So your non-profit organization needs to get a website, finally – or to revamp the existing website, perhaps to make it work better for your members and donors, perhaps to reflect a change in direction or brand. No matter what your non-profit website’s design and content will be, there are two big questions you need to nail down early in the planning process: How will we build our website, and where will its files be hosted?
Andy Giesler, freelance IT consultant to nonprofit organizations, has just wound up a great 3-part series over at BlazingMoon.org that takes an in-depth (and down-to-earth) look at hosting and site building options for not-for-profit websites.
Website Options for Nonprofits
Website Options for Nonprofits — Part 1: Big Picture covers fundamental concepts and considers traditional website hosting options. It explains what a website really is (pages of “cryptic text” that tell your web browser what to display on your screen) and introduces the options for building and hosting your website:
Whether you’re creating or maintaining a website, there are fundamentally two things you need to know.
- Which computer will the pages live on?
- How will we create and edit the cryptic text documents that define the pages?
The answer to that second question – how to create your website – depends in part on the answer to the first:
Which computer will your web pages live on?
Strictly defined, “self-hosting” means that your non-profit will use its own computer to serve up the files for web pages. Security is a big issue with self-hosting, Giesler points out, and it “requires either a skilled IT department or a high tolerance for risk” – neither of which are likely to describe the average small not-for-profit organization!
Using a web hosting company is generally a sounder alternative. It means you’ll essentially “rent” the server space from a web hosting company, and they’re the ones who will have to handle most – not all, but most – of the software troubleshooting and security risks.
There are no shortage of web hosts out there, and it can be hard to choose which one to go with. Prices for reliable services tend to be fairly competitive, so don’t let price be your deciding factor. Instead, check with the people you know who run websites (and who are happy with their web hosts) to get a few recommendations.
You can also search the Web Hosting Talk forum for the name of any service you’re considering, to get a sense of what kind of experience other customers have had with the company over time. In my experience, you’ll often find the better hosting companies have high-level customer service reps on patrol at this forum, ready to pitch in and help with a technical problem or to answer a pre-sale question. Check to see if the web hosting company is on Twitter, too. A quick name search or a look at the company’s own Twitter stream can often give you a good sense of how responsive they are to customers and to prospective customers.
Alternatively, you may find it more convenient and cost-effective to go with an integrated all-in-one solution like Wild Apricot, which gives your web pages a home on the web and flexible template-based tools that allow even the least-techy of your volunteers to help edit and update your non-profit’s website.
How will we create and edit our web pages?
No matter where you host the files that make up your non-profit’s website, someone’s going to have to create and edit the actual web pages for your site in the first place. Few small non-profits have the budget to bring in coders and designers, so that usually means we’re looking at a do-it-yourself solution.
Giesler’s Website Options for Nonprofits — Part 2: Web Editing Software covers tools and options for creating web pages using the traditional approach to website building; that is, where you install some sort of web page editor on your computer and use that software to design and build your organization’s website.
First up is the “old school” option of hand-coding your pages in a simple text editor – not usually a practical approach for most busy non-profit staffers, unless you’re already an old hand at HTML, simply because of the time investment and learning curve that’s involved.
Alternatively, and more practically for most small not-for-profit staff and volunteers, there are a good many WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors that more or less replicate the experience of using a word processor. You just concentrate on placing your text and images, and the editing software takes care of the “cryptic text” behind the scenes. At least, that’s the general idea behind WYSIWYG editors...
Microsoft Word is not an ideal choice for working on HTML pages, by the way – Giesler makes this point quite strongly, too. (Makes sense, if you think about it: Word was designed from day one to create documents for print, not to create web pages for display in whatever one of many different browsers your website visitors may be using.) It’s famous for throwing in lots of wonky extra code of its own so What You See in MS Word is not always What You Get on the web page. Be aware, too, if you copy-paste from a Word document to a web page, you made need to clean up the HTML code generated by MS Word in order to make the web pages look right.
Giesler suggests three freeware WYSIWYG editors to consider: Amaya, Kompozer, and SeaMonkey. All are “free, lightweight, and designed for non-technical users” and they’ll work on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers. I haven’t used Amaya and SeaMonkey (both of which serve as web browsers as well as web page editors, conveniently), but I have had a chance to play around with Kompozer and found it stable and capable of the basics.
Web editors that are designed for the web development market, such as Adobe DreamWeaver, for example, have a steeper learning curve than the simpler WYSIWYG editors but the trade-off there is access to more sophisticated features and flexibility.
The only way to know if any tool will suit your needs and your working style, of course, is to try it out – and you’ll certainly want to avoid an expensive mistake in purchasing a piece of commercial software that may be more “horsepower” than you need and/or call for more learning time than you and your staff can give it. See if the software manufacturer offers a free trial – most will do so – and take each tool for a test drive. And once you’ve settled on a product, do check the Digital Catalog at TechSoup for donated software at reduced rates for which your non-profit may be eligible, or ask a local computer store about in-kind donations.
