Plan Out Your Nonprofit Website Build in 10 Steps

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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. 

Step 1. Define your nonprofit’s goals

This is where you get your big picture goals in order. Make sure that you have 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.

Step 2. Identify your nonprofit’s target audience

Your site is for your audience, not for your organization. Figuring out what a user wants and needs from the new website should be one of the first things you discuss as an organization.

In order to figure out what your audience needs from your website, you have to get a clear picture of who they are. Try asking yourself these questions in order to get a solid feel for your audience:

  • 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.

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.

Step 3. Ensure your website build happens at 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.

Step 4. Figure out who will be involved in your website build

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Finally, identify 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 important. 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.

Step 5. Assign a point person

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:

  1. Do they have time to make this a priority? As mentioned earlier, website projects take up a lot of bandwidth.
  2. Do they understand your organization inside and out? Can they speak intelligently to your mission, understand your target audience, and know your goals?
  3. Do 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.

Step 6. Ensure 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.

Step 7. What actually needs to be on your nonprofit 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.

Step 8. 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.

Step 9. 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. Here are some of the assets I recommend gathering:

  • New / Updated Content
  • Photos
  • Brand Guidelines
  • Logo
  • Annual Reports
  • Publications
  • Application Forms

Step 10. Can your website 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.

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