Apps can drive donations, increase brand awareness and provide a direct channel to constituents. But creating an app for a nonprofit can feel like a herculean task.

I’m here to tell you it doesn’t need to be that way. In this article, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about creating an app for your nonprofit.

What the heck is an app?

Let’s start with some basics. An app typically refers to software used on a smartphone or mobile device.

But the phrase Web app” is also used as an abbreviation for Web application” — meaning software that you access via the web browser.

More recently also, both Microsoft and Apple started having app stores to download software onto your computers. Blurring the lines even further between different types of software. These new apps have similar functionality found in web apps. The difference is that they are used through an app on your computer rather than through the browser e.g. Slack app

For most of us, it’s enough to think of an app this way: an app is a software program that you use online or on mobile devices.

Should your nonprofit consider using an app?

Though the primary goal of your app is to interact with your constituents, the goal of each app will differ from one organization to another.

When is an app a good idea for your nonprofit? To answer that question, let’s look at some ways nonprofits are using apps.

Peer Fundraising Apps

The main function for these peer fundraising apps is to help individuals fundraise and track the progress of their campaign. Either through the browser or a mobile app. These types of apps could fall under productivity or social category but because they are so specific to nonprofits I separated them into their own category. 

Run for the cure — Cancer society
Run for the cure is a campaign where people sign up to run 5km or walk 1km to raise funds for the Canadian Cancer Society. The app lets people update their fundraising page, send emails and check on their fundraising progress. On top of that, users can track their physical activity through integrations and stay on top of news related to the cause. They also added fun elements like tracking runs, completing challenges and a leaderboard.

Fundraising mobile app screenshots

Movember Mobile
Movember is an annual event involving the growing of mustaches during November to raise awareness of men’s health issues. As part of the event, they released an app that allows users to share fun selfies to raise awareness. Like Run for the Cure, users can track their fundraising. They can also take selfies to track their mustache’s progress. The app has other features that help promote the cause through events, stories and the ability to make donations.

Movember mobile fundraising page

Productivity Apps

These apps help users execute tasks or enjoy services your organization offers. Most mobile apps often include task resolution as a basic element.

First Aid — Canadian Red Cross
Canadian Red Cross trains volunteers in emergency response, disaster response, and disaster help. It also provides injury prevention services. As part of this initiative, they released a first aid app that helps people know how to handle the most common first aid emergencies. It has videos, step by step instructions and quizzes to test your knowledge. It can be used offline and you can even earn badges to compete with friends.

Nonprofit first aid app example

Members portal and directory — 1% for the Planet
1% for the Planet is a network of businesses, individuals and nonprofits tackling environmental issues. They pair businesses and individuals with approved environmental nonprofits.

1% for the Planet uses a membership management software that enables them to support thousands of business members. The portal helps their team through many automations, integrations and a self-serve portal. Members can submit certification via the portal, update their profile and find nonprofits.

Mobile donation dashboard

Entertaining Apps

Apps aren’t always aimed at performing tasks alone. By entertaining your users through your brand’s app, you can also keep the majority of your users hooked while building on your brand.

WWF Origami by World Wildlife Fund
The World Wildlife Fund is the leading conservation organization. They released a sticker app that allows you to send cute origami images of each animal as part of a text message.

Origami inspired nonprofit messaging app

Content Apps

Organizations also use mobile apps to share their content in a digital space they control.

WWF Together by World Wildlife Fund
Another beautiful app by WWF. The app helps spread awareness on endangered species by providing facts and allowing you to share a cute origami image of each animal. The goal here is mainly to spread awareness.

Origami wildlife mobile app

Saving Animals Made Easy by PETA
PETA is an animal rights nonprofit. The app allows people to get alerted on urgent issues and take action easily through petitions. For added fun, every action you take will earn you points and badges.

Petition mobile app

Why are nonprofits starting to use apps?

Apps can be costly and take a long time to launch so are they worth the effort? There are numerous benefits of building an app for your nonprofit. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Collect Donations

One of the most common benefits of a nonprofit app is fundraising. Having a mobile app that lets users stay on top of and encourages fundraising can only mean one thing: more successful fundraisers!

Raise Awareness

One of the biggest benefits of having a mobile app is that all the information you’d like to share with your constituents is right at their fingertips. Apps let you promote your fundraising campaigns directly to your users. Via push notifications you’re getting even closer to a direct interaction, and can easily stay top of mind.

