The Nonprofit Website Redesign Is Dead

For too long, nonprofits have had to struggle through a painful and difficult process whenever they want to build a new website.

The work usually drags on and it’s shrouded in layers of red tape, fear, and trepidation about how to get it just right. No one—no matter how idealistic they begin—comes out of the website redesign process unscathed. It’s brutal and bruising.

Think about the last time you redesigned your website. Was it a good experience?

So, I would like to make a declaration: Let’s kill the nonprofit website redesign.

It’s dead.

Together, we can finish off this monstrous undertaking and replace it with something that’s better, smoother, more efficient, and more effective.

It’s time to embrace a modern and iterative process known as Growth-Driven Design (GDD).

With the GDD approach, the monolithic process of the website redesign is broken down into discrete increments. It’s built on an agile/lean methodology where the entire website is treated as an evolving business asset, rather than a static thing.

It works by breaking down your website redesign into three phases:

  1. Strategy
  2. Launch
  3. Continuous Improvement

The key lies in the final phase, Continuous Improvement, which is really a series of improvements and adjustments made consistently over time. It’s an ongoing process that involves identifying and executing changes to the website every 1-2 months.

Traditional web design

Growth driven design

So, rather than launching an entirely new site once every 3 years, your organization’s website can be upgraded over time. It can be refreshed, improved, and optimized.

Think about it. Do you see tech industry leaders like Google, Amazon, or Facebook completely redesign their site every few years? (And remember the last time Facebook tried to do it? Wasn’t exactly received positively.)

Instead, they incrementally improve their site, making small, controlled changes that they can test and measure.

It’s a new way of thinking about your organization’s website as something that grows and improves over time, rather than letting it slowly decay until it’s completely unworkable and then frantically pushing through the process of building something new.

Although this approach can help all kinds of organizations, it’s especially valuable for nonprofits because it diminishes the pain, fear, and risk of the traditional website redesign process.

The Painful Process of the Website Redesign

For nonprofits, the prospect of launching a new website starts with excitement and elation. But it often falls quickly into resentment, pain, and anguish.

To begin, the process of having a website redesign approved by the board can take a shocking amount of time and effort. Not only is it a stressful process, but it means dedicating resources to making the case, preparing reports, researching alternatives, and ultimately bringing all of this information before the board for a decision.

Budget considerations can often derail the whole project before it’s even gotten off the ground. The entire year’s budget might need to be overhauled to accommodate for a big investment in the website and it might take funds away from other critical programs or needs.

But, once the approval is finalized, the work has only just begun.

Finding, evaluating, and hiring vendors is an exhausting exercise. Since the website project comes as a one-time opportunity to “get it right”, there is usually a painstaking amount of work put into testing and selecting the right people for the job. Choosing the wrong partner to take on such an enormous task could kill the entire project, delay funding for another year, or even destabilize the entire organization. Stakes are high.

Then you get the point of trying to figure out what it is you’re actually going to build.

Throughout the actual design and build phase, there is plenty of infighting. Stakeholders cling to their pet features and functionality. Every small decision—from the CMS choice to the footer design or the font size—gets picked apart by committee. It takes 10 times longer than you could have ever imagined just to get everyone on the same page. Then you have to actually have the site built, which presents all of its own challenges and trip-ups.

But, let’s not forget the worst part about the whole thing.

Once all of these battles have been fought, the money has been spent, and countless hours have been dedicated to launching a new website, it immediately begins the process toward becoming obsolete.

Every day after launch brings you closer to the need for another redesign.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

The truth is that this whole process that we have come to equate with “designing a new website” is completely and utterly broken. It’s doomed from the start.

But there is a better way.

This is exactly why GDD was created in the first place. It’s a way to defuse all of the problems that exist in the traditional web design process and create something that’s smarter, easier, and just plain better for everyone involved.

The Case for Growth-Driven Design

Most website redesigns are so terrible because the entire approach of tearing everything down and starting from scratch every few years is just silly.

If your house needs repairs, you don’t burn the entire thing down and start from scratch. But, for some reason, we have come to accept this as normal with websites. Every few years, we need to destroy everything and begin again.

GDD is a different mentality.

It’s about building something that works and then planning to invest in it over time.

Why is this important?

The most obvious reason for a growth-driven approach is that needs and priorities change.

When the traditional website design process was born, the internet was a different place. The needs and priorities of most organizations ended at a “brochure” site—sometimes with a few bells and whistles baked in.

These days, many organizations exist with 100% digital programs. The internet—and their website—represents a huge portion of the work they do. And their needs and priorities have drastically changed, while the website redesign process has not.

As those needs and priorities change for your organization, your website should change, too. Unfortunately, with a traditional website redesign process, this means starting from scratch or rethinking the entire website from the ground up. Or, more likely, it means that your website becomes quickly outdated or ineffective at helping your organization achieve its mission.

Standard website redesigns are rigid and singular. But growth-driven design is about iteration, change, and—as you might expect—growth. This means that by its very nature, this whole process is meant to meet the needs of a growing and changing organization.