In Part 3: Use Your Browser to Build a Website, Giesler goes on to discuss three different ways to build your non-profit’s website without any need to install web editing software – using only your web browser. He divides this into three categories:
- Easy page builders from your web host
- Independent website builders
- Content Management Systems (CMSs)
Web-based editing tools cover a wide range of products of varying sophistication and ease of use. Page-building tools provided by web hosts tend to be pretty simple, as a general rule, although there are certainly some exceptions – you’ll need to check what’s on offer from your web host.
Giesler’s take on the “easy page builder” tools in general:
The sites they produce can easily look canned, like the difference between stock photography and taking your own picture. And though many give you a lot of flexibility, it’s flexibility with some hard-coded constraints.
Not all host-provided web builders are created equal, as he points out. Some web hosts will give you access to third-party tools such as Soholaunch, SiteBuilder, and Template Express bundled in with your hosting account. Also, Grassroots.org offers its membership (free and open to all US, Canadian and African registered charities) a free website builder powered by Doodlekit, which is itself a hosted.
By “independent website builders” Giesler means services like Weebly and Google Sites that give you an easy way to create a website and also act as the web host for your pages:
Some of these sites are entirely free if you don’t mind ads appearing on your site. Many operate on a freemium business model, giving you free hosting with certain limitations, and letting you pay more for additional features—like ad-free hosting, more file storage space, or your own domain name.
“Content Management Systems” are just what they sound like – services that are designed to let you manage your online content easily and efficiently. A heated debate still runs among geekier types about what’s a “website builder” versus “blogging platform” and where a CMS parts company with a blog... but the lines are getting so blurred by now that it’s really a moot point. Within each category of tool, there’ll be a wide range of features and functionality.
There are hundreds if not thousands of CMSs to choose from – it can be quite overwhelming! – and the convenient CMS Matrix may help you to narrow those choices. Just tick the checkboxes next to the systems you’d like to assess, and you’ll get a feature-by-feature comparison chart. The list there is not quite exhaustive, but pretty close to it. The odds are very good that you’ll find all the CMSs you’ve heard mentioned – and dozens of lesser-known tools as well.
Some of the popular and more sophisticated CMS options, like Drupal and Joomla, are immensely flexible but can require a fair amount of technical know-how to take full advantage of the features. Both are free, but you’ll have to get a web hosting account to give your web pages somewhere to live online.
On the other end of the CMS spectrum, from the Drupal and Joomla giants are the lightweight tools like open-source GetSimple CMS. These can be ideal for quickly creating a simple static website – as headquarters for a time-limited campaign, say, or to update your old “brochure” site while you’re making plans for a more comprehensive website makeover.
WordPress.org blogging software, the version that you install on your own web space, is the choice of many non-profits for its vast selection of plugins, both free and premium (paid), that add a great amount of functionality to the basic blog platform.
For a simple website that’s (mostly) free of charge and free of advertising, hosted Wordpress.com will suit many non-profits just fine – but there are some significant restrictions to what you can do with your website there, in terms of content and customization, so do read the Terms of Service carefully before setting up shop.
And if you’re interested in managing both your content and your contacts (members, donors, email newsletter list, etc.) through one website (your own), an all-in-one integrated website builder may be the way to go. See the Membership Management Software Selection Guide created by Bonasource for Wild Apricot, as well as Idealware’s Comparing Lower-Cost Online Integrated Applications for help on deciding if an specific website solution is a good fit for your organization.
No matter what option you choose for creating and hosting your non-profit website, there will be trade-offs:
- Ease of use. The tools vary in how easy they are to use. It’s much easier for a novice to sit down and bang out a WordPress site than a Drupal site.
- Flexibility. While tools vary greatly in how much flexibility they give you, most give you less flexibility than a traditional, custom-written website (in exchange for the ability to update it non-technically).
- Cosmetics. The simplest tools sometimes leave you with a site that looks like it was created by a teen-aged volunteer in 1998.
- Tech essential. Most do require technical knowledge for certain kinds of changes.
- Tech limitations. Some won’t let you make certain changes even if you have tech knowledge.
But maybe most important, and most easily overlooked in those heady initial days when you’re happy with the new site and everything looks rosy:
- Lock-in. To one degree or another you’re locked in to the web builder platform you choose, and sometimes to a single web host.
Andy Giesler’s excellent Website Options for NonProfits series will provide a solid base of background information to help you to weigh those trade-offs against the advantages of each option, even if you’re starting off on the website-building adventure with very few technical resources within your organization on which you can draw.
For further good learning, see also the oldie-but-goodie A Nonprofit’s Guide to Building Simple, Low-Cost Websites from TechSoup.org, and Kevin Gilnack’s Building a Nonprofit Website on a Shoe-String Budget at frogloop.com, Care2’s nonprofit online marketing blog.
What other resources can you suggest, for a small non-profit organization that's starting to consider its options for building a website?