Category Archives: Websites

Don’t Let Moss Grow on Your Nonprofit Website

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There’s no such thing as being “done” with your website. You can’t check it off your list. If your nonprofit is like most nonprofits, it’s been at least a couple of years since you updated or revamped your website.

But it’s been over three years since Microsoft brought its distinctive tile navigation to smart phones, and already four months since Apple transformed the look of its home screen with ios7. Out went “start” buttons and busy black backgrounds. Things got leaner and cleaner.

Website conventions change and not just to present a fresh aesthetic. They’re designed to make the user experience easier (although many of us don’t appreciate it, at least initially, when we have to think twice about what we’re doing).

An effective website is still a nonprofit’s most effective communications tool. As software advances have put user-friendly tools and templates within the financial and technical reach of all nonprofits, there’s no longer a good excuse to let a website grow moss.

That said, just slapping content into a template does not make for an effective website. It takes answering questions like the following:

1) Who is the website for? And who is it MOST for? (many organizations have volunteers or members and have to weigh whether the website is being used to attract new supporters, or meet the needs of existing constituents)

2) What are the organization’s top three goals that a website can help support?

3) What are the top three actions that we want our top priority audience members to perform easily?

4) What is the most frequently viewed content on the current website that should continue to be easily within reach?

5) What must the website communicate about us through its look and feel, its imagery and tone, to support our brand?

Most nonprofit executive directors or fundraising professionals don’t have a lot of experience with website designs. It’s hard to know where to begin.

Fortunately, Idealware (itself a nonprofit) has just begun a five-part series of webinars called “From Audit to Redesign: the Complete Nonprofit Website Kit.” I think the content is bang-on, and the price tag ($200) should more than pay for itself when you consider what a well-designed website can do for an organization. The first session, “Starting the Audit Process,” was held January 28 but it’s not too late to jump on this moving train. Upcoming on February 11 is “Defining Your Design and Content Strategy.” The third session on February 28 should be a great introduction to the “nitty gritty” of web design and cover best practices for usability and accessibility. The last two sessions get into content management systems (the tool that lets non-technical people easily update content), search engine optimization (so people find you), integration with tools like online donation systems, and an overview of a website development process.

As a former Northwesterner, I love moss. But not on websites. Get moving!

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A Practical Approach to Nonprofit Website Overhaul


I’ve got nonprofit websites on the brain this morning and am passing along information about a great, inexpensive resource to help you improve this critical asset. Idealware, a that aims to help nonprofits make good decisions about software, has a series of five, live 90-minute webinars coming up that costs only $200. That’s a heckuva deal, and the content looks great.

Websites are on my mind because later today I’ll present my top 10 get-started tips for nonprofit communications and marketing to an independent study group associated with UC Davis’ MBA program. Allan Alday, one of the students, found me through LinkedIn while searching for someone with that expertise.

Overhauling or setting up an effective website is, of course, on my top 10 list. When I met a couple of weeks ago with Amber Stott, the force behind the one-year old California Food Literacy Center, we talked about what communications tools are most effective. “It’s still the website, Facebook and blogging,” Amber said. I agreed.

Idealware’s series is called “From Audit to Redesign: The Complete Nonprofit Website.” The series starts June 4. Even if you can’t make them all – they’re on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. Pacific – it would still be worth participating.

Here’s part of the description, but head on over to the page that describes it for more detail. And PS, although this implies that a nonprofit has an existing website, a seminar like this one could be equally helpful in creating a website from scratch.

Over five Tuesdays in June and July, join Idealware as we walk you through Website 101, review best practices for accessibility, mobile-optimized sites, and reinforcing your organization’s online brand. We’ll also take a look at the content management systems (CMS) that can give even your least tech-savvy staff members the tools to update website content themselves. Finally, we’ll talk about how your website content works alongside your email, direct mail, and social media efforts to create your organization’s communications mix.

Takeaways from the course:

  • Define goals for how your website will serve your audience
  • Learn best practices for designing an accessible, usable, and polished website
  • Compare your content management system (CMS) options
  • How to make sure your website shows up well on search engines 
  • Create your organization’s website action plan with next steps and action items for an improvement process

P.S. I just noticed that Idealware posts “Best of the Web” monthly, a round up of articles worth reading. If you’re thinking about social media, technological solutions (e.g. cloud), data, mobile giving, etc., you’ll find some worthwhile articles there.

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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;
Nonprofit Resource Center; Stanford Home for Children; United Way (redesigned)

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., 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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Nonprofits: how many visitors should your website generate?

Hat-tip to Allyson Kapin of Frogloop for turning me on to a recently released website benchmarking study: Groundwire’s analysis of 43 small to medium nonprofits that focus on environmental issues.  I work mainly with Sacramento-area nonprofits that provide services to low-income adults, children and families… but I still found the benchmarks above worth saving.  One of the nonprofits I work with, which has roughly a half-million dollar budget, has 3,500-4,500 unique visitors per month and a bounce rate similar to the medians calculated by Groundwire.

