A Nonprofit’s Guide to Building Simple, Low-Cost Websites
Affordable solutions for planning, creating, and maintaining your organization’s online presence
July 13, 2009
Editor's note: We recommend reading this article in conjunction with Tips for Designing (or Redesigning) a Nonprofit Website to get a more complete picture of options to create a well-designed, affordable, website and the process you should expect when moving through different parts of the process of developing a beautiful new site.
A well-designed, user-friendly website can help you engage new members, raise money, and communicate with decision-makers. But creating this site affordably, and finding the right tools to build and host it, can be a challenge — especially when you are relying on in-house talent with little or no web-development expertise.
Nowadays, however, you don’t need to be a programmer to create a strong, quality web presence — nor do you need a hefty grant to fund one. Below, we’ll offer guidance on how to plan a new website (or redesign an existing one) and how to maintain an online presence using tools that you don’t have to be a web developer to master. We’ll also offer some tips for finding volunteers with web expertise who can help you along the way.
1. Register Your Domain Name
Even if you don’t plan on creating a website for quite some time, buy the rights to your organization’s domain name. If you don’t do so now, it could be snatched up by an individual or entity to create a site that has nothing to do with your organization. A domain name is a unique string of letters and numbers that identifies a site on the Internet; TechSoup’s domain name, for example, is www.techsoup.org. Nonprofits and social benefit organizations usually choose domain names that end in .org, but you may also want to register at least the .com and .net versions as well. (There’s no rule that requires nonprofits to choose a .org domain name, but it is conventional, just as educational institutions usually choose domains ending in .edu, for-profit companies in .com, and government agencies in .gov.)
To save money — and make things easier on yourself — consider registering your domain name or names for five years at a time, and be sure to document the registration process so you or your successor will know where to go when it’s time to renew. Your Internet service provider (ISP) can help you register a domain name, or you can choose from the list of accredited registrars at Internic. Regardless of which registrar you go with, you shouldn’t spend more than $10 a year on your domain name.
2. Evaluate Your Needs
Even if you’re impatient to just get something up fast and affordably, taking the time to evaluate your needs upfront can save you a lot of time and money down the road. Knowing what kind of web presence you want, how you plan to maintain it, and how you will fund it in the long run will help you both in the technical work of building the site as well as in budgeting for ongoing needs.
A little organizational soul-searching needn’t be a lengthy process, either, and may be as simple as sitting down to answer a few key questions:
- What do you need a website for? Do you simply require a place where people can find your contact info and mission statement, or do you need a site where visitors can find news, register for events, post questions, interact and network with others, or even make purchases?
- What resources do you have to build your site? Very simple sites may be practically free to build and host, but more complex ones will require special skills, including programming, information architecture, web design, and editing. Do you have staff available to help plan and implement your site, or will you need to rely on contractors or volunteers?
- How will you maintain your website? Even simple, fairly static websites require a certain degree of maintenance and oversight. What kind of staff resources can you devote over the long run to the kind of site you need?
- How will you integrate your site with existing tools? Depending on your needs, you may want to integrate the same tools you use for constituent and membership management with your website. Be sure to check in with these vendors to make sure that you choose an online solution that meshes well with these tools to avoid costly customizations down the road.
- How will your site incorporate your current graphic language? Make sure you can choose a solution that brands your organization in a way that’s consistent with your other printed materials. Don’t have a logo or a visual style guide? Now may be the time to look into coming up with these to avoid costly site overhauls down the road.
- Can you take steps now to plan for future needs? Even if you don’t currently plan to keep a blog, for example, if you think you’ll want to incorporate one a year or two from now, you may want to account for this in your current plans. No one has a crystal ball, but projecting a couple of years into the future may help you create a website with more staying power.
3. Pick a Web-Development Tool
If your organization requires a very large site (50 or more pages), or a sophisticated, highly customized site with a lot of integrated tools, you are unlikely to find a fast, easy solution. Unless you have a web designer or programmer on staff, you’ll need to hire a web designer or firm to build and maintain your site, or invest a lot of time and possibly money to purchase and learn web-authoring tools yourself. Even content management systems (CMSs), tools designed to help manage and automate complex websites, require a significant investment of time, money, or both — and there is no tool out there that can write content for you.
However, if your needs are less complex, the good news is that there are a variety of free or low-cost ways to create an attractive, dynamic online presence without a lot of web development expertise. Keep in mind, however, that even simpler sites require upkeep, and just because a solution isn’t expensive to implement doesn’t mean it won’t require a lot of time or money to maintain.
