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A Nonprofit's Guide to Building Simple, Low-Cost Websites

Affordable solutions for planning, creating, and maintaining your organization's online presence

A Nonprofits' Guide to Building Simple Low Cost Websites 
Chris Peters - January 31, 2012
A well-designed, user-friendly website can help you engage new members, raise money, and communicate with decision-makers. But creating this site affordably, and finding the right tools to build and host it, can be a challenge — especially when you are relying on in-house talent with little or no web-development expertise. In this article, learn about some tools and ideas for building a simple, attractive website without breaking the bank.

A well-designed, user-friendly website can help you engage new members, raise money, and communicate with decision-makers. But creating this site affordably, and finding the right tools to build and host it, can be a challenge — especially when you are relying on in-house talent with little or no web-development expertise.

Nowadays, however, you don't need to be a programmer to create a strong, quality web presence — nor do you need a hefty grant to fund one. Below, we'll offer guidance on how to plan a new website (or redesign an existing one) and how to maintain an online presence using tools that you don't have to be a web developer to master. We'll also offer some tips for finding volunteers with web expertise who can help you along the way.

1. Register Your Domain Name

Even if you don't plan on creating a website for quite some time, buy the rights to your organization's domain name. If you don't do so now, it could be snatched up by an individual or entity to create a site that has nothing to do with your organization. A domain name is a unique string of letters and numbers that identifies a site on the Internet. TechSoup's domain name, for example, is www.techsoup.org. Nonprofits and social benefit organizations usually choose domain names that end in .org, but you may also want to register at least the .com and .net versions as well. (There's no rule that requires nonprofits to choose a .org domain name, but it is conventional, just as educational institutions usually choose domains ending in .edu, for-profit companies in .com, and government agencies in .gov.)

To save money — and make things easier on yourself — consider registering your domain name or names for five years at a time, and be sure to document the registration process so you or your successor will know where to go when it's time to renew. Your Internet service provider (ISP) can help you register a domain name, or you can choose from the list of accredited registrars at Internic. Regardless of which registrar you go with, you shouldn't spend more than $10 a year on your domain name.

2. Evaluate Your Needs

Even if you're eager to get something up fast and affordably, taking the time to evaluate your needs upfront can save you a lot of time and money down the road. Knowing what kind of web presence you want, how you plan to maintain it, and how you will fund it in the long run will help you both in the technical work of building the site as well as in budgeting for ongoing needs.

A little organizational soul-searching needn't be a lengthy process, either, and may be as simple as sitting down to answer a few key questions:

  • What do you need a website for? Do you simply require a place where people can find your contact info and mission statement, or do you need a site where visitors can find news, register for events, post questions, interact and network with others, or even make purchases?
  • What resources do you have to build your site? Very simple sites may cost practically nothing to build and host, but more complex ones will require special skills, including programming, information architecture, web design, and editing. Do you have staff available to help plan and implement your site, or will you need to rely on contractors or volunteers?
  • How will you maintain your website? Even simple, fairly static websites require a certain degree of maintenance and oversight. What kind of staff resources can you devote over the long run to the kind of site you need?
  • How will you integrate your site with existing tools? Depending on your needs, you may want to integrate the same tools you use for constituent and membership management with your website. Be sure to check in with these vendors to make sure that you choose an online solution that meshes well with these tools to avoid costly customizations down the road.
  • How will your site incorporate your current graphic language? Make sure you can choose a solution that brands your organization in a way that's consistent with your other printed materials. Don't have a logo or a visual style guide? Now may be the time to look into coming up with these to avoid costly site overhauls down the road.
  • Can you take steps now to anticipate future needs? Even if you don't have immediate plans to keep a blog, for example, you may want to plan for one in the event you decide to incorporate this feature a year or two from now. No one has a crystal ball, of course, but projecting a couple of years into the future may help you create a website with more staying power.

