Can You Get a Good Website on a Small Budget?

As a nonprofit organization, you might have a love / hate relationship with your website. Slick, modern, fast, responsive websites with beautiful user experiences are nice, but they’re also expensive. Sometimes the job of managing a nonprofit site falls to the geekiest person who’s not afraid to tinker with it.

When you decide to become more strategic about your web presence, you might be at a loss for how to actually go about doing that.

When it comes to buying just about any service, you can have two out of three: cheap, fast, or good. Sometimes new clients come to me having paid thousands of dollars for their site, and I look under the hood and find a hot mess with a good paint job. The client isn’t able to make even the simplest content updates without calling on the developer, who then charges a premium hourly rate.

What is a nonprofit on a budget to do?

Cheap and Fast (Probably Not Good)
Sure, you can build a site with a web builder—but will it actually help you achieve your goals?

Here’s the problem with drag and drop, no-code DIY websites. You still don’t know anything about what makes a good website. Chances are, your site will turn out to be as effective as if I ordered a build-your-own-car kit on the Internet and tried to put it together. Sure, I drive cars occasionally, but for the majority of my life I haven’t even owned one. I know they have four wheels and a steering wheel, and they go when you push on the gas, and that’s about it.

Of course, you putting together your own site from scratch when you know little or nothing about how to market on the web probably won’t turn out much better. User Experience (UX), design, layout, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), copywriting…these are individual areas of expertise that professionals study for years in order to do well.

Strategy Before Tactics
When someone comes to me and says they need a website or they need a new website, the first thing I ask them is, “Why do you need a website?” Because the web is such a part of our daily life, it’s just sort of assumed that you need a website, the way you need a storefront if you want to open a physical store.

Many people stall when I ask this question and can’t clearly articulate the specific and measurable, attainable, results-oriented, time-bound (AKA SMART) goals they hope their website will achieve. Your chances of having a successful web project increase dramatically if you know why you’re doing it and what you want to achieve. You’ll also be less likely to spend your hard-earned budget on building the wrong thing.

Usually people’s goals boil down to a few core things:

  • Get more customers / donors / members / volunteers
  • Raise awareness about your organization or issue

Once you determine the desired outcome (strategy), you can start planning how your website and any compatible online marketing, like email or social media, can help you achieve your goals (tactics).

Before you make any decisions about technology, imagine that your website is a new employee that you are hiring, and spend some time answering these questions:

  • What is the purpose of your site?
  • How does your site fit into your overall marketing strategy?
  • What are the three most important things that someone should learn in the first few seconds of their visit?
  • What action do you want your visitors to take? (Donate, buy, sign up, make an appointment, etc).
  • What does success look like?

These are the same sorts of questions I ask every potential client to answer. I used those same questions to redesign my own site last year.

Next, use the answers to those questions to figure out what pages you need to create for your site. Write all the copy and collect or create the images and assets you want to use.

If you did everything above, hopefully you clarified some of your goals and gained some insight into the message you need to convey.

Choosing a Platform and/or Framework
Now that you have a better idea what you’re trying to achieve, you can begin looking at available website solutions with a more critical eye to your needs. If you’re going completely do-it-yourself, you’ll want to choose something that’s within your technical capability to build and manage. Keep in mind that you might one day reach the point of hiring professional help, so having a good foundation to build on will help when that day comes.

Here are a few things you should look for in a web building platform:

Free is a great price, but you also get what you pay for. In particular, when it comes to choosing a theme on your platform, spending a little money on a paid theme made by a reputable company that supports their customers is a good choice. Having someone to call could save you hours of frustration if you get stuck trying to figure out some particular feature or customization of your theme.

Your platform of choice should be user-friendly. You should spend more time crafting your content than fighting the technology. If you need to easily add photos, video, social media icons, or comments, evaluate the platform and make sure it will do what you need it to do.

If you need to integrate with other services like Mailchimp or Facebook, better to find out if it’s possible before you commit.

Future Proof
Choose a platform with some traction in the market. Sure, Concrete 5 or Perch might be the newest shiny candy in the Content Management System world, but the more obscure your platform, the harder it will be to find a developer to work on it, if that day comes. Developers love talking technology, so find a few and ask them what they recommend.

Training Wheels Are Your Friend
When you don’t know what you’re doing, constraints can keep you from making a mess of things. That’s why we have coloring books with lines in them, paint by numbers, and train tracks. These tools give you guidelines to reach your goals.

Good professional themes are crafted by designers and developers to not only look good, but also to follow the best practices for things like Search Engine Optimization and responsive design (looking good on lots of devices); some even offer safe ways to customize things like fonts and colors without touching the code.

Putting It All Together
Even if you use a platform and theme that thousands of other people have used before, the thing that will make your site stand out is YOU: your story, your business, what unique value you bring to your audience, or the audience you are trying to create. So you should now direct all your energy to figuring out how to express those things.

Now, you can create an account and begin looking at themes. Knowing what your message is going to be and what sorts of visual assets you have will help you envision your content when you’re looking at different themes.

If you have lots of photos, you’re going to want something that has excellent support for displaying images in different ways. On the other hand, if you know you’re not going to use images much, getting a photo-heavy theme will just look sad and naked when you put your image-light content into it. Instead focus on excellent typography and readability.

Even on a small budget, taking the time to build a solid foundation will make your site (and therefore your organization) more successful and save you time and money in the future when you’re ready to scale up.

1. Dreamhost will give one free shared hosting account to US based 501(c)(3) non-profits.
2. Modern Tribe, which makes one of, if not the best, events calendar plugin available, will give both the free and pro versions to qualified nonprofits in the U.S. and internationally.

Kronda Adair
Karvel Digital
I'm a native Oregonian with most of the cliches that are implied with that (bikes, outdoors, coffee, but not beer). I have a lovely wife, and two terribly spoiled cats who have their own Twitter account. Nonprofits I have worked for include Basic Rights Oregon and In Other Words (You might know it as Women for Women First if you're a Portlandia fan). I changed careers and went into technology and I'm now an independent WordPress developer and consultant. I work with small- to mid-sized businesses and enjoy educating my clients about how to use technology to further their organizational goals. I hope to be a resource for folks here and you can find lots of helpful articles on my primary website.