I’m wondering if you can help me think through the plan for getting the nonprofit I work for (as marketing/comm manager) a website focused on funneling our different audiences towards specific actions (a site focused on better user experience to build an engaged community), making sure our site is well-supported and healthy, and setting up a good foundation for any future web dev needs.
It sounds like what you’re looking for help with is possibly the #1 challenge of many nonprofit sites. They don’t simply have a “customer” to cater to but instead a wide array of stakeholders with different backgrounds and relations to the organization.
I hope that if you work through the processes and technical recommendations for planning your nonprofit site and recommended plugins and themes, you won’t be led astray toward overly complex systems and harder-to-support themes and plugins. The biggest piece of advice I can give you for tech is to keep it simple, probably simpler than you’d even like. Your visitors want your site to be as simple as possible so long as it meets their core needs.
Keep It Simple!
When trying to do really complicated things (like custom layouts not provided by your theme or rube-goldberg-esque data processes on the site), that’s where I see things go wrong. If you can settle for a site that 100% works and is 75% of what you were hoping for, then I think you’ve succeeded. That last 25% (and especially the last 10%) is just really hard to get without a lot of professional help.
The same really goes for content too. Use fewer pages than you think you need. Keep your menu short. Avoid jargon. Those will all help your audiences find what they need fastest and with the least stress. I often recommend reviewing the menus of similar organizations that you think work well and using those as a starting point. If at all possible, follow that up by testing your menu with a few stakeholders. 5 minutes of watching someone use your website is incredibly eye opening (you can’t understand it until you see it!).
I don’t know where you’re located, but I’d try to do some networking at meetups and WordCamps to find people to help you. Lots of people go to those looking for help, and I know I’m always happy to help people try to find someone when they show up.
The reason I am writing this is to request you if you could please connect us with any site or company/organization that provides FREE premium plugins or resources for a WordPress website.
Unfortunately, I do not know of any sources of free premium plugins for nonprofits right now. Many plugin companies will offer some type of discount if you ask nicely, but most formal programs I was aware of no longer exist. 😢
I would also just caution you to be very wary of any free plugins you find through searches like “free WordPress plugins” or “free premium WordPress plugins”. Without few exceptions, those free premium plugins have been intentionally infected with malware to hack your site.
I’m sorry I can’t offer more guidance. All I can really say is that it never hurts to ask for a discount or free license from a company after explaining what you do. Most will say no, but some may say yes! The WordPress community is generally made up of lots of really nice people who do like to give back.
We are looking for an plugin or service like engaging networks but without the huge price tag as we simply cant afford it. We basically need a call to action function template service so we can created campaign pages people can share (with a good social media layout) and ability to have subscription to our mailchimp and donorbox included.
It sounds like you’re looking for an all-in-one type solution for fundraising and actions. That’s a common need, but one I don’t find is very well suited for WordPress. One partial exception is the Give plugin which provides a donation platform with some basic CRM capabilities. There are also lots of other 3rd-party solutions out there like EveryAction, NationBuilder, and Salsa that you could look at. I find that people aren’t in love with any of them, but they enable you to do things that would be extremely hard to put together on your own.
Just about anything is possible to do with WordPress, it’s just a matter of time, skill, and resources. That said, the more complex your needs, the most it makes sense to consider a 3rd-party tool. Custom website functions require a large initial development budget with likely ongoing maintenance costs. It definitely makes sense for certain organization to build a solution perfectly tailored to their needs, but it’s not a decision to make without considering all the potential trade-offs first.
Especially if you’re a smaller organization, though, a prebuilt solution with all the features you need included will probably be more cost-effective and stable than building the same thing in WordPress.
If you do choose to go with WordPress-based solution, I would recommend you:
Identify a full list of all the features you need first
Editing your website isn’t always sunshine and unicorns. There’s no shame in admitting that! A “simple” task can feel like it takes forever. When do I get to stop clicking?
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to tedious website tasks, but there are lots of tips and tricks that can help you work smarter and faster. Whenever you can, find tools that do the hard work for you to increase your efficiency.
Here are five WordPress tips to save you time. The first two are built into WordPress while the last three use helpful time-saving plugins!
1. Quick Edit & Bulk Edit
Out of the box, WordPress provides two ways to speed up making quick changes to Posts and Pages.
“Quick Edit” appears next to the “Edit” link on the All Pages screen, and lets you quickly add tags or categories, change the author, publish or unpublish a post, and more.
