This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.
If you need to regularly add and update your nonprofit or library's website content to keep it current and dynamic, chances are that you've got some type of content management system, or CMS. Changing to a new CMS isn't like changing batteries — it's a daunting task that requires a lot of time and effort — but sometimes change is necessary. How do you know if your content management system is the right one for your charity's needs or whether it's time to jump ship?
Websites are like icebergs in that huge parts of them are hidden beneath the surface — their visual elements are built upon an underlying coding language, HTML, which browsing visitors can't see. Because of the complexity of HTML and other web programming languages, most people hire experts or consultants to create their sites. But once a site is built, content can be created or updated through a CMS without the need to learn complicated coding or rely on an expert. Simple "What You See Is What You Get" text editors, or WYSIWYGs, work much like watered-down word processors to let you enter content and format it to look exactly as you'd like it to appear.
Once you've selected and implemented a CMS, you typically stick with it. Depending on your current system and the one you want to replace it with, a change is more or less equivalent to rebuilding your entire website. If your NGO's website just needs a facelift, it doesn't make sense to replace the entire skeleton. But if major issues are preventing your staff from using it effectively, or if a lack of functionality or other limitation won't let you do what your organization wants to with its website, it's time to change.
Let's take a look at a few good reasons for replacing your CMS.
You don't have a CMS. This is pretty easy to determine. Can your nontechnical staff easily update your website? Can you create content through a What You See Is What You Get, or WYSIWYG, interface? If not, you probably don't have a CMS — but it's time to get one.
You can't easily update your own website. If only one person at your nonprofit or library knows how to use your CMS, what will you do if that person leaves? A good content management system makes it easy for anyone on your staff to create, update, and publish content on your website. Depending on which one you have, you can typically find helpful user guides or tutorials for beginners on the company or community website or a user forum.
If your system is difficult to learn to use or overly complicated, it might be too much for your charity's needs. If it requires a special skill set, like basic knowledge of HTML, it may not be a very up-to-date (or very good) system. Check to see if the vendor or community offers any recent patches or updates you've missed. If you're using the most recent version and still require these special skills, it may be time to switch to a newer or easier-to-use CMS.
Your CMS allows only limited user access roles. As your nonprofit or library grows and hires new staff members, you may decide that you don't want to give everyone equal control over website changes. Assigning hierarchical user roles with defined permissions can grant basic users the ability to create and save new content, but not the ability to publish it to the website — a permission you can reserve for more senior staff members, like supervisors or directors. This type of workflow can allow you to delegate some work to new or temporary staff members or interns while preventing them from making unapproved changes to the website.
Different systems will handle workflow differently, and some will do so better than others. You may find that you need a CMS that will send a notification, like an email or an in-system message, when new or altered content requires approval. It's likely that an older CMS, or a very simple and cheap one, won't have this functionality.
You want to expand your website, but your CMS can't handle it. As you add more content to your website, you might find that your old navigation scheme — that worked fine a few years ago — no longer makes sense for the amount of resources your site now requires. Many older or more basic systems rely on hierarchical navigation schemes, like the branches of a tree. With increasing amounts and different types of content that isn't necessarily hierarchically related, you may want to switch to a different navigation scheme. Your new scheme may be like a matrix with multiple categories on the same level that don't have to be nested into one another.
You may also find that your current CMS won't handle special or unique programmed functionality — for example, allowing visitors to post or submit content to a community school calendar. If this is one of the reasons you're seeking to change your CMS, request a software demo of the new system to see how these features are handled and how they work.
Your CMS is no longer supported. Many popular systems on the market are open source, which means they're created, updated, and maintained by a community of developers and users instead of a vendor. When the community is active, its members publish new versions, create modules with new functionalities, and develop patches and updates to combat security threats. But when the community falls apart or is just slow and ineffective, these essential upgrades are not released on a regular basis.
Once that happens, you may want to switch to a new CMS with a more active or effective community. There are currently several active communities supporting open-source systems. Do a little research and spend some time on the developer forum or community site to make sure the system you're considering is one of them — unlike a discontinued corporate product or out-of-business vendor, a community may have been inactive for months before you even notice.
Changing Your CMS: Next Steps
Once you decide that you do, in fact, need a new CMS, what are your next steps for replacing your current system? It depends on your reasons for the switch. If you need specific features or functions, like more complex navigation patterns or better workflow, start your search with those criteria before narrowing down the options by cost.
If you're looking at an open-source solution — whether out of sympathetic ideology or personal preference, or to avoid licensing fees — be sure to look into the community before you commit. Read through the development blogs or forums to help get a sense of how active members are. More active communities can provide better and more reliable support.
If you're looking for a CMS that's easier for your nontechnical staff to use, invite some of them to help you compare the different options. Ask them to participate in software demos and encourage their input. Getting their buy-in at an early stage of implementation can lead to better engagement and satisfaction after adoption.
[Editor's note: TechSoup also offers LightCMS, a cloud-based content management system.]
Whatever your reasons for choosing a new system, do your homework and make sure the one you ultimately select meets your needs.
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