WordPress is Perfect for Nonprofit Microsites!

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.

The oldie-but-goodie article “How to decide if your nonprofit needs a microsite” lists five similar criteria to consider. (I’ve added the answers that suggest you should consider a microsite.)

  1. “Will you be reusing content from your main website?” (Answer: No.)
  2. “Do you have enough content to warrant a microsite?” (Answer: Yes.)
  3. “How far does your campaign deviate from your organization’s standard identity?” (Answer: Significantly.)
  4. “What kind of community engagement are you planning?” (Answer: Lots of active engagement!)
  5. “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

Home page of 2019 Nonprofit Technology Conference micrositeEach 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

Home page of ACLU Oregon 2017 Annual Report micrositeBeneath 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

Home page of Above the Influence campaign micrositeThe 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Next, add the plugins that will power the site’s features. Microsites should be light and nimble, so keep plugins to a minimum, but you’ll probably need a form, a donation feature, or something else that’s critical to the site’s purpose.
  5. Finally, fill out the site’s page or pages with some carefully crafted content. Be sure that you’ve written your content so that it’s punchy and follows best practices for writing on the web. To really take your site to the next level, be sure to include engaging images, videos, and social embeds.

Optimize Your Microsite for Action

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!

How to Reduce Your Nonprofit Website’s Bus Factor

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:

  1. Building it
  2. Maintaining it and fixing problems
  3. Managing and posting new content.

Task 1 is finite, but tasks 2 and 3 are equally or more important and never end! There are entire pages devoted to keeping your website healthy after the launch and posts about spring cleaning your website and new year’s small projects. That means the day-to-day tasks are probably the most important to worry about.

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:

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!

Photo Credit: Igor Ovsyannykov

How and How Not to Make a Nonprofit Website Menu

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.

The Nuts & Bolts of Making Menus in WordPress

First off, you’ll need to know how to create menus and place them on your site with WordPress. For a full walk-through, check out this brief free video from iThemes about the menu builder or sign up for the WP101video library and plugin. If you prefer written documentation with screenshots, the EasyWPGuide.com menu instructions are great too!

Here are the most important things to know about editing menus in WordPress:

  • Menus are built of links to your WordPress Pages, Posts, Categories, Tags, and more!
  • There are two places to edit your menus in WordPress:
    • Appearance > Menus
    • “Customize” in the Admin Bar > “Menus”
  • You decide where a specific menu appears on your site by assigning it to a “Menu Location”.
    • The available Menu Locations you can use will depend on the WordPress theme you choose,
    • You can also place menus in sidebars and footers using the Menus widget.
  • Enter your content (Pages, Posts, etc.) into WordPress first. Only then can you organize it with a menu.

The Basics of a Good Nonprofit Website Menu

Because all nonprofit websites need a menu, “Jakob’s Law” of website usability is a good starting point:

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.

Six examples of nonprofit website menus
Notice the similarities and differences between the menus from nonprofits, big and small. (Top to bottom: The Harder Foundation, Social Justice Fund, Planned Parenthood, Campeon Foundation, World Wildlife Federation, Wildlands Network)

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.
  • Don’t get too cute or metaphorical with menu sections. Clarity is most important. Use these 5 attributes of good link labels to evaluate your menu item names.

One Approach for Developing Good Menus

A table covered with four groups of notecards
A card sort in action!

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”.

  1. 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!
  2. Lay each card face up on a table.
  3. Shuffle the cards around.
  4. Arrange the cards into groups that make sense together.*
  5. Write labels for each group on new notecards.
  6. Take a photo of the result for saving to type up later.
  7. 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!

Lazy Friday Tasks that Make Your Website Better

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.

Along with the new year’s tasks and spring cleaning tasks for your website, here are 6 more simple tasks you can do on a Friday afternoon that make your website better. When you’re out of steam but can’t go home yet, these tasks give you the best of both worlds:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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!

Review Analytics

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:


Fill these in with the primary who (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
  • Using headings and bullets to break up information and call out important details
  • Prominently link to the next step

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!

Photo Credit: Damian Zaleski on Unsplash

Get Your Nonprofit’s WordPress Website on HTTPS

One of the three keys to a healthy WordPress site is security, and one of the keys to security is getting your site on “HTTPS”.

Let’s figure out if you’re using HTTPS right now:

  1. Copy the address of your nonprofit’s home page and paste it somewhere.
  2. 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).

HTTPS & green lock icon in browser address bar

Hopefully those reasons are enough to convince you already. If not, Google Chrome is about to start waving around a pretty big stick!

Why You Should Stop Using Plain HTTP ASAP!

Chrome had been doing this already for password fields which you may have noticed when logging into WordPress if your site is on HTTP.

As of July 2018, Chrome users now see a “Not Secure” warning for any web page not using HTTPS.

Difference between Chrome 64 and 68: URL bar will show "Not Secure" warning for websites without https.
The new warning message in Chrome starting July 2018. (Image from Chrome announcement post.)

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 hosts SiteGround 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 suffer from PDF as Default Filetype Syndrome (PDFS)?

