SEO for Charity Websites: an Interview of Dominic Mapstone

This is an interview of my friend Dominic Mapstone, who uses SEO to help influence the media and make social change.

What is the hardest part about marketing a non-profit website online?

  1. Having the client’s permission to divulge confidential information or even a photo of them in non-profit marketing is a big roadblock for all non-profits.

Most have to hire actors or dress a staff member up to pose for a staged photo, and they use hypothetical situations or characters in their advertising – nothing from a real case file.
On our website about homeless people all our stories are real and often include photos of the person and even the place they sleep at night.

At the end of each story you can click through to a forum thread and talk with the person in the story. Except for a homeless man Andrew, he was murdered so can’t really come to the forums right now.

I get client’s permission, give them an alias and am very well respected on the street so they know I will protect their interests. Far and away though, getting content and connections like this is the most difficult factor for non-profit marketing.

If you have permission to use content and record the stories and photos:

  1. Knowing what stories to tell or picture to paint, from a marketing perspective is the next hardest thing. One story on our site is about a homeless girl who killed someone when she was robbing a store to fuel a drug binge.

On face value you wouldn’t imagine a story like that painting a flattering story of the homeless. But get into the context and follow her story as it unravels and it’s an educational and engaging story.

By the end of the page:

  • you are cheering her on
  • you understand homelessness more
  • you have an idea of what I’m about
  • and even know the name of my dog

A lot of people non-profits help aren’t that marketable. So picking the right story to present and knowing what facts to include and what to leave out is difficult. We have 100 stories we can’t use for every one that has potential.

  1. If your topic area is exclusively non-profit, competing with powerful government websites which are usually PR8 or PR7 is to be expected and more recently Wikipedia always ranks well in non-profit topic areas.

Our websites tick a lot of the right SEO boxes, but the one factor we really outperform in is one not widely held as important in SEO circles.

When people visit our sites, they usually have found what they are looking for and don’t quickly click away. A number of people have emailed me reporting they have spent five hours or more reading our content.

With any website, researching what people are searching for in the long tail and in the popular keyword phrases and SEOing for it is important. But delivering on quality content once they find your website, from my experience has paid off.

Maybe there isn’t a ‘time spent on site’ gland that gets tickled at Google, maybe it’s just the old school SEO I’ve done all along.

Maybe the Google ‘time spent on site’ gland works the other way round – if people usually navigate away from your site promptly and revisit search results it’s telling Google a thing or two about the value of your place in their search results.

Either way:

Delivering on what your place in the search results promises for people clicking through to your site is food for thought for all website owners.

  1. The other big challenge is chasing keywords in a for profit market with a non-profit educational website. SEO smarts are really helpful when your competition has a large marketing budget.

In Australia when teenagers graduate high school they head to the nearest beach for a week of partying. It’s a tradition known as Schoolies.
Tens of millions of dollars are spent at tourist destinations around the country so our competitors have a lot of motivation and strong marketing budgets.

Gold Coast Schoolies attracts over 50,000 people and destinations along the Great Barrier Reef such as Whitsundays Schoolies books out entirely.

Our Social Work interest in Schoolies as the most significant youth event in the national social calendar is protecting the interests of the young people and providing a peer education program for them (Schoolies Survival Guide).

Problems such a sexual assault, street violence, alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, and suicide are significant. There are also consumer rights and fair trading issues we get involved in to protect young people.

Maintaining a prominent position in search results has enabled us to engage young people via the Schoolies Forums and give them a voice and place to explore issues they will face at Schoolies.

When did you know that the web was going to be a key part of your strategy?

Back in 2003, I used SEO techniques, and applied marketing principals… to a few websites and then had more unique visitors than I had anticipated and some cash flowing into our non-profit from online sources.

  • Being able to reach a wide audience attracted me.

Unique visitors per month for the websites: 55,000 and 30,000.

  • Being able to earn a passive income really caught my attention.

As an example of online passive income: I wrote a page detailing my experience catching and cooking mud crab. Checking our website stats I was surprised that it got attention online so I put some Adsense ads on it and the page brings in some funds for us every month.

It’s unrelated to our work and on a side website we own, but the concept of providing quality content people want to read and earning some bank from it, while I’m off doing what I really want to do on the streets is great.

  • On a personal note the internet as a creative outlet and SEO as a competitive outlet have been great. Winding down after a difficult day by reading some blogs, getting into forums and updating sites is great for lowering stress.

How many people have you helped over the years? 

I started volunteering with the homeless when I was 17, in 1994. I graduated my Social Work Degree in 1999, and founded a non-profit organization in 2003.