“Bulk Edit” allows editing almost all the same post settings but for multiple posts at once. Need to add a new Category or unpublish a bunch of posts at the same time? Pick the posts you want to edit, select “Edit” from the Bulk Actions dropdown, and then click “Apply”.
Quick Edit and Bulk Edit are super helpful! There are other new features in the Block Editor waiting to save you time as well!
Once you have made a block (or multiple blocks inside a Group block), you can turn them into a Reusable Block using the three dot “kebab” menu at the end of the block toolbar.
Give the block a name and save it. Now that block can be placed on any other page of your site! Better yet, if you ever need to edit the block, edit it once, and it will update on every page it appears on!
Reusable blocks are perfect for anything you might want to appear on multiple pages such as:
An event accessibility statement
An advertisement for an upcoming event on every news posts (and then you delete the reusable block when it’s over)
A list of quick links you want to show on multiple pages
Contact information for a specific program or event
Reusable blocks are easy to miss until someone tells you about then. But now you know!
Bonus Tip: If you’re looking to make it easier to make consistent complex page layouts with the block editor, check out the Block Pattern Builder plugin, that helps you make reusable “patterns” of blocks for use on any page. An example of a block pattern is three columns with a heading, image, and button in each. Instead of creating 10+ blocks, you can insert a single block pattern to get you started.
For tips 3–5, we’ll be leaving default WordPress and installing plugins to find even more powerful and time-saving features.
If your site has lots of pages with similar layouts or details that need to be shown on every new post, Duplicate Post can save you lots of time.
Once installed, “Clone” or make a “New Draft” of any Page or Post and then use the copy as your starting point. This can save tons of time, even if you only use it occasionally.
If you frequently create a few types of new pages, consider making a template for each page type and then copy one of the template pages to jump start each new page.
But wait! There’s more…
Duplicate Post also enables you to draft changes to a published page on your site, a long-requested feature for many WordPress users.
Using the Rewrite & Republish option allows you to clone an existing page, save changes to it, and then replace the old version of the page with the new one once you’re ready. This is great for carefully planning revisions to and getting approval for key pages on your site.
Found a typo in a document and need to fix it? Upload a replacement file.
Updating eligibility information in a printable application form? Upload a replacement file.
Need to add a new sponsor’s logo to an event image banner? Upload a replacement file?
Without this plugin, you’d have to spend time deleting the old file, uploading the new one, and then relinking the new file. This saves you all that time!
Note: Not every file should be replaced. I recommend against using this plugin for uploading a new issue of a newsletter (which should go on your blog!) or an annual report. In those cases, the old and new files are both worth having on your website.
5. Find & Replace
If your organization changes email addresses, the name of a program, or anything else, being able to quickly update every instance of a word or phrase in your database can be a huge time saver. Finding and Replacing is a task that should be done carefully, but it’s an important tool when a situation calls for it.
There are lots of plugins that do this, but I recommend Better Search Replace. Better Search Replace helps you target your searches and do a “dry run” before actually making any changes.
How To Know When You Could Be Working Faster and Smarter
Here’s a rule of thumb to keep in mind as you learn to use WordPress: If you keep doing the same few tasks for every page, chances are there’s a better and faster way to do that. Looking back over this post, think about all the copy-pasting and clicking these tips can save you!
So watch out for repeatedly and repetitively redoing actions over and over repetitiously time and again. When you catch that happening, you’ll know that last sentence could be shorter and you could save yourself some time.
Which of these plugins you’re running off to install immediately? Share your own favorite time-saving tip or plugin too!
Microsites are small websites (duh!) built for one really specific purpose. Since WordPress makes it so easy to build websites, it’s worth asking: When should you consider building a microsite for your nonprofit?
When To Build a Nonprofit Microsite
The most common types of microsites are for a specific event, a uniquely branded project or initiative, or a special section of a site with a very unique audience. By building a small, single-purpose website, it’s easier to present certain types of information or target a very specific visitor need.
No matter how small, making and maintaining any new website isn’t a decision to take lightly. So before you start, consider the following questions:
Does your current website branding conflict with the branding needs of new content? For example, do you put on a conference with its own logo or name?
Does the message you plan to communicate deserve unique presentation and total focus from the audience? For example, you might want to send visitors a link to only view your digital annual report.
Is the website audience notably unique from your main website? For example, maybe your primary website targets retirees but your organization is starting to offer services to millennials.
