As I said in my post about print projects, I have a passion for non-profit organizations. Each one is different and faces unique challenges. And, it’s extra motivating to use my skills to raise money for education, solve hunger, or help a city prosper.
Many small non-profits don’t think they can afford to have a professional website. There are good DIY tools out there such as Squarespace, Wix or Weebly, and these can be the right choice certain non-profits — I’ll explain why later.
If you have access to a professional who is willing to create a website pro bono — great! However, I strongly recommend a paid maintenance contract going forward. This ensures access to someone for training, software updates and emergencies. I often hear, “They created the site for free (or half-finished it), but they disappeared.”
Why bring in a design professional for your online project? Here are some of the reasons:
1. Carrying the Message
A professional can help you craft your message and speak to the heart of the potential donor or volunteer . Consistent messaging increases the likelihood of rising above all the other groups asking for money and time.
A fast, readable, attractive website that works on all kinds of devices tells the potential donor that professional people run the organization, and that you will be good stewards of their money. Potential volunteers get the feeling that your organization is worthy of their time.
True story: A client just texted me…
I was trying to get more corporate sponsors today, and I was telling them we could put their name on the website if they wanted. They said “let me look at the site and call you back…’ They were SO impressed with the site… of course they said YES.”
We do websites all day, every day. We can work much faster than you can, freeing you up to do what you do best — doing your core job or approaching potential donors. Your project will receive the attention it deserves and will launch on time.
4. Security and Reliability
This is why I say: PAY FOR MAINTENANCE. Don’t expect a professional with a paying client workload to make a non-paying client a priority in an emergency. And, more importantly, to prevent emergencies. “Set it and forget it” is not acceptable, especially if your site accepts online donations. We install security fixes immediately, keep up with regular software updates, make sure the SSL certificate and payment processing still works, clean up databases, check performance, ensure on-time renewals of hosting and domains, and much more.
A bit about online donations: I am not an accountant, but there are some things that you must do to prevent someone from stealing donations from your PayPal account.
5. Website Performance
A slow website can cost you. First, Google considers site speed in its search engine rankings, and a low ranking can make it more difficult for people to find you. Second, potential donors and volunteers may lose patience waiting for a slow website to load.
Example: Recently, I took over the website of a non-profit with a number of features and a lot of content. The page load time was anywhere from 7-9 seconds, and our redesign brought it down to the low-two-second range.
If you can have a professional work on your website, social media and print materials, so much the better. Designing or redesigning all of your marketing materials together saves time and money and helps you stand out and be and remembered.
When are DIY tools like Squarespace OK?
In this comparison, a DIY tool is something like Squarespace, Wix, Weebly, etc. A “Developer Website” is one where you need a developer to get started, have it hosted somewhere, and ensure it runs optimally, but you update the content. Examples include WordPress.org (my extreme favorite) or another Content Management System (CMS) like Joomla, Drupal, etc.
- Someone else worries about software upgrades and security. This, along with hosting, is included in a monthly rate.
- Can be user-friendly (can also be over-simplified to the point of not being intuitive).
- Offers free and/or premium groovy templates — some can be customized, especially if you are technical.
- May include a simple payment and shopping cart system (Squarespace does), so you can take donations or sell a few items such as t-shirts or tickets.
- They do software upgrades when they want to, and no one is testing your site to make sure it still looks the same. Surprise!
- You hope they are dealing with security.
- You hope they are backing up your site and that you can access the backup. If you lose everything, how big of a disaster would it be? Would you lose your entire church membership directory and video library?
- If you are unhappy, your site is on their proprietary system and has to be recreated elsewhere.
- Due to mergers and acquisitions, you may find that a cool company with great support becomes an unresponsive cog in a machine.
- The feature set that comes with the tool is what it is.
- Search engine optimization (SEO) may or may not be adequate. This is only important if you need people to find you by searching for things like “food pantry in Denton.” Some organizations expect people to find them by name or referral, and that’s it.
- Your site might be fast or it might not be. Other than not uploading massive images, if your site is slow, too bad.
For a non-profit needing basically an online brochure, DIY can do the job, at least for a year or two. For a large non-profit or a faith community, probably not.
- A technical person is performing upgrades and watching security. Your developer tests changes before the public sees them.
- Your developer is backing up your site at the host and keeping an off-site backup (they should be … we do).
- At least in WordPress, editing tools are intuitive for those who have used standard business software. Also, WordPress powers 25% of the web, so it’s easy to find employees and volunteers who have used it before.
- Design is limited only by your budget and imagination. However, you do not have to start from scratch, saving time and money.
- WordPress and other CMSs are widely supported. If your hosting company is acquired by someone terrible, or if your developer becomes unresponsive, you can pack it up and move without losing content or having to re-do the site. It’s yours.
- You have more control over SEO and speed.
- As you grow, you can add features, usually without reinventing the wheel. Non-profits often need to add things like more flexible payment methods and options, membership directories, large calendars bringing in information from other calendars, more features for people with disabilities, and restricted access to content. If increased traffic changes your hosting requirements, a developer will find the best solution for the best price.
- A technical person needs to take care of your software upgrades and security, which costs money.
- The cost depends on complexity and market rates (these can be negotiated and put in a contract for your budget).
- Every site and situation is unique; therefore the time to launch depends on the situation.
- Hosting and maintenance will cost more than a DIY site. How much more? It depends on the clients’ needs.
All websites need a thorough re-evaluation about once a year. They usually need to be overhauled every three years, more often if the organization evolves. So, you may start out with a DIY tool and move to another solution in two or three years, and that’s OK.
Consider enlisting a pro to conduct a needs assessment. Is your goal to raise money? Attract volunteers? Publicize events? Help needy people find your services by searching on Google? If our process determines that Squarespace or another tool will adequately support the organization for the next few years, I won’t try to sell something that is overkill.
Even a DIY tool can be made better with professional messaging, writing and photography, so it’s not an either/or thing. A designer can help you get started with any tool and let you take over from there. It’s not necessary to be completely on your own.