Building the first ever website for your new non-profit or charity is such an important project – your website will be your online hub, and you’ll need to ensure that it’s user-friendly for your site visitors, and easy for you to manage. Making wrong choices at the outset can lead to a site that offers a poor experience to visitors, and fails to keep up with your organisation’s needs. Use this guide when you start planning your website, and use our free template when you’re writing the brief for your web agency or freelancer.
How to start planning your non-profit organisation’s first ever website
- Figure out what budget you have available
- Based on that, decide if you need to use a low budget option, or commission your own site:
- Low budget options include services like Squarespace or Wix – they’ll give you a quick setup, 24/7 support, low monthly charge, limited functionality
- Getting your own site built by a freelancer or agency will mean much more customisation, more functionality, and a higher cost
- Write a strong brief to capture all your needs – use our free template!
This article from the agency Outlandish is quite a few years old but its rundown of what different price points can get you when it comes to website builds is still relevant and useful.
What website platform or content management system (CMS) should we use?
Unfortunately, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ answer to this question. You will have to research it. For some organisations, a few pages on a Squarespace site will be more than adequate. For most, you’ll need something more sophisticated.
You’ll need to consider all kinds of things: cost, support, user-friendliness, security, scaling the website in the future. It’s a big decision and not one that should be rushed.
Where to research
- Hubspot’s article about choosing a CMS system is genuinely useful (even if they rank their own product at number one!)
- Talk to agencies about what platforms they recommend – just be cautious that they’re not pushing a platform on you because it’s the only one they know how to build
- Online communities of practice are good places to go to ask for people’s experiences and recommendations
Beware of ‘website grants’ – too-good-to-be-true offers to get a ‘free’ website. There are a few that are notorious in the sector for producing crummy websites, and tying charities into expensive maintenance contracts. Go and search in online communities like the Third Sector PR & Comms Network and the ECF List, to get other people’s experiences.
Important considerations for your first website
There are a few areas that are crucial to the success of your website and your digital projects. Ensure you have them in your brief.
Tracking and conversions
- Your website must have Google Analytics, or a similar tracking service installed. If an agency say they don’t provide this, don’t work with them!
- Google Analytics should also be set up with goal / conversion tracking: tracking of online actions such as donations, email signups, etc, which need to be set up individually for each website. Conversion tracking is crucial for measuring all your digital activities. When it’s set up, it will tell you exactly how many donors are coming from search engines vs Facebook vs Instagram, and much more. Once again, if a web agency say they can’t do this, they are missing some crucial skills and you should reconsider working with them.
- When processes such as donations and email signups are being designed, they should be designed with tracking in mind. A pop-up modal form may look nice, but it can be difficult to track.
Hosting and domains
Your site will need a domain name and a hosting plan. Hosting providers can be very variable in the quality of their service, so take your time. You don’t need to rush out and buy a domain name first; and definitely don’t buy a domain name from GoDaddy – this can cause complications and delays when setting up the project. Instead, ask your agency for recommendations on good hosting and domain providers. And where possible, get your domain and hosting from the same supplier; it’ll make things much simpler.
Compliance & security
Your website must be accessible to people with disabilities, have a security certificate and be compliant with the data protection legislation from your jurisdiction. Good web agencies will already be aware of this and know what to do.
Slow loading sites are a problem: most users won’t wait around for them to load, and Google penalises sites that are slow in its search rankings. Your agency should be making design, layout and functionality choices that don’t slow the site down. And site speed tests should be done on the new site to ensure that it’s as fast loading as possible, before it’s launched.
User experience (UX) considerations
A good agency won’t just build a site for you, they’ll also help you develop something that is as user-friendly as possible. User experience (known as UX) is an entire discipline, and uses extensive testing and data to ensure that sites are easy to use.
Look for an agency with strong UX skills. They shouldn’t just give you whatever you want, they should work with you, challenge your assumptions, and recommend user-centric choices in developing the plan for your new site.
There are some website choices that tend to be popular with non-profits, that are not recommended from a UX perspective:
- Carousels and sliders – charities often choose these as it allows them to showcase multiple items on their homepage, but data shows that site visitors don’t actually make use of them, and they can slow down page loading times. Avoid carousels. Decide on a single priority for the top of your homepage, and use a ‘hero image’ instead.
- Embedded social media feeds – widgets that display your latest tweets or Facebook posts can drastically slow down your site. It’s also difficult to measure if they’re actually being used. Interrogate if they’re really necessary.
- Animated elements – ‘visual stability’ is now a key factor in how Google ranks sites for search. Be cautious about having too many elements that change or jump around on your website – they can be confusing for users, and Google prefers stable sites.
- Phone numbers instead of forms – we see so many charity websites that say things like “interested in becoming a corporate partner? Call Name on xxx-xxxxx”, and provide no other way of getting in touch. Make the process as easy as possible for your site users, and set up contact request / registration of interest forms. People won’t always feel comfortable picking up the phone, so give them other options as well. And forms are very trackable. Wherever possible, give your online audience an online option – you can still provide phone numbers alongside them for those who prefer phone calls.
Site architecture & navigation
You should definitely be bringing UX expertise to the table when you start planning how your site should be structured. Often, internal stakeholders are the worst people to design the site architecture, because you won’t use the site like your target audiences do. This article from UX specialist Paul Boag has great, practical advice on how to create an information architecture that is easy to use.
Care and feeding of your site
A website is a living project – it’s not like a brochure that is written, designed, printed and then can no longer be changed. Websites require ongoing care and feeding. You’ll need to keep it up to date with content, and it will also require technical and security support.
Websites need a support contract, there’s no way around this. Website builder platforms like Squarespace and Wix include support in their monthly charges; if you’re getting a website built by an agency you must also budget for ongoing support.
The most important things to include in an ongoing maintenance contract:
- updates of your website content management system
- updates of plugins
- support in the case of crashes or hacks
- regular, secure backups of the site
Again, a website is a living project, and you need to ensure it’s regularly refreshed with new content.
The content you publish on your site should be linked to the goals you’re trying to achieve. If you have a remit to educate people about a particular health condition, then add regular new content about prevention, spotting the signs and managing the symptoms.
Even the smallest organisation should be posting regular updates to their website – even if it’s only a short blog post once a month, it will ensure that your site is kept up to date and fresh for visitors, and it’ll also help its search engine performance.
Use this excellent, free framework from branding expert Steve Bryant to develop a content strategy for your organisation.
Ready to start writing your website brief? Use our free template
Get the free, customisable template for writing the brief for your first website.
The template is set up with suggested sections for your brief for your first website, and notes on what should go in each section. Delete the sections that aren’t relevant to your project, and add new sections as you need them.