“Will you be reusing content from your main website?” (Answer: No.)
“Do you have enough content to warrant a microsite?” (Answer: Yes.)
“How far does your campaign deviate from your organization’s standard identity?” (Answer: Significantly.)
“What kind of community engagement are you planning?” (Answer: Lots of active engagement!)
“Is your campaign’s target audience different from your primary audience?” (Answer: Yes.)
Microsites are a great solution, but only if you are 100% sure it fits your nonprofit’s needs and you’re ready to maintain it.
Don’t use a microsite if:
All the content already exists on another site
You don’t have a clearly defined audience and purpose for the site
You’re primarily doing it to get around a technical limitation (solve the problem instead!)
You struggle to support your existing site(s) already
Examples of Nonprofit Microsites
Nothing’s more valuable than a few good examples, so here are three great nonprofit microsites, each serving a different need for the organization that built them. Notice how the branding, messaging, and purpose differ from the “parent” site of the organization.
Nonprofit Technology Conference
Each year the Nonprofit Technology Conference gets a new design and new content (venue, session schedule, etc.) for that year’s event. By avoiding the design and structure of the parent organization’s website, NTEN gets the flexibility to create a design that matches the conference theme and a menu to focus visitors on preparing to attend and be involved in the conference.
This site may seem big for a “microsite” but it checks all the boxes:
☑ Unique Branding
☑ Highly focused audience and clearly defined user needs
☑ Content differs from main site
ACLU of Oregon 2017 Annual Report
Beneath the flashy animations, the ACLU of Oregon assembled a single-page microsite focused entirely on their year’s work in a 2017 Annual Report. This site could be shared to social media or included on a post card in the mail to key supporters. With no easy way to jump to the main ACLU of Oregon site, visitors can only immerse themselves in the organization’s targeted message.
Above the Influence Campaign
The Above the Influence campaign is a project of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, but visiting both sites leaves no doubt which one targets a younger audience. By creating a separate site for this campaign, visitors can focus on the message meant to prevent drug use and not get thrown off by the descriptive-but-boring parent organization name.
Setting Up a WordPress Microsite
So if you’re convinced you need a microsite and are feeling inspired by the examples above, it’s time to get started! Building a microsite requires all the same decisions of building a normal site, so here’s a quick overview with links for further reading.
Don’t skip the planning phase! You’ll be tempted to start building your site immediately, but be sure you’ve clearly defined your audience for the site, what the visitor needs to accomplish, and the content you’ll include on the site. Read Planning Your Nonprofit Website for help with this step.
Next, you’ll need to install WordPress. Many hosting plans—including the recommended SiteGround—allow you to host multiple WordPress sites with one account. When you install WordPress, you’ll need to decide whether to use a subdomain (e.g. microsite.example.org) or a subfolder (e.g. example.org/microsite/). That’s mostly a branding decision, although in terms of search engine optimization, search engines treat subdomains as a separate site and subfolders as part of your main site.
Once you set up WordPress, you’ll need to choose a WordPress theme to give the site its design. While big-budget organizations can make flashy sites with lots of bells and whistles, you’ll probably be best served by a bold and simple design with a couple bright colors, a large space for your logo, and prominent navigation. From the list of recommended themes, Shoreditch, TwentySeventeen, and Popper could be good choices.
Since microsites are usually promoted to a specific, well-defined audience, they offer an incredible opportunity for targeted engagement. Think hard about who will be coming to the site, how they know and interact with your nonprofit already, and what next step you want them to take. (The engagement pyramid is an amazing framework to think about this issue.)
For example, an annual report microsite probably targets your organization’s most committed followers. Once they’re done reviewing a year’s worth of accomplishments, there’s no better time to tactfully ask for a donation.
For an event site, the best engagement is likely just signing up to attend. (Wait until you send follow-up communications to ask for other engagements.)
And for a site targeting people unfamiliar your organization, think about the best way to nudge them toward staying in touch and learning more about your issue. That’s often via a newsletter or social media follow.
Don’t Forget the Maintenance!
If you’ve planned well, then you can build the site quickly and efficiently since you know your goals and what you’re trying to achieve. But once the site launches, you’re not done!
First, consider whether the site should stay online forever or if you’ll delete it after a certain period of time. Default toward keeping the site live, even if only as a historical record, but be sure it’s clear if you’ve stopped maintaining it.
