Nonprofit Website How-to Guide

blog

What is a nonprofit website?

Websites are where most people go to learn about an organization and should be the center of your brand. Everything your organization does and believes in, should be reflected in the content of your website. 

Nonprofit websites are used to gain new supporters and keep current supporters up to date on current events, milestones and the mission. Nonprofit websites don’t sell a product or service, but they still need to convince people to support their cause. Your mission and/or impact should come across clearly on every page, so that visitors can gain a strong understanding of who you are and what you do.

Why does a nonprofit need a website?

The simple answer is, to broaden the reach of your organization. The greater the reach, the increase in opportunity for more donations and in fulfilling the organization’s mission. A strong online presence is a cost-effective and efficient way to create that awareness.

Unfortunately, sometimes an organization does not understand what can and cannot be done with their websites.  This may result in state and federal regulators, learning of a nonprofit organization’s mistakes and misdeeds. Learn how to avoid this later in this article.

Just about every nonprofit has a website, and it is a crucial component of their communication and fundraising activities. Here are a few reasons why a nonprofit needs a website:

  1. Saves time: A nonprofit website is an efficient, time-saving way to provide answers to questions your potential supporters may have about your nonprofit organization without you being on the phone or online meeting. 
  2. Engage new and existing donors: The better your website, the easier it will be to inspire people to give money, attend events, and support your organization.
  3. Find more potential donors: A well placed Call-to-Action (CTA) will capture your visitors’ information and create a database of people interested in your cause. This list is a gold mine of contacts you can follow up with for donations or to fill seats for an event.
  4. Build relationships: Websites play a key role in promoting your cause but also provide a platform for sharing stories. Nonprofit websites are perfect tools for social sharing and brand discovery–allowing your nonprofit access to potential advocates and volunteers.
  5. Size doesn’t matter: Utilizing website design to create a professional-looking website will draw visitors to your mission no matter if you are a one-person organization or if there are 50 people on the payroll.

Having a presence on the Web in terms of a dedicated site can help a charitable organization when it comes to nonprofit fundraising. However, there are a number of 501(c)(3) groups that just don’t have the financial resources to support having a site that is updated frequently so they reach out to social good organizations like Ocean Ring Technologies who built the FlexibleSites platform to assist nonprofits with technology.

What to include in a nonprofit website?

A well-designed website is one of the most important assets any organization can have and communicates everything someone should know about your organization. A nonprofit website should include the following characteristics:

1. Easy-to-Read Layout: Popular websites like Children International, ASPCA, or International Rescue Committee seem to use similar layouts and this isn’t a coincidence. These layouts have three significant advantages:

  • Usable - they are proven layouts that have been tested and verified
  • Familiar - since they are common, website visitors already understand how to navigate these sites
  • Save Money - these themes are reusable and save designers time from experimenting

2. Responsive and intuitive design: Responsive (flexible) design allows your website to adjust to fit any screen size, which allows for comfortable viewing on any device. Why is responsive design important?

  • Without it, it makes it painful—if not impossible—for mobile viewers to navigate and view your website and its content.
  • A mobile-friendly nonprofit website is so important that Google’s search algorithm prioritizes websites that are responsive for users searching on a mobile device.
  • Making your nonprofit website harder to read on smaller devices is a great way to scare away potential donors and volunteers.

3. Powerful storytelling: Stories can support an explanation of your nonprofit organization’s work. They articulate the impact of the nonprofit’s work in a way that your audience can empathize with. Storytelling is a tactic that helps nonprofits reach their larger goal. What are those goals?

  • Raise money
  • Grow membership
  • Inspire loyalty and trust
  • Show appreciation

4. Evident Call to Action: A call-to-action, or CTA, is a marketing term referring to a piece of content, such as an image, a button or a line of text, intended to prompt users to perform a specific action. Your call to action (CTA) is the chance to motivate your audience to take real steps toward becoming a supporter of your nonprofit organization. Here’s a checklist to determine how effective is your call to action:

  • Does the area for the call to action have an attention grabbing design? 
  • Does the call to action have copy/text that is action focused?
  • Is there a sense of urgency if the visitor doesn’t take action?
  • Is the message brief and concise on the promise for taking the action?
  • Does the call to action compete with other calls to action?
  • Is the call to action easy to find and impossible to miss?