A central philosophy of Social Work is to understand an individual’s situation in the broader context of society; and change society and social policy for the better, not just the individual’s situation.

So while I’d say it’s quite a number of individuals, the real business of it all is to change society and social policy for the better.

My SEO experience behind our websites has significantly increased the number of people I’ve been able to engage with and enlist in community development and social change.

I believe you run a forum to help homeless people. How do you lift up the spirits and give hope to a person who may be sleeping in an unknown location that night? How do you keep the tone positive when many people are struggling to survive?

Unknown location? They are all staying at the Million Star Hotel!

The tone doesn’t have to remain positive. Sure we try and keep a glass half full thing going on, but the fact that people are sharing and exploring their own brokenness with people as open about their own brokenness tends to make it a genuine comfortable place for everyone, even on a bad day.

Our greatest asset in the Homeless Forums is an excellent team of moderators / forum leaders who in the main are current or formerly homeless people themselves so have great familiarity with the problems faced by other members.

Every now and again someone throws a chair, but people understand in that community space, and moderators are expressly trained to be patient (to a degree) and engage members supportively.

A big deal with homelessness is the disconnection from family and the community. So the Homeless Forums enable people with similar life experiences to connect with each other in a supportive way.

A student recently asked in a thread why people visit the forums, here is one reply:

“When I got off the street I cut most of my connections with old friends on the street as I didn't want to slip back into many bad habits i.e. drugs.
I have trouble relating to most mainstream people so for me this is a place I can talk to people who not only understand a lot of my experiences but empathise and don't criticize.
When I'm here I can be myself rather than hiding my past or hiding from it.
Where else could I say hi I'm an ex-prostitute and recovering alcoholic and druggie now turned university student.”

I can take credit for the idea to promote a forum for homeless people, but the 3,000+ members especially the moderators are the ones who have developed it into such an effective gathering place.

Two notable threads include the personal journal of a homeless girl over the course of four years moving out of street life. The thread has had over 50,000 page views helping to educate people about homelessness.

In another thread, a homeless man in London is exposing a disgusting practice of wetting down foot paths where homeless people sleep to move them on. His efforts to confront this degrading policy of the Corporation of London via the forums have been covered by the BBC and other news outlets.

I receive a number of emails from people saying they have spent some time reading the forum threads and that they learnt more about homelessness then they could imagine from a book or university course. So it’s great to hear those interested in learning about homelessness are finding educational reading in the forums.

Shout out to Chicago Homeless, Los Angeles Homeless and San Francisco Homeless we haven’t heard much from you yet.

How do people find your site? What do you do to encourage them to register and contribute?

I’ve optimized the site to return in a number of homeless related searches and invite visitors to the website into the forums.

One of the most effective ways has been to share five stories of homeless people on our website and at the end of each story, invite readers into the forums to a designated thread where they can leave a message of support for the homeless person they just read about and read replies to their message directly from the person in the story.

We also encourage homeless members to print out a flyer promoting the forums and post it at homeless service providers they frequent.

Service providers who provide internet access to homeless people can use a start page I designed for them to set as their default homepage, with search boxes for the major search engines and links to popular email services along with links to sections of the forums: Homeless Homepage.

Do you see SEO growing as a strategy for you? Do you have to have other exposure to do well in search? What core SEO principals should be applied to non-profit websites?

Certainly, SEO has served us well so I continue to follow developments in the industry and invest time in our websites.

Links from newspaper articles are another great source of exposure and bring exceptional SEO benefit. Radio and television interviews are great exposure also. Regardless of if the site is for-profit or non-profit.

The media’s daily hunger for content is so significant as it needs just as much more content tomorrow and the next day as it published today. So there are some great opportunities for exposure via the media.

The most underutilized SEO technique in the non-profit sector is deep linking and the most common mistake is simply trying to elevate their brand, rather than chasing topical keywords or geographical distinctions.

How does your online presence influence life offline? How do you get the media involved in issues?

We get a lot of phone calls as a result of prominence in search results, so I feel like a switch board sometimes, directing people to the appropriate service.

One of the upsides is that the media also call looking for the best person to talk to about the latest news angle they want to cover, so I get first lick of the ice cream and can take media opportunities I’m interested in.

For anyone wanting media coverage:

  1. The best starting point is to read the recent coverage of your topic on Google News and get a good understanding of the kind of news that gets covered.
  2. Then pick out a journalist from these stories. Write a good press release and send it to the journalist.
  3. Note the easiest stories to get in on are industry or other people’s news. You don’t have to be newsworthy, just be able to supply a timely comment about what is newsworthy.
  4. Having a media contacts page listed on your website is a good practice also.

