This post was updated in May 2023.
I’ve been developing websites for just over 25 years, mostly for nonprofit organizations. Frequently, nonprofits ask me, “What should we consider when planning a new website (or a re-designed website)?” Here is a list of the answers I give most often:
1. Site purpose
Like a mission statement, a website’s purpose gives the primary reason for the site’s existence in the world. Whether for education, advocacy, service provision, community organizing, etc., the main purpose of the site will ultimately inform design and content decisions.
2. Target audiences
Frequently I’ll ask nonprofits, “Who is your target audience?” and they’ll respond, “Everyone.” While I understand the logic behind that answer, it’s a simple fact that you cannot design with “everyone” in mind (that’s why there are so many different kinds of cars, clothes, computing devices, etc.). If you identify and design to your top two audiences, the site is more likely to accomplish your organization’s goals.
3. Site objectives
Like the objectives in your organization’s strategic plan (and if you don’t have one of those, you have bigger concerns than your website!), the objectives for your website outline the main goals of the site. I like to ask my nonprofit clients to answer these questions for each target audience: What actions will this audience want to perform when they visit your website? What actions does your organization want this audience to perform when they visit your website? Be sure to re-visit your objectives during the design and content creation processes to ensure they are being met.
4. Responsive, mobile-friendly design
Responsive design means that a website’s design automatically re-sizes to fit the screen size on which it’s being viewed. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to retrofit an existing site with responsiveness; and it’s mostly more cost-effective to do a complete re-design. The days of two separate websites – one for viewing on a monitor and one for viewing on a mobile device – are over.
5. Fresh content
Imagine if museums never changed up their exhibits. Why would you ever return after your first visit? We go back to museums over and over because of new exhibits and programming – new stuff to see. We go back to websites if we know the content will change and there will be new stuff for us to view. Work on a content strategy for your site that will ensure people keep coming back.
6. Engaging content
It’s a documented fact that people only read about 20-28% of the text on a web page. Hence the shift to shorter blocks of text, lots of photos, and the use of multimedia on websites. The great thing about non-text content these days is that all you really need is a decent smartphone, and you can quickly create your own photo and video content.
Features are the elements that make a site dynamic and interesting, like donation buttons, online forms, embedded video or podcasts, online quizzes, social media buttons/integration, and all other manner of gadgets and widgets. It’s important to figure out as many of these in advance as you can for the sake of a more coherent design. (As opposed to figuring out later that you really wanted social media buttons and now don’t have a good place to put them without removing or squishing other elements.)
8. Search engine optimization (SEO)
68% of Internet users start their online experience with a search engine. This means you’ll want to make sure your site is optimized for search. While there are companies that do SEO and nothing but, their services tend to be beyond the budget of most nonprofits. Fortunately, there are quite a few SEO tasks you (or your web developer) can DIY.
9. Site maintenance
There are two main costs associated with a website design project: the cost of site design and development and ongoing site maintenance costs. Site design tends to be a lump sum cost. Site maintenance can vary greatly, depending on the developer. I used to do websites using Dreamweaver, and clients either learned that complex software or paid me to do their updates. I moved to the open source content management system WordPress about seven years ago so that I could change this model. Now, my nonprofit clients do their own updates, and they rarely need me for anything after the site launch. Another site maintenance concern to think about in advance: Which staff member(s) will be responsible for maintaining your site after launch? Will that person be responsible for uploading content that others create, or is that person doing it all?
By this, I mean compliance of a nonprofit’s website with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). While I think it’s important for all websites to be accessible, I feel like the nonprofit sector especially has a moral obligation to do this. Inclusion and social justice are in our sector’s DNA, which should carry over in the design of our websites.
If you’ve made it this far reading it, I hope this list will come in handy on your next website project!
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CEO, Cindy Leonard Consulting LLC
Cindy Leonard has devoted over 20 years working in and with nonprofit organizations, and has served on numerous boards and committees, in various volunteer capacities, and as a consultant, a trainer, an executive director, a program manager, and an IT director.Cindy’s consulting services are wide-ranging and encompass the many areas of knowledge gained through 2+ decades of work in the nonprofit sector and college education. Cindy is comfortable working at 50,000 feet or 10 feet and is able to switch between big picture to fine details with ease.An experienced speaker and trainer with a highly engaging, interactive style, Cindy has successfully worked with groups as small as 10 and as large as 200 on a wide variety of topics. Cindy has presented and trained at over 100 conferences and classes, including conferences by Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations, Nonprofit Technology Network, Nonprofits LEAD, Alliance for Nonprofit Management, Association of Fundraising Professionals of Western Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Library Association.Cindy holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, a Master of Business Administration, and a Master of Education in Instructional Design, all from Seton Hill University.Raised in Blairsville and Derry Township, Cindy has had a lifelong love affair with the Laurel Highlands, and currently resides in Youngwood (35 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) with their husband Rob, a handful of very spoiled felines, and two large dogs.