Building community

Whether that is through messaging, in-person events or leaderboards, an app can encourage community building.

Do more with less

Technology (apps in particular) can help your organization do more with less. One way they do that is through business logic and automations. Using apps with business logic can reduce the burden on your team. Whether that is through automated tasks or data integrity checks, they can help your team scale.

Drive workflows

Who said apps are only for donors? Speed up and change how work gets done through apps that connect your data, workflows and teams. Apps give everyone the relevant information they need, and simple ways to take action.

It’s easier to collect information

With apps you can collect more information about your constituents and use that data for more targeted campaigns. Campaigns that resonate better with them and ultimately perform better for your organization

Cultivate loyalty

Last, but not least, another reason why you should consider building your own mobile app is loyalty. With all the noise out there, we slowly lose our impact on constituents because of the immense amount of advertising surrounding us all.

Okay, you want to develop an app— now what?

Start on solid ground with a nonprofit app strategy

Set a purpose

It’s important to have a clear picture on the outcomes you are trying to create through this app. Knowing why and what you are trying to achieve will help when deciding on features. It’ll also make it easier to select what metrics to track.

Have a person in mind

Who will be the main users of this app? It can’t be for everybody because then it will be for no one. Within your constituents find segments that are more likely to use the app to begin with.

What is the app for?

What is the problem you are solving with the app and what is the solution you are proposing?

Set a budget and stick to it

It’s important to set a budget in terms of costs and timeframe. Having these constraints will force you to make important decisions regarding design, user experience and what features to include. It’ll also help you release something sooner.

Brainstorm features

How do you come up with a list of features for your app? One way to do that is through a user mapping exercise. A user journey map helps define what to build and maintain visibility for how it all fits together. It enables user-centered conversations, collaboration, and feature prioritization that guide product development.

user journey map for creating mobile app features

A user journey map uses sticky notes and sketches to outline the interactions that the team expects users to go through to complete their goals.

Metrics

How will you measure success? Look at the outcome you are looking to create and decide what data you will need to validate and support your goals.

Build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

An MVP is a version of a product with just enough features to be usable by early users who can then provide feedback for the future. If this is a new app, starting small can help your team be laser focus on what really is necessary.

Types of apps

Now that you have a high level plan, you need to decide how this app will be made. I recommend talking to an experienced developer before making this technical decision. Having said that, let’s breakdown the different types of apps so you have some general background on them.

Native apps

Native apps are apps designed to run on a particular operating system, for example apps that run on iOS or Windows. What this means is that each app requires their own codebase. So if you want your app to be released on Android and iOS you would need to create two separate apps.

Web apps

Web apps are applications that you access via the browser through a URL. It can be a mobile or desktop web browser. Web apps are cross-platform meaning they can run across all devices with a single codebase. Web apps have more limited functionality when compared to native apps.

What about progressive web apps (PWA)? All you need to know is that it’s another term for web apps. These are classified differently because these web apps make use of newer technologies to deliver enhanced capabilities. Capabilities that resemble an app like being able to add to your home screen or receive push notifications. Although this is promising there are still limitations especially for Apple users.

Hybrid apps

Hybrid apps are web apps that are wrapped in native code. What this means is that you can build the app once but then release it to multiple stores. By wrapping the hybrid app in native code it also exposes functionality that would otherwise only be available to native apps.

But when should you pick one approach versus another?

This depends on many factors including the goals of the project, what type of app it is and your resources. It’s best to contact an app developer as this is an important technical and business decision.

Native apps tend to have fewer dependencies which means less bugs and faster updates when new OS versions are released. Because each app is designed for each operating system, they also tend to perform better and have better user experience.

Having said that, we’re big proponents of web and hybrid apps (if you need native functionality). Most apps that we get to work on don’t make sense to have the overhead that native apps require. Performance is just as good for these apps and we can release across multiple devices. Your budget just goes a lot longer with this approach. Also updating multiple apps is much faster which means faster feature releases and bug fixes.

What sort of budget do you have?