Tools your organization may wish to consider — either alone or in tandem — include:
Also known as “website in a box” services, site builders are web applications that allow you to set up a website easily through a user-friendly interface that oftentimes resembles a Word processor. Most of these tools come with free design templates, which you can usually customize to a certain extent. (For example, most will allow you to change the color scheme or insert your own images and logos.) Site builders are typically either free but ad-supported (that is to say, your audience will see text-based or graphical ads when they browse your site), or about $5 to $10 a month without ads.
An advantage to using a site builder is that you don’t need to know HTML or any other web development languages to use them. Nor do you have to own your own server hardware; with a site builder, you access your account and all of the administrative functions through your web browser. However, site builders’ features tend to be limited, and the sites you can build using them often look somewhat generic and less polished than sites built with more advanced software. A site you build with a site builder will look like the other sites built with that same tool to some extent, and it may not be as well-designed or aesthetically pleasing as a customized designer site. (That said, before you shell out thousands of dollars to a designer to build your site, you may wish to compare their sample work to site builder sites; in some cases, the extra money isn’t worth it.)
Well-known site builders include Homestead, Weebly, and Google Page Creator. DoodleKit, another option, has more choices in terms of design templates, widgets, and other functionality than most of the other tools in this category. Nonprofits can apply for a free Doodlekit account through Grassroots.org. (Editor's note: As of 2016, Grassroots is no longer in operation)
When most people think about a blog, they envision an individual, personal publishing platform. However, more and more organizations are also using free blogging tools such as WordPress and Blogger as their primary web presence.
Most blogging tools allow more than one author, meaning many people from one organization can work on them. Moreover, you don’t need to know HTML to use them, and, as with the site builders, you don’t have to host the site on your own servers. Blogging tools may also provide easy-to-use design templates with the option of some customization.
WordPress’s features, for example, include a wide variety of free design templates (for $30 a year you can modify the templates with your own code); widgets from several third-party providers let you embed calendars, photos, videos, and more. Blogger is a little easier to set up and configure than WordPress and it offers more third-party widgets, but it also provides fewer design templates to choose from. Both Blogger and WordPress will provide you with a free subdomain — meaning that your site name would appear in the URL line alongside the blogging tool’s name — but also allow you to purchase your own domain name so that people can find you directly through your own unique address. Domain names cost $10 per year at Blogger and $15 per year at WordPress.
Another popular blogging tool, TypePad, starts at $4.95 a month, with a full-featured Pro account costing $14.95 a month. At the Pro level and above, TypePad offers excellent tools for creating custom themes, and you don’t need to modify the CSS code to do so. If you want to make advanced customizations to a WordPress or Blogger design template, however (beyond just tweaking a header image or changing some colors), you will need to know some CSS and HTML, or you have to know how to borrow and tweak the code written by other template developers.
Assistance from Current Web Service Providers
The same company that provides your donation processing services or constituent relationship management (CRM) software may also help set up your web presence. What this means will vary significantly depending on the vendor: before signing up for this, be sure you understand what types of pages are available to you, and to what extent the vendor will customize the look and feel of your site. In most cases, you can choose one of the vendor’s pre-designed templates, or you can send them a design template (usually a CSS style sheet and some graphics) that you’ve created using Dreamweaver or another web authoring tool. If you have your own template, these services may even work with you to tweak it so that it works with their software.
Bear in mind that vendors often charge an extra fee for this type of customization, and the more you ask the online vendor to personalize your pages, the more they’re likely to charge. Wild Apricot is one online provider that offers strong website features at a decent price, integrated with event registration, contact management, and donation-processing functionality.
An advantage of this approach is that you need only deal with one vendor (and one bill), and it frees you from worrying about integrating your donation tools, your mailing lists, and other community-management features into your website. If you find a vendor that offers most of the features you’re looking for at a price you can afford, it’s often worth paying extra to avoid the hassle of managing multiple web presences. In the article Comparing Lower Cost Online Application Providers Idealware compares eight major all-in-one online software vendors.
If you have a few thousand dollars to spend on a website (and a few hundred for annual maintenance), you may also want to consider Nonprofit Soapbox, a service that specializes in setting up websites for nonprofits based on the Joomla content management system. Nonprofit Soapbox can also help you create a unique, branded web design. Pricing for Nonprofit Soapbox is based on an organization’s annual budget: if yours is less than $250,000, the service charges $2,500 for initial setup and $49 per month after that.
