Your website serves as one of your organization’s main touchpoints with current donors, volunteers, and community members as well as brand-new visitors. Optimizing the visitor experience is key to ensuring your nonprofit’s online success.
Unfortunately, the web projects needed to do this can seem daunting. It’s difficult to know where to start, and it’s easy to cut corners. And all too often, you end up with a redesigned website that doesn’t match your goals or needs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
With a little upfront planning, you can set yourself on the right track to creating a website that serves as an asset to further your mission. If you’re thinking about tackling a nonprofit website refresh, read on to learn exactly how and what to prepare before you start.
This article will walk you through the process of creating a complete nonprofit website planning document. As you go through each section, your document will grow to include as many details about the project as possible. At the end of the process, you’ll come away with one easy-to-use resource outlining your future website requirements.
What’s Our Why?
Before doing anything, you need to get clear on your “why.” If you aren’t 100%-crystal-clear about why you’re undertaking this project, you won’t know how to create an improved website because you won’t know what “improved” really means. (Prettier? More accessible? Larger in scope? Smaller in scope? More bells-and-whistles? Fewer bells-and-whistles?)
So start by asking yourself this: Why are you thinking about this project in the first place?
Questions to Help Determine Your Why
Capture your thoughts in a relatively short, one-page document. Outline your bigger-picture ideas surrounding the website redesign project. In this document, try to answer the following questions:
- Why undertake this project in the first place?
- What made us realize that we need a website redesign?
- When did we notice there was a problem with our website?
- Why now?
- If this project is essential, why didn’t we do it six months ago?
- Why don’t we wait another six months or a year before starting?
- Why is this project more of a priority than the other ways we could be spending our time, money, or energy?
- How do we intend to actually create the new website? (For example, will we work with an agency, send out an RFP, have internal staff DIY it, etc.?)
Once you’ve determined your “why,” you can start thinking more about specific issues you have with your nonprofit website.
The idea here is to begin with the “why,” move to the “what” (what you want to change), and then eventually reach the “how” of actually carrying out your nonprofit website redesign.
What Should Be Changed to Accomplish Your Why?
To identify what you’d like to be fixed on the next version of your nonprofit website, open up your website and click through the pages. Try to put yourself in a visitor’s shoes, considering exactly which features are working and which are not.
Need help getting your wheels turning?
Then consider some of the most common reasons that nonprofits redesign their websites:
- It’s difficult or impossible to change our website content (text, photos, or both).
- Our website is missing key features that our organization requires (donate online, newsletter sign-up, annual report section, etc.).
- We can change some of our website’s content, but any change requires (often expensive) technical intervention.
- Our website doesn’t resonate with our constituents. (No one can tell what we really do.)
- Our website doesn’t get a lot of traffic.
- Our website doesn’t reflect our brand well.
- Our website doesn’t showcase the value we bring to the world or the impact we’re making on our community.
- We don’t know why, but our website screams “outdated.”
- Our website looks unprofessional.
- Our website sometimes breaks or crashes.
- Our website is slow to load.
- We don’t know whether our website is helping our organization or not.
- We don’t know how to maintain our website to make sure it keeps working well.
- Our website doesn’t look right or work well on mobile devices.
- Our content isn’t presented logically, or our visitors find it hard to navigate.
- Our website isn’t helping us accomplish our mission.
On another page of your planning document, write down these issues you’re encountering.
- Determine your “why” for your website project.
- Write out a one-page synopsis of the circumstances surrounding this website redesign.
- List out any specific issues you’ve identified regarding your website.
Now that you have a starting clarity on your project, it’s time to round up your team and get their insights.
What Does Our Team Say?
Once you know your reasons for a website redesign, expand the conversation to include more of your team. How do they feel about the website?
No matter how in-sync your nonprofit staff is, there will always be differing opinions about something as big as a website overhaul. And this is important because different opinions point to different needs.
It’s essential to consider these different needs if you’re going to end up with a website that furthers your nonprofit’s mission.
Ask Your Staff to Share Their Needs
Understanding your staff’s needs and expectations upfront is critical to ending up with a website that works just as well for the development team as it does for the executive director, the board, and the day-to-day operations people.