3. Pick a Web-Development Tool

If your organization requires a very large site (50 or more pages), or a sophisticated, highly customized site with a lot of integrated tools, you are unlikely to find a fast, easy solution. Unless you have a web designer or programmer on staff, you'll need to hire a web designer or firm to build and maintain your site, or invest a lot of time and possibly money to purchase and learn web-authoring tools yourself. Even a content management system (CMS), a tool designed to help manage and automate complex websites, requires a significant investment of time, money, or both — and there is no tool out there that can write content for you.

However, if your needs are less complex, there are a variety of free or low-cost ways to create an attractive, dynamic online presence without a lot of web development expertise. But keep in mind that even simpler sites require upkeep. Just because a solution isn't expensive to implement doesn't mean it won't require a lot of time or money to maintain.

Tools your organization may wish to consider — either alone or in tandem — include:

Blogging Software

When most people think about a blog, they envision an individual, personal publishing platform. However, more and more organizations are also using free blogging tools such as WordPress and Blogger as their primary web presence.

Most blogging tools allow more than one author, meaning many people from one organization can work on them. Moreover, you don't need to know HTML to use them, and, as with the site builders, you don't have to host the site on your own servers. Blogging tools may also provide easy-to-use design templates with the option of some customization.

WordPress's features, for example, include a wide variety of free design templates (for $30 a year you can modify the templates with your own code). Widgets from several third-party providers let you embed calendars, photos, videos, and more. Blogger is a little easier to set up and configure than WordPress and it offers more third-party widgets, but it also provides fewer design templates to choose from. Both Blogger and WordPress will provide you with a free subdomain — meaning that your site name would appear in the URL line alongside the blogging tool's name — but also allow you to purchase your own domain name so that people can find you directly through your own unique address. Domain names cost $10 per year at Blogger and $15 per year at WordPress.

Another popular blogging tool, TypePad, starts at $4.95 a month, with a full-featured Pro account costing $14.95 a month. At the Pro level and above, TypePad offers excellent tools for creating custom themes, and you don't need to modify the CSS code to do so. If you want to make advanced customizations to a WordPress or Blogger design template (beyond just tweaking a header image or changing some colors), however,you will need to know some CSS and HTML, or you will have to know how to borrow and tweak the code written by other template developers.

[Editor's note: TechSoup also offers LightCMS, a cloud-based content management system.]

Assistance from Current Web Service Providers

The same company that provides your donation processing services or constituent relationship management (CRM) software may also be able to help set up your web presence. What this means will vary significantly depending on the vendor. Before signing up for this service, be sure you understand what types of pages are available to you, and to what extent the vendor will customize the look and feel of your site. In most cases, you can choose one of the vendor's pre-designed templates, or you can send them a design template (usually a CSS style sheet and some graphics) that you've created using Dreamweaver or another web authoring tool. If you have your own template, these services may even work with you to tweak your design so that it works with their software.

Bear in mind that vendors often charge an extra fee for this type of customization, and the more you ask the online vendor to personalize your pages, the more they're likely to charge. Wild Apricot is one online provider that offers strong website features at a decent price, integrated with event registration, contact management, and donation-processing functionality.

An advantage of this approach is that you need to deal with only one vendor (and one bill), and it frees you from worrying about integrating your donation tools, mailing lists, and other community-management features into your website. If you find a vendor that offers most of the features you're looking for at a price you can afford, it's often worth paying extra to avoid the hassle of managing multiple web presences. In the article Comparing Lower Cost Online Application Providers, Idealware compares eight major all-in-one online software vendors.

Nonprofit Soapbox

If you have a few thousand dollars to spend on a website (and a few hundred dollars for annual maintenance), you may also want to consider Nonprofit Soapbox, a service that specializes in setting up websites for nonprofits based on the Joomla content management system. Nonprofit Soapbox can also help you create a unique, branded web design. Pricing for Nonprofit Soapbox is based on an organization's annual budget — if it's less than $250,000, the cost is $2,500 for initial setup and $49 per month after that.

4. Think About How You Will Integrate Your New Site with Your Existing Tools

No matter what web-development option you select, be sure to consider any tools that must be integrated with it. If you have any constituent databases, donation processing tools, or membership management software, for example, talk to your software vendors before committing to a web-development tool. (As noted, if the vendor can provide all the website features you need at a price you can afford, you may not need a separate web-development tool at all.)