Second, for the life of the site, it’s critical that you maintain its technical health. That means frequently updating any themes, plugins, and WordPress, along with keeping a usable backup of the site. If the microsite shares hosting with your primary site, it will be a security vulnerability to ALL sites if you don’t keep it updated!
If you only have a few plugins installed, seriously consider using a tool like Jetpack’s Manage Module to automatically update all plugins. Then you only have to manually do major WordPress updates!
Is a Microsite in Your Future?
Now that you know the ideal uses of microsites for nonprofits, you’re ready to make a smart decision about when and how to build one! In many situations, organizations can seriously benefit from them, even by raising more money!
If you read this and then build a microsite, please come back and share it in the comments!
Ever heard of the “bus factor”? It’s a really useful concept, but a bit morbid too, so brace yourself.
Why bring it up? It’s one of those terms you didn’t know you needed a word for until you knew it! I’ll let Wikipedia be the messenger you can blame:
The bus factor is a measurement of the risk resulting from information and capabilities not being shared among team members, from the phrase “in case they get hit by a bus”.
When it comes to your website, what’s your nonprofit’s bus factor? (The bus factor is useful for thinking about more than websites too!) Do you know what would happen if the person who built your website disappeared? We know buses aren’t going anywhere, so it’s important to take action to limit your risk.
The Three Website Roles To Consider
Broadly, there are three important types of tasks in a website’s life cycle:
While it’s inevitable that you will rely on a few people for website maintenance and management, collecting some basic information and gaining even a bit more experience with the website will enable your nonprofit to recover faster if one or more people are unexpectedly unavailable.
Managing Your Website Risk
How many people work on your site right now in any capacity? The more people you have, the lower your bus factor.
If you heavily rely on just one person, think about identifying a person to serve as a backup and have them get some training and do small website tasks every once in a while. (Hopefully your website person is allowed to take vacations!) Even a little experience will go a long way in desperate times.
Have your backup person learn how to:
Post a news/blog post
Add a new event to your event calendar
Edit a basic page of the site
Beyond that, know the basic details of the website infrastructure and products that power your website:
Are there any paid plugins or a theme that are critical to your site? Know them, have the logins, and keep the licenses active.
Those companies are paid to support components of your site and they may be able to help you in tough times. That’s why you pay them, so make sure you know how to take advantage of them!
Finally, do yourself a favor and avoid sharing user accounts. This makes it harder to audit site actions or remove access when someone leaves the organization. It’s a sad truth that even when a person isn’t hit by a bus, staff or consultant turnover isn’t always a happy situation. Ensuring that you have your own access to your website is critical to managing turnover and removing access from others quickly in emergencies.
Embrace Knowledge Sharing!
People can sometimes be protective of “their websites”, but taking a long-term view is both healthy for your organization as a whole and can even be exciting! It feels empowering to learn a new skill, and as they say, “many hands make light work.” You may actually find that splitting responsibility for the website not only limits your bus factor but also leads to a more vibrant, actively managed site!
And so you don’t leave in a bad mood, sometimes the “bus factor” is called a “lottery factor”. If you win the lottery will you be excited about doing website updates? Didn’t think so 😜
Until then, go find one new person to learn a bit about your website. You won’t regret it!
Your nonprofit website menu is probably the main way visitors find information about your organization. Good navigation plays a critical role in determining whether your website works for people because:
Reading a menu gives a basic summary of what your nonprofit does.
Visitors build a mental model of your site based on your menu.
Helping people quickly and confidently find the information they need builds trust in both your website and nonprofit.
Making the perfect menu isn’t easy, so keep reading to learn how to build WordPress menus, best practices for designing nonprofit website navigation, and common mistakes nonprofits make when organizing their website.
Users spend most of their time on other sites. This means that users prefer your site to work the same way as all the other sites they already know.
That definitely applies to menus.
Look around at your peers’ websites to see how they organize them. Of course your nonprofit has unique needs and audiences to accommodate, but don’t design your menu in a vacuum.
In particular most nonprofit menus:
Start with “Home”
Include an “About” / “About Us” / “Who We Are” section
Make it easy to find “Contact” and “Donate” links
Directly link to their work from a “Programs”, “Services”, or “What We Do” section
Again, you won’t get good results with an exact copy of another organization’s menu, but it will give you good ideas to get started.
