Why Accessibility Matters in Fundraising Apps

Knowbility is a nonprofit organization with a mission to make digital communication tools accessible to and usable by all people regardless of disabilities. Along with millions of other nonprofit agencies that serve a public good, we must find support and raise money for our cause.

The global challenges of 2020 had deep impact on nonprofit work. At a time when the COVID crisis increased the need for a range of support services, nonprofit organizations saw typical funding streams decrease or completely disappear. In-person fundraising events were most often canceled and volunteers were suddenly unavailable due to mandated social distancing efforts. Many organizations turned to online fundraising platforms in an attempt to reach donors and gain support – of course, there is an app for that.

Fundraising platforms promise functionality far beyond the quick fix of something like GoFundMe. These are complex systems of donor communications, tracking, and relationship building. We began with Mashable’s Top 12 online fundraising tools (2011) and added a few that came to market since then. Unfortunately none that we found meets even minimal accessibility requirements. Doing a quick scan with an auto tool, the average number of accessibility violations on just the landing page was more than 50.

An auto scanning tool reports on a typical fundraising website landing page. This screen summarizes the number of Errors (96), the number of Warnings that need human judgement (31) and the number of Notices that may cause usability problems (214).

What does this mean for our users? Inaccessible systems exclude not only donors with disabilities who may want to give to a nonprofit cause, but also make it impossible for staff with disabilities to independently set up and manage campaigns. For example, I Live Here, I Give Here (ILHIGH) is an Austin-based community fundraising umbrella that uses a platform called GiveGab. Previous posts about the ILHIGH/GiveGab system have detailed the recurring barriers that we face. There is no way to create an accessible campaign on this platform.

ILHIGH/GiveGab is by no means the only inaccessible system out there. The point here is not to rehash specific issues but to suggest ways to address the fundamental fact that my staff cannot use it or many others like it. The Communications Specialist who was assigned the task of setting up our campaign is a screen reader user. He hit a firm brick wall when trying to do his job. That is demoralizing and discouraging. It is also blatantly discriminatory.

The fact that a Communications Specialist who uses a screen reader hits a brick wall when setting up a campaign on these platforms is demoralizing and discouraging. It is also discriminatory.

As the impact of the pandemic became alarmingly clear, we received invitations from one fundraising platform after another. We always requested a VPAT. Most did not know what that was. Those who did - without exception - said something like “We don’t have a formal VPAT but accessibility is very important to us.” Further conversation would reveal that it was not so important that they actually had defined a goal and developed a plan to achieve it.

After years of experience, we know that until and unless accessibility is prioritized within the product development life cycle, it will not happen and cannot be sustained. For more than three years, we have heard that ILHIGH/GiveGab is “working on accessibility.” And yet, the most recent iteration remains fundamentally inaccessible. We like to help so we offer this planning guide.

Use this four step guide to broaden your client base and ensure that donors with disabilities can support the causes they care about as easily as any other donor.

Four Steps to Integrate Accessibility into Product Development Life Cycle

Step 1 – Commit to accessibility

It is long past the time when you can vaguely say nice things to people with disabilities and continue to rely on their patience as you tinker around the edges of accessibility. Be authentic in your claims. Be explicit if your commitment to inclusion is truly meant to apply to the more than 1 billion people in the world who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, mobility impaired, and/or emotionally or cognitively impaired. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Learn more about what digital accessibility is and why it matters. There are numerous guides and here is an example of just one - an introduction to accessibility from Usability.gov.
  • Understand the basic needs of users with disabilities. Videos and user stories abound of the online barriers often faced by people with disabilities. The W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) maintains excellent resources, including How People with Disabilities Use the Web.
  • Include your commitment to digital equity in company policy and value statements. There is a well-documented Business Case for Accessibility. Be sure your leaders understand it.
  • Be explicit about disability inclusion as part of any diversity and inclusion statements your company makes. Pro-actively hire people with disabilities.
  • Set an accessibility goal so you can measure progress over time. A fundraising platform is an authoring tool. To be usable by staff with disabilities, the platform must conform to the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) as well as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) for the public, user facing functions.

Step 2 – Plan Your Approach

Companies have distinct approaches to product development. A solid plan will review accessibility goals in the context of the overall production environment.

  • Assess the knowledge and skill level of your team related to digital accessibility. Determine if they need training and/or you should seek external guidance.
  • Create an explicit accessibility statement. You may choose to use the standard Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) or you may want to customize your statement using the WAI’s Accessibility Statement Generator.
  • Determine how the accessibility statement will impact related processes - like procurement, Quality Assurance, and usability testing for example.
  • Set the baseline - perform an accessibility audit, with internal staff if they have the skills or using an external accessibility consultancy.
  • Create a flexible roadmap with defined timelines and milestones including options to reflect, reassess and redefine goals.

Step 3 – Do it!

With proper planning, staff awareness and training, and clearly stated objectives, your accessibility goals become an integrated part of your standard product development lifecycle.

  • Use the initial audit to prioritize issues and create an evaluation cycle.
  • Build accessibility skills. Make sure the commitment to accessibility is part of all new staff orientation and training.
  • Mention preference for accessibility knowledge in new job announcements. As well, provide accessibility skills training as part of standard professional development for tech staff and other related functions.
  • Determine if there is a need for a Lead Accessibility Coordinator role to distribute tasks and monitor progress.
  • Integrate responsibility for meeting accessibility standards into all job roles, not just the QA staff and/or an Accessibility Lead.
  • Track, communicate, and celebrate progress.

Step 4 – Maintain accessibility in product evolution

A few years ago, Knowbility wanted to purchase a conference attendee app to use for our annual John Slatin AccessU training conference. We found one that had potential and approached them with a partnership offer. We would embed one of our developers on their team and pay them for the time to make the accessibility improvements we needed for our attendees. They agreed and all went well, we met the goals and sang Kumbaya. But by the time May rolled around and we set out to install and recommend the app to conference attendees, our partners had iterated. Gone were nearly all of the accessibility improvements we had made together. We still don’t have an accessible conference app. AccessU was virtual in 2020 and will be again this year. If only…

Maintenance of accessibility standards cannot be overlooked. Here are some things to include in your long term planning:

  • Stay in touch with stakeholders. Just like security, accessibility is never “done.” Be sure you have a clear way to hear from your customers and staff with disabilities.
  • Have a process to ensure that you don’t overwrite accessibility fixes during product upgrades.
  • Track legislation and standards. New legal requirements for accessibility are passed regularly. The European Union passed the Web Accessibility Directive in 2018 and it went into effect in 2020. In the US, court decisions and papers by the Justice Department indicate that broader requirements for web accessibility are coming.
  • Include regular cycles of accessibility evaluation. The free WCAG-EM Report Tool captures your manual evaluation data and generates a report to help you stay on track.

Here at Knowbility, we welcome an opportunity to communicate with donors, engage them in our work, and ask for their support. If you create donor software, please help us become your customer by building a system that can be used by our staff and millions of potential donors with disabilities. Thank you!

Note: The process outlined above was developed over more than 20 years of helping companies realize their commitment to accessibility. It is closely related to the Planning and Managing Web Accessibility guide that I contributed to as co-Chair of the Accessibility Education and Outreach Working Group at the W3C.