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CMS Crash Course


You need to create a website for your nonprofit, but you don’t have a developer. Which option do you think is easier?

  1. Get staff to learn HTML & CSS, make a website, download a FTP client and upload the website to your web hosting service.
  2. Teach staff how to use a program that can create, update and publish your website

Unless your staff are secretly web developers, option #2 is much easier and more sustainable than option #1.

Content management systems (CMS) are one of the easiest and most efficient ways to create, publish and maintain a website. We invited Andy McIlwain (Content Director at SIDEKICK) to lead a CMS Crash Course for nonprofits at Toronto Net Tuesday and this post summarizes the key takeaways from this event. You can view a copy of Andy’s presentation on Slideshare.

What is a Content Management System (CMS)?

Content Management Systems are programs that help you manage your website. It simplifies the process of creating and maintaining web pages and online content without the need to consult a web developer or programmer. Popular CMS include Wordpress, Drupal and Joomla.

Why should your nonprofit care?

A CMS allows your nonprofit to be more:

  • Agile. Your website won’t be limited by the number of IT staff you have (or don’t have), since building and maintaining a website can be done by anyone with the right training.

  • Efficient. CMS is more user friendly and easier to learn, as opposed to teaching someone HTML, CSS etc. You can train multiple staff members to maintain the website, making training and onboarding much easier.

Factors to Consider Before Choosing a CMS

Choosing a CMS is like shopping for groceries: you can buy groceries without planning ahead, but having a shopping list will help you focus on buying the items you actually need.

When deciding on a CMS, don’t get distracted by the features. Decide on what you want your website to do (ie. content resource center, friend-to-friend fundraising platform etc.) before you start shopping for a CMS. Each CMS is better suited to certain tasks, so you’ll need to define your requirements before you can determine which CMS is the best fit for your organization. For example, if you have a lot of online content to manage, Wordpress would be a good fit. If you need to integrate with a lot of third party apps, Drupal may be better.

Andy also advises that with any CMS, there will always be a learning curve. Each CMS has its own distinct user interface and capabilities, so you and your staff should at least receive basic training in order to use and maintain the CMS properly.

Define Your Requirements

There are five types of requirements you need to determine before choosing a CMS:

  1. Functional requirements
    What activities and actions do you want people to take when they’re on your website? List them and prioritize them.
    Example: #1 People need to be able to donate, #2 Sign up for newsletter, etc.

  2. Design requirements
    Who is your target audience and what design elements do you need to cater to that group?
    Example: If the elderly is among your target audience, consider larger font sizes with light backgrounds and dark font colours.

  3. Content requirements
    What kind of content will you be managing with your CMS? List them and create a sitemap of how your content will be organized. Andy recommends using a mindmapping tool such as Xmind to help you visualize this task.
    Example: Blogs, videos, member profiles, orders etc.

  4. Time requirements
    What deadlines do you need to hit? Andy highly recommends setting hard dates and deadlines to keep yourself on track, as the temptation to delay the launch so you can “perfect” your website is very appealing. The notion of a “perfect website” is already a slippery slope, so just remember that a website is dynamic and meant to be continuously evolving, even after launch. Set a concrete launch date for your website and do your best to stick to it :)

  5. Money requirements
    How are you spending your money and does it cover everything you need? More often than not, organizations budget for the planning and implementation costs, but not enough for the post-launch support. Andy recommends setting a budget for building & designing the website, implementation, training, support and to have a buffer budget to cover unexpected expenses.
Once you and your team have defined your functional, design, content, time & money requirements, write them down so you can refer to them during the entire website & CMS process.

Define Your Roles & Responsibilities

While the size & roles of your project team will vary, Andy provided three questions and a few follow-up questions to help your nonprofit determine which roles you need on your project team and who is the right person to fill them:

  1. Who’s leading the project?
    A). Are they comfortable with speaking to executives, developers, administrative staff, etc. and be able to interpret and balance their needs?
    B). Have they used the CMS before?
    C). Do they understand the roles and components involved in implementing a CMS? (E.g, front end vs back end development, etc.)

  2. Who’s responsible for implementing the CMS?
    A). What is their background and what resources do they need to support their role?
    B). Do they feel comfortable and capable with this role?*

    *More often than not, this role is assigned to tech savvy staff members or volunteers, not developers. While it is possible for nonprofits to implement a CMS without a developer, it’s crucial that the person in this role is comfortable and capable with working in the back-end of a CMS.