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Webby people’s voice award nominees for non-profit websites

My alma mater just did a stunning website redesign, and, tiny as the school is, ended up as one of five nominees in the school/university for a Webby award, which the NY Times calls the “Internet’s highest honor.”  If you want a fun weekend exercise, register at and check out not just the broad categories (“best practices,” “best navigation,” etc.) but the categories for specific industries including charitable organizations/non-profits.

Their five nominees in the non-profit category:




Teenage Cancer Trust

The Nature Conservancy

On first blush, Teenage Cancer Trust gets my vote.  What do you think?  What’s your favorite non-profit website?

Vote for your fave at… oh, and I wouldn’t mind if you supported University of Puget Sound’s entry, either!  Pretty cool for a small school!

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Thanks to website usability testing, fewer people “came and went” vs. 40-50% before!

John Kenyon and Beth Kanter at NTENs Nonprofit Technology Conference in San Francisco

John Kenyon and Beth Kanter at NTEN's Nonprofit Technology Conference (credit: Judith Sol-Dyess/flickr)

Why should you care about your cause or nonprofit organization’s website?  According to John Kenyon, interactive media strategy expert, your online strategy really depends on the quality and usability of your website, as in, “You need to eat your vegetables before you eat dessert.”

What’s usability testing?  Say someone is interested in your cause.  They Google you, and land on your website.   In the heartbeat of time that you have their attention, will it interest them?  Will they find what they’re looking for?  Will they be able to do what they want, like find out how much of your donations go to direct service?  Will they be inspired to make an immediate online contribution?  Will they have confidence that your organization is credible?  Usability testing evaluates how easily real people — donors and non-donors, young and old — can use your site.

Kenyon was joined by Maryann Osmond, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and Johanna Bates, Technology and Lead Grant writer for Community Partners of Amherst, Mass.  It was Johanna that shared the remarkable improvement in website experience that she attributes to learnings from usability testing.  Before testing, Community Partners’ “bounce rate” (those that came and immediately left) was 40-50%; afterwards, less than 1%  far fewer did.  [Ed note:  I invited Johanna to weigh in with any comments and she responded early this morning that she has learned there is a glitch in the code that’s throwing off the Google Analytics report.  “I do think our bounce rate is lower, but we don’t know how much lower… it takes a while for the data to re-set.”  That’s OK, Johanna, you still made awesome improvements in the Community Partners’ site!  Thanks for the update!]

Besides a summary post of the Nonprofit Technology Conference Session by Raised Eyebrow Web Studio, here are my takeaways from the session:

So I need to do usability on the cheap.  What’s the process?  John recommends:

  1. Begin by drafting an instrument – a list of what you want to know or might ask potential users
  2. Review the instrument with the team.  Are the questions clear?  Would it make summarization easier if you had set response options rather than posing open-ended questions?
  3. Set up an online evaluation tool like Survey Gizmo.  Among other things, you can upload pictures of design options.
  4. Have staff try the evaluation tool.  Can they do it?  (Think about questions and answers that might fit on 2-4 pages, not 6 or 10!)
  5. Set a deadline to complete the evaluation.
  6. Email the link to the evaluation to members, family, etc., and be sure to get it into the hands of people of different ages.  Post it on your Facebook page and ask friends to give you feedback.  Tweet it and ask people to retweet the link.
  7. Compile the findings.
  8. Discuss it with the team that’s involved in the design process
  9. Develop an action plan.  You may have to plan for some improvements in a future version of the website, not the one you’re trying to launch immediately.

Does John mean “cheap” like I mean “cheap”?  Yup.  You can do usability testing for $500 if you have to do it on a shoestring.  Of course, there’s fancier ways to do it, like in a lab where mouse clicks or eyes can be tracked.

What are the most important factors to evaluate?  John showed some example of scale-based questions (strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree) with questions like the following:

  1. To what extent does the website interest you?
  2. Motivate you?
  3. Based on the design would you say that the website is informative?
  4. Credible?
  5. Inspirational?

John also recommended having some people “kick the tires” in front of you, so that you can ask good questions like:

  1. Show me what grabbed your attention first?
  2. What would you expect to find on a website for XYZ?
  3. What would you want to be able to do?
  4. Could you find or do what you wanted?
  5. Would you say that the site has too much information, too little, or about the right amount?
  6. Is anything confusing?  What?

This last bit – about fulfilling what people want to be able to do – was emphasized several times.  John recommends that organizations always know the top five pages that people come to now based on Google Analytics or another site analytics tool.

Tip from the audience:  The book, Don’t Make Me Think:  A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.


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Chicken or egg dilemma for nonprofits – what’s first: website, email, Facebook, Twitter?


Kathy Gill tweets - what's first?

Kathy Gill tweets - what's first?

I listen when the universe sends me the same message twice in one day.  Yesterday morning, I saw the Twitter post (pictured) from Kathy Gill, University of Washington’s social media senior lecturer.  Attending NTEN’s “Effective Online Communications,” John Kenyon, consultant, asked (and answered) the same question about which online communications component should come first.

Here’s what he said:  “Your website and email are the foundation of your online strategy.”

Here’s what I had tweeted back to Kathy earlier in the day:  “For commercial co, optimize website 1st, then blog and newsletter.”