We also get weird and wonderful requests from people who find us online. One lady gave us a whole lamb from her butcher as some kind of offering in memory of her father who died recently.

I had to call a priest to check if it was some weird religious thing I should avoid getting involved with, but he said it was fine, just her way of celebrating her father’s life. So the homeless staying at our shelter ate every kind of lamb cut there is for the next few weeks.

As a non-profit, every keyword topic area we are involved in and dominate online strengthens our Social Work position offline – impacting people’s lives.

Should non-profits buy links? How do they get exposure online when the network is already so saturated?

Rather than buy links I’d encourage non-profits to hire a Masters student or PHD student in to do some writing for them (just call your local university and ask the faculty to recommend a student), or allocate some staff time if you have in-house experts.

Workshop in-house your topic area and ask what’s missing in terms of information online? Have a really quality position paper or article written on that topic, publish it on your website and update the Wikipedia to reference the article.

Consider the reference worthy content you could create for a few thousand dollars and you would now own highly link worthy content.

The document would also be great for long tail searches and the writing style and substance would no doubt register on Google’s semantics quality score.

Quality substantive content needs a lot less link juice to attract search traffic.

Here are some potential link sources free for non-profits:

Non-profit organizations are also forever in contact with each other so use your existing real life networks to make some online linking connections. They are the best contacts to ask for deep links with descriptive anchor text – to programs or events you profile on internal pages, reports or even just your contact us page.


  • Google really hasn’t got a handle on YouTube yet; the search function is crap and doesn’t help with misspellings like Google organic search does.
  • At any rate, Google is heavily promoting YouTube videos in organic search results. The potential for SEO’s from all backgrounds to take advantage of this is wide open.

Have you used any for profit sites to help fund non-profit sites? Should non-profit sites consider adding for profit sections to their site to help subsidize the costs of running their website and organization?

I do some work as a Life Coach and feed the funds into our non-profit work. I also do some Search Engine Optimization and increasingly funds are flowing in from this work. In the future I’d like to get more involved in Reputation Management as I know the media and public relations side of it and think there is a growing market for it from a dual public relations and SEO perspective.

It’s not likely that a lot of non-profits are in a position to operate a for profit website on the side as a means of raising funds. But where it is possible it can be a productive source of income.

Published: October 28, 2008 by Aaron Wall in seo tips


October 28, 2008 - 6:39pm

Hey Aaron there's an interesting thing i'd like to comment,please follow your catching and cooking mud crab link then look at the adsense units at the bottom of the page.

The ads are greatly blended but isn't this against the Adesene TOS?

October 28, 2008 - 8:30pm

Lots of stuff is in the gray area with AdSense...I generally have never used images to boost CTR, but I see many sites do it. If it is against the TOS it is not something they police as aggressively as some other aspects.

October 28, 2008 - 9:33pm

What an inspiring SEO! Big ups to Dominic.
Great read.

yet another ben
October 30, 2008 - 4:07pm

I missed this post when it first came out but really good to see real life cases of SEO and altruism covered on such a prominent website. Very warming on this winters day!

I noticed the generosity in the linking too - I'm sure that's been appreciated.

Just wanted to thank you too, I posted a link to the rectifi charity search engine a while ago. My friend who runs the site noticed it and thanked me for for it, but it's not just me he needs to thank...cheers Aaron, as it must have helped.

Ben M

October 30, 2008 - 4:50pm

I am glad you and your friend found it helpful Ben. And yes I went a bit excessive with the links...I figure it is another way to help give - and it really doesn't cost much for me to do so. :)

yet another ben
October 31, 2008 - 12:06am

Maybe every SEO should take this approach?!

I'm not sure whether you get those ads on the TV that say "give just £2 / month and help X"...well SEO's could make it their business to donate a couple of links to a designated charity each month instead?

Google bomb Christmas presents on an online charity shop for instance...

October 31, 2008 - 12:27am

Well the problem, of course, is that charities not only need links, but they also need...

  • to raise awareness so people care about them and what they do
  • to create something people would want to link at
  • to do the keyword research and create the content necessary to allow that link equity to help them rank for a wide array of relevant keywords
September 3, 2009 - 12:38am

I have a non-profit search tool: Dremaer.Me - The Search Engine Designed to Save the World

SEO has been extremely difficult especially since I'm on a limited budget, but I'll continue to work at it... Anyone out there want to lend a helping hand? ;-)

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.