Part 1: Planning for a Nonprofit Website Project
It’s time to redesign your nonprofit’s website, but you don’t know where to start. Here's my best advice for planning and executing a project that saves you money, avoids common pitfalls, and results in a website you love.
Save money on a website with effective planning
The more you clarify your needs and organize your team before approaching a web designer, the less the website will cost. The biggest time suck of any website project is when organizations don’t know (or can’t agree on) what they want.
The best way to ensure a cost-effective project is to organize yourself so your web design firm can focus on what they do best, rather than needing to constantly adjust to new requests and organizational politics.
If you can nail these down before starting the website project, your web design firm will have a much easier time getting you exactly what you need on-time and within your budget.
What you should ideally do before approaching a web design firm:
Define your nonprofit organization’s goals
Before approaching a web designer, make sure you know exactly what your website needs to do for you. Outline the specific organizational goals that your website needs to achieve to make it worth the cost.
By goals, I don’t mean things you want on the website. “Have an email opt-in form” isn’t a good goal. Instead, make your goals SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
SMART Goal Examples
- Increase online donations by 50% next year.
- Grow our membership to 400 members.
- Increase program applicants from __ ZIP code by 20% each year.
- Add credibility for new grants, joint partnerships, etc.
- Increase monthly pageviews to 10k by the end of next year.
- Better engage constituents by providing a free resource library.
We’ll get to the how later in the process. For now, take a big picture view of the things your organization needs to do that your website may be able to support.
Who is the website for? Identify your nonprofit’s target audience.
Your site is for your audience, not for your organization. Too many nonprofit websites end up as a shoddy compromise of various departments’ egos rather than a coherent narrative. Each department thinks their work is the most important and thus should have a prime spot on the home page. And since nobody wants to make hard choices, the lazy web designer throws a slider on top of the home page with a slide for each competing department and everybody is happy.
Except for your users, of course. Just because the user isn’t sitting around the conference room table arguing for what they want doesn’t mean they should be forgotten. They are the reason you have a website, after all.
Figuring out what a user wants and needs from the new website should be one of the first things you discuss as an organization.
Get to know your nonprofit’s target audience
A deep, accurate understanding of your target audience is critical to a useful website and all aspects of your marketing. Take the time now to drill down and ensure you know exactly who you’re targeting before going any further.
Questions to get to know your audience
First, who are our target audiences? Make sure to include everybody your marketing is intended to reach, such as program participants, donors, foundations, members, elected officials, etc.
For each target audience identified, ask yourself:
- Who are they? Be very specific! For example, our primary donors are 50-70 year old Quakers from Philadelphia and the Main Line, about 70% female, upper-middle income, very active in social causes.
- What are their passions, hopes, and fears? What drives them to your organization?
- Where do they hang out online? Are they active on social media?
- Why do they visit your website? What information are they seeking?
- How do your ideal participants/supporters view your organization? What do they love about you? Why do they pick you over other competing organizations?
Note: You might be happy to take donations from almost anyone who has a pulse and a checkbook. That's fine, but it's a losing strategy to try to target everybody, because it will force you to be bland and forgettable. Instead focus on a smaller audience that absolutely loves what you do.
Make it personal with personas
To make sure you’re diving into specifics, it can be helpful to think in terms of personas. A persona is a character you create based on one of your target demographics. You create a full narrative around that character as if it’s a real person. Learn more about personas here.
A 45-year-old returning citizen who spent six years in prison. He needs help getting a job and housing and Googling on his smartphone to find resources in his neighborhood. He is motivated to get back on his feet but overwhelmed about all the steps to get there.
A 30-year-old professional who lives in Center City. She is very active on social media and cares a lot about environmental causes. She’s worried about global warming and makes a few donations each year to causes she feels connected to. She prefers small organizations with a personal touch over large national environmental organizations.
The director of a small foundation that supports community development work. She needs to pick two organizations to fund this year out of the dozens that applied. She is checking out your site and social media accounts to get a sense of how active you are, as well as trying to learn who has funded you in the past. She wants to find an organization that is trying new, bold initiatives related to her foundations' goals.
When to do a website project
Pick the right time! Website projects take a lot of bandwidth for those directly involved, so ideally try to schedule your project during a time of year when your workload is lighter. If you’re juggling major events and projects, the website won’t get the attention it deserves. Most organizations have a high-season and a low-season. Do everybody a favor and schedule the website project during the “low-season.”
Fiscal year is also a factor. If it’s something you need to request funding for in the budget, start planning for it months ahead of the next fiscal year.
Get the right people involved
Making sure that the right people are involved at the right points in the process is absolutely critical. At the beginning of a project, you need to identify three groups of people:
First, who is responsible for actually helping to deliver the project? These are people that are going to be planning the content, pulling together the pictures and videos, meeting with the development team, and figuring out what needs to happen, etc. Figure out who that person/team is.
Next, identify decision-makers. These are the people that the day before launch could stop the project in its tracks if they don’t like it. Maybe the director, the board, possibly the heads of different departments, etc. Consider a person a decision-maker if they hold sway in the final approval of the project, whether or not they are formal/legal decision-makers in the organization.
The people in and around your organization that should be informed about the project, at least key milestones. This could include staff members, constituents, and partners, depending on the structure of your organization. They aren't decision-makers, but if they are completely left out of the loop, they are much less likely to feel respected and satisfied with the final product.