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:

  1. Not responsive. Ever tried to read a long PDF on your phone? It’s not good.
  2. 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.
  3. Less searchable. It’s harder to add PDF search on your site and PDFs created in certain programs are fundamentally unsearchable.
  4. Written for print. Most PDFs are designed and written for print. Writing for the web requires different techniques to serve your visitors.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Simply put, a PDF stands outside the rest of your site. And it’s not simply a difference in file type. A few years ago, the World Bank discovered that 517 PDFs on its website had never been viewed once. (Irony alert: that linked report is a PDF.)

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.

Basic Information

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.

Choose Your Nonprofit Website Role Models Carefully

When you start planning your next WordPress website, you should take stock of what your peers are doing. Reviewing example sites will help identify nonprofit website trends, analyze common navigation and layout patterns, and inspire us to aim high!

Since I build WordPress websites for lots of nonprofits, I hear what sites people like and want to emulate. It’s surprising how often the same few sites come up. Reacting to these websites will always be a critical part of planning a site, but it’s also a process that can lead people astray.

When looking at sites, don’t just take in the visuals. Make sure to consider the audience, goals, and budget of the sites. Choose your role models wisely!

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Does your nonprofit website serve the same audience?

The needs of your visitors should always drive your website’s design and content. So if you’re an association of trial lawyers, will the design of a site targeting young environmentalists make sense for your organization? Probably not.

It’s surprisingly easy to look past important differences between your organization and another when you’ve come to review a homepage layout. One especially common issue I see? Many large organizations you’ve probably heard of—think the Audubon Society or AARP—have such pervasive reputations that they don’t need to spend much time explaining their work to their visitors. Yet if a new visitor can’t figure out what your organization does, they will leave. Guaranteed.

To avoid learning the wrong lessons from other websites, think about the target audience of the site you’re viewing including their age, primary device (i.e. phone vs. desktop), cultural background, education level, and the top tasks they seek to accomplish.

An exact copy of a site will never be as effective for your organization. Learn from examples, and then adjust your website’s design and features for your audience.

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How do your website goals support your nonprofit’s mission?

Just as each organization serves a different constituency, each nonprofit’s website supports their work in a unique way. The primary “business goal” of your website might be any of the following:

  • Increase individual donors
  • Develop institutional donors (completely different from individuals!)
  • Grow [social] media reach
  • Inform public about a specific issue
  • Provide a service (or intake for an in-person service)
  • Supply in-depth resources for research

Beyond the primary goal, sites must often serve multiple purposes. In most cases, the way your site supports your mission is different than each example site you look at. Again, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look around. It means you should seek to figure out why a website was built the way it was and how your site might differ.

(It’s common to see a website and be unsure of its primary goal or question whether that goal is the right one. Organization’s experiment and make mistakes. Don’t assume that every decision a favorite website makes is a good one!)

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Budget Constraints Require Smart Decisions

Funding for technology is a constant struggle for small nonprofits. It’s critical to set expectations that align with your budget.

This is the worst part of looking at example sites: Especially with large, national nonprofits, the cost of their website may far exceed what you can spend. Heck, some nonprofits spend more on a website in a year than a small nonprofit’s annual operating budget!

When it comes to high-cost websites, watch out for:

  • Highly customized graphics or interactive navigation tools
  • Some types of ecommerce or donation setups (Though check out Give for an awfully nice WordPress donation plugin)
  • Branded fancy animations
  • Significant use of many high-quality large photographs and video

The more complicated a site is, the harder it will be to reproduce on a shoe-string budget.

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Does the site even use WordPress?

WordPress is great at some things and less-so at others!

  • The control over design isn’t as fine-grained as SquareSpace, but it gives you way more ability to grow over time.
  • The online store integrations aren’t as good as Shopify, but you can blog up a storm.
  • Drupal and Plone handle content permissions way better than WordPress, but good luck training your new intern on updating the site!

You can see why certain organization’s might choose one tool over another. It’s true that WordPress can do just about anything, but that’s only true, as they say, given unlimited time and budget.

You should talk to consultant or experienced WordPress volunteer if you’re not sure if WordPress is best for you.

When you’re looking at example sites, keep in mind that they may use certain tools or customization time that don’t make sense for your organization.

How to tell if a nonprofit website uses WordPress

If you do want to know whether a site uses WordPress, it’s easy to find out! Enter the address of any website into WP Theme Detector. It detects a limited set of plugins and tells you what theme it’s using. Pay attention to whether it uses a prebuilt theme, a custom theme, or child theme.

Try it out for NonprofitWP.org! (This site is built with a custom child theme of Twenty Fifteen.)

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Getting the Most Out of Your Site

If you keep in mind the audience, goals, and budgets when looking at other nonprofit’s websites, you’ll end up with a better website. Why? Because you’ll start thinking about websites differently.

Instead of looking at a really fancy video and wanting a really fancy video, you can look at a fancy video and think about how you can appeal to your site visitors to achieve the same thing.

Both the nonprofit sector and open-source software share a love of collaboration, support, and openness. These are good things that make everyone better, but only when we make thoughtful choices for ourselves and avoid blindly following the latest trend.

So choose your website role models wisely:

  1. Identify how those organization’s and sites differ from your own
  2. Take inspiration from beautiful amazing websites

When you’ve done that, you’re ready to make the best possible website for your nonprofit.