How to Successfully Create a Non-Profit Website on a Limited (Or Non-Existent) Budget

Ask a non-profit executive if they need a website. Unfortunately, many will say, “Yes” with a look of tired exasperation.

Most of them have been hounded by web development businesses filling them with sky-high dreams of what that website will do for them and who want to sell them a great, feature-rich website that will cost thousands of dollars. The person selling the website service doesn’t mention the time and money to gather the information needed for the website. Nor will they tell you about the time and money required to maintain it. Website development projects can fail due to inertia. Gathering the content required takes so long that the developer has moved on to other projects and this project is no longer a priority.

I’ve been in the internet business since 1990 and opened a web hosting and site development company in 1998. One big thing has changed: non-profit executives used to think that a website was an item on a check list of things to do.  A list like:

  • A telephone
  • A physical address or post office box
  • A board of directors
  • A non-profit status certified by the IRS
  • A mission statement
  • A printed brochure
  • A website

Once they got their website, it got checked off the list. It never occurred to them that a website is a communication tool, a marketing tool, and most importantly, a living-breathing thing that will die if it isn’t nurtured and fed. Just like it takes money to shelter, feed, and clothe a family, an effective website costs money. Thankfully, non-profit executives now know that a website is just one more tool for operating and growing their organization.

 There’s nothing worse than an out-of-date website

We’ve all gone to a website and noticed that the last thing posted there is from last year. The website looks dead. You make a comment, but it never gets moderated and posted. You use the contact form and get back a mail box full response or never get a response at all. Someone likely sold the organization on the idea that they needed a website which conformed to the “What every non-profit website should” list. The list should have been entitled, “What every non-profit website should have to make money for your web designer, or if you have a million dollar budget”

Check this one out: Stop Dr. Laura. In fairness, this is an archive of a website for a campaign in which I was involved, but the point remains: Notice that date of the last update? November 2000!

Stop Dr. Laura - dead website
The Stop Dr. Laura website is still on line, but hasn't been updated since 2000

That’s why we reign in our clients, help them set realistic (which means lower) expectations, and typically use WordPress. We tell our clients that as their organization grows, the website can be expanded to include features as they have the ability to manage them – which makes WordPress the perfect development tool.

Our cardinal rules are:

  • Don’t put any content on a website unless it is current and can be kept current.
  • Don’t activate any feature unless it will be maintained.
  • The organization’s resources and volunteers will determine the schedule, not us.
  • Don’t oversell an organization on a website they can ill-afford and can’t manage.
  • There’s no embarrassment to having a simple website appropriate to the organization’s resources.
  • Volunteers cannot be held to same level of accountability as a paid employee and if you try it, they simply disappear.

And, most important of all:

  • Keep the website presentable and useful, no matter how modest, or incomplete,  it may be.

Our non-profit process

In my company, we work with some organizations from their inception. This means we may even have to help them file their IRS documents, suggest a bank, etc. before we can even think about a website. We work with new-borns and help them grow. So, we suggest these steps to them and we help them choose where they want to start. For already established organizations, we simply activate more of the features for the website debut. We refuse – if w can get away with it – to activate features that the organization will not be able to maintain. It’s a combination of incremental implementation and tough-love.

Please note that as we go further down the list, the order of the items can change depending on what the organization already has available.

1. A simple business card website with basic contact information and their IRS designation (501.c.3, etc.) These days, people use a web search like your grandma used the telephone book, so the first thing is making it possible for people to contact the organization. We give them email forwarders rather than mailboxes, because we find that many groups are run entirely by volunteers and won’t even check their mailbox. So, we setup an forwarder addresses and forward them to the email addresses they already use.

2. Donations by cash or check. We initially provide a statement about donations and an address to mail a check – but they must have a bank account in which to deposit the checks first.

Kitty Heaven Business Card
Not very impressive, perhaps even lame, but at least people can find your organization and your website isn't embarrassingly out of date!

3. Online donations. When they have setup a PayPal account or other mechanism for receiving online donations, we set turn that feature on.

4. Media contact. Media contacts are really important, but only if there’s someone who will answer the phone or respond in a timely manner to meet a journalist’s dead-line.

5. Organizational information. Once they can actually provide us with a printed brochure, a mission statement, etc., then we will expand the website to include that information.

6. Social media. Social media can be a big problem for the organization. Some enterprising volunteer sets up a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Then they get bored, angry, or move away and the organization is left with accounts that they cannot access and become rapidly out of date. Invariably, we end up on the short-end of the stick having to help the organization recover their accounts and gain control over them.  In our ideal world, we help them setup these accounts to reserve their user names. We’ll set up a basic Facebook page which links back to the website and put a like button on the website to acquire enough likes that they can get the direct link to their page.  For example, http://www.facebook.com/GLSENGreaterDallas.

We started out with the GLSEN website at the point that they had a Facebook page and a Twitter (although we had to help them recover owner ship and access to the accounts). Note that they have Twitter, Facebook, and even Yahoo videos, but they do not have news on the home page.

GLSEN-no-news-home-page
GLSEN home page without news posts.

7. Calendar of events. When they have a fund-raiser or other events scheduled, and they have provided us with someone we can train to maintain it, we’ll activate it and teach their person to add the scheduled event(s). It’s really important to use an event plug-in that removes the event from the site once it has past because experience shows us that the organization cannot be relied upon to remove past events until they’re ready to schedule the next one.

8. Collecting email addresses. We do not setup a mechanism for collecting email addresses until the organization has a reason to use them. If you collect email addresses for two years before you ever use them (and, yes, this happens often). you’re guaranteed to get a lot of spam complaints – especially from AOL users who think the “Spam” button is the way to unsubscribe. If, you do collect them, be sure to date them so that you can send a special announcement to  addresses over six months old when you do start using them.

9. News Posts. Until the organization has enough going on to actually post news items, we will put a “News” link on the site which goes to a News area. We NEVER set the site up to post news or anything else that display on the home page until they are posting at least one item a month. It’s bad enough when the latest item published is six months old. It’s catastrophic if it’s on the home page and six months old. Occupy Dallas does a good job of updating sufficiently often that having news items on their home page works. A trick we have used is to remove the publication date from the WordPress template so it doesn’t display and then the organization will place a date at the bottom of the article for time-sensitive items.

This is the same website as in the image above. Note that the home page has now changed to include news items. Prior to this, they had a news section, but had only one post. Now, they are posting news more often, so we changed from the static home page to a posting page which still has the video at the top, but now has news posts and a mailing list subscription dialog. It has taken several months to go from the first version to having these additional features. The schedule was determined by the client’s ability to gather the required materials.

The GLSEN site now has news postings on the home page and a mailing list subscription form

 

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