*This is not optional*
Make sure to consider everybody in your organization that fits into one of these categories, even if they don’t express interest in the project. It’s not uncommon for a board member or an overloaded Executive Director to fully delegate the project to staff, only to reappear out of nowhere just before the project launches with a ton of opinions and new ideas. This is frustrating for everybody involved.
To prevent this, identify these people from the start and provide them with concrete opportunities for feedback from the start. Decision-makers must sign-off on every milestone (sitemap, prototype, content, design, draft site), not just the final draft.
Assign a point person
Pick one person that will lead the website project from within your organization. This person is the main point of contact for the web design firm and keeps track of the project on a daily basis. They are also responsible for managing all of your organization’s stakeholders and making sure everybody knows what is expected of them.
A couple considerations when figuring out who should be the point person:
- They have time to make this a priority. Being the point person for a full website project will require a lot of time and energy. Make sure their schedule allows for this.
- They understand the organization inside and out. They can speak intelligently to your mission, understand your target audience, and know your goals. Don’t assign a brand new staff member to this role.
- They have enough seniority within the organization to get things done. This person will need to chase down content, manage revisions requests, and balance priorities of various departments. They’ll also need to answer tons of questions from the web design firm. If the point person doesn’t have enough sway to keep the project moving, it can drag on forever.
Make sure you have complete access to all accounts
Track down the login credentials of all important technical accounts including:
- Hosting: the hosting account where the website files are served (e.g. GoDaddy, Siteground, Bluehost, etc.)
- Domain Registration: the account where your website domain (example.org) is owned. This may be under the same account as your hosting or it might be separate. This should not be owned by your developer. If your relationship sours with them or they disappear, you’d be screwed.
- Current website backend: make sure you can log into the website’s backend (WordPress, Drupal, etc.).
- Google Analytics: make sure you have full access to your Google Analytics account to add/remove users as needed.
- Social Media: make sure you have access to all social media accounts. Make sure they are attached to an organization email (not your former intern’s Gmail…) so you have permanent control of these accounts.
Some notes on domains and hosting
What actually needs to be on your nonprofit’s website?
Probably less than you think.
You don’t need to explain every single thing you’ve done as an organization in great detail. Focus instead on creating a concise narrative arc through your website that engages the user, makes them feel emotionally connected, answers their questions, and inspires them to take action.
That often means making hard choices, such as discarding nonessential content. The more you cut superfluous content, the better you’re able to focus the users attention on what actually matters, the things that actually move the needle. Do the work now—your users will thank you for it.
Review your existing site
You probably have a decent idea of what’s on your current site, but take some time to thoroughly review the site to get a full picture of what is there.
Click through every page, read the content, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the overall structure match the priorities of your organization?
- Does the navigation menu and site structure make sense? Would users of each target audience be able to easily find what they’re looking for?
- What do we like about the site? What should we keep for the new one?
- What do we not like? What can be discarded? What needs to be done differently?
- Is the text content accurate, concise, and up-to-date? How much of it can be imported to the new site as-is and what needs to be re-written?
- Do the photos, graphics and other design elements capture the feeling we’re going for?
Once you’ve each done a review on your own, discuss this as a team and write down your conclusion.
Get your assets together
Set up a shared folder on Google Drive or Dropbox and begin organizing your brand and website assets. Having these all organized in one place saves a lot of back-and-forth with your web design firm.
Can the site save you time?
Your website should be a lot more than just a pretty digital brochure. Put your website to WORK. Websites can help you save a lot of staff time. There are tons of ways nonprofits can make their websites work for them to free up staff to do other things.
Could people inquire about your programs via an online form? Express interest in volunteering? RSVP and buy tickets? Automatically add themselves to your database or mailing list? Add community events to your calendar and jobs to your job board? Get their questions answered without calling your office? Access members-only content? All this and more can be rolled into your website.
Decide on a donation platform
Decide how you will receive donations through the site. There are two basic options:
- A custom donation form built into the site: the form is built directly on your site and connects to a payment processor (PayPal, Stripe, Braintree, etc.) If this is your current set up, you’ll need your web developer to move/rebuild it for the new site.
- A third-party donation platform: an outside donation service that can either be linked out from your website or embedded in an iFrame. If you currently use a third-party donation platform that you’re happy with, it’s easy to link/embed it from the new site as-is.
If you don’t have a donation platform yet (or are looking to switch), check out this resource:
How to maximize donations on your nonprofit website
If you want people to donate, don’t let your donation page be an afterthought.
Some users come to your site planning to make a donation, but the vast majority need some convincing. When planning out donations for your website think about why people donate.
A donation is a transaction. I give you $50 because the value I receive in improved self-image, sense of purpose, etc. is worth at least $50 to me. Sure I legitimately want to help the people you serve, but what makes me actually punch in my credit card number is a conviction that this will make me feel good about my contribution to this cause.
Don’t assume the user understands how important donations are to you. They might think you’re doing just fine with grants and existing donors, and nobody wants to give away their money unless there is a compelling reason to do so. So if you want donations, ask for donations!
Make it explicit what a donor’s money will contribute too. A simple way to do this is to include photos or stories/testimonials highlighting your impact on the donation page. Many people visit donation pages without completing a donation. Make sure to close the deal by reminding them why their donation is important.
What forms of donations do you (or could you) accept? Don’t just stop with a one-time donation form. Consider all of the other ways people could support your work, such as: recurring donations, in-kind donation wishlists, memorial gifts, sponsorships, planned giving, etc.