Get some differing opinions by asking the same questions listed above. Other team members can provide different perspectives to help fill in any blind spots.
If you have a large staff, try keeping these conversations confined to a relatively small group. Anywhere from three to seven voices (including yours) will provide enough feedback to move forward.
Of course, you can always open the discussion to more people if you want to !Just keep in mind the need for balance: you want valuable insights and perspectives, but you also want to avoid getting derailed by including too many people in the conversation.
Who to Involve in Your Nonprofit Website Redesign
Here are some ideas for internal stakeholders to ask for website feedback:
- Anyone who regularly uses the website to access information
- Anyone who regularly interacts with your beneficiaries
- Executive director
- Communications manager
- Fundraising coordinator
- Marketing manager
- Program manager
- Volunteer manager
- IT admin
Depending on your website’s leadership structure, you may want to include a board member as well.
Once you’ve chosen who to collect feedback from, ask them to spend 10-15 minutes clicking through your website. Have them read through the Home page, About page, Donate page, and any other pages that appear in the primary navigation. Ask them to write down any areas they think could be improved.
Once you’ve gathered their feedback, add any relevant insights to the document you created in the earlier step.
- Create a list of key staff/stakeholders who could offer insight.
- Have each staff member go through the website and write down their feedback.
- Collect their feedback and incorporate it into the document you previously started.
With a list of your internal staff’s thoughts, it’s now time to turn the conversation toward those who will use your website.
Who Uses Our Nonprofit Website?
It’s important to get a good idea of who you’re speaking to on your website. Each group you’re trying to reach will have different needs, and it’s essential to tailor your future website content to meet those expectations.
A good starting point is to ask yourself, “What groups of people would I like to take action on our nonprofit website?” On your document, make a list of anyone you’d like to interact with your site. Aim to have anywhere between one to six groups.
At this stage, these audiences can just be broad buckets of people. No need to get specific this early on.
Common Audiences for Nonprofit Websites
Of course, your specific audiences will likely depend on your nonprofit’s mission, geographic scope, and leadership/operations structure. However, here are some example audiences often served by nonprofit sites:
- Prospective hires
- Peer organizations
Once you have added your website audiences to your document, it’s time to prioritize. Rank your list in order of importance. Additionally, write out the estimated percentage that you expect each group of potential website visitors to comprise.
A group’s “importance ranking” may or may not correspond to its percentage! For example, maybe you expect 90% of your nonprofit site visitors to be beneficiaries and only 10% to be grant evaluators—but the grant evaluators are marked priority, as they provide nearly all of your organization’s annual funding.
- Write out the audiences that should interact with your future website.
- Rank your audiences in order of who your website should reach most.
- Assign a rough percentage to each group (based on how much of your total site traffic will likely come from that group).
After determining your audience buckets and their priority ranking, it’s time to start building out the individual personas of who you’re trying to reach.
Okay, But Who REALLY Uses Our Website?
A lot of organizations—both nonprofit and commercial—make the mistake of trying to speak to everyone in the whole world on their website. The thought is that by speaking to everyone, you’ll of course reach more people.
In reality, though, this strategy doesn’t work.
By trying to speak to everyone, you’re effectively reaching no one. It’s much easier to capture the attention of 1,000 very specific people than it is to engage with 100,000 people through a generic, catch-all, lukewarm message.
The way to get specific in your messaging (ensuring your nonprofit is reaching the right people) is by creating personas.
How to Create Personas for Your Priority Audiences
Creating personas helps you understand your audience on a deeper level, allowing you to more easily create content that speaks directly to their hopes, needs, and expectations.
You can come to see your website audience in concrete terms.
If you’ve never heard of or created one before, a “persona” is simply an overview of someone in your audience. It likely won’t be a real-life person, though it should share many characteristics with real people.
At a minimum, you should create personas for your top two priority audiences (which luckily you’ve now just finished listing out!). You can develop personas for all of your audiences if you want to, but two will usually get you 80% of where you need to be.
For each persona, you’re going to:
- Answer specific questions. Who are they? What are they like? What do they do, where do they live, and why are they engaging with your organization? Let yourself really dream about this person.