Here are some other tips for good website navigation:
“Show. Don’t tell.” Put the most important public-facing items about your work first. Put the “About” section with pages like Staff, Board, and Financials toward the end. Everyone who needs that information will easily find it.
If you have a lot of pages, consider intentionally making less-important, niche, and technical information “deeper” in the site. Your committed users will be motivated enough to find it, and then those pages won’t distract from your most important ones.
Work hard to make your menu items clear and concise (1-3 words).
Common Problems with Nonprofit Website Menus
As you try to follow the tips for making a good navigation menu, avoid these common mistakes many nonprofits make:
Each page should only appear in a menu once. Putting it in multiple places will confuse and frustrate visitors.
With minor exceptions like a 3rd-party donation page, don’t link to external sites from your menu. If you must, visually indicate that the link is different.
Your menu structure should not match your org chart! Remember: You are not your website’s primary user! Don’t be afraid to use labels in your menu that don’t align with your internal language if it’s clearer to your website visitors.
Avoid acronyms and jargon unless you are 100% sure all your visitors will know it.
Once you’ve read all these tips, you still need to design your actual menu! Here’s one great way based on a “card sort” technique. Using this process works because you build a menu that accommodates your information rather than forcing it into predetermined “buckets”.
Write out the title of each page on a notecard. (Use half a notecard to save paper!)
During this step, make sure your menu labels are clear and unique!
Lay each card face up on a table.
Shuffle the cards around.
Arrange the cards into groups that make sense together.*
Write labels for each group on new notecards.
Take a photo of the result for saving to type up later.
Repeat steps 3-6 multiple times, forcing yourself to experiment with different organizing schemes.
* Beware! This is the step where you will want to recreate your organizational structure!
Do this activity multiple times with yourself, a few colleagues, friend and family, or, best of all, some actual users of your website. You’ll be amazed how much you learn about the information of your site. Usually, by the end of this process, you’ve got a brand new improved website menu for your nonprofit!
You’re Ready to Go!
Building a great navigation menu for your nonprofit is hard work, but the payoff is worth it! By carefully crafting your WordPress menus, your users will be able to find the information they need quickly and help your nonprofit get work done!
Between new projects that improve your site and the critical weekly work to maintain a healthy website, it takes just as much work to support a website as it does to build it in the first place!
Nonprofit staff often wear two or three hats in their organization, so it can be challenging to find time for website work. Luckily, maintaining your site doesn’t have to be hard work. It can even be fun and a good break from other work.
You can usually do them without thinking too hard, so getting interrupted by your Executive Director won’t totally derail your work. (Some thinking required. Batteries not included.)
They will demonstrably make your website better over time.
Just like a new habit. Something that only takes a short bit of time, when repeated, can lead to huge results for your organization in the long term!
Once a month, sit down and fire up your analytics software. See if you can find one valuable insight or ask a question of your data that can inform your work.
What can you learn about your stakeholders? Examples include:
Did the people who read our most recent blog post stay on the site after they arrived? (Look at Bounce Rate, Time on Site, and Exit Percentage.)
Did visitors to our annual gala page come primarily from social media, search, or directly to the site from a link? (Look at Referral Sources.)
What are the top 3 landing pages for the site. Do I know why these three are the top? (Look at Landing Pages.)
For visitors to our “Donate” page, what’s the last page they looked at before their arrival? Does that page prepare people to make a meaningful donation? (In Google Analytics, check out the Site Flow tool.)
Make up more questions to learn and improve your site slowly! Ask your E.D. and board if there are questions they’d like answered too.
Schedule Social Media Posts
Hopefully you’re using a tool like Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, Buffer, or even just Facebook to schedule your social media posts. Write five tweets or three Facebook posts and schedule them to go out next week! Your future self gives you a high-five!
Draft a Blog Post
If you’re anything like me, blog posts are best when they’ve marinated for a while, so Work on a blog post that you don’t need to post immediately. Do as little or as much as you can stomach:
Write three draft posts with catchy titles and brief bulleted outlines you can fill in later.
Start writing about the thing you worked hardest on this week. It’ll be easier to write about since it’s on your find.
What’s the big news in your mission area right now? Find three good articles and write a post linking to them while discussing how you’re contributing on that issue.
Pull in social media posts from your followers to show the amazing work done by your supporters!
These are the kinds of posts that don’t have to be published right away, but will be there when you need to fill in an empty week or month on your content calendar.
Audit ONE Page
Copy and paste the contents of a page from your website into Word or Google Doc.