Your website provides visitors the ability to have direct access to who your organization is and what impact it has in the world. It also provides a way for visitors to interact with your organization. The better constructed the nonprofit website, the less frustration for visitors of the site and an increased chance of engagement with your organization. 

What makes a great nonprofit website?

There are 5 main purposes to a nonprofit website:

  1. Clearly communicate the mission and values of the nonprofit
  2. Showcase the organization’s work and success stories
  3. Encourage donations and viewers to engage and take action
  4. Be accessible to those who need or want to work with your nonprofit
  5. Expand the reach of the nonprofit organization

A great nonprofit website does a super effective job of clearly meeting these purposes through the design and content. Site visitors are generally impatient, so nonprofit websites need to deliver a clear and engaging message immediately. Otherwise, they run the risk of losing potential supporters before the site has had a chance to make its case.

How to clearly communicate the mission and values

Show your website to someone not familiar with the site or your organization. Ask them to find the mission of your nonprofit organization or any other relevant information about the organization’s values. See if they can easily navigate the site and make notes of anything they can’t find or that is confusing. Test this with visitors on both a mobile device and a laptop/computer.

Now ask them to tell you what the mission and values of the organization is in their own words. If they cannot easily explain the mission then the website does not concisely state your message and needs to be improved.

Showcase the organization’s work and success stories

When sharing the story of your organization remember that a majority of visitors to your website will form their impression based entirely on your visuals. This means things like images, colors, and fonts have a significant impact on how people will respond and act on a website. 

Make sure the readability of your content is easy. The choice of font remains front and center for website design, so to improve readability use simple fonts which contrast well with the background of the site. Choose your images carefully. Do not use images that are blurry photographs or use pixelated logos as this drives visitors away from your nonprofit website. High-resolution photos and smooth graphics draw the attention of the viewer. 

Encourage donations and viewers to engage and take action

Your nonprofit website should inspire potential donors and supporters to help in your mission in a visual, contextual and emotional way. Make sure that when people are determined to join or donate, that they can find where to join or donate on your website within a few seconds and on every page.

A great nonprofit website makes sure to also explain the impact of recurring, monthly gifts. The initial job of the website is to get a one-time donation but another benefit is that a nonprofit organization now has the opportunity to try to convert one time donors into a more committed monthly recurring donation, while outlining the positive impact their monthly gift will have.

Be accessible to those who need or want to work with your nonprofit

There will be times when someone like a donor will want to actually talk to someone from the nonprofit organization. It’s always advisable to share an organization’s contact information to get the process started or to provide a form so your visitors can send a message.

Ideally, everyone should be able to use your nonprofit website no matter if they have a condition that affects their capabilities or what hardware and software they need to use. This is the main requirement behind the concept of web accessibility. While there are a lot of disabilities and conditions that can affect the way people use websites, here is a list of the most common categories of impairments:

  • Visual Impairment: This includes a partial or total inability to see or to perceive color contrasts.
  • Hearing Impairment: Some users have a reduced ability to hear.
  • Physical Disabilities: Users may have diminished motor skills, including making precise movements (such as when using a mouse).
  • Photosensitive Seizures: Flashing lights on websites can cause seizures in those who have a condition such as epilepsy.
  • Cognitive Disabilities: There are also many conditions that affect cognitive ability, such as dementia and dyslexia.

If your nonprofit website is more accessible by all, the more supporters you can reach.