- Consider more than demographics. Obvious data points like age, marital/family status, occupation, and income level are a good starting point (and definitely essential to know!), but the most effective personas will go deeper than that. What does this person dream about? What are their goals, values, and most deeply held beliefs about the world?
- Give them a name! Naming your personas helps them feel more real, establishing a sense of empathy with who they are and why they might be using your nonprofit website.
- Be specific. Overly broad answers (e.g. “They like spending time with friends and watching movies”) often won’t help you paint a fuller picture. Instead, what do they do with their friends? Where? What kind of movies do they like? What movie quotes do they constantly repeat?
It can help to include other stakeholders in this process, too. Ideally, you’d invite those who most frequently interact with or directly serve the given audience.
Key Traits to Consider for a Persona
This persona will serve as your reference when creating the website’s tone, features, and content. By getting specific about who you’re talking to, you increase the likelihood that your message will resonate with your audience.
Here are some characteristics of your persona that you can write out:
- Gender identification, if any
- Marital status
- Geographic location
- Political identity
- Educational background
- Specific or general needs
- Paint points/frustrations
- Causes they support
- Issues/problems at home
- Issues/problems at work
You could even create a quote that this person would say. For example, “I am passionate about educational causes because I care about equity in our community. I believe that everyone is better off when we all have access to the same resources.”
As before, add all personas you create to the document you started previously.
- Create personas for your top two priority audiences.
- Add more personas if you have the need and bandwidth.
Once you’ve created personas for your top audiences, it’s time to start considering what key features your new website should have.
What Special Features Should Our Site Have?
Based on the site feedback you’ve received and with your website personas in mind, start to put together a list of features your visitors could benefit from. How can you best address the needs of your personas through your website?
Here are some ideas for special features a nonprofit’s website might have:
- Newsletter or mailing list sign-up
- Members-only resources or pages
- Application forms for your programs or services (not as a PDF form you physically fill out, but as a form you fill out directly on the website)
- Volunteer or job application forms
- Blog articles
- Press releases
- Social media integration
- Quizzes or surveys
- Calendar of upcoming events
- Donation form (one-time and recurring)
- Database or CRM that collects data or visitor information from the website
- Multi-language display
- Video courses or training
- Library of resources, white papers, annual reports, etc.
- Ecommerce or online store
Think About What Your Audiences Need and Want
When going through this process, it can be helpful to ask some structured questions about your audiences. After all, you want your nonprofit website to further your mission—and it can only do that when it resonates with the people you’re working with and for.
To make sure you’re prioritizing the right features, here are some questions you could ask yourself and your team:
- What questions do we commonly get from our donors and beneficiaries? Are there any resources we could create that speak to those questions? How might we present that information?
- Is there any data we’d like to collect from our website visitors (donors, funders, beneficiaries, etc.) that we’re not already collecting?
- Are there any opportunities for sending data from our website to our database? In an ideal world, what would those opportunities look like?
- Are there any significant dates our audiences are concerned about? Would they receive a lot of value if we were to present that information back to them, either as a calendar on our website or through email reminders?
- Are there any paper forms we use that we could convert to an electronic format?
- Are there any repetitive, manual data-entry tasks we’re continually engaging in? In an ideal world where you can automate anything, which of these tasks would we remove?
- What are the primary languages our audiences speak? Are we presenting our website in the appropriate language?
- Are there any resources we have to which we should restrict access? Is there any utility to having a members-only area on our site for our beneficiaries, donors, partners, or staff?
- Are there any opportunities for us to have an online store? Is there anything we could sell to further our mission, benefit our constituents, raise funds, or spread awareness?
- Is there any video content (monthly updates, volunteer training, conferences, etc.) that we intend to provide our audiences?
- How will we stay in touch with our audience online moving forward?
It can be useful to think about your website in terms of touchpoints over time. How will visitors interact with the site over time? How can we optimize each audience’s journey? Putting some deliberate strategy into these considerations will make a massive difference in your visitor’s experience.
As before, add all of the above thoughts into your website planning document. If it’s helpful and feasible at this point, you could divide these features into “must have” and “nice to have.”
- Consider the specific needs of your personas. What’s essential vs. nice to have?
- Ask yourself (and your team) the structured questions above to kickstart the process.