Came across a summary of a new study (hat tip:  Mack Collier) that suggests blogs are going to play an even bigger role for commercial enterprises going forward.

For a nonprofit, I agree with John.  Make the website sing, and build off of that!  (Kathy, if you happen to see this post I want to know what answers you received from your Twitter followers!)


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Free resource: Gayle Thorsen’s tips on website design

I’ve harrangued you about the importance of website design over and over!  Here’s an easy-to-read overview of best practices for non-profit website design.  What’s more, I agree with it!

Gayle Thorsen of Impact Max explains it all to you!


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Website features: slide show or Slide Share?

The importance of a non-profit’s website is a recurring theme among my posts.  And it’s on my mind because I am helping a non-profit to redesign its site with the help of its internal IT manager and the graphic designer with whom it has a strong relationship. 

Given trends on news websites and new applications, there are new ways for non-profits to tell a compelling story, without a big investment.  Besides increasing the content on the site, of course we’re thinking about including:

  • Images of clients (or images that look like clients) that draw people in visually and emotionally…
  • Blogs are important that tell the powerful day-to-day story of how staff in the agency make a difference…
  • News and events that provide byte-sized previews of announcements that may be of interest to the user… and
  • Wish lists that help translate the agency’s needs into tangible, right-now opportunities to share and give

Setting aside posting of videos and podcasts for a moment, we’ve been thinking about including a slide show feature.  And today I’m musing about posting Powerpoint slide presentations as an alternative (photos can be placed into a PPT template and show as full screen by setting the photo as the background image).

Slide shows usually appear as thumbnails of still photos that advance using basic programming like java-script.  Most news sites now include slide show features.

Slide Share is a specific application that’s gaining quite a bit of ground in the social networking crowd.  It’s basically a web-based application that allows you to upload Powerpoint or other files of up to 100 MB, for free.  LinkedIn offers it as a free application.   I’ve got an example posted on my LinkedIn profile (go to the profile, and then click on the yellow button at the bottom to see the full profile.  The Slide Share post is below all of the junk about my background and the Word Press app (a ka blog excerpts).

Advantages of slide shows

  • They take less commitment (of time and interest) than clicking on a video post.  Video can take a long time to load depending on connection speed and cause your computer to hang up.  You can’t always tell how long they are until you’ve started playing them, which may discourage some people from clicking on them at all.
  • Some people just like pictures.  Great pictures really can tell a thousand words.  Not sure if they’re superior to video, just different.

Advantages of Slide Share

  • Business audiences (and, increasingly, students) have a comfort level with Powerpoint.  I can imagine non-profits posting a 10-slide presentation on the business advantages of sponsorship.
  • Powerpoint delivers information in text rather than verbal form.  Text may be better than audio at reinforcing key messages, delivering lists (like sponsors), and listing website links.

So what do you think?  Slide shows, Slide Share, both or neither?

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Microsites to promote a cause? Not so fast! (And microsites, explained)

I’ve recently noticed two examples of websites that were established by specific organizations using separate campaign identities (and URLs) rather than the parent organization’s website URL and identity.  Both are really cool campaigns — the Sacramento Tree Foundation has staked out its goal of planting 5 million trees, while CARES has established the ambitious goal of eradicating new HIV infections in 5 years:

Here’s the Sac Tree Foundation campaign, greenprintonline

And here’s the CARES campaign, areyouthedifference

I could think of pros and cons associated with separate websites, but I decided to reach out to Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz.  (My Monday post included an excerpt from one of Rand’s recent posts on SEOmoz Daily SEO Blog.)  Busy as he is, Rand weighed in.

The verdict:  from a search perspective, go with a subfolder (e.g. rather than a separate microsite (http://greenprintonline).

Rand pointed me to two recent posts on SEOmoz’s blog describing the distinctions between subdomains, subfolders and microsites in this post, and this post.

Here are the pros and cons I saw when thinking about the use of microsites:


Flexibility – the sponsoring organizations may have limited flexibility to modify their main site; it may be easier to build a functional microsite, with links

Enables a national organization to set up a tool that can be used/modified by a local organization

If the organization has limited brand recognition and appeal, could attract new interest

Possibly could be used as a transition to a new brand

Enables collaborative effort with more than one non-profit (less arguing about who “owns” benefits of halo)


If you click through a link from the main site, it could take a whole lot of clicks to find the information (wears out patience of user)

Challenge of managing two sites instead of one for resource-constrained organization

Could muddy image of main brand

Split traffic

Some could wonder who the sponsor really is; lacks credible image of established NFP

At breakfast recently, I batted around the idea of a website that could serve as a clearinghouse for information about human service agencies affected by the potentially humongous Sacramento County budget cuts – kind of a virtual coalition.  I’ve thought about the same thing as a way of pooling information about the incidence and effects of hunger in the area.  That still might be a good idea, but I’d recommend against establishing campaign microsites if there is only one sponsoring non-profit.

PS The Sacramento Tree Foundation also includes a subfolder/page on its main website.

I’d be very interested in any experience that you want to report – pro or con – with cause-related microsites.

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