At the very top of your page in bold, all-caps, red text, write out:
PRIMARY AUDIENCE: REASON FOR COMING TO THIS PAGE: NEXT STEP:
Fill these in with the primarywho (e.g. “Parents of preschools”), why (“Determine the entry age and requirements for signing up”), and next step (“Fill out interest form”) for that page.
With that information in hand:
Make the page as short as possible
Include the most important details at the top of the page
Voila! You’ve almost certainly made your website better, likely in less than an hour. Repeat this a few weeks in a row and you’ll really start to see results.
Audit Your Users
Once every few months, head on over to “Users” in your dashboard. From there, make sure that every user:
Is still an active site editor who actually needs an account.
Actually needs the level of access they have. (Could some Admins be made into Editors?)
Delete or demote users as needed.
Important note: Make sure to attribute content to a new user when deleting an existing user! Otherwise, anything they wrote will be deleted.
Look for Broken Links
Use the W3C link validator to test one or more pages of your site for broken links. Focus on your most heavily trafficked pages first and go to your analytics (see above!) if you don’t know what those are! If you don’t find any broken links, good job! If you do, get those fixed!
There you have it! These are simple tasks that are bite-sized but will still demonstrably improve your site if you keep at this week after week. So go carve out a bit of time this Friday, and see what you can do!
Copy the address of your nonprofit’s home page and paste it somewhere.
Does it start with “http” or “https”?
If it starts with “http”, then you’re missing out on all the benefits of the “s” in “https” which stands for—you guessed it—”secure”.
The benefits of HTTPS
As with many things, there are both carrots and sticks to get your site on HTTPS. It’s always nice to stay positive, so let’s start with the carrots!
Why HTTPS is Important
When your site is on HTTPS:
All traffic between your site and the browser is “encrypted.” That keeps a hacker using public wifi in a coffeeshop or airport from easily stealing your user account password or a potential volunteer’s address.
Users trust your site more because the browser will show the green lock icon (i.e. the encryption).
While this doesn’t mean your site has gotten less secure than it was before, your visitors likely don’t know the difference or care. You can expect a decrease of trust in your website and probably complaints from visitors if you don’t upgrade to HTTPS soon.
How to upgrade your WordPress site to HTTPS
To get HTTPS, you’ll have to start by getting an SSL certificate. Many hosts now support a free SSL certificate from an open source initiative called “Let’s Encrypt.” Both our recommended hostsSiteGround and WP Engine offer free SSL!
Once that’s set up, you still need to actually change your site address to include the “s” in “https://”:
If you’re making a brand new website, get the SSL certificate first and then just build the site on HTTPS from the start! No further action required.
If you have an existing HTTP site,Really Simple SSL is a great plugin to help you get started. Unfortunately, depending on your theme and plugins, you may need to update additional settings or contact a developer to help fully switch to HTTPS. Many hosts will help you with this change if you contact support.
If you use SiteGround or WP Engine, both offer tools to convert your sites from HTTP to HTTPS for you! You pretty much just need to click the right button.
Visitor Trust Leads to More Impact
You don’t need anyone to tell you that it’s critical for your stakeholders trust you as an organization. The same goes for the importance of trust by your website’s visitors.
Trusting visitors will be more likely to sign up for your newsletter. Even more critically, distrusting users will be less likely to make an online donation.
Right now is the time to move your website to HTTPS if you haven’t yet. Your visitors will both be more secure and feel more secure.
Does your nonprofit use lots of PDFs on your website. Once you’ve read this, you’ll understand why you should often avoid them and know how to start getting rid of them!
Why Nonprofits Loved PDFs
Nonprofits and PDFs go way back. Once it became easy to create newsletters, annual reports, and other documents, PDFs were the fast and easy way to get that information online.
Save as a PDF ⇒ Upload to the website ⇒ Link to the file ⇒ Done
In the time before WordPress made it so easy to update your website, the allure of PDFs was too much to pass up. PDFs also rose to prominence in a time when websites were harder to make look good. The guaranteed-to-look-the-way-you-want nature of PDFs was a bonus for many staffs and graphic designers.
Why PDFs are Bad on the Web
Now that the web is better, the benefits of PDFs have faded and even become liabilities. If you’re using PDFs for certain content on your website, you’re almost certainly serving fewer website visitors than you could otherwise.
PDFs are the wrong format for most web content for many reasons:
Not responsive. Ever tried to read a long PDF on your phone? It’s not good.
