Is your nonprofit’s website stuck in 1989? Do people complain that it’s hard to navigate? Do you feel held hostage by your webmaster? Is your last ‘news’ update more than a year old? In this post, we’ll explore some of the basic questions (and strategies) that can help you wrangle your website into a functional and presentable state.
Start with the basics
Is the struggle rooted in not having technical expertise, or does it stem from differing opinions or priorities of team members? Alternatively, are you dealing with a webmaster who is unresponsive—or worse, has ghosted you? For the former, jump to the next section. For the latter, start by collecting answers to the following questions:
- Where is your domain registered?
- Is your website hosted on your own web server or a web hosting service provider (e.g., GoDaddy, DreamHost, SiteGround, etc.)?
- How do you make changes to your domain name servers (DNS)?
- What software (e.g., Adobe Dreamweaver) or content management system is your website built on or powered by?
- Who has the login credentials or other access to all of these accounts and systems?
- If you rely on an independent webmaster, what are the terms of your agreement?
All of this information is critical to maintaining access to, and control of, your website. Especially if you contract with a third-party to manage your site, it’s important to understand what happens if/when you decide to switch service providers or take its management into your own hands. If your webmaster fell ill or out of communication with you—or if the team member currently managing the site left abruptly or on bad terms—would you be able to renew your domain or access your web hosting? Expired domain registrations and web hosting are common reasons for websites to ‘go down’—sometimes irretrievably.
Choose the right tool + services
If the struggle is rooted in a lack of technical skill or a fear of ‘breaking’ something on your website, your best options are to:
- switch to a more user-friendly content management system (CMS)
- secure training for team member(s) responsible for maintaining the website
- dedicate funds to outsource technical support
In many cases, especially for organizations hoping to pursue a do-it-yourself strategy, a CMS switch can be a game-changer. A few popular examples include:
(How do you know which one to pick? I’ll write a follow-up post on this next week!)
You may find that you need to hire someone to help you make the switch, or that you can enlist your web hosting provider to do this on your behalf. In fact, if you are paying for shared web hosting, always carefully evaluate the service levels available. In many cases, upgrading your plan to a higher level of service is well-worth the peace of mind to have reliable, on-demand support and it can be much more affordable than contracting a dedicated tech support provider. Using SiteGround as example, it’s currently possible to secure shared web hosting for less than $50/year, but opting for more bells and whistles (including 24/7, priority support) bumps the annual full-price rate to $420/year. If that seems expensive, consider that you are likely to pay $50-100/hour for web maintenance.
Revisit + clarify the website’s purpose
In the past, many websites served as nothing more than a digital brochure for an organization, making content strategy and website maintenance quite simple. With advancing technologies, however, websites now offer the possibility of e-commerce, integration with databases (to manage memberships, donations, event registrations, etc.), and other sophisticated functionalities to collect information, support advocacy work, schedule services, deliver training, and much more.
This presents a dizzying number of possibilities which can result in overwhelm and indecisiveness, or a website that haphazardly incorporates these features in a way that confuses or frustrates its users. Having a clear idea of how your website can best advance your mission enables you to navigate these options with confidence.
Too often, nonprofit websites are approached as strictly public relation tools that are somehow separate from ‘real’ work when they are, in fact, a tool that can help get the work done. Given that framing: How can your website best advance organizational or programmatic goals?
Examples might include, to:
- retain or attract volunteers, members, donors: enable volunteer applications, membership registration, or donation forms; share volunteer position descriptions; list membership benefits; announcing sponsorship opportunities; feature volunteer orientation videos; acknowledging donors; thank volunteers, etc.
- increase name recognition + awareness of our organization and it’s role: invite website visitors to subscribe to email updates; provide regular updates about program achievements; announce new initiatives; document the organization’s history; etc.
- establish our organization’s reputation as a source of information or services: regularly share free and helpful resources; feature the expertise of staff and/or board members; showcase industry recognition, awards, and certifications; etc.