Expand the reach of the nonprofit organization

A nonprofit has limited resources to market and grow the reach of the organization through media like advertising. But by taking some time to understand your goals, your audiences, and some of the best ways to use your resources to reach these people, you can achieve a lot with very little. In order to expand your reach, your nonprofit website needs to be able to help with the following:

  • Inspire with stories: This step turns a one time visitor into a supporter of your mission and cause. By posting more stories, you increase the chance the visitor returns to your website. When you share these stories on social media accounts then you can increase the number of visitors to your nonprofit website.
  • Provide opportunities: When you provide a supporter an opportunity to get involved with the mission, then you can turn a supporter into a volunteer. Inviting people to invest their time in making a difference allows for a bigger commitment to the nonprofit organization.
  • Promote supporter activism: When a supporter commits time and shares their involvement with your organization, then promote their social media post or share appreciation for their efforts on the nonprofit’s social media. This is a good way to engage with your supporters and also have reach in their network. Plus the volunteer will feel appreciated and want to be more involved.
  • Turn supporters into advocates: As a nonprofit professional, you know how to talk about your cause and it’s important your long-term supporters can do the same. A little training can make a big difference in how confident they feel and assists in spreading the word about the organization. Make sure to provide tools like templates, timelines, and graphics that allow advocates to take action for the nonprofit cause.

How to organize a nonprofit website?

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all website sitemap that’s perfect for every nonprofit, there are some general best practices to keep in mind.

Identify your audience

Nonprofit organizations should avoid trying to be an “all in one” platform. Sure, you want to reach a broad audience, but you don’t want to sacrifice the user experience for those visitors most likely to get engaged with your cause.

  1. Research your current supporters: Are there any patterns in the group(s)? The better you know your audience the easier it will be to build a website that provides what they want to know.
  2. Create user stories: Take the characteristics of your current supporters, along with the qualities you’d like to see in ideal members, and break them down into smaller groups based on demographics and behaviors.
  3. Reflect on your goals: This step involves some self-reflection and meeting with all stakeholders on your team. After collecting data from all sides, you need to ensure your organization’s goals match up with your audience.

Identify user paths

The point of your website structure is to make content easy to find. This means the main navigation should provide the content in buckets based on the behavior of the visitor. These won’t necessarily be the most important pages on your site. Instead, they’ll allow visitors to easily find whatever it is they’re looking for.

  • Discovery: For first time visitors, the home page should provide enough information to them to understand who the nonprofit organization is and what are its goals and mission.
  • Purpose: Why did someone come to your website? Were they shown a story shared by a friend? Were they actively searching for a particular term and happened across your site? Did they get a donation email six months ago and finally, just now, want to support your organization? It’s important to learn how a user came to visit your site and for what purpose. Always ask “why” when developing content that provides insight to your organization and show supporters how they can get involved.
  • Guidance: Every instance of proper user guidance on your website cannot be a Call to Action, form, or registration page, otherwise your audience will feel like they are being sold to. Links within text can be a subtle way to guide your users around your website, by providing additional resources or context. Even the placement of elements on your page helps users understand where it’s worth interrupting their current actions to do something new.
  • Conversion: For nonprofits this means converting a visitor into a supporter and hopefully one day an advocate. Forms and calls to action should easily allow for conversions when a visitor decides to invest their time or money with your nonprofit organization.

What to avoid

To ensure a good foundation in your website structure, try to avoid confusing your audience. As they say, just keep it simple:

  • Avoid mirroring the structure of your organization: Think like your visitor. Go with a sitemap that’ll make the most sense to them. It’s tempting to organize your sitemap in a way that mirrors your structure as an organization. The website is for your audience and not your employees. Let the user paths, you identified earlier, drive the placement and naming of pages.
  • Avoid organizing the site by audience: Try to avoid organizing website sitemaps by audience (i.e. for donors, for volunteers, for program participants). It sends a message to visitors that don’t necessarily fit neatly into one of the audiences that the site isn’t intended for them. The last thing you want is to make a visitor feel unwelcome when they land on your nonprofit’s site. Organizing a portion of your site by audience makes sense, but avoid for a majority of the site. Focus on the content and let your visitors decide.
  • Avoid jargon in page names: Whenever possible, remove technical terms out of your page names. Doing so will provide a much stronger user experience for visitors less familiar with who you are and what you do. For instance, an educational nonprofit would likely want to use something like “teaching practice” instead of “pedagogy.”
  • Don’t use self playing video or audio: And definitely avoid flash. One of the biggest pet peeves for supporters is visiting a site and having audio or video play without knowing where it’s coming from or how to make it stop.
  • Avoid advertising on your website: Can a nonprofit website display ads? Yes, you may certainly sell advertising space on your website or newsletter, but the IRS is likely to consider the ad revenue unrelated business activity and therefore unrelated business taxable income. A better alternative would be to let local businesses sponsor your newsletter. You could solicit several businesses with your sponsorship proposal. The sponsorship fee could qualify as a business expense for the sponsor, but the company would benefit from the fact that it is supporting a charitable cause.

