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.
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.
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:
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:
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.]
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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
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