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Web 2.0 Websites on a Small Budget

Lori Halley 14 November 2008 4 comments

Internet users are getting used to — and expecting, even demanding —  greater levels of interactivity in the websites they visit. They're looking for websites that are much more than a simple digital publication. Websites that engage them in some active way, even if it’s simply to leave a comment on a news item, subscribe to get updates or a newsletter, or speak up in a quick opinion poll. Websites, ideally, that give users a way to connect and interact with each other online...

Can a small nonprofit organization afford all that Web2.0 stuff, on a small budget?

How Much Does a Nonprofit Website Cost, Anyway?

Ah, it’s the eternal question: how much should I expect to pay for a website? And how can I find out some answer other than “it depends” without actually building the sucker?

Laura Quinn tackled the question of nonprofit website costs recently at Idealware.org, with a breakdown of what you can reasonably expect to get at different price points from $1000 to $100,000, and I think she’s spot-on with her assessment.

For example, $100,000 is a solid budget for a fairly large website — not as sophisticated as some, perhaps, but a "robust site" that's skillfully designed. "At this level," she says, "your consultants can also help guide you through decision making, and shepherd decisions through internal politics and disputes — you're getting a strategic partner in addition to just someone to implement a site."

For $1000, on the other hand, you can probably find a “jack-of-all-trades” to build you a fairly basic website to suit your needs.  “It might cover a simple, custom graphic design, and potentially one or two simple features (like a simple event calendar),” says Laura. “Note that a jack-of-all-website-trades consultant is likely to be, as the aphorism says, a master of none… so it will be important to see a portfolio to judge their skills in the areas important to you.”

This is just for the setup of the website, mind you. Often, you can get domain name registration and webhosting thrown in to the deal, but you’re likely on your own (or will pay extra) when it comes updating the content and the on-going expenses of upgrading and maintaining the software that drives your site. I’d add a caution, too, that a basic jack-of-all-trades website might fit your organization’s needs at the time of its launch, but there’s no guarantee that it will prove flexible or scalable enough to meet your needs down the road, as Web technology continues to change and your organization (hopefully) grows and evolves.

On top of those considerations — the plain fact is, sometimes it’s all you can do to convince the board of directors that a website is needed, let alone to get a good working budget allocated for building and maintaining it.  (That’s especially so in these tough economic times, and it looks like most nonprofits’ resources, already tight enough, are likely to become even taxed in the coming months.)

Fortunately, the wide availability of good, flexible, free or low-cost software can put a Web 2.0 website in reach of virtually any nonprofit, no matter how small or how hard-up for money it may be. For almost any feature or function you can imagine, there’s an affordable web application that can do it for you. 

In fact, the choices can be almost overwhelming — rather like trying to choose from an over-loaded buffet table!

  • Content management systems
  • Blogging platforms
  • Design templates / themes
  • Forum software
  • Gallery software
  • Online video players
  • Site security / privacy / anti-spam tools
  • Secure contact forms
  • Newsletter services / autoresponders
  • Comment tracking services
  • Email / RSS managers
  • Payment / donation processors
  • Database tools
  • Membership management software
  • Survey / poll widgets
  • Website visitor counters / trackers
  • Social media widgets
  • …other?

Once upon a time, all this interactivity was expensive and technically complex — you had no option but to get some designers and programmers involved, or resort to a simple static page.

That’s not the case anymore. 

In fact, I’d say there are 3 main ways to approach a “do it yourself” Web 2.0 website (can you think of another way to go? If so, leave a comment below and share your thoughts!). But which of these website-building solutions will be right for your nonprofit group? That depends in large part on (a) your budget and (b) your technical skills, or the technical skills of any volunteers who are willing to pitch in to help you out with setting up a website!

1. Integrated Membership Website

  • Low / Moderate Cost
  • Low Tech Skill

All-in-one web-based platforms such as Wild Apricot — you knew I was going to mention it! — come under this heading, website solutions that combine a range of interactive website functions with full tech support and hosting. You never have to touch the software that runs your website, so upgrades and maintenance aren’t an issue. The best of these are designed to be user-friendly, too, so you don’t need to call in a tech every time you need to update or add to the content.

Look for a selection of templates to get you started with a professional-looking design, but also for the ability to customize the look and functionality of the site as the needs of your organization evolve. Customer service may well be the deciding factor, so you’ll want to check out what the platform’s existing clients have to say about it and/or take advantage of any free trials that are offered.

2. Self-hosted Integrated Website

  • Low / Moderate Cost
  • Moderate / High Tech Skill

This is a webmastering without a safety net! Many low-cost webhosting companies with good reputations for “uptime” also one-click installation of third-party applications — look for cPanel and Fantastico in the list of account features — which means you can quickly integrate all the tech goodies: mailing lists, forums, contact forms, blogs, galleries, and so on.