If you choose a separate service for creating and hosting your blog or website, your database vendors may be able to integrate their services with your primary web presence in one of the following ways:

  • A badge or a button. If all you want is a "Donate Now" button that connects to your page on a donation processing site, you can copy the code (usually some combination of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) from that site and paste it into your primary site. A disadvantage to this approach, however, is that donors will immediately notice that they've left your website. Experienced Internet users will feel comfortable with the transition if it's clearly labeled, but novices are more likely to get confused and decide that they are unwilling to interact with the unfamiliar site.
  • Customized pages. If you want your users to have a more seamless experience, you may be able to work with your vendor to create a common look and feel between your primary website and its service. When this integration works well, the domain name in the end user's address bar may change, but the colors, graphics and navigation options won't change significantly and most users won't realize that they've left your website. Novice Internet users will be more comfortable if there's a common design and consistent navigation options between all of your web presences. Also, by keeping the navigation menus and sidebars consistent, browsers can move back and forth easily between your different web pages, even if these pages reside on different servers hosted by different companies. This customized approach often requires more time and effort from you and your vendor, and will likely be more expensive as well.

5. Recruit Volunteers, if Needed

Once you've selected a tool for getting your site online, you'll have a better idea of what your support needs will be. If you choose to use blogging software to create a simple site, you may be able to manage the entire site on your own. More complicated solutions, however, may require a little outside support.

The Taproot Foundation, NPower, and VolunteerMatch can all be good places to find qualified volunteers for your project, and Grassroots.org matches nonprofits with web designers, graphic designers, project managers, and others with web-related expertise. Grassroots also offers free web hosting, as well as free access to Doodlekit. All of these services are free only to qualifying 501(c)3 organizations (pending or approved).

You might also locate volunteers through Craigslist.org or college placement offices, which may be able to connect you with new developers and designers eager to build their portfolios.

Additional Considerations

Once you proceed beyond the basic solutions outlined in this article, you may be confronted with a variety of questions in the course of planning your website. These may include:

  • Should you hire a professional web designer? Idealist is a resource directories for nonprofits, and includes listings for web designers who specialize in working with nonprofits. Bear in mind that web design costs for large sites often run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and you'll want to choose your collaborators carefully. Before you hire any designer or developer, always check references. You may also want to enlist the help of a third-party volunteer designer or web developer to give you an unbiased, professional evaluation of their work before you hire them. (A portfolio site might look fine to the untrained eye, but it may be poorly coded or contain formatting errors you might not notice until later.)
  • Should you consider a content management system to manage your site and other online content? A content management system is a type of software that helps you manage the creation, modification, and organization of information and pages on a website. A CMS also offers tools for managing site design, navigation, and user access. A CMS attempts to combine a high degree of extensibility, flexibility, and customizability for website administrators with ease-of-use and simplicity for authors and content creators. For an authoritative look at the major CMSs used by nonprofits, see Idealware's guide, Comparing Open-Source Content Management Systems.
  • Should you rent server space from a web hosting provider? A web hosting company will rent you space on its web server, typically charging customers on a monthly or annual basis. Hosting companies specialize in providing the hardware, software, and high-speed Internet connections necessary to maintain a fast, reliable website. Hosting providers generally offer users a lot of control over the software served out from their rented web space. If you build your website using one of the tools described in this article (such as Blogger or WordPress), the provider will constrain your options to keep the service easy to use and administer. Rented server space, on the other hand, gives you the option to install and configure your own site, but it involves more decision-making and a steeper learning curve. (For more guidance in choosing a hosting provider for your nonprofit site, see Idealware's article A Few Good Web Hosting Providers.

For smaller organizations with simple web outreach strategies, creating a new website (or updating an existing one) needn't be overwhelming, time-consuming, or expensive. Fortunately, the web is a fairly pliable medium. With a solid web presence in place, your nonprofit will be in a strong position to adapt, innovate, and learn as your organization — and your web needs — change and grow.

Image: Web design, Shutterstock