Slower to load. PDFs require opening a new program (or a bulky browser add-on) so take longer to load than an optimized web page. Slower sites mean less engagement and more frustration.
Less searchable. It’s harder to add PDF search on your site and PDFs created in certain programs are fundamentally unsearchable.
Written for print. Most PDFs are designed and written for print. Writing for the web requires different techniques to serve your visitors.
Locked up. Think about a print newsletter as an example. It has the equivalent of 4 or 5 individual blog posts. When stuck together in a PDF, those posts can’t be linked to in an email, shared on social media, or simply found by the person looking for their grandson in the picture with the last story on Page 5.
Forgotten. Even if you still think it’s easier to make a PDF and put it online, most PDFs languish once posted, slowly becoming out of date and neglected by staff. Web pages are much easier to update.
PDFs are inconvenient for users and encourage you to communicate in print-friendly ways, not for the web.
(When to still use PDFs)
PDF stands for Portable Document Format. (This is where I apologize for atrocious the title of this post.) That “Portable” is key. That refers to the ability to take a PDF with you by saving or printing it easily. Both saving and printing web pages aren’t always good experiences (though they can be!), so providing a PDF for cases that need accurate and consistent printing and saving are OK.
Converting PDFs to Web Pages
There are a few fairly common uses of PDFs that can be replaced with web pages, often without too much effort.
Lots of nonprofits have PDFs that could just as easily be web pages. They should be, given how easy it is to add a new WordPress page.
A 1-page FAQ.
A program description.
A 2-page case study.
Any PDF that is short and mostly text almost certainly should be converted to a web page ASAP. These types of documents are also the most likely to become inaccurate. Worse, a general information PDF often contains important information that visitors actually want! Give it to them in the natural format of the web.
Quarterly or monthly newsletters originally sent in the post site lonely and unread on many a web server. This is a huge missed opportunity for nonprofits. Most of the effort in creating a print newsletter is in the writing time, and it only take a little more energy to re-use this content online! (Remember, WordPress was originally built for blogging, so it lives for this!)
Rather than posting PDF newsletters to your website, break each article into a blog post and publish them over time. These posts will get read more, are easier to find, and can be shared on social media where they bring traffic back to your website.
Review Alert: Scroll back up to the section on why PDFs are bad with an online PDF newsletter in mind. You can really appreciate the shortcomings of PDFs on the web.
For nonprofits that do research, PDFs are the most common format for publishing long-form information to web. It’s unlikely that someone will read a 45-page webpage and it’s also more likely that people will want to print or save these files. A PDF may be a good choice in these cases.
To get the most out of PDF publications, though, create a page devoted to each document, listing the author, publication date, and a multi-paragraph abstract or summary. This information (that’s easily searchable!) will help visitors evaluate the documents without having to open them. Even if it only takes 20 or 30 seconds, downloading a PDF is a time commitment when compared to browsing a few web pages, so you owe it to your visitors to help them confirm they’ve found the right document before downloading it.
Finally, application forms are a tricky case.
Some forms are simple enough that they should be provided as an online web form. (If you don’t know how to make forms on your site, check out the recommended WordPress form plugins on Nonprofit WP!) Many people prefer web forms, and they certainly take less time to fill out when they’re short. Yet even when providing a web form, it may still make sense to provide a PDF form in addition as an option.
On the other hand, there are multiple legitimate reasons not to convert PDF forms. Don’t convert a PDF form if it:
contains sensitive information that shouldn’t be stored in your WordPress database (HIPAA, etc.).
needs to be delivered in person or isn’t intended for submission (e.g., a self-evaluation).
requires a very long time (hours or days) to fill out.
is “fillable” and can’t be replicated easily by a web form.
Remember the big advantages of web forms and then work backwards from there to determine if a PDF form shouldn’t be a web form.
Don’t Panic. Get Started.
If your nonprofit has relied on PDFs for years, converting them may take a while. That’s ok! 🙂
Websites are never done, and this is just one small piece of keeping your website happy and healthy. Start with the easiest conversions which are often the most valuable (FAQs, program summaries, etc.). Next, work into your archive for as far as you think is valuable to your visitors.
More importantly, think about how you and your colleagues can change your work habits and website workflows to avoid putting PDFs online in the future. Your website visitors won’t know they’re benefiting, but they’ll just stay on your website longer and leave satisfied.