Setting a budget for an app can be a daunting task. Depends on so many factors. Will you be designing it yourself? Will you use a low-code platform or hire offshore developers or hire a freelancer or an app agency? Developing an app with an agency starts at $25,000. Keep in mind that any digital project will require upkeep so it’s important to budget for maintenance as well. This is especially true with apps. The more platforms you want to support the higher the upkeep.

Designing your app

It’s tempting to jump straight into building your app but don’t! Taking the time to put ideas into pen and paper and later into a design software will save you many hours. It will also result in a better product. Drawing different screens and states is a great way to think through each feature. It’s also a fast way to iterate an idea and it’s easy to come with multiple designs. Going through this process will also help with uncovering things you haven’t thought about. Lastly, it’s fun, cheap and quick to do, so why not do it? Once you are happy with these designs you can spend more time on the details and even get feedback.

How do we bring this app to life?

Word about DIY Builders

It can be tempting to use a DIY builder to release an app. After all it means skipping finding and working with a developer. It’ll also be cheaper and can get something out sooner (depends on how complex the chosen tool)

In my opinion, these tools can be good to create prototypes to test out ideas and gather feedback. But they are not the best solutions in the long run. Unless your app is simple and requires little customization then chances are you will be disappointed. These tools typically don’t generate the most effective code leading to performance issues. They can also be hard to maintain. Aside from that, not working with a developer has its drawbacks. For example, clients typically come to us with an idea only to realize what they needed was a completely different thing! But that’s just it, you don’t know what you don’t know. Working with a seasoned app developer can help you address those gaps. Not only that, they can help you design the app with best practices in mind so that’s easy to use for most users.

So if you shouldn’t use an app builder, what should you do? Find an app development team! Partnering up with an agency can have its advantages:

Stay focus
Your chosen app agency fills a void and meanwhile you can strengthen what you already do well.

Bring expertise
Nobody can’t be an expert at everything, and the same goes for you. It might not be in your best interest to learn another skill and be on the bleeding edge. Companies use vendors with proven expertise that can deliver their vision. Because of the rate technology evolves at, they feel outsourcing is their best option.

Share risk
One way to mitigate risks is to share the risk with another party. Is your organization about to take on a risky project? Partnering with another company let’s you to share the responsibility and risk. Risk sharing is helpful when the vendor has expertise and experience which the other lacks. If a risk event does occur, then the partnering company absorbs some of the negative impact.

Free time
Everyone in your organization is probably already wearing multiple hats. Tackling this in-house might mean struggling to find time. Bringing an outside company can free up your team to work on other more critical projects.

How to pick a development partner

Relationship
Do you like them? Could you have a coffee with this person?

Project management
What processes do they have in place to establish a plan for carrying out and managing the project. This involves developing estimates, and defining the plan to perform the work. It also includes steps to estimate the size of the software, and the resources needed. Other steps include creating a schedule, identifying and assessing software risks.

Process
How will this partnership work? Get clear on how the work will be done that will ensure the end result. What role will you play?

Strategy
How do new features and changes get handled? Will they help with that, or is it all on you? It’s best to know from the start.

Knowledge
Of sector and cause — What experience they have with similar organizations

Product engineering
Does the organization have a well defined engineering process to apps. For example, analyzing the requirements, developing the requirements, designing the app and architecture, implementing it, integrating components, and testing it.

Quality assurance
How is the organization set up to identify defects? How do they prevent them from recurring?

What does a successful app look like? 

Success is what you decide it is. Prior to the project you should have a clear idea why you are building the app. The purpose of the app, the problems it is solving and how you will measure its success. It’s a successful app if it meets these previously defined metrics.

What are other contributors to a successful app? Let’s break down some traits of successful apps. We can divide the features of an app into two main categories: user-centric and business-centric.

User-centric features:

  • Nice, on-brand design

  • Well-thought-out UI & UX

  • Meets user expectations & needs for the use case

  • Stable, reliable workflow

  • Provides sufficient level of data protection

Business-centric features:

  • Encourages user retention

  • Meets organizational objectives for app

  • Low cost of future development and maintenance

  • Easy update procedure

Conclusion

There are a lot of opportunities for nonprofits to reap the benefits of apps. By starting with a clear, focused plan and following each step you will be on the path to creating a successful app for your nonprofit.

But if you still feel unsure or need support, reach out! We’re happy to discuss how your new app might fit into your organization and if it makes sense help you make that app a reality.