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Digital capacity in Canada’s not-for-profit sector

The not-for-profit and charitable sector in Canada plays an important role in the lives of Canadians. According to Imagine Canada, the sector contributes 8.1 per cent of Canada’s overall GDP and employs two million Canadians. Not-for-profits provide essential services in many sectors, including in healthcare, education, environmental monitoring and digital…

The not-for-profit and charitable sector in Canada plays an important role in the lives of Canadians. According to Imagine Canada, the sector contributes 8.1 per cent of Canada’s overall GDP and employs two million Canadians. Not-for-profits provide essential services in many sectors, including in healthcare, education, environmental monitoring and digital inclusion.

  •   Healthcare

  •   Education

  •   Environmental Monitoring

  •   Digital Inclusion

Digital capacity is integral to not-for-profit organizations. An online presence that helps not-for-profits inform, connect and engage key groups is essential for their success. Not-for-profits can take advantage of digital technologies to help them work more efficiently with limited resources. Online tools create data that can improve day-to-day operations and help not-for-profits better understand their partners and donors. A strong web presence helps not-for-profits communicate their mission, goals and impact.

A benchmark for success

In early 2014, the .CA Community Investment Program provided a grant to Framework to conduct audits of the websites of more than 400 not-for-profit organizations. Framework’s web audits examine user experience, content, and online engagement to provide a useful, objective evaluation of a not-for-profit organization’s website. Scores are presented against the average audit score, providing a helpful benchmark for the participating organization.

Sophistication of web presence

The Internet has created a significant means through which not-for-profits can engage with the communities they serve.

Social media is integral to community-building and advocacy. Open data applications help not-for-profits report impact and provide tools to assess progress. Depending on their capacity, however, organizations use Internet technologies with varying degrees of sophistication.

Use of a content management system

Nearly two-thirds of the organizations studied use a content management system to keep their websites up-to-date. User-friendly content management systems allow staff without technical skills to update web content quickly and efficiently. This can ease the burden of maintaining a website and help organizations remain responsive to the evolving needs of their members and stakeholders.

Sixty-three per cent of organizations studied by Framework use a content management system, an acknowledgement that there is a need to publish rapidly within the sector.

Choice of content management system

WordPress is by far the most popular content management system. More than 35 per cent of all not-for-profits studied use an open source (meaning the code is openly available and maintained by a community of interested developers) platform to manage their website. This is a strong endorsement of the value of open source technology to the sector.

Finding an audience on mobile

Earlier this year, the .CA Factbook reported the deepening engagement that Canadian Internet users have with their mobile devices.

Users who “typically access” the Internet via mobile, by age

The adoption of mobile Internet is highest among the youngest Canadians. More than half (57%) of Canadians 18-34 years-old report that they “typically” access the Internet through a mobile device.

However, not-for-profits have been slow to embrace mobile technology, which is a missed opportunity to reach stakeholders effectively.

Responsive design – websites that scale for mobile devices

Only one-third of the sites audited by Framework rendered adequately on mobile devices.

In the 2015 .CA Factbook, CIRA reported that 20 per cent of Internet users between 18-34 years of age had made a purchase from a mobile device. This propensity to conduct transactions over mobile Internet is a compelling catalyst for not-for-profits to shift to mobile in order to engage with a new generation of donors.

Domain choice in the not-for-profit sector

Domain choice in the not-for-profit sector

.CA is the market leading domain choice for the not-for-profit sector. More than half of Canadian not-for-profits studied (53%) choose .CA websites. This is in line with the perception among the Canadian public that .CA is intrinsically linked with Canadian communities. CIRA’s annual tracking research found that 85% of Canadian Internet users prefer to use a .CA over .com for “getting involved with community organizations.”