  3. Who’s going to use the CMS on a day-to-day basis?
    A). What kind of training or additional support are available to these users?
    B). What is the training/onboarding process and is it sustainable?

Things You Need To Investigate Before You Commit

Now that you have your requirements and your project team, it’s time to do a little CMS shopping. Here are a few additional criterias that Andy strongly recommends nonprofits to consider before committing to a CMS.

Learning curve
Go to the CMS’ support forums and see what kind of questions people are asking. This will give you an idea of the complexity of the system and how steep the learning curve will be for your staff.

Andy recommends playing with the CMS platform first before deciding to build your entire website on it. Open Source CMS is a great starting point for testing different CMS options.

Documentation, Help & Support Content
Having readily available, up-to-date educational materials is very useful, especially if your nonprofit intends on maintaining the CMS in-house. Your nonprofit should look for a CMS that have responsive developers, up-to-date articles, lessons, tutorials, etc. and can provide you with a reasonable access to the back-end code. You don’t want to be “locked in” with a specific consultant or website theme due to the lack of documentation and/or access.

System requirements
Different CMSes require different hosting requirements in order to run (e.g Wordpress requires PHP, whereas others may need Rails, Node, ASP.NET, etc.). Know your CMS requirements as it will help you determine which web hosting service provider you should use and who you should hire if you need external support (ie. PHP developer vs. Rails developer).

There are two types of licensing, open source and proprietary:

  • Open source
    The source code (the underlying markup language that is used to build the CMS) is open for anyone to improve and submit changes. This means you are free to customize the code yourself or hire a developer to change the code for you. Open source projects are usually free, have a wider community of developers/contractors and better documentation.

  • Proprietary
    The source code is private and restricted from modification, studying or sharing. Proprietary projects are meant to be used as is and the user (licensee) must agree to or meet certain conditions. Proprietary projects may be more robust out of the box, as opposed to open source where you start with the standard functionality and add features to it. Any changes to the source code must be made by the original developer (copyright holder) or with their consent.

Make sure you know which license your CMS is under, as each it’s own advantages and disadvantages.

It’s also important for your nonprofit to clarify the cost of licensing and your rights as a user. Even a CMS with open source licensing can have premium themes and plugins that have different licensing model (e.g. premium themes you need to buy and/or that limit how much you can modify after purchase).

You can determine the longevity and sustainability of a CMS by looking at its market: how many developers, designers and consultants can work with the CMS? How active is the CMS’ developer community? How often are the plugin/themes being supported, and how many extensions or themes are available for the CMS?

If the market for your CMS is very low and inactive, any customization and updates to your system will be limited to a handful of specialists, which could entail high costs and maintenance. If the market for your CMS is very high and active, you can expect to have a more cost-effective way to customize and update your system.

Comparing CMS Options

Here are some of the CMS options available for your nonprofit, and Andy’s brief overview of each option. For a more information on the different CMS options, check out Idealware’s Consumers Guide to Content Management Systems.

Pros Cons
Open Source
- Relatively easy to learn
- Great for publishing & managing content
- Standardized backend experience (admin dashboard)
- Active developer community & market
- Up-to-date help & support content readily available
- GNU General Public License
- Not well suited to more complex functionality (ie. donor database, event management). It can be done, but not ideal.


Open Source

- Well-suited to host complex sites (such as
- Very active developer community & market
- Up-to-date help & support content readily available
- Requires a good, stable web hosting service as Drupal is resource heavy
- Steep learning curve for non-developers
- Building a website on Drupal is typically longer and more expensive


Open Source - Dedicated community
- Standardized backend experience (admin dashboard)
- Distinct user experience that may be more appealing to some users (ie. Joomla is more like portals, forums community so some people prefer it better

- Development is relatively inactive compared to other CMS platform
- Small market of developers
- Fewer themes and extensions available compared to other CMS options


Open Source

- Caters specifically to nonprofits

- Runs on python, which is requires more specialized knowledge/expertise
- Smaller market of developers

GetSimple CMS

Open Source

- Very user friendly & lightweight
- Ideal for simple microsites

- Limited plugins available
- Limited help & support content



- Free version for you to demo before purchase
- Well suited to complex functionalities (clients include government and Fortune 500 companies)
- Active community

- Can be very expensive
- No refunds