Maximize Your Online Impact: A Non-Technical Introduction to Drupal for Nonprofits

When it comes to technology, non-profit organizations have a special set of needs that don’t always translate to other organizations.

It’s not enough for your NPO to just have a website. In order to be effective, your web presence needs to do something--lots of things, actually. Your website has to act as platform. It’s a hub that connects people and provides value to everyone involved in the organization. Supporters, advocates, members, employees, and board members all rely on the website to keep them connected and to help them do their jobs.

But functionality is not the only thing that makes your nonprofit website a unique kind of project. There are budgetary considerations and the need for your website to be adapted over time, as new funding allows for a bigger and better web platform.

For your nonprofit, the worst case scenario is to be trapped by your technology choices.

Imagine being stuck with a website that isn’t flexible enough to grow and adapt with your organization, or to be stuck in an expensive contract or licensing agreement with a specific vendor or technology.

Your website needs to be adaptable and extendable in a way that allows it to meet the changing needs of your organization, and to work within a budget that may not allow for huge expenditures on web technology.

These are just some the reasons that make Drupal such an attractive choice for your nonprofit. It’s free and open source--which means it can be adapted and expanded without additional licensing fees. And it has a nearly infinite ability to be customized and extended, which means that it can be built to work for your needs today and then expanded to meet new needs as your organization grows.

For your NPO, your website is your lifeblood--it collects donations, stores constituent information, communicates important events and announcements, and supplies data and analytics that help your organization make decisions and connect with your community.

When that much is at stake in any web project, it’s important to carefully choose the technology and frameworks that are used to make it happen. It’s important to get just the right outcome.

That’s why Brooks Digital relies on Drupal for many of its clients to provide the systems and technology that make your website achieve maximum impact now and in the future.

This guide will explain why we choose Drupal and how it can meet the specific needs of nonprofit organizations. Without getting too technical, it will explain the functionality and flexibility that makes it so great.

All the Nuts and Bolts

Think of Drupal like the frame and chassis of a car.

At its most basic, Drupal is a content management system. But it’s much more than that. It’s the system that holds things in place and provides a basic technological framework for your website and all of the pieces that plug into it.

Like with a car, that doesn’t mean every site using Drupal looks or functions in the same way. You can use Drupal and turn it into anything your organization needs. Just like General Motors can take the same frame and chassis and use it to create multiple car models.

Drupal-powered sites

Drupal-powered sites

Oh, and even once it’s been packaged and turned into a certain vehicle, there are always modifications to be made. Need a bigger engine or a stronger transmission? How about snow tires that you only put on in the Winter? Those are all possible (metaphorically of course).

Drupal is not just a single program or piece of code. It’s an ecosystem and community of open-source developers and companies. Anyone can create a module or a deployment for Drupal, which anyone else can then use and modify to meet their needs.

Put simply, Drupal gives you the pieces you need to build just about anything you could ever want.

Free & Open Opportunity

Drupal is an open-source content management system (CMS). What that means is it’s available for free download and there is a community of people who volunteer their time to build upon and extend the functionality of the platform and then share that with other Drupal users.

Think of it like a commune for software--lots of people pitch in, and everyone benefits.

For your NPO, this is especially beneficial for three main reasons.

First, you get to inherit the collective work and knowledge of thousands of developers around the world and use it for your own organization. This means that the solutions you need to make your website do exactly what you want have likely already been created. This will save time and money when standing up your website, because it won’t require your developer to build it themselves.

Secondly, open-source organizations share many values with nonprofits. Much of the work is done on a volunteer basis for the betterment of the entire community. It’s a model that works remarkably well and advances the collective good. In fact, the Drupal community is organized by its own nonprofit, the Drupal Association, of which Brooks Digital is a funding member.

Lastly, it’s free.

Yes, you heard that right. Drupal, in all its glory, is free. Like, download a full copy of the software right onto your computer and own it forever--free.

For many nonprofits, the idea of anything being “free” brings about first a sense of joy, and then a sense of dread about what functionality it lacks or what strings are attached. In this case, Drupal is fully functional and can be built to have all of the same bells and whistles of any other proprietary web platform on the market, but with a $0 price tag.

Of course, that means that you’ll need to invest in developing the platform. It won’t do everything you want right out of the box. But the same is almost certainly true for an expensive CMS that has added licensing fees. At least in this case, you can start with something free and be certain that at the end of the day you’ll get exactly what you need.

Things Change, and So Should Your Website

There are a lot of options for how to construct a website. And Drupal is actually not the most popular choice (although it does power some pretty high-profile sites.)

So what makes Drupal the right choice for your nonprofit?

In a word: Flexibility.

The thing that makes Drupal so powerful is not that it can do anything and everything. In fact, the core functionality of Drupal is pretty basic--it’s a way to manage and edit the content on your website. But the ability to customize and extend the core is what makes it such a great choice.

With Drupal, you can do, almost anything that you could ever want to do with a website or a web-based platform. It’s flexible in a way that other frameworks simply are not.

And because it’s so open and flexible, it means that you’ll never be locked in with Drupal. You can invest in a Drupal solution, and then in 5 years you could have someone add or change the functionality--without starting over!

In that way, it’s an especially attractive choice for nonprofits. It can be built and extended within the constraints of a limited or lump-sum budget, and then later, added to again, when more funding becomes available.

Drupal gives your organization the power to continuously build and improve their platform, rather than starting from scratch whenever it’s time for a “website redesign.”

Lock and Key

Another, probably less-known, reason to choose Drupal is the built-in security. Drupal comes out of the box ready to power enterprise-level software and it does a good job of protecting all of the sensitive data or information that may be stored in the database or somewhere on the website.

