Build Your Best Website: A guide for nonprofits

Where do you begin? Start by reading up on the latest web design trends. See Frogloop and Mashable articles for what’s hot in 2014.

Did you know that research shows that carousels or sliders don’t get much traffic at all past the first slide? Worse yet, they can confuse or annoy your audience and make it really hard to use on mobile devices. Should I use a carousel? NO. What may seem like an easy way to appease multiple stakeholders, but it just doesn’t work in practice.

A third or more of all web traffic is coming from mobile devices these days, and that number is only going to increase. Make sure viewers on cell phones and tablets still have a great experience using your site.

Sites loaded with everything and the kitchen sink not only look terrible, but they are also hard to use. Consider simplifying the structure and navigation of your site so it is clear where everything belongs, and the site is easy for people to use. Don’t let your site become a camel (horse designed by committee).

Throwing a search button onto a poorly designed site is not a good solution. Neither is loading up the front page of your site with every single item of content—when everything is the focus, then nothing is the focus.

Before you start on design, think about what the goals are for your website. For most nonprofits, goals usually include collecting email addresses and donations; all else flows from that: once you have their email, you can stay in contact and spread your message, ask for donations, actions etc. But if you try to have the website front page be all things to all people, you’ll wind up losing on the goals you really care about.

Think about your audiences. For many nonprofits, people who go to the trouble of going to your website are probably already like-minded (or hate-surfing), unless you’re running ad campaigns or have SEO optimized on some issues. Focusing more on bringing supporters into your boat than convincing them to be on the water in the first place.

Once you’ve got your goals identified and your audiences in mind, start thinking about what the site content should be. Take a look at your existing site and figure out what’s important/unimportant/missing. Look at sites of similar organizations; that can help clue you in to your blind spots. Make a list of sites you like, sites you don’t, and why. That will be invaluable to your site designer later.

Identify the stakeholders of this project, and how your approval process is going to work. Who needs to see designs and give feedback? If there’s more than one decision-maker, who has the final say when there is disagreement? Get the politics worked out before you begin to avoid getting caught in an unforeseen bind.

Figure out your budget and key deadlines. Once you figure out what other sites you like, go ahead and ask them how much they spent, who built it, and whether they’d recommend them again. Especially if you’re not sure how much a site should cost, getting numbers from other nonprofits can give you a good idea of ballpark ranges. Try to compare apples to apples in terms of technology.

Keep in mind the tradeoff between speed, quality, and cost. Pick only two (or sometimes just one). Understand what you’re getting and what you’re giving up.

Sort out your technical requirements. What are you using now for your CRM and CMS? The pain of switching may or may not be worth the additional features and/or lower price dangled before you. Sticking with your current CMS means you don’t need to deal with the headache of how to handle older content. If you like your existing CMS (assuming it’s a reasonably modern and robust one like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla), look for developers who have experience with that particular CMS. If this will be your first CMS, look for something that will be easy to use for you, is open source, and has a large developer community so you aren’t locked in to your existing vendor. A custom CMS will make it harder to switch or change things later.

Whatever your CRM (Convio, NationBuilder, Salsa, and Salesforce are common ones) is now, ask your CRM vendor for recommendations on website developers that work well with their system and nonprofits like yours. If you’re using something like Constant Contact + PayPal, consider whether now is the time to make the leap to a true CRM.

When you’re ready to talk to vendors, use the list of website developers you built earlier as your starting point. I recommend reaching out to up to 3-4 of them directly, having narrowed down your list from the millions of developers out there by getting pre-recommended choices. A formal RFP process can cost way more in your time and theirs, and you could wind up with a worse result by missing out on popular vendors that don’t bother with mass RFPs, instead only hearing from large firms with the cost structure to support dedicated business development staff to deal with RFPs.

When you’re talking to developers, ask for examples of their work and style (if you haven’t already seen it). This is why choosing based on sites you like is such a good idea. Web design is as much art as science: if you’re a Monet fan, you don’t want to wind up with Jackson Pollock.

Make sure you understand what is included in the project and what is not. Will they do email templates and other customizations to your CRM in addition to the website? What about custom graphics for social media or search engine optimization as complements to your new site? Are domain names, stock photos, other graphics, and website hosting included in the price? What about ongoing support? Is their project budget a firm number or estimate? If it’s an estimate, what happens if they go over hours?

Ask for a timeline in addition to the budget. Get a sense of how long their process will take and whether it lines up with your key deadlines. If you need something immediately and their process takes time (understandable), ask for a splash that can be rolled out very quickly while they continue work.

Have your prep work done (as much as possible) before the project begins. Sort out what content you want on the website and what you don’t. Gather up all your high resolution photos and make sure you have rights to use them, including high res versions of your logo and branding materials. Collect up all the logins they will need. Gather up your design ideas, including your list of sites you like and sites you don’t. You can work on developing missing content pieces as they work on designing and implementing the site to make sure they are not waiting on you for content. Be prompt on design feedback throughout the process, as it’s usually an iterative give-and-take. Your developer will be stalled out at several points if they do not hear back from you.

What happens after the site is launched? Make sure the site is easily updatable by your team, and any appropriate level of training needed is built into the project. You don’t want to be at the mercy of somebody else’s schedule when you need to update your website quickly, even if you do have an ongoing support relationship with the vendor. Did they build search engine optimization into their process, so that search engines will quickly crawl your site and deliver traffic? Consider paid advertising as appropriate to deliver an audience to your site as well.

Finally, sort out what you need to protect your website—regular backups, security precautions, etc. What happens if/when the site goes down in the middle of the night, or it gets hacked? Was ongoing or emergency support included in the project, or is it an extra?

Laura Packard
PowerThru Consulting
Laura Packard is a small business owner and award-winning digital/communications strategist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s a partner at PowerThru Consulting ( , a growing national progressive digital consulting shop. At PowerThru, she helps nonprofits use technology to spread their message and organize and activate their supporters online, to create change offline. You can find Laura on Twitter @lpackard (