The main caveat here is that affordable webhosts are not in the business of holding their customers’ hands.  Front-line support is often largely delegated to on-site forums, where peers do most of the sorting out of each other’s challenges with the software. And do be aware that you’re normally on your own to take care of any software upgrades, security patches, etc., as well as responsible for making regular backups of your data. 

For the tech-savvy, however, there can be great cost savings and great satisfaction in managing your own website from the ground up. Nonprofits will want to have a plan in place, however, in case their staff or volunteer webmaster moves on, or for some other reason becomes unable to keep up the website.

3. Inter-Linked Web Site Services

  • Low Cost
  • Moderate/High Maintenance

A blog here, a forum there, an autoresponder service to handle email inquiries and send out passwords so subscribers can access the password-protected articles, and so on — various separate applications and services are linked together to make one truly “do-it-yourself” website solution. With a moderate amount of technical skill at hand, any cash-strapped nonprofit can bring together a variety of free or very low-cost applications to fill many of its needs.

Ideally, all of these fragmented parts should be “branded” with your organization’s logo and a consistent color-scheme to help identify them as part of your online presence. You’ll most likely want to “pont” your domain name at the main news part of your site (your blog?) and link from there to the peripheral forum, gallery, and so on — that way, visitors’ chances of finding your “front door” are greatly increased.

Still, with various elements of your “website” scattered across different sites and services, this is a”shotgun approach” to a website that can make it harder for you to get your nonprofit found in web searches, as well as challenge your visitors: the visitors and search-engine crawlers might stumble across your forum, but will they find their way to your main news page, with the button that lets them make a donation?

"More With Less" Online

Money is tight enough now, we all know, and it seems certain that there are even tougher economic times ahead. More than ever, nonprofits and businesses alike will need to learn new ways to do their work online. But it can be done. There are all sorts of free and low-cost ways for you to help visitors find you in search engines, to promote your website and bring traffic to it — as well as new, fun, and very affordable tools that can to help you connect and communicate with those website visitors once they land. 

We’ve talked about a lot of those in previous blog posts, so do skim back through the blog archives for any nuggets you may have missed — and there’ll be a whole lot more to come. If you haven't dropped a note to the Wild Apricot blog before, this might be a good time to do so. Or just leave a comment below, if you prefer:

Where are your organization’s biggest web challenges? What tools and tactics do you most want or need to learn about, to better pursue your nonprofit’s mission online? Let us know — how can this blog help you to do “more with less,” right now and through the months ahead?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Friday, 14 November 2008 at 4:58 PM


  • Mitchell Allen said:

    Friday, 14 November 2008 at 9:23 AM

    Rebecca, you've got them all covered. Everything else is just a variation, such as a high cost / high maintenance option of going with scripts like the one provided by amember.com.  I shudder to think that someone in the Non-profit sector would even consider something like that. I'm not sure if it's a one-time fee. If so, that would be a poisoned carrot with a nasty stick hidden behind its back!

    As with most DIY projects that fail, we'll blow the savings when we come to our senses and contract with a company like Wild Apricot. (That didn't come out right, but you know what I mean.)

    Bottom line: why reinvent the wheel? Go for option one and spend that money wisely!



  • Ari Herzog said:

    Friday, 14 November 2008 at 9:31 AM

    Great advice, as always, Rebecca. The key (to me) is an organization not view a website as a duplication of their printed brochure. In that aense, perhaps the website should be less a "web site" and more an "online destination gateway" to other interactive outposts, e.g. their Facebook page, LinkedIn profiles, etc.

  • James BonTempo said:

    Friday, 14 November 2008 at 9:46 AM

    This is a great post. And I think the three-part breakdown is a pretty accurate and useful way to frame the decision.

    But for folks with little time or money I'd say: don't overthink it! Just start. And I think a good place to start would be a blog. Then maybe add additional services over time, looking for opportunities to consolidate platforms as things grow (this will get easier as data portability standards improve).

    I've been designing, developing and maintaining application systems for a number of years and have witnessed too many projects fail from over-analysis. And I've even been the perpetrator! Sometimes the most important thing is just to do something. Have a (potentially hazy) long-term vision, but take a steps towards it ASAP.

    Thanks for making me think about it :)

  • John Haydon said:

    Saturday, 15 November 2008 at 9:43 AM


    Awesome post. Low / Moderate Cost & Low Tech Skill is the way to go. I'm all about "outsourcing" anything that can be done better AND cheaper by someone else.


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