- influence attitudes, policy, or behavior in a specific way: compile relevant background information; prepare talking points; link to or host relevant petitions or opportunities to provide testimony; feature pledges that commit site visitors to take action; etc.
Identify and prioritize your action items, and then re-organize your website pages and content to reflect these goals. After doing so, you should be able to articulate in very simple terms:
- What should your website do for its visitors?
- How will you know it’s working?
Put your users first
No one likes to hear this, but the reality is that if a person can visit your website, easily find what they are looking for (and/or ‘do’ the thing they came there to do), and have an unmemorable experience… You. Have. Succeeded. Regardless of what your website looks like, its most important function is to help the people who visit it find the information they are looking for or complete the task they came there to accomplish (e.g, register for a program or service, make a donation, become a member, understand a policy, get help, join a conversation, etc.).
If you’re getting feedback that your website is hard to navigate, it’s time to put yourself in your website users shoes:
- Who is coming to the website?
- What are they looking for?
- What do they hope or expect to do there?
How do you find out? ASK THEM. You can gain insights into user behavior, expectations, and needs through quick polls and surveys, as well as analysis of your website analytics (what are your most commonly visited pages? what content do people spend the most time on? where do they usually leave the site from?).
When someone complains about being frustrated with the site, be sure to find out what they came to the website for in the first place. Then find someone unfamiliar with your organization (a friend, family member, new volunteer) and ask them to try to find or do that thing while you sit with them and watch how they navigate the website. How many times do they have to click? Where do they get stuck or confused? Do this a few times and you will likely identify what language or content organization should be changed to make sense to the people who use the site.
Look at other websites
If you’re really feeling stuck, set a timer for 20-30 minutes and take some time to browse other websites for inspiration. To guide your exploration:
- think about other organizations that do similar work and start there
- do an internet search for the issues you focus on or services that you provide and see how the top ranked websites are structured and organized
- consider what websites you find easy to use, even if outside of your industry—what makes them easy to navigate or simple to use?
Especially if you’re grappling with a specific website functionality (e.g., e-commerce, web forms, online training, etc.), you may find that perusing websites that fall outside of your industry can yield the most helpful insights.
Our aspirations sometimes drastically outsize our available resources and capacity. It’s important to take some time to thoughtfully reflect on our goals and expectations and ‘right-size’ them accordingly. Questions that may help in this process include:
- Have we calculated the time, money, and other resources needed to sustain our website in the manner we envision it?
- Have we committed the required financial resources in our budget?
- Who will be responsible for implementation and maintenance?
- How much time will each activity take and with what frequency (e.g., daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly?)
- Has that time been committed on someone’s calendar and job description?
- How and when will we assess our ability to implement or sustain our website plan?
Conduct an annual audit
Without an overall communication plan or a simple content strategy for your website, what typically happens is that nonprofits start to add new content and functionality as it becomes available. After several years, this piecemeal approach takes a toll and the website becomes a complicated labyrinth devoid of clear pathways to information sought by website users.
Conducting an annual website audit or review can be helpful in addressing this and other web maintenance (e.g., repairing broken links) that—done consistently—can extend the life of a website considerably without having to invest in a major redesign or site overhaul.
Elements of your annual review may include:
- Revisit the website’s purpose + priority action items: if they’ve shifted, the site navigation and content organization will likely need to be modified to reflect any changes
- Update content that changes periodically: for many nonprofits, this includes information such as a listing of board members, staff or team directory, most recent IRS Form 990 and/or Annual Report, program calendar(s), donor lists or volunteer rosters, etc.
- Key images: a simple way to freshen-up a website is periodically swapping out any large or prominent banner images, a.k.a. hero images—it’s well worth enlisting a professional photographer to capture images that reflect your community and organization in an authentic way.
If you have any questions that weren’t addressed, additional thoughts or tips to share, or if you found this post helpful, please be sure to comment below!
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