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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.

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