How to Create/Build a NonProfit Website?

Purchase a Domain

The first step in getting started is choosing a domain name. We recommend using namecheap since their service has FREE privacy (GoDaddy charges for this) and have additional tools that are cheap like business email and hosting. Buying a domain is also cheaper than compared to other domain registrars as well as SSL certificates.

To Use Wordpress or Not To Use Wordpress

If your organization is looking for a solution where you have complete control over everything with your site including the HTML/CSS code then Wordpress might be the solution for you. There’s a reason over 34% of websites on the entire internet use Wordpress. Here are a few of the reasons why you should use Wordpress:

  • Free and Open-Source - WordPress is free to download and use. The cost is when you are hosting the site on your own and there are many hosting companies that provide support for setting up a Wordpress site. Open-source projects are typically free, with large communities. 
  • Easy to Customize - In order to build a Wordpress site you do not have to be a web designer or programmer. There are many nonprofit websites that start using WordPress without any prior knowledge of designing websites. WordPress themes are easy to customize because a lot of them come with their own options panel allowing you to change the background, alternate colors, upload pictures, create beautiful sliders, and truly customize it to your needs without writing any code at all.
  • SEO Friendly - SEO can make or break the success of a nonprofit website. So it’s something that you need to start focusing on from the inception of your site. By design, WordPress is very SEO friendly out of the box because it handles the semantic markup for you. You can also use WordPress SEO plugins to further optimize your website.
  • Integrations/Plugins - WordPress is compatible with tons of different third-party tools which are known as plugins or widgets in the Wordpress ecosystem. There are thousands of plugins to continuously upgrade your site and allow for additional features. In addition to plugins and widgets, you can also integrate things like email marketing software, payment gateways, Google Analytics, and countless other components that you might need to run a fully functional nonprofit website. These integrations allow your site to grow in functionality and provide more value to your audience.
  • Media Types - WordPress is not just limited to writing text and the platform allows for many different media types. It comes with a built-in media uploader to handle images, audio, and video files. WordPress supports oEmbed enabled websites as well which means you can embed YouTube videos, Instagram photos, Tweets, and Soundcloud audio by just pasting the URL in the WordPress post editor.

Some of the advantages of a Wordpress site can also be a hindrance to a nonprofit organization. Here are a few reasons not to choose Wordpress:

  • Maintenance Costs - Once you get your website up in WordPress, you have to make sure to constantly maintain the theme and plugins. WordPress sites often have an update error or break down every 3 months or so. They need to be constantly fixed and updated as online technology changes. Be prepared to hire at least one or multiple WordPress developers to fix a problem on your site.
  • Plugins - WordPress plugins increase functionality and while it might seem like an awesome option to make your website look better and more personalized, you take risks with each plugin that is installed. Each plugin is created by some random Joe or developer company you’ve never heard of, which means you'll need to hire a WordPress developer just to make sure your nonprofit website is still working properly. And this can often cost anywhere between $300 and $1000 per 3 months just to make sure all is working well. Also, since plugins are created by different people, there is no guarantee they will work together. One might work beautifully on your site, but adding another might cause the site to slow down or worse, crash altogether.
  • Software Upgrades - WordPress has regular software updates to keep its platform functioning properly for its users usually at least once a month. The trouble with these updates is they can cause issues with the theme you use on your site or break your plugins because the plugins are no longer compatible with the new updates. There have been plenty of times where the random Joe above stops working on a plugin and then after a software update the plugin doesn’t work anymore.
  • Targeted Malware - There are thousands of websites that use WordPress to create their website, which means that all of those people have very similar-looking websites from the front and back end. If a bug can find a security flaw on one site, chances are the same flaw exists on hundreds of other sites, now making them all vulnerable targets. If your website is not being managed and updated consistently, don’t be surprised when someone hacks your website. Coders and hackers love to mess with WordPress to try and break the site to use it for their own purposes or hijack the site for ransom. For this reason alone, WordPress is a nightmare to deal with.

