|Published by NetAction||Issue No. 96||October 9, 2003|
According to a recent analysis of U.S. government Web sites by researchers at Brown University, many e-government sites are not fully accessible because the content exceeds the public's literacy skills and/or the sites don't comply with government standards for disability access. Although the study by Brown University's Taubman Center for Public Policy was focused on government Web sites, there are lessons in the report for nonprofit organizations, as well.
Unfortunately, literacy statistics do indicate that about half of the U.S. population reads at the eighth grade level or lower. So Web site content that is written for a higher level of literacy may be beyond the comprehension level of your Web site's intended audience.
For example, an environmental advocacy organization may have information on its Web site intended to discourage the use of pesticides by home gardeners. If the information is written for the twelfth-grade reading level, someone who reads at the eighth-grade level may have trouble understanding it. If the purpose of the Web site is to reduce the use of pesticides by home gardeners, the site is not going to be as effective as an educational tool.
The lesson is clear: When creating or adding content to your Web site, consider the literacy skills of your intended audience. Is the information on your site written in a manner they can comprehend? If possible, check the readability by recruiting volunteers for a focus group and getting their feedback before finalizing new content or Web site features.
The Brown University report's recommendation that government Web sites strive for clear and simple language that is easily understood by the American public is equally applicable to nonprofit organizations.
In addition to poor readability, the Brown University study found a disappointingly small percentage of government Web sites that were fully accessible to visually and/or hearing-impaired Internet users. Fortunately, there is an easy way to determine if your site is accessible -- the "Bobby" service. Nonprofit organizations should be using this tool regularly to ensure that their Web site is accessible.
There are actually two separate standards for Web site accessibility, the Priority Level One standards recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the legal requirements of Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The "Bobby" tool allows you to check compliance under both standards.
The tool is easy to use. Just type in a URL, select which standard you want to check, and you'll get a report that describes any items on the page that are not in compliance with the standard.
The Brown University report's recommendation that claims of disability compliance should be verified regularly is also sound advice for nonprofits.
The Brown University study looked at a variety of other Web site issues in addition to readability and accessibility. While not all of them will be relevant to your organization, some certainly will be. Below is a list of other issues the report addressed and their potential relevance for nonprofit organizations.
What publications and/or databases are available on your Web site? Are there others that could be added? Does your organization have audio and/or video clips that could be featured on the site? If your organization sells or freely distributes publications, can they be ordered and/or downloaded from your Web site? The report recommended that Web sites with search engines ensure that the search results are relevant and up-to-date.
If your organization provides services to clients, can appointments be scheduled on the Web site? If your organization provides information and referral services, are they available via the Web site? The Brown University researchers recommend that links to services be clustered together on the site's main page.
Is any of the content on your Web site available in other languages? If so, are the links to translated pages easy to locate on the main page?
Ads and fees are only used in limited circumstances on government Web sites and this may also be appropriate for nonprofit sites. However, there may be circumstances in which ads and/or fees are appropriate. For example, an organization may provide some information at no cost, but charge for access to more detailed or specialized information. Ads may be appropriate when organizations partner with for-profit ventures to host conferences or events.
Are there areas on your Web site that are restricted to authorized users? Some organizations are finding it useful to set up a password-protected page where members of the Board of Directors can download financial reports and other background documents for Board meetings. Others may wish to provide major donors with special "insider" access to acknowledge their higher level of involvement in the organization.
Does your organization sponsor online discussion forums? Can Web site visitors subscribe to a newsletter or request updates on specific topics?
Does your organization respond promptly to email inquiries sent via the Web site?
Although the "paperless" office is still more myth than reality, there's a good chance that fewer of your organization's important documents are winding up in traditional file cabinets. It's tempting to skip the extra steps of printing and filing a paper copy of an important document. But as is so often the case, it may not be wise to yield to temptation.
As noted in a recent article in E Commerce Times, access to digital files is dependent on access to the operating system and application software that were used to create the file. But operating systems and applications change over time. So if you want to ensure that a document is always retrievable, don't count on your computer.
Limited backward compatibility is one of the more obvious concerns. Documents created in older versions of a software application may be accessible for a while, but eventually the developer is going to stop supporting older formats. To work around this and retrieve older documents, you could keep older computer systems running. But even with excellent maintenance the hard drive will eventually fail, and you may not be able to install the older software on a new computer.
For longer term storage, electronic documents can be converted to microfilm, Adobe PDF files or to Hewlett-Packard's Printer Control Language (PCL) format that is readable by most printers. Many documents are already being converted to Adobe's PDF format and Adobe has committed to keeping older versions of PDF files readable. Since the software necessary to read PDF files is widely available for free, this may be the best option for many nonprofit organizations. However, files can only be viewed with Adobe's software and there's no guarantee that Adobe will always be in business, so even this option has its limits.
As is so often the case, redundancy may be the best option for nonprofit organizations. Do keep backed up copies of important documents in electronic format. But also print and file a paper copy in that old-fashioned, low-tech filing cabinet. It may get dusty, but it will be there if you ever need it.
If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gets its way, effective November 24 your cell phone number won't have to change if you switch carriers. That's because the FCC has ordered all cell phone companies to offer number portability. Consumers can do this now when they switch providers for their regular phone service, but some cell phone companies are opposed to extending this right to cell phone customers and have been lobbying Congress to delay or kill the FCC's ruling.
In response, Consumer's Union has launched the aptly-named EscapeCellHell.org to help consumers put pressure on Congress to resist the industry lobbying effort to delay cell phone number portability. To learn move and/or contact Congress, visit EscapeCellHell.org.
NetActionis pleased to report that the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership has selected NetAction as one of the best online technology resources for nonprofit managers. A component of Grand Valley State University in Michigan, the Johnson Center hosts the Nonprofit Good Practice Guide, a comprehensive online resource directory and capacity building tool.
NetAction's profile is in the Technology section. The complete online guide contains a wealth of information on all aspects of nonprofit management.
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