For nonprofits, this means that there’s the ability to learn and adapt to changing conditions. If the website isn’t functioning as expected or not meeting the goals of the organization, then you can create a short-term plan to change it, measure the results, and test again.

This is a big departure from the normal process, where “best practices” for your website are rooted in personal opinion and past experience, but not in actual data. The website is built with a “set it and forget it” mentality, where your site may be underperforming for years, hurting the organization’s ability to fulfill their mission. But, because of the huge outlay of resources for an entirely new cycle of approvals, planning, design, and development, the website is just left to slowly erode in value.

With GDD, your organization can see what’s working—and what’s not—and then adjust the website to optimize outcomes and user experience.

Each loop through the optimization process (“Continuous Improvement”) gives your organization a new chance to address changing needs and respond to the data.

It removes the fear and risk of making the “wrong choice” about your website and being stuck with it until the next big redesign.

This agile approach to the website redesign gives your shop the power to learn, change, and grow every few weeks, instead of only getting one shot every few years.

Growth-Driven Design for Nonprofits

The prospect of shifting to a new strategy for building and maintaining your organization’s website can be a bit daunting.

There are likely many questions and hurdles that exist. But, luckily, there is a proven roadmap for shifting from a traditional redesign approach to the GDD methodology.

Get buy-in by helping stakeholders understand the benefits of GDD

It can be difficult to get buy-in on any new project or approach, but with GDD, the benefits are clear.

Have a discussion with team members and the board about how shifting from a waterfall redesign process to an agile one will help the organization fulfill its mission:

  • Consistent and predictable investment
  • Reduced risk of failure
  • Data-driven approach
  • Continuous improvement of website
  • Ongoing support for changes and upgrades

It’s important to look at this new system and mindset in contrast to the traditional website redesign project. Anyone who has been around nonprofits has likely felt the burden of the “normal” process, so they’ll likely be interested in any idea that makes it simpler and less prone to problems.

Start with your website strategy

After you’ve gotten buy-in from stakeholders in your organization, the first step is to go through a series of website strategy exercises, including goal-setting, the creation of user personas and journey maps, and an audit of your existing website.

This strategy phase is vital. These days, there are 1,001 things that articles will say you “need” to do. Your website strategy will help you filter this list down to the things that will really move the needle for your organization.

You’ll likely still have a large wish list of features, bells, and whistles for your new site. But the difference with growth-driven design is that these aren’t all thrown into your site at once. Instead, you’ll start with only including the “must-haves” and then using your data to guide what you implement next.

Think about it. How often do you throw together a laundry list of features for your website based on nothing more than an educated guess on what will work? Not everything is going to be a home run – but you’re still paying for the ideas that strike out completely.

We believe it’s better to start conservatively, then quickly execute on the ideas that have a high probability of being home runs based on your website data and user research.

Create a “launchpad” site that meets your most important needs

After you’ve set your website strategy, the next step is to build a “launchpad” site—that is, something that has all of the features and functionality that your organization needs and nothing else.

Think of this like the shell of your website—it does what you need it to do, but it isn’t anywhere near what it can become over time.

It can be difficult to convince everyone involved that your organization should start with such a sparse online presence. In some cases, you may actually be taking a few steps backward from your current website. But that’s the entire point of this exercise.

Rather than a heap of “would-like” and “nice-to-have” features hobbled together, you begin with the bare essentials and then build, grow, expand, and optimize all of the extra pieces. Remind stakeholders that additional features and functionality will be prioritized and implemented over time. So, there’s a clear roadmap for how and when these changes will be made.

Use data to prioritize and identify opportunities for improvement

The true aim of GDD is to make the biggest, most important upgrades to your website with the least amount of time and effort.

Often with website designs, much time and effort go into features, functionalities, or designs that end up never being used or seen by anyone using the website. That’s wasted time, money, and energy.

So, instead, GDD focuses on using data—from actual users—to prioritize and drive updates and changes to the website.

For instance, if your organization finds that there are two pages on your website that receive the vast majority of your traffic, then updates to features or user experience for those pages might have the highest level of priority.

You can also use data to identify problem areas—pages with low conversion rates, high bounce rates, and more—and add these to your list. Based on your overall goals for the website (list building, engagement, donations, etc), you’ll want to sort your priorities based on their ability to help you achieve these ends.

While this approach may mean that some items are prioritized lower and therefore don’t happen immediately with the website relaunch, it creates a clear system and process for implementing those changes over time.

This kind of roadmap and prioritization will help your organization stay focused on moving forward and avoid the typical website hell that comes as part of most projects.

Your organization will have an ongoing schedule to plan, design, and launch new improvements every 2-8 weeks, consistently. This gives you the ability to quickly measure, learn, and grow in discrete timeframes.

By adopting GDD, your organization will kill off all of the stress, anxiety, risk, and uncertainty that comes with a traditional redesign.

The nonprofit website redesign is dead once and for all.

Good riddance.

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