Evidence-based websites for nonprofits

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Our latest thinking on nonprofit website support and strategy.

Balancing Your Nonprofit's Dream Website With Your Budget

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For nonprofits, there is often a central tension when it comes to building the right web presence.

It’s the struggle between building a dream website—all of the features and functionality you could ever want for your organization—and the budget—actually being able to pay for all of that stuff. After working with NPOs of all sizes for half a decade, we’ve seen it time and time again.

But here’s a little secret.

This is not a unique problem for nonprofit organizations.

In fact, pretty much every business—even for-profit behemoths-—as a specific budget that they set aside for website development. This means that they, too, are faced with this burden of balancing all of the incredible things they can dream up with having enough cash to pay for it.

The reality is that every website project faces this same challenge. And finding the right balance is all about having a clear strategy and vision for who the website will ultimately serve and how it can best meet their needs.

As a nonprofit that is considering or building a new website, you need to begin by working internally to frame the site from the perspective of your constituents. Then, create a plan for how you can best serve your users.

Setting Goals for Your Nonprofit Website

A few years ago, my parents took a trip to Italy. One night when my wife and I were visiting, they pulled out this super-fancy wine aerator they bought in Italy:

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(For the 98% of you who aren’t, like, REALLY INTO wine, this gizmo helps make wine taste better by infusing it with more oxygen.)

On the drive home, my wife and I were eagerly discussing how we’d love to buy one of these $50 contraptions for ourselves. It looked so elegant and impressive, especially for company.

But then I had a sudden epiphany that I maybe drank 3-4 bottles of wine per year. Why did I “all of a sudden” feel like I needed one of these things?

After a bit of thought, I realized my desire was for visitors in my home to have a special, memorable experience. Because the wine aerator gave me that experience at my parents’ house, I automatically assumed that owning one would extend the same experience to my visitors.

The problem, of course, was that a fancy wine aerator made no sense for me because I didn’t value drinking wine as much. I was trying to imitate something that didn’t align with my own values, hoping the end result would still be the same.

We often begin discussions about a nonprofit’s site by talking about features and functionality. Or, we point to other great websites and say, “I want that!”

This is completely backward.

Talking about features and functionality isn’t inherently wrong. Nor is looking at other websites and making a mental note of what you like and don’t like. But what becomes deceptive about this process is the failure to clearly articulate why a particular feature matters for your organization.

Any strategic project should begin with a stated outcome. Your goals should always come first. For a website, this is especially true.

It’s so easy to get swept up in the minutiae of planning a website that you lose focus on the bigger picture of what you’re actually trying to accomplish. From there, things quickly spiral toward in-fighting and pet projects. Not good.

Take the emotion out of the decision as much as possible.

Rather than giving people an opportunity to draw their own lines in the sand, start by developing a high-level strategy for the entire site. Get buy-in on which overarching goals are most important. Then, translate those goals into specific tasks or features.

Start by creating a list of specific, actionable goals for your website (e.g., increase donations, improve supporter engagement, increase event attendance, etc.).

Then, use a process like impact mapping to decide which of these goals will have the greatest impact on your organization. This will give you an unbiased and objective view of which items are most important to for your constituents.

Source: Impactmapping.org

Source: Impactmapping.org

From this point, you can begin to break down those goals into something actionable.

If your #1 goal is to increase donor engagement, then what features or functionality do you need to implement in order to make that happen?

This gives you a clear path for which items need to be prioritized.

If You Do It, Do It Well

Another common problem that arises from these situations is that because there are so many competing interests, the project often gets packed with half-formed features or partial functionality.

Don’t fall into this trap.

You’re already likely making sacrifices and compromises about the scope of your website. So, this means that it is imperative that the items that do make the final cut are of the highest possible quality. Focus on your priorities.

It’s much better to focus most of your time and budget on executing a few critical features very well than it is to have a larger number of features, each of which does not fully work as expected.

This is known as the Pareto principle. Strive to spend 80% of your effort on just 20% of features—the most important ones—to make sure that you don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

Following this principle will also ensure that you set yourself up for a successful project. Rather than having to scramble to complete everything, you’ll give yourself a narrow field of focus so that you can ensure that you have enough time and money to launch a great, functional website.

Rethink the Redesign

Many of the challenges that we’ve discussed here could also be avoided in another way. That is, to avoid the one-time, all-or-nothing, get-it-right-or-die approach to website redesigns altogether.

Instead of setting out one every 2-5 years to build a new site from scratch, make your website something that’s iterative, optimized, and ever-growing.

We’ve written before about the death of the website redesign.

The benefits of following a Growth-Driven Design methodology are numerous. It reduces risk, lowers up-front investment, and provides a way to generate ongoing improvements to your website’s performance.

Following this approach also allows you to create a plan for what your website might look like 3, 6, or 12 months from now. So, rather than arguing over which items “make the cut” and which items disappear altogether, you can focus on which items happen in which timeframe.

Most importantly, you will be able to work with your web partner on an ongoing basis, meaning that they won’t just pack up and leave as soon as the site is launched.

Find a partner that understands this approach and can work with your for the long haul. They can provide data-driven insights that help you improve engagement, increase donations, and advance your mission.

You won’t have to make sacrifices or compromises. And the direction of your website will be entirely determined by the people who truly matter—your users.

Spencer BrooksComment