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Six Steps to a Nonprofit Website That Works

by Guest Blogger  |  
December 1, 2011

A guest post by Scott Paley of Abstract Edge.

“For the new cyber-site, each department should be able to control its own area.” “My daughter hates the blue we use in the header now. She thinks it should ‘pop’ more. Can you do that?” “The new site needs to have the Tweeters and MyBooks.”

Stop me if you’ve heard these before.

You nonprofit marketing directors out there have it seriously rough. For one, you probably answer to a board of directors, your executive director, other staff members, a departmental oversight committee, an advisory council, and on and on---almost none being professional marketers.

As much as you’d love to just ignore everyone and do what you know is best, you may not have that kind of organizational power. (And if you do, kudos!)

You need a process that builds internal consensus and buy-in, but also results in a compelling website that moves your mission forward. After all, if you can’t do this successfully, you’re the one who will be blamed when the website doesn’t meet everybody’s individual, uninformed, and contradictory expectations.

6 Steps to a Successful Website Development Process

Here are the steps:
Include stakeholders at appropriate times and contexts, but focus them on what’s actually important.
Clarify exactly how the website will become an expression of the organization’s offerings, priorities, and target audiences; the image the organization wishes to portray; and the values it wishes to live.
Identify who the website is really for---and what valuable content the organization is going to provide for them.
Take actual data into account. (You are tracking metrics on your website now, right?)
Articulate how the organization is positioned within the “nonprofit marketplace.”
Recognize that a website will need consistent care and feeding after its launch. You’ll need to plan for that.

What’s more, all of this should be done before a single wireframe has been created, comp has been designed, or functionality has been spec’d. Certainly it should be well under way before you start paying a web-design firm.

An Example

We recently helped a client through a very successful website launch, but they did make one mistake. The marketing director waited too long to include the executive director, who had more conservative opinions about the colors, fonts, and navigation scheme (and a designer cousin who put a bug in his ear.) This led to additional creative revisions, costing lots of extra time and lots of extra money.

On the other hand, we’ve had clients like the Indiana Historical Society, which did a fantastic job including all stakeholders without derailing the project. At the website kickoff meeting, I walked into an enormous room that seemed to stretch as wide as a football field. I sat in the middle---a dozen people to my left, a dozen to my right.

While that meeting (and the table) was long, everyone’s voice was heard. This allowed the marketing director to manage the process without having to involve everyone in every little detail. Throughout the project, she picked the right times to get feedback from the broader group. In the end, the website launched on time, on budget, and with strong buy-in from all key stakeholders.

So, how do you do it? Creating a new website is a big investment for you and your organization. This might all seem a bit overwhelming, but you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish with a strong process and a little guidance.

Good luck. And don’t forget the Tweeters and Mybooks!

Learn a whole lot more about how to create nonprofit websites that work from the free eBook, “Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail.”

Scott Paley is the managing partner at Abstract Edge, a creative online marketing agency that has launched new brands for Clairol and Vera Wang, inspired a million moms to march on Washington, assisted American Idol’s fight against malaria, and helped increase web traffic so successfully for Discover Magazine that it was recently acquired. Follow him on Twitter @spaley.

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  • by Elaine Fogel Sat Dec 3, 2011 via blog

    You make some excellent points here, Scott. As someone who has worked "inside" the sector and as a marketing agency owner who serves the sector now, nonprofit decision making can be quite a challenge. For some reason, everyone has an opinion on graphic design and content. Revisions from non-marketers can turn a creative piece into an academic dissertation. :(

    Senior managers, board members and others should be included at the front end - interviewed before the Web site strategy has been developed. This includes their preferences, required content, etc. (Hopefully, there's a marketing plan from which to work.) After that, the most senior-level marketing staff should be responsible for the site's development until there's a site proof to show. At some point, the others need to delegate and trust that the marketing staff knows what's best for the mission.

  • by Taylor Schaeffer @ Get Smart Content Tue Dec 13, 2011 via blog

    Scott, you've made some great points here. As you discussed, each of these stakeholders has a different priority/different agenda. The Volunteer Committee (always searching for more volunteers) wants the main call to action on the site to be about volunteering while the Development Director is wanting to focus heavily on donations and donors. You have 2 drastically different target segments.

    I've seen great success for non-profit organizations when they use Smart Content ( to segment and provide different targeted content based upon the desires/motivations of the site visitor. The knowledge of this type of technology also enables the web team to meet the needs of the entire boardroom. Peace and productivity.

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