Is your nonprofit website good enough?

Despite the emergence of new channels of communication — or maybe because of them — a nonprofit’s website is more important than ever.  An integrated communications strategy encompassing email, traditional advertising, PR and social media should point back to the website – or at least a basic landing page – as a “place” to learn more and get involved.  And the website must be designed to attract people who are searching for information related to the cause or issue.

I talk to many nonprofits who “put up” a website a few years ago and figure they have that box checked.  Last they looked into it, it was too expensive to make any dramatic changes. At one point, it did cost tens of thousands for a basic overhaul… but that’s no longer true. If you’ve been told by your agency or firm that you’re going to have to spend a bunch of money for them to update your content, or figure out how to improve your website, you may be working with the wrong resource.

Heard the slogan, “There’s an app for that”?  Third-party tools have also changed the world for website designers, making it easier and cheaper to integrate sophisticated capabilities into websites for organizations with limited budgets.

Cheaper tools don’t necessarily make for an effective website.  That takes a clear understanding of audiences, objectives and the kind of relationship you want the website to help build.  But so much more is possible, for less money and less effort, than was once the case.

Last year, I had the opportunity to hear a great presentation by Digital Deployment at the Nonprofit Resource Center fall conference.  I invited Mac Clemmens and Carsen Anthonisen to give Philanthrophile readers a quick update on what’s new in the world of nonprofit websites.  Digital Deployment has designed websites for nonprofits ranging in cost from $15,000-$50,000.  The price tag depends on the complexity of the site, size of the organization and so on.  If you want to check out some of their recent work, here are a few websites they’ve developed in the past couple of years: Jesuit High School www.jesuithighschool.org;
Nonprofit Resource Center www.nprcenter.org; Stanford Home for Children www.stanfordhome.org; United Way (redesigned) www.yourlocalunitedway.org/

And, no, I don’t have any commercial connection to Digital Deployment and this is not an ad – just thought they’d be good people to ask, and they were nice enough to respond.  (Apologies in advance for the changes in font and font sizes… WordPress is not happy that I pasted in their answers from an email I received on my Mac, and I can’t edit the section below.)

What’s changed with respect to website technology in the past couple of years? What’s possible now that would have been too expensive before?

Today websites are easier than ever to use, and are nearly limitless in their ability to share content, video, photos, and documents. Modern websites are easy to update, can provide a website visitor with potentially limitless information about the cause of the nonprofit, and can easily leverage third-party services and plugins.  An example of this is the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Los Angeles. A wish recipient’s parent was able to share a video she took with her digital camera on the website of her ecstatic daughter walking into her newly redecorated room. It allowed them to share a powerful story, and remind others why the non-profit was so important to support.

What’s the most important question a nonprofit should ask itself when evaluating whether its website is “good enough”?

Is it building measurable business value, and how are we measuring its success? For a domestic violence website, it might be something as simple as measuring the number of anonymous questions that came through the anonymous question board. Other nonprofits might measure the number of new subscribers to their blog or newsletter, the number of “likes” they have on Facebook, or the number of visits to the Donate Now page that were converted into actual donations. The process of establishing quantitative goals for the website is key to its success.


What’s the low end range to redesign a website these days?

You can get someone to put together a theme for a WordPress blog for $1,000, or you can pay someone to spruce up a Facebook canvas page. But most websites, deployed on your own domain e.g., www.yournonprofit.org with some sort of content management system (CMS), usually start at a few thousand dollars. The costs are usually in how unique and customized you want your design to be, and how refined you want the functionality to be. Generally, we find the more you pay, the easier and simpler the site is to use and administer, and the more unique the design is.


What basic homework should a nonprofit do before engaging a consultant, to determine what they need?

The best thing a non-profit can do is to start having conversations with different developers/designers and ask them what opportunities an upgraded website might offer them. This is especially important to do before developing a scope of work and issuing an RFP. Since building a website means different things to different people, a scope of work helps define the offering. We usually define comprehensive website development as: a) conducting a rigorous analysis of the opportunity and developing quantitative measures of success, b) Providing branding, design, and theming services, c) providing content consulting and information architecture services, d) tailoring and deploying a content management system and integrating third party services, and e) driving traffic through e-mail blasts and monitoring success through analytics.

With social media like Facebook and Twitter, is a website becoming less important for a nonprofit?

A robust, well-managed website is actually becoming more important because it is what is generally referenced as the authoritative source of information. Facebook and Twitter are channels to distribute content, just like e-mail. But what is being communicated, and how the communication is referenced and attributed to the domain for search engine optimization depends on a careful and thoughtful implementation of the website on the organization’s domain. That being said, the barriers to entry for non-profits to organize events and manage registrations, for example, have come down significantly. Eventbrite, for example, is a fantastic, simple way for non-profits to allow people to buy event tickets online.

What are common mistakes nonprofits make with respect to their websites?

Most websites are built from the inside out, rather than from the user’s perspective. In other words, organizations look first at themselves and then decide what to publish. Websites need to be planned and executed from the outside looking in, taking into account the demographics and lifestyle considerations of the audiences for the site.

Many nonprofits often post too many PDFs of documents, rather than posting content directly on a page of the site. This makes it harder for the user, and complicates the ability for search engines to find relevant content.

We sometimes see nonprofits buy overly complicated, overpriced, difficult-to-use software or products that don’t suit their needs.  The irony is that we sometimes also see a reluctance to spend money on a website content consultant or strategist who could help them tighten up their message or select less expensive and more effective tools.

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