The .org domain also continues to be popular with Canadian not-for-profits. A quarter of the organizations studied by Framework use a .org, and there are just shy of 400,000 .org domains registered in Canada. Managed by the Public Interest Registry on behalf of the Internet Society, .org is widely used by non-commercial enterprises. Although there is no specific requirement that .org registrants are not-for-profit, this is the general application of these domains. The domain has also become popular for corporate social responsibility programs in recent years, such as

New domain choices

An expanding set of TLDs (top level domains) are entering the Canadian market, but have seen minimal traction among not-for-profit organizations. The .ngo domain, which is also managed by the Public Interest Registry, became available in March, 2015. New TLDs .charity, .care, and .community, are also likely to target the not-for-profit sector.

Additional domain choice has the potential to cause confusion for not-for-profits looking to secure their brand online, but could also open new marketing opportunities for creative niche websites.

.org – 10,300,000

.ca – 2,400,000

.education – 16,975

.care – 11,219

.community – 8,586

.university – 4,765

.ngo – 2006

Assessing fundraising capacity

The Canadian not-for-profit and charity sector is using the Internet as a key part of fundraising. Of the organizations studied, 86 per cent demonstrated some means to collect donations online. Fifteen per cent of sites studied use a custom solution, and 12 per cent use Paypal.

Choice of donation engine

Nearly half of organizations studied use CanadaHelps, a not-for-profit service that strives to make it easier to donate and raise funds online. CanadaHelps reports more than 1300 new charities signed up the service in 2014. The service offers training and learning opportunities for their clients, as well as integrations with other popular tools such as and Raiser’s Edge.

Reporting and transparency

Framework ranked organizations along a five point scale according to how well they leveraged digital technology to report impact of their services and measure accomplishments. A ranking of one indicates that no attempt was made to communicate impact, whereas a rating of five indicates that the organization used its website to share success stories and statistics in a fulsome way.

Reporting impact (score out of 5)

The not-for-profit sector is not making the most of online platforms to report back to stakeholders. Eighty-six per cent of organizations scored a three or lower in this assessment. Most organizations studied are providing online mission and vision statements, but few are posting client testimonials, research data, or other direct input from end-clients.

Organizations are not leveraging their websites as a tool for financial transparency. Three-quarters of not-for-profits in the study scored a three or lower on a ranking of online financial reporting and governance. Higher scores in this category were reserved for organizations reporting their financial data in real-time or in interactive or open formats.

Financial accountability (score out of 5)


Digital capacity is essential to the success of not-for-profits. Web and social media platforms offer these organizations the opportunity to reach a diverse audience, provide information, be transparent in financial and annual reporting, and reach out to new donors. Framework’s audits expose a sector that is using technology, but has not fully embraced its potential. The web offers a platform for not-for-profits and all organizations to tell their stories online. Compelling digital materials – including best practice stories, interactions with stakeholders (i.e. surveys) and other unique insights – can be a great asset to help organizations recruit donors, educate the public, and stay top-of-mind for Internet users.

An expanded set of choices in domains, online donation engines and web platforms may generate a degree of confusion for not-for-profits struggling to leverage new technologies to achieve their goals. Understanding these choices and equipping not-for-profits with a fulsome picture of the opportunities and challenges they face online is an important step in ensuring appropriate and strategic technology adoption.

About Framework

Launched in 2003, Framework builds capacity and challenges the status quo in the non-profit and cultural sectors across Canada. Through our signature programs—Timeraiser and Techraiser—we raise volunteer hours through parties for social good and empower professionals to gain the digital skills and literacy vital in today’s non-profit sector.

Framework’s ethos is one of sharing, collaboration, and openness. Framework develops, tests, and produces new initiatives to help the social sector thrive, so it can focus on what it does best: DOING GOOD.

About .CA and the Community Investment Program

Through the Community Investment Program, .CA funds projects that demonstrate the capacity to improve the Internet for all Canadians. The .CA team manages Canada’s country code top-level domain on behalf of all Canadians. A Member-driven organization, .CA represents the interests of Canada’s Internet community internationally.