It might seem a bit off that I would discourage a nonprofit from buying a website since the company I head is called Nonprofit Websites, but bear with me as I explain a bit more about what I feel is happening in our industry and how it is affecting your nonprofit organization in a truly negative way. From terrible representations of nonprofit brands to complete failures to produce measurable results, we are seeing too many nonprofit websites quickly becoming valueless online propaganda, lacking in any sort of return on investment, as little as some of that investment may be.
I frequently speak to volunteers and staff members of nonprofits who have been assigned the task of “buying” a website. In speaking with them, we find out that the task was mentioned in a meeting and quickly delegated to either (a) the person least qualified in the room but who has enough spare time to take another task, or (b) the person who knows something about computers so, well, it just makes sense to the executive directors to have them handle something “geeky” like a website.
The problem is that websites are neither a menial task nor an IT issue. Websites are the international presence and representation of a nonprofit’s brand, mission, services, and responsive systems. They are a key part of modern outreach and a vehicle for nonprofit leaders to communicate their mission, promote events and opportunities for involvement, solicit for donations and sponsorship, and to interact with the world around them. In short, it requires a large amount of very focused and strategic planning to even begin the process.
Once you have a strategic plan, engaging a firm that can reevaluate that plan and translate it to web developer-speak is necessary. Your plan might sound perfect in your head, but a knowledgeable firm can help to refine your ideas into things that can be done online. In the best cases, your agency of choice can enhance your ideas, maximize your investment, and save you from bad choices that will potentially cost you millions.
Discovery and planning with experts can also help expose weaknesses in your plan and team that you should know about before the design process begins. If you have a key staff member who is butting heads with an experienced firm, chances are that team member doesn’t know as much as they might be representing. If your expectations of what a technology or design element should do continually butts heads with your consultants, your expectations or understanding of what those elements should do may be off. You would rather know that in the beginning than to go through the entire process only to realize your expectations will never be met.
Is some cases, you will expose the true capabilities or deficiencies in your new vendor. Remember, the web design, development and marketing industry is full of pseudo-experts and kids who are making side money while they are in college. If you have a discussion with someone who then runs home and designs a website for you without the proper planning and discovery, run.
This is where many organization get stuck. I see firms jump from vendor to vendor, saying things like, “They didn’t get our vision” or “We didn’t like what they came up with.” If you are working with experienced professionals, understand that they can literally create anything you can think of. The spectrum of possibilities is infinite. The creative process is about starting with good requirements that narrow the possibilities down quite a bit. Then, tweaking in iterations to get to exactly what you are confident your audience will respond to.
This happens through very direct communication that tells the production team in charge of your project what you want to see. Instead of saying, “I don’t like the color of the background,” respond with something closer to “Change the color of the background to dark blue” or “Add a cement texture.”
Now, sometimes the reality is that nonprofit leaders do not always know what they want to change. They just know that they don’t like what they see. In those cases, reserving time with an experienced consultant can help save you some heartburn. Schedule consulting time to allow for someone to extract the details the production team needs from you.
As a nonprofit, who is the hero of the story you are telling on your website? If you believe that it is your organization, you’ve already begun to identify the problem. The hero of your presentation is the person with whom you are communicating. If your website is geared toward donors, it is they who are the heroes. If it’s members, then it’s each individual member. If it’s people who need help, they are the true heroes of your presentation.
That is such an important discovery because it changes what you expect from your web presence. For example, who do you think is the hero of this blog post? It’s you. And because of that, the burden is on me to write something that solves a problem the hero is having while keeping him or her as the focus, not my products and services. So (and here is the key statement) your website should not reflect your personal tastes and preferences. It should cater solely to your audience who, 99% of the time, have a completely different set of behaviors, values and preferences as you.
Before you reject a design or insist on a feature that you feel you need to have to “look professional” or “be more modern,” ask your vendor if they think it is wise. Before you employ a feature that other nonprofit organizations are using on their websites, contact them to make sure that it is working for them. Most websites are not producing, so you might be following a pattern that will fail before it even begins.
Did you know that “if you build it, they will come” only works in Field of Dreams? Seriously, websites just don’t work that way. When you build a website, it is the equivalent to building a store in the middle of the woods with no street, signs, or indication that you even exist. To attract visitors to your website, you have to “pave the road” by properly launching and marketing your web presence. So many nonprofit leaders I know tell me that they don’t focus on their website results because “we don’t have a lot of visitors to our website.” They tell me they are focused more on social media or that donors don’t give online. All those statements indicate a complete and utter failure to properly launch their websites. Something must change, friends.
There’s quite a bit more involved than just “building your website over the phone in 5 minutes,” isn’t there? Properly developing an effective web presence requires so much more than giving your credit card to some template-driven, website builder software company. These services are designed to take your money in exchange for the pipedream that their software is all you need to be successful. The reality is that it takes technology, team and talent to make it happen on a large scale. And if you aren’t thinking about doing big things, then your nonprofit may be limited to the amount of investment you make in advocating your strategic responsibilities as a nonprofit leader.
That’s a tough statement, but we are in a battle to change this world, and you deserve a partner who will be straightforward and honest about the process instead of one who just wants to swipe your credit card.
Bonus Action Point: Write down your top 3 goals and expectations for your nonprofit website. Be very specific. Now, think about what it will take to accomplish those goals and who can help to make it happen.
Need help planning your nonprofit website? Download our Nonprofit Website Planning Guide.