WordPress 101 for Nonprofits

If you’ve never used WordPress before, this is the page for you. It’s an easy-to-read summary of everything required to build a WordPress site and help you avoid rookie mistakes. When you know where you’re headed, it’s easier to avoid mistakes from the beginning.

This page is a high-level overview of the detailed information presented throughout this site. Look for the links with further details throughout.

Once you’ve read this page to understand WordPress and planned your site, you’ll be ready to build your nonprofit’s next site on WordPress!

What Is WordPress Anyway?

WordPress is a “Content Management System” (CMS). That means it’s not simply a tool for building a website, it’s a tool for keeping your web presence organized and maintained over time.

It’s also a website platform allowing users to easily extend its functions. With WordPress, you can get complicated features for managing special types of content like news, events, people, and more.

Nonprofits struggle less with getting a site online and more with building a site that serves their mission and constituents well over time. That’s why a well-planned website built to last years is so important. If you follow the tips on Nonprofit WP, you’ll go a long way toward building that site.

The Two “Flavors” of WordPress

WordPress comes in two “flavors”:

This page focuses on self-hosted WordPress. Learn more about the difference between WordPress.com and self-hosted WordPress.

Want an overview of WordPress.com? Check out their “Learn the Basics” guide.

You can’t install WordPress until you have a domain and website hosting. We only recommend two website hosts for nonprofits.

How WordPress Works

WordPress is made up of a database for storing the content you enter and hundreds of files that make WordPress work. Those files run the WordPress administrative interface, give your site a design, and add extra functions to WordPress.

Once you’re using WordPress, you can upload your own images, videos, audio, and documents for use on your site. You’ll also install additional files for a “theme” to style your site and “plugins” to add extra features.

The Building Blocks of WordPress: Five interlocking blocks from the top show the theme for design, plugins for features, media files stored on the server, the database with text content and settings, and WordPress "core" files powering the whole site.
WordPress provides the solid foundation you need for your nonprofit’s web content, media, features, and brand.

Designing Your Site with a Theme

Your site’s design comes from installing a theme. Most of how the site looks and displays the information you enter into WordPress—from the font to how responsive the site it—comes from the theme. The theme also determines what options you have to control the design of your site. Themes may have a lot of options or only have a few.

Some themes are free while others cost a one-time or annual fee. You can search and install vetted free themes directly in WordPress by going to Appearance > Themes. Read our in-depth guide on choosing the best theme for your organization.

Once installed, you’ll probably want to customize your theme and brand it with your organization’s logo and colors. You’ll do this by some combination of using “Theme Options” (usually contained in the “Customizer” feature of WordPress), writing custom CSS, or creating a child theme. Learn more about customizing your theme to match your organization.

We recommend a very limited set of proven themes for nonprofits.

Adding Features to Your Site With Plugins

Before adding new features, you should know what WordPress can do on its own. From there, you add features only as needed to make the fastest site that does only what you need.

WordPress Out-of-the-Box Features

When you install WordPress, you’ll immediately gain access to a number of handy features without installing any plugins. Those features include:

Adding Features with Plugins

For other features, you will need to install plugins. Many plugins are free and can be searched for and installed by going to Plugins > Add New. Other plugins require a one-time or annual payment. Read our guide on how to select a plugin.

Plugins can add features both for administrative users and website visitors. Some common features many nonprofits use plugins for include:

  • Event management with a calendar view
  • Donation forms and donation payment processing
  • Social media feeds or sharing buttons
  • Web form building
  • Fancier image galleries
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

For recommendations on the best plugins for those features and more, check out our list of recommended plugins for nonprofits.

Managing WordPress Content

This may sound obvious, but WordPress works best for you when you use it the way it’s intended. Here are the key things to know as you begin adding content to your website.

  • By default, WordPress supports two primary types of content called Posts and Pages. Other types of content—like Events, Testimonials, Staff, Projects, etc.—may be added by plugins or custom code.
  • Posts are for news / blog items (different names, same technical feature). Posts are:
    • organized by publication date.
    • shown on a Page of your choosing, set on Settings > Reading. (This is your “Blog” or “News” page.)
    • divided up by Categories and Tags.
      • Rule of thumb: One category per post, many tags.
        Example Categories: “Press Releases”, “News”, “Events”.
        Example Tags: “World Wildlife Fund”, “Pandas”, “{Name of your Executive Director}”.
  • Pages are for everything else (“Mission”, “History”, “Staff”, etc.). Pages are:
    • usually organized in a menu made in Appearance > Menus or Customize > Menus.
    • given Parent-Child relationships, much like arranging subpages in a parent “folder”.

WordPress Users

Your site must have at least one “Administrator” who has universal access to all content and settings. Each user is given a “role” that determines what they can do on your site when logged in.

Each successive user has all the permissions of the previous one in addition to more capabilities. The default user roles are:

  • Subscriber: Has access to your site and any “private” content but cannot add any content.
  • Contributor: Can write new draft Posts (not Pages) but cannot publish, delete, or edit anything other than their own unpublished Posts.
  • AuthorCan save, publish, and delete their own Posts (but not other’s).
  • Editor: Can save, publish, and delete all Posts and Pages.
  • Administrator: Can access all site settings, menus, and widgets. Can manage all Plugins and Themes.

When creating, editing, and deleting editors, follow these security and editorial best practices:

  • User accounts should never be shared.
  • Create user accounts for individual people, not staff positions.
  • Give each user the lowest-possible role.
  • Audit users on occasion to remove users who no longer need access to the site.

Maintaining Your Site: Security & Updates

Once you’ve invested time and money into your site, it’s critical that you maintain it.

From a technical standpoint, that means backing up the site frequently; regularly updating all themes, plugins, and WordPress itself; and following security best practices. These are the three key components of a healthy WordPress site.

It’s also important that you keep your content healthy. Return often to the site and take advantage of how easy it is to update your content! A website listing old staff or showing only a few blog posts from months ago won’t inspire your users or give them the trust in you to make donations or volunteer.

We’ve written multiple blog posts on Nonprofit WP about spring cleaning your site, spring cleaning your site some more (!), and website new year’s resolutions.

Join the Community & Keep Learning

WordPress has an incredibly strong community that’s constantly putting on event and producing valuable content to help you learn more about the tool powering your website. Getting involved in your local WordPress community, attending WordCamp conferences, and following online WordPress resources like forums and blogs will prepare you to keep your site strong and in support of your mission.

You can sign up to follow the Nonprofit WP blog in the blog’s sidebar!

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