Here’s How Nonprofits Can Really Impress the Funding Community with Web Site Best Practices

Wow, I’ve been working with nonprofits now since the early 1990s. A lot of people ask me, “Hey, how can you say you were a corporate marketer for 20 years, but also say you’ve been working with nonprofits for 20 years?” Well, that’s an easy one… it’s because I’ve been doing both. Most people come home from work and watch television. But, to be honest, I’ve spent the majority of my life coming home from work, and then working some more on my own. It’s not that uncommon of a lifestyle, especially for those living in expensive markets.

Washington, D.C., was such a market — very pricey. So, my wife and I started doing freelance work early-on to make ends meet. Now, D.C. is unusual in that it’s heavily populated with certain kinds of businesses. Most major / large / national nonprofits, for example, have D.C. offices for various purposes (e.g., lobbying, advocacy, and/or just being the natural “national HQ” for their cause). All of them needed marketing and publications assistance, which meant easy extra money for us. (I say “easy” because D.C. is notoriously full of outrageously overpriced consultants. So, earning extra $$$ there — seriously good extra $$$ — was nearly effortless for anyone charging reasonable rates.)

Anyway, let’s just look at our list of the 10 most essential web site elements for nonprofit organizations. Keep in mind, this list is only meant to represent the most critical elements, not all elements that your 501(c) organization should have. Here’s our list, followed by some discussion:

10 Most Important Web Site Elements for Nonprofits

  • About us / organization history / your story
  • Contact information
  • Ability to donate
  • Advertisements (paid ads / sponsorships)
  • SEO initiatives (meta tags, etc.)
  • Data capture / list building / autoresponders, newsletters, etc.
  • CMS / site infrastructure / hosting setup
  • Directory-style content / member lists / etc.
  • Proper disclosures and compliance
  • Accessibility (e.g., catering to ADA, etc.)

Okay, pretty basic stuff, right? No huge surprises, I hope. Just the same, let’s review a bit…

About Us — yes, I mean the essential Mission Statement! Believe it or not, I’ve seen nonprofits that miss the mark on this one. Really, the entire site should be focused on whatever the nonprofit mission is. But, the About Us page in particular should be well crafted and clear. Nonprofits need a few basic things in life: They need a mission, and they need money to help them fulfill that mission. (Or, perhaps better phrased: They articulate a need that the larger community has, and they require money so that they can fulfill that community need. At least, most charitable organizations might put it this way. But, there are other kinds of nonprofits — trade and professional organizations, arts organizations, etc.)

Another reason to flesh out that mission and make it prominent relates to increasing scrutiny in recent years faced by nonprofits. The public, the IRS, and the funding community in general wants assurance that donations / contributions made to your organization are handled responsibly (i.e., that an appropriately high amount of their $$$ goes toward the mission, and not into overhead, salaries, and etc.). Perception is a big deal in the nonprofit arena.

The next two items go hand in hand… (1) You need to have clear, easily findable contact information on the site. Larger nonprofits screw this one up a lot, sometimes buring or even obfuscating contact info. And, (2) you need to make it as easy as you possibly can for others to donate.

Now, about donations… I thought I’d take a minute and give out the raw, uncomfortable truth about that from a web perspective. If there is any one class of web development client most conscious about costs, it’s the nonprofit sector. One of the problems I see a lot because of this is (a) the desire to accept donations easily, versus (b) the dislike for paying Paypal fees. I mention Paypal specifically here because they happen to be the easiest / fastest type of donation functionality around. An organization can literally setup a Paypal account and begin receiving donations in minutes.

Other ways do exist, though. Imagine, for example, having an SSL certificate on your site and software to process credit cards on Authorize.net or something. At first blush this may appear potentially cheaper (and it may well be). But my point here is to suggest that, when you’re crunching the numbers for whether to justify such an expense, there’s more to look at than just Paypal vs. Authorize.net fees. Namely, there’s the tech and hosting infrastructure, software configuration, and maintenance. I feel that a lot of especially smaller nonprofits fail to consider these costs, which means they may save some $$$ on processing fees (which always looks good), but they may be spending more than that on the IT involved to allow it. (So, again, when you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis on a decision like this, build in thorough costs for all potential avenues. To be fair, you might also include all of the potential revenues generated by such a setup — not just donations, but sponsorships, ad sales, membership sales, etc.)

