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Website & Technology

The Complete Guide to Choosing a Nonprofit CMS

Author: Tatiana Morand
March 11, 2020
🕑 10 min read

If you’re building a new website or considering revamping your old one, one of the first choices you’ll have to make is which CMS to choose.

Imagine that your website is a house — and your CMS is the foundation.

The right CMS will support your website. Once it’s built, you can forget about it.

The wrong CMS, however, might start crumbling under your feet and necessitate a lot of repairs.

But how do you know which one is right for you?

That’s where we come in!

At WildApricot, we’ve seen a lot of nonprofit websites over the years — meaning that we’ve seen a lot of great ones, as well as some that could use a bit of work.

In this post, I’m hoping to share some of what I’ve seen to help you make the right decision.

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What is a CMS?

A content management system (or CMS for short) is software that allows you to create, manage, and edit websites without knowing a single line of code. As I said before, you can think of it as the foundation that holds up your website.

To continue our house simile, using a CMS is like having your house built by a construction company instead of having to lay the foundation and pour the concrete yourself.

That way, you can just focus on what actually goes into the house, like art and furniture — or in your case, what goes on the website, like photos and text.

Click through to claim your 60-day trial of WildApricot to create effective QR codes that will speed up event check-in.

Proprietary CMS vs. Open Source CMS

Back in the early days of the internet (think the 1990s), most nonprofits had very few choices when it came to building a website: they could either opt for a static HTML site, or pay a ton of money for one of the original proprietary CMSs.

(I wasn’t on the Internet back then, and I’m not sorry I missed this!)

By the early 2000s, open source CMSs had started to emerge, opening up the field to a much larger group of players. Third-party developers were now able to study and update CMS platforms, although making any changes to your website still required a solid knowledge of code.

Now if this is confusing, let’s break it down even further: a proprietary CMS is essentially a CMS platform that is owned, created, and maintained by a company. On the flip side, an open source CMS is one in which the source code is available for anyone to use or change.

So, why would you choose one over the other?

A proprietary CMS is good for organizations who don’t have a lot of technical know-how or bandwidth, since the company that owns it will do all the work behind the scenes for you. An open-source CMS, on the other hand, is great for organizations who want to be able to maintain control of all of the facets of their website and who have the time to devote to doing so. (A lot of them are also less expensive, which can be a key factor!)

Hosted CMS vs. SaaS CMS

The other thing you need to consider is whether you want to go with a hosted CMS or a SaaS CMS. A hosted CMS is one that you download and install on your own server — this includes WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal (all of which are open source as well). This is a more involved process and requires more technical knowledge to set up.

A CMS that is offered as software as a service, or SaaS, is hosted by the company itself — this includes Squarespace, Wix, and WildApricot.

The company then handles the server and any issues that come with it, and usually requires users to pay a subscription fee in exchange for their service.

Typically, SaaS CMS platforms are also proprietary and hosted ones are open source. Although it’s not always the case, many of the reasons you would choose one over the other would apply in both cases.

Of course, the features you’re looking for are also a big part of the choice. Next, we’ll cover what features you should be looking for in your CMS, so you can start to narrow down which platform might be right for you.

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10 Features to Look for in Your Nonprofit CMS

1. Ease of Use

If you’re going to be building or updating your website in-house (as opposed to outsourcing it to a web design or marketing agency), you want to make sure that the CMS platform is easy enough to navigate and use.

Some platforms have a larger learning curve than others — for example, a hosted CMS is going to be a lot more work to set up than SaaS CMS — so you want to consider your team and their ability to learn and use the technology as well as maintenance down the road.

2. Responsiveness

Mobile traffic has made up approximately half of all website visits from 2017 on, and that number is expected to rise. If your website isn’t optimized to be viewed on smaller screens, like smartphones or tablets, you could be missing out on a lot of site visitors. A good CMS will respond to the size of the device and adjust your website display automatically.

(PS: all WildApricot websites will do this!)

3. Integrations and Plugins

If your nonprofit CMS isn’t an all-in-one platform, you’ll want to check what integrations or plugins are available for it.

For example, does it integrate with customer relationship management (CRM) software, an email service provider, social media platforms, etc.?

If not, how will you transfer data and information between the different tools you use?

Integrations help keep everything working together and your nonprofit running smoothly.

4. Payment Processing

One of the most valuable features in a nonprofit CMS is the ability to accept online donations or payments.

Between membership fees, recurring or one-off donations, or the sale of goods and services, your nonprofit likely has one or more ways that it collects money from donors, and having an easy-to-navigate system on your website (a button, a separate page, forms, a payment processor, automatic receipts, etc.) can streamline the process and increase the funds coming into your organization.

Read More: 6 Steps to Create a Donation Website for Your Nonprofit + 10 Great Examples

5. Form Builder

Whether you’re signing up a new member, adding someone to your email list, or fielding an inquiry from a potential donor, the best CMS platforms have built-in forms that you can add to various places on your website to capture visitor data — just like this donation form from The Spirit of Dallas Foundation.

The Spirit of Dallas

(And bonus points if the form integrates with your CRM!)

6. Customizable Design

While some nonprofit CMS platforms have beautiful out-of-the-box templates, you likely want to customize your website at least a little bit.

At the bare minimum, you should be able to add your branding to the site (including logo, colors, and fonts), but if you’d like even more flexibility, look for a platform that has multiple templates or layouts.

If you’re familiar with code, you might be able to make these changes directly (if the platform allows). But for the less tech-savvy, look for a drag-and-drop or a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) content editor for the easiest customizations.

