work much better to have the links we can see now under categories. “About Us” would contain the info about the chairman and the global spokesman. “Programs” would include all of their initiatives listed there, at least one of which is actually volunteer outreach, i.e. “Get Involved.” And so on.

The site is in serious need of updating as well.  The most recent annual report is from 2007! The initiatives page (not the Global Initiatives, mind you) doesn’t include the 5 Million Kids initiative that gets its own banner on the front page. All of this continues the pattern of enticing the visitor in, “Learn More”, then falling short on delivering the goods.

Spreading the different components of the organization across multiple websites is a risky move, too.  The 5 million Kids Initiative (which is laudable) has its website featured prominently on HOPE’s main page, but it isn’t easy to get from 5MK back to HOPE.  The 5MK site’s slicker design might make someone not want to leave it anyway.  It has an abundance of information, but it’s clearer and more colorful. Then there’s a MyOperationHOPE site, which seems like a much cleaner design of the main site, to encourage personal participation.  It is much more intelligible and has some clearly defined channels for supporters to get involved. However, it contains so much of the original site, it ends up fracturing social involvement rather than integrating it.  (Looking for the social network tie-in on the main site? It’s a small button all the way down in the footer.) The lack of clarity extends to John Hope Bryant’s site, another offshoot of OH.org, too. I think they should work on integrating the multiple sites into as few as possible, present a clear relationship between them and make it easy to get from one to the other.

Operation HOPE is a remarkable success story in the nonprofit world and a leading innovator in combating the causes of inner-city poverty.  Mr. Bryant, who founded Operation HOPE, has visionary ideas.  He’s published books and served on presidential advisory boards.  They both deserve better marketing than they are getting with these websites. The lack of clarity and poorly expressed messages do a great disservice to the remarkable achievements and groundbreaking work of HOPE, making it hard for even their supporters to support them.

The main use of the web for nonprofits should be to facilitate public support.  It should make it easy for someone to give a donation and be compelling enough to convince them to do so. This doesn’t require cutting edge design, but it does need serious consideration given to design.  It doesn’t require great writing even, but careful editing. Websites should lead visitors from the hazy to the specific, converting casual readers into supporters as they learn more and more about an organization’s positive attributes. Failure to do so puts any organization at a real disadvantage in the competitive market for funding or revenue.