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 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!

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.