Other open-source and free website software may offer basic security, but also be vulnerable to security threats and exploits (see: Wordpress).

Some of the world’s most important websites rely on Drupal. Even Whitehouse.gov is powered by the platform.

You may not consider your data to be quite as important as that being housed by the federal government. But chances are good that your member and supporter data not only needs to be kept secure, but it’s invaluable to your organization. A breach in security could be catastrophic.

Own Your Technology and Avoid Nightmare Scenarios

Say you opt out of the whole open-source, free-for-all mumbo jumbo. You’d rather shell out the money for a big-name company to step in and do things the “traditional” way.

But, then things change. It’s time for a new site--a different solution. You need something critical that your proprietary vendor can’t--or won’t--offer. It’s time to make the switch.

What happens then?

Best case scenario is that the company you’re working with is amicable and respectful of your wishes. They work with you take on the not-small (nay, Herculean) task of migrating all of your existing content, databases, and custom features over to a new solution.

The worst case, on the other hand, is much uglier. There’s a pretty solid chance that your content and data are wrapped up in some piece of vendor-owned software, out of reach of your staff. And that software is also wrapped up in some kind of binding legal agreement, possibly with mile-high stipulations as to the terms and conditions in which you’re able to take control. Your own website and technology--that you paid for--could be held hostage by a contract that you or someone before you signed.

This is not good news.

Let’s not give into hyperbole here. This certainly won’t be the case for all proprietary vendors. But it’s guaranteed not to be the case if you have full ownership over all of the systems and data that make your organization work.

One of the advantages of using open-source platforms in general, and Drupal in particular, is that you can hire someone to help build you what you need, but unless you explicitly agree to a deal that states otherwise, all of the code and technology that’s developed is owned by you as an extension of the free software. You’re not licensing it or renting it--you own it, forever.

Give Your Staff the Power They Need to Be Successful

As with most technology, it will take people some time to get used to using Drupal.

But that learning curve comes with an advantage. Drupal is an incredibly powerful platform that can literally make your organization smarter, faster, and more productive.

Imagine if your website was a control center of your NPO--with all of the data and analytics about your organizations at your fingertips. All of your staff could have the power to see, manage, and execute quickly and effectively.

That can be the case with a Drupal website.

Again, the extensive customization that can be done to the website on both the front and back end allows for a strong agency to customize the website into a seamless and insightful tool that creates value for every member of your organization.

Don’t Out-Grow, Grow Up

Technology solutions are notorious for solving in-the-moment problems but not being capable of working when something new or different comes along down the road.

This happens in all kinds of projects, from websites to CRMs. But with Drupal, you never have to worry about outgrowing your website. No matter how big your organization gets, you’ll be able to expand and build upon the Drupal framework to make things work and solve each problem that comes your way.

This makes it especially attractive for organizations that are planning to grow and need a flexible web platform that won’t leave them stuck within the next few years.

Your technology strategy can easily be planned in phases, allowing you to grow into a platform that works for you now and will also work for you in the future. You won’t be held back by legacy systems that were only meant to meet the needs of a tiny organization.

Make Your Website Work Harder with Drupal Modules and Deployments

A website is great. But what’s better is one that actually does work for you.

With Drupal, there are hundreds of modules and deployments that come with all of the goodies you need to have a website that isn’t just a bunch of pretty pages, but also has hard-working functionality that makes things work together.

It’s easy to create a website that captures email addresses, processes donations, enables crowdfunding and event registration, generates messages, and provides real-time communication platforms for your members. You can use it to grow your audience or keep your existing one engaged--or both!

Create an All-in-One Command Center with Integrations

As I mentioned before, your NPO’s website is really more than just a site. It’s not a bunch of pages with words and pictures. It’s a platform--a hub that ties together multiple services and meets the needs of key stakeholders from all different positions.

And this is one of the things that Drupal does so beautifully.

With relatively little effort, a skilled web shop can take the power of Drupal and connect it directly into your existing systems. You can wrangle your data like a pro and keep a pulse on everything that’s happening within your organization.

Drupal-Center.jpg

Want to capture email addresses from a certain page and have them show up right in your email service? No problem.

Want donations from your website to be automatically logged in your CRM? Sure.

Need a robust dashboard to provide high-level analytics to the executive team? Piece of cake.

Whether you use SalesForce, MailChimp, Google Analytics, or any other third-party service, it can likely be tied directly into your Drupal website. You’ll have the insights you need at your fingertips--literally.

But That’s Not All

Okay, so Drupal can do some pretty neat stuff.

But one of the biggest benefits of Drupal actually has nothing to do with the code that makes it work. It’s the people that make it work.

Photos from DrupalCon 2016, via Flickr

Photos from DrupalCon 2016, via Flickr

And Drupal is like a cult. Not in the creepy sense. But in the sense that you’ll never feel lonely or like you’re the only organization in the world stuck using some archaic software from 1995 to run and manage your website.

The community around Drupal is chock-full of nerds and enthusiasts who work together to make it the best possible content management system (and beyond) for organizations just like yours. They’re mostly do-gooders, too. The fact that it’s an open-source solution means most of these people are volunteering their time and skills to help other people--for free. There are constantly new tools and solutions being created to help you solve just about any problem you’re facing.

Join the cult--you’ll be happy you did.

 

Spencer Brooks

Spencer Brooks is the Founder & Principal of Brooks Digital. He has nearly a decade of experience as a technology consultant for nonprofits and mission-driven businesses and spends his days happily helping organizations use open source technology and data analysis to maximize their impact. Spencer lives in Portland, OR with his wife Hannah and their son Weston.

Twitter: Follow @spencerbrooks on Twitter.