Another way to take in money would be through paid advertisements. Nonprofits, by their nature, are gatherings of like-minded individuals and groups. In marketing, we call this a highly targeted demographic, and there’s a ton of value in that! (For this reason, there’s no reason — save perhaps a member discount — that a typical large nonprofit’s advertising rates shouldn’t reflect premium ad rates.) Now, we’ll get into some systems issues later, but at a minimum, you’ll want to be able to run “ads” on your organization’s site. I put that in quotes because some might be paid traditional ads; others might be things like sponsorship logos.

Now, SEO for nonprofits is interesting as compared with the for-profit sector. In days of old, pretty much only nonprofits would have had a .org domain (still the preferred type of domain for nonprofits). Time was, one could get a little extra Google juice from simply being a dot-org site (or being linked to by one). But, as there are no special restrictions on buying them, much of that benefit has likely dissipated as SEO hackers have become more sophisticated.

(Still, backlinks in general are vital for any SEO initiative, and few are as well-positioned as nonprofits to get massive linkbacks from members and supporters. I’d recommend initiatives for all nonprofits to ask for link-backs from supporters and members.)

Of course, even though anyone can purchase and launch a dot-org web site, I suspect Google is savvy enough to determine a 501(c) organization from a for-profit. There are numerous ways they could accomplish this rather accurately, so I basically assume that this is done. (I mean, don’t get me wrong; I don’t base an entire SEO strategy on this or anything. Rather, it’s just an opinion.) The point, anyway, is that I think most nonprofits have some opportunities in terms of SEO. Most nonprofits have well-defined subject matter expertise, which lends itself to a fine opportunity for publishing what the world may well view as objective original reporting, facts, figures, etc. on that subject. This, according to Google is good content — and they love good content.

Directories are another interesting possibility for nonprofits, as they serve several purposes. For example, inclusion can be offered or upsold as a premium membership benefit, the directory itself can be good for your own SEO because you’re linking out to relevant industry sites (a good practice), it creates a lot of content that Google will index (even though it’s mainly links out to others), and it creates a whole new content area that can be sponsored (or have advertisements). For certain types of organizations (esp. professional and trade organizations), members really appreciate at least a link out to their site, as it offers a bit of validation for them.

List-building is also essential for nonprofits. As a membership director or events planner, you want to see numbers trending upward, correct? Larger, more successful events / larger, more soccessful donation campaigns. So, staying in touch is going to be essential to keep your membership, funders, and friends interested. Remember, nonprofits have an advantage in that their mailings are not usually looked on as commercial. So, from a marketing perspective this is huge because higher conversion rates should be achievable easier than in the for-profit world.

I do not, however, recommend keeping your main email list on-site or in-house. Rather, it’s significantly more beneficial all-around to outsource this to a cloud-based provider like Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, or aWeber. (Although, you should discuss your particular needs with a developer prior to making any final decisions.)

The last few items are sort of potential specialty items… In many cases, there will be essential disclosures and/or compliance issues that some organizations will need. This could be anything — various endorsements, disclaimers, policy materials, board materials, form 990s, etc. And, depending on your market, accessibility issues could be important. I won’t go into them too much here, though.

Some may say, “Well, what about our annual report? What about our events? Don’t we need functionality to allow people to sign up? What about [fill in the blank]?” Yes, definitely! Again, the list isn’t meant to be exhaustive — only reflective of the top 10 web features, generally speaking. Get those 10 items in order first, then roll out the rest! :-)

Other Considerations

I kept the above list mainly focused on marketing — meaning web possibilities for spreading the word. But, there are plenty of other great things that can be done with a web site to specifically benefit the administration / staff / board. After all, anything that can make those groups more efficient will improve the bottom line.

In my experience, part of the conversation should include IT infrastructure, hosting, and the Content Management System (CMS). Beyond those items, I’ll make special notes about a few site add-ons for nonprofits:

  • First, there is association management software. This allows you to track membership and other details via your site. The systems vary widely in terms of their capabilities and features. At a minimum, I’d personally opt for a cloud-based solution that offers an API to connect with the web site. But, you might also consider home-brewing association management software specific to your needs. I’ll save this topic for another time, though, as it’s a complex subject. (If interested, this article touches on the idea of custom development, perfectly applicable to nonprofits.)
  • Second, there is the consideration of additional parties beyond the staff and the members — the board! I’ve discussed intranets in this publication quite a lot. Nonprofit boards, in particular, greatly appreciate the benefits these can offer. Any time I’ve developed an Intranet system for a board, it transformed the board dynamic in a major way, improving efficiency many fold.

The main point is that, incredibly, all of the above can be accomplished via an organization’s web server. When envisioning a broad marketing and IT strategy for a nonprofit, a strong case can be made for organizing everything around the web server itself!


Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is adapted from “Centerpiece” by Justin Baeder (Flickr, Creative Commons).