If you choose WordPress: The next step is to find a hosting provider. If you purchased your domain with Namecheap or GoDaddy (or another large domain registrar) they usually provide hosting packages that make the entire site hosting process easy since your domain is also registered through the same company. For additional information you can go to Wordpress.org.

WordPress Alternatives

There are a number of alternatives to Wordpress and choosing the right solution for you will depend on the amount of time you have and the amount of technical skills you possess. The list provided here is ordered from the least amount of technical skills needed to the most advanced.

FlexibleSites - Our solution allows you to focus on your content and nonprofit mission while at the same time having a custom built website. We take care of the difficult and time-consuming coding part while you have access to your CMS dashboard and make updates to the content as easy as filling out a form. Best part is that your site can grow and maintenance is handled by our team. As your nonprofit grows, your website should reflect that growth.

Weebly - A very intuitive website builder that has been used to create around 40 million sites to date and provides one of the best free alternatives for building a site. Weebly remains one of the easiest-to-use site-building solutions out there. It delivers great tools for creating straightforward sites that serve specific purposes. Unlike the next alternative, all Weebly templates are mobile-optimized. This means your nonprofit website will look good on any device your visitor uses. Weebly is ideal for content-rich sites that don’t require advanced functionality.

Wix - An all-in-one platform where everything happens in one place. Nothing to install, no web server for hosting and all themes are found in their marketplace. Wix is a hosted website builder that offers free reliable web hosting, security features, built-in SEO tools, and a dedicated support team to help you create and manage your site. Unfortunately, you can’t change your template once you have selected one, and you won’t have access to the source files. And as previously mentioned, not all templates are mobile-optimized which means you can control how your site looks on mobile, but you might have to rearrange some elements. That’s unfortunate if your site has over 50 pages. 

Jimdo - Building a site with Jimdo allows you to choose between having your site built by AI and then making changes or using their drag and drop web editor much like Wix or Weebly. Jimdo has everything a basic website needs, and the site-building interface is straightforward to use. Overall, it’s much easier to get started with a simple website on Jimdo than it is on WordPress. With Jimdo you have to be aware that it is not as feature-packed as other website builders and the templates are much less flexible.

Squarespace - This platform is everything that Wix is, but a bit simpler. The site builder in Squarespace is straightforward and intuitive to use; it takes you by the hand through the entire site-building process. Squarespace is also the leader of the design game among website builders. All designs/themes in its catalog are modern, great-looking and optimized for readability.

Joomla - A content management system (CMS) very much like WordPress, which provides a ton of functionality right out of the gate, and can be used to run any type of website — from simple brochures to blogs, eCommerce, informational sites, and even social networks. One of the main differences between Joomla and Wordpress is that Joomla allows you better user and media management than WordPress. With Joomla, you can upload and manage any type of media files. Plus, there are also built-in SEO and banner management tools.

Drupal - A highly flexible CMS with virtually infinite customization options. It’s best suited for developers or other users with a familiar understanding of HTML, CSS, and PHP. Drupal includes better security features, user and permission management, data encryption and website performance than Wordpress. Just be prepared to put in the hours required to work on your site and tweak source code or build from the ground up.

Webflow - Webflow should be on your radar if you want complete control of the appearance of your nonprofit website. The editor feels a bit like Photoshop and offers plenty of options but this definitely is not a platform for beginners. Webflow is a “visual” content management system that allows designers to create fully customized sites without having to worry about hosting, security, or performance.