Improved Website Security Leads to Higher Charity Donations

Many generous donors make online contributions to nonprofit organizations this time of year, but most charitable websites surprisingly lack web security seals.

Two Rutgers University-Camden accounting professors are researching the impact the presence of a security seal on an organization’s website has on the amount of charitable donations it receives.

“When you go to a nonprofit organization’s website, you might see a seal from WebTrust, Symantec or another third party administrator. That seal is there to let donors know that the website is legitimate and they shouldn’t worry about submitting credit card and other personal information,” says Erica Harris, an assistant professor of accounting at the Rutgers School of Business-Camden.

Harris and Joseph Canada, also an assistant professor of accounting at the the school, have found that only about 15 percent of the 2,000 largest nonprofit organizations in the Unites States have security seals on their donation pages.

“The web security providers are looking at not only the technical side of website security, but also privacy policies to make sure the organizations properly handle donators’ information,” Canada says. “They’re providing assurance that this information is safe.”

The Rutgers–Camden researchers found that the very largest organizations, like higher education institutions, for example, don’t have a seal.

“We’re suspecting that’s because they are well-known, established organizations and people don’t really question the legitimacy of the website.”

Although their research is ongoing, Harris and Canada find it interesting that mid-size nonprofit organizations are more likely than the very largest charities to provide donors with web assurance via a web seal on their donations webpage.

According to their preliminary research, they have found that nonprofit organizations with a web seal on the donations webpage get more donations than organizations without a seal.

“What we’d like to know now is how many more donations an organization gets after it implements the web seal,” Harris says. “Are they getting more donations than before they had the seal in place?”

To find out, the researchers have reached out to web security administrators to determine when they started their relationships with nonprofit organizations. If there is a spike in donations after the security seal is placed on the web page, they’ll know it has a significant impact.

But are donors looking for a security seal before they donate and does the seal factor into a person’s decision to donate money?

“That’s what we’re still trying to figure out,” Harris says. “Media coverage of fake charitable organizations set up after the Japan tsunami and Hurricane Katrina indicated that illegitimate organizations were not tuning over donations to relief efforts for those events. So, people should definitely ensure they are giving to a reputable organization before they decide to donate.”

The web security seal isn’t mandated and Canada says requiring it for all charitable organizations is unlikely.

“I think it would be very difficult to force a smaller nonprofit organization to invest in a web seal, even if it shows donors that it is a legitimate site,” he says.

Canada says it cost at least $1,700 a year to get a web seal from a web assurance provider.

Harris and Canada hope to publish a paper on their research this spring.

A Haddonfield resident, Harris has looked into how nonprofit board governance, executive compensation, and celebrity endorsements impact donations. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, her MBA from the University of Miami, and her PhD from Temple University.

Canada, a Philadelphia resident, performs research on integrated information technology and its impact on accounting. He received his bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University and his doctoral degree from the University of Central Florida.

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