7. Search Engine Optimization

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the practice of optimizing your website so that it gets organic, or unpaid, traffic from search engines (like Google). Some CMS platforms make SEO more straightforward and attainable than others, or have built-in features or plugins to guide you through the process.

Read More: The Top 8 SEO Tips for Nonprofits Who Want to Rank #1

8. User Management

How many members of your team need access to your CMS?

If there’s more than one person who might use it, a helpful feature can be user management or permissions. Some employees might only have author or editor access, while others are administrators. It’s also useful to have different login information for each user, and for the webmaster to be able to track the changes or updates that each user makes.

9. Security

Security is an often overlooked, but extremely necessary, feature in choosing your nonprofit CMS, especially if your website has access to personal membership or financial data. The last thing you want is a security breach or to have your stakeholders hacked, so you need to make sure your CMS is as secure as it can be. Just a note: an open source CMS is typically less secure than a proprietary CMS because of the public availability of its source code.

10. Support Services

Unless you’re an expert, you probably want to ensure that your nonprofit CMS comes with some kind of customer support. Most proprietary CMS platforms will have this included as a part of their subscription model, although the hours they’re available and the speed at which they respond might vary. Open source CMSs, on the other hand, may not offer the kind of support services you need. If you have a problem with an open source CMS, you may have to hire a developer or consultant to help you solve it.

Final Consideration: Cost

While this isn’t exactly a feature you might be looking for in your nonprofit CMS, it’s definitely an important consideration when comparing multiple platforms. It’s essential to understand the pricing structure of each CMS platform, both up-front and in the long-term, so there aren’t any surprises.

For example, are there set-up or installation costs? Processing fees? Annual or monthly payment plans? Ultimately, you need to balance the features you want in a CMS with something that fits in your budget.

Now that we’ve covered some of the features you should be searching for in your CMS (for a more in-depth overview of everything your nonprofit website should have, read this), let’s look at some of the best CMS platforms on the market.

The Top 6 Nonprofit CMS Platforms

You’ve probably heard of a variety of CMS platforms before, but what you might not have heard discussed is how well they each work for a nonprofit.

1. WordPress

WordPress is one of the most popular CMS platforms out there — it was even used by 42% of nonprofit respondents to this Blackbaud survey — but what many people don’t know is that there are actually two different versions of it: and is a self-hosted, open source CMS. It’s free to use, although you’ll incur other expenses for hosting or plugins. is more like a proprietary SaaS CMS, and although there is a free plan, you need to pay for a premium subscription to access most of the features listed above.

Overall, WordPress is known for being a strong platform for blogging and SEO, and having thousands of integrations and plugins. For example, if you need membership management for your nonprofit, you can use one of several popular plugins.

Along that same vein, though, sometimes having too many third-party vendors can become an issue, as you can’t always count on them for reliable and secure updates.

Read More: WordPress for Nonprofits: Everything Your Organization Needs to Know

2. WildApricot

WildApricot is an all-inclusive nonprofit CMS that allows you to build a website, manage your members, plan events, send emails, accept payments, and so much more. Because it’s a proprietary SaaS CMS, you pay a monthly subscription fee to access the platform. When you factor in the cost of running all of this software separately though (web hosting, membership management software, event tools, an email service provider, and payment processing), you end up saving a lot in the long run.

In terms of design, WildApricot has plenty of templates to choose from; however, they might be a little more outdated than some of the other platforms on this list. Nonetheless, WildApricot is a great choice, as it offers all of the functionality you could possibly need in a nonprofit CMS. To try it out for yourself, sign up for a free 60-day trial of WildApricot.

3. MemberClicks

While WildApricot is perfect for many small organizations, MemberClicks builds integrated membership management software solutions specifically for small-to-midsized professional associations, trade associations and chambers of commerce.

MemberClicks offers intuitive association management systems, learning management software, event management solutions, and job board software, built to save time, save money, grow membership and increase revenue.

Click here to learn more about MemberClicks can help your organization by connecting you to connected solutions.

4. Squarespace

Squarespace is another big name in the website-building world, and for good reason: their templates and designs are beautiful! The content editor is fairly simple to use (once you get the hang of it), and the SaaS model means you never have to worry about installation or updates. Unfortunately, Squarespace is lacking many of the features you might be looking for in a nonprofit CMS. If you need a platform that’s a little more sophisticated and that will grow with you over time, you may want to start with something else.

5. Wix

Like Squarespace, Wix is a proprietary SaaS that has stunning off-the-shelf templates, as well as the ability to edit and customize your website even further with HTML. It can work well for small businesses or stores, but for nonprofits, Wix can get pricey, especially if you want all of the premium features and add-ons, like some of the ones we mentioned above.

6. Morweb

Morweb is a great CMS platform that was made specifically to serve nonprofits. It’s a powerful service that offers a drag-and-drop website builder, web hosting, event registration, payment processing, membership-only areas, and more. Although not as well known as some of the other companies on this list, its proprietary software is a great fit for many small nonprofits. Potential disadvantages are that Morweb doesn’t have email marketing as part of its plan, and they won’t register your domain name for you.

We’ve covered 6 of the main nonprofit CMS platforms here, but for a more in-depth comparison of the best website builders for nonprofits, check out our complete article and review here.

I hope this article helped you decide which foundation you’d like to build for your new website! If you have any additional comments on which nonprofit CMS you prefer, let us know in the comments.

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