4. Think About How You Will Integrate Your New Site with Your Existing Tools
No matter what web-development option you select, be sure to consider any tools that will need to integrate with it. If you have any constituent databases, donation processing tools, or membership management software, for example, talk to your software vendors before committing to a web-development tool. (As noted, if the vendor can provide all the website features you need at a price you can afford, you may not need a separate web-development tool at all.)
If you choose a separate service for creating and hosting your blog or website, your database vendors may be able to integrate their services with your primary web presence in one of the following ways:
- Customized pages. If you want your users to have a more seamless experience, you may be able to work with your vendor to create a common look and feel between your primary website and its service. When this integration works well, the domain name in the end user’s address bar may change, but the colors, graphics and navigation options won’t change significantly and most users won’t realize that they’ve left your website. Novice Internet users will be more comfortable if there’s a common design and consistent navigation options between all of your web presences. Also, by keeping the navigation menus and sidebars consistent, browsers can move back and forth easily between your different web pages, even if these pages reside on different servers hosted by different companies. This customized approach often requires more time and effort from you and your vendor, and will likely be more expensive as well.
5. Recruit Volunteers, if Needed
Once you’ve selected a tool for getting your site online, you’ll have a better idea of what your support needs will be. If you choose to use blogging software to create a simple site, you may be able to manage the entire site on your own; more complicated solutions, however, may require a little outside support.
The Taproot Foundation, NPower, and VolunteerMatch can all be good places to find qualified volunteers for your project, and Grassroots.org matches nonprofits with web designers, graphic designers, project managers, and others with web-related expertise. Grassroots also offers free web hosting, as well as free access to Doodlekit (described above). All of these services are free only to qualifying 501(c)3 organizations (pending or approved).
You might also locate volunteers through Craigslist.org, or through college placement offices, which may be able to connect you with new developers and designers anxious to build their portfolios.
Once you proceed beyond the basic solutions outlined in this article, you may be confronted with a variety of questions in the course of planning your website. These may include:
- Should you hire a professional web designer? Idealist and Techfinder (Editor's note: Techfinder has been retired, however this page provides a list of (mostly US-based) resources) are two resource directories for nonprofits, and both include listings for web designers who specialize in working with nonprofits. Bear in mind that web design costs for large sites often run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and you’ll want to choose your collaborators carefully. Before you hire any designer or developer, always check references; you may also want to enlist the help of a third-party volunteer designer or web developer to give you an unbiased, professional evaluation of their work before you hire them. (A portfolio site might look fine to the untrained eye, but be poorly coded or contain formatting errors you might not pick up until later.)
- Should you consider a content management system to manage your site and other online content? A content management system is a type of software that helps you manage the creation, modification, and organization of information and pages on a website. CMSs also offer tools for managing site design, navigation, and user access. CMSs attempt to combine a high degree of extensibility, flexibility, and customizability for website administrators with ease-of-use and simplicity for authors and content creators. Idealware’s article Comparing Open Source Content Management Systems can help you evaluate more affordable options.
- Should you rent server space from a web hosting provider? A web hosting company will rent you space on its web server, typically charging customers on a monthly or annual basis. Hosting companies specialize in maintaining the hardware, software, and high-speed Internet connections necessary to a fast, reliable website. Hosting providers generally offer users a lot of control over the software served out from their rented web space. If you build your website using one of the tools described in this article (such as Blogger or WordPress), the provider will constrain your options to keep the service easy to use and administer. Rented server space, on the other hand, gives you the option to install and configure your own but involves more decision-making and a steeper learning curve. (For more guidance in choosing a hosting provider for your nonprofit site, see Idealware’s article A Few Good Web Hosting Providers.
For smaller organizations with simple web outreach strategies, creating a new website (or updating an existing one) needn’t be overwhelming, time-consuming, or expensive. The good news, too, is that the web is a fairly pliable medium; with a solid web presence in place, your nonprofit will be in a strong position to adapt, innovate, and learn as your organization — and your web needs — change and grow.
About the Author:
Chris is a former technology writer and technology analyst for TechSoup for Libraries, which aims to provide IT management guidance to libraries. His previous experience includes working at Washington State Library as a technology consultant and technology trainer, and at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a technology trainer and tech support analyst. He received his M.L.S. from the University of Michigan in 1997.
Copyright © 2009 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.