Now that you’re clearer regarding how you can address your visitors’ needs, you’re almost ready to begin your project. Just a couple more recommendations from us.
What Do Our Website Users Think, Say, and Do?
To make your website the very best it can possibly be, get feedback from the people who actually use it! Especially for nonprofits—organizations that tend to have active, highly engaged audiences who either directly contribute to or benefit from their services—it’s usually not that hard to get this kind of feedback.
The biggest problem is that most nonprofits don’t ask!
The only way you’ll find out what pain points, frustrations, wishes, and goals your website users have is to ask them. Or better yet, to sit them down and actually watch them use your website!
How to Gather User Perspectives
You can go as shallow or as deep as you’d like at this stage. In general, though, we recommend:
- Choosing your users wisely. For the best impact, try sticking to only interviewing your top one or two priority audience groups. If you can interview one to five people per audience, you’ll have a wealth of feedback and information to draw from.
- Providing specific actions for users to complete. To get the most valuable insight, these actions should match an activity that this audience might typically do on your nonprofit website. For example, it might not make sense to ask a food pantry beneficiary to try to donate money online—but it would make sense to ask them to find out when the next food pantry delivery will take place.
- Observe and take notes. For each interviewee, sit down with them for 10-20 minutes to go through your current website. (You can do this either in person or through a screen share.) Your goal here is to be patient, listen, and try to understand the user’s experience using your website.
What Could We Ask Users to Do on Our Website?
Here are some website actions you might observe your interviewees doing:
- Gather first impressions on the home page. Have them narrate their thoughts aloud.
- Try to learn more about our organization.
- Try to make a monetary donation.
- Try to sign up for the newsletter.
- Try to sign up as a volunteer.
- Try to apply for a program.
- Try to send our organization a question.
- Try to read our latest annual report.
- Try to find out more about our staff.
- Try to find out what we’ve been recently working on.
- Try to change to another language (if your website offers multiple languages.)
- Try to review our upcoming events, including their exact time, date, location, and cost (if your website has a calendar or events page.)
- Try to purchase a product (if your website has an ecommerce component.)
When asking your interviewee to do something, try not to give any hints. Instead, explain the task at hand and ask them to narrate their thoughts as they complete it. What do they notice? What seems unusual or confusing? What would they change if they could?
It can be helpful to record these conversations for later review. Just make sure to get consent from the user.
As with the other steps, be sure to add any insights gathered during this stage to your website planning document.
- Decide which audiences you’d like to gather feedback from.
- Find 1-5 people from each audience who could test your website.
- Interview each person and take notes on how they interact with your site.
With your website’s true visitor’s thoughts, you’re almost ready to start creating your website. The final stage is to gather some ideas from other organizations.
What Can We Learn from Other Orgs?
Some of your best website redesign ideas can come from reviewing other organization’s websites. (Great artists steal, right?!)
Think about questions like these:
- What are your sister organizations doing?
- How do they present information?
- What kind of language and imagery do they use?
- Why does their website stand out?
- Are any of the features particularly noteworthy, useful, or user-friendly?
Once you have a better idea of what other nonprofits are doing, it’s much easier to mix and match strategies to incorporate in your own redesigned website.
When deciding which websites to evaluate, you don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to organizations in the same space. You can likely derive ideas from any well-executed website, whether nonprofit or not.
Great Nonprofit Websites to Consider
If you don’t have any other websites in mind and need a starting point for your research, check out some of the ones on the list below. We love what these nonprofits are doing with their websites:
- City Year
- Essex County Greenbelt
- I Had Cancer
- Alex’s Lemonade Stand
- TELUS World of Science
- Central Park Conservancy
- World Bicycle Relief
- Girls Who Code
For each website you’re evaluating, click through the main pages. What does their Home page look like? What about their Donate page? Do they have any unusual features?
You can also note any issues, problems, or strange design choices that you’d like to avoid in your own website redesign.
Don’t be afraid to be a little too detailed here! It won’t do you any good if you can’t decipher your short-hand notes later. (What does “weird button at bottom” mean again?!)
Make it easy for your future self by adding a screenshot, a full sentence or two, and the URL for each note you make.
Add this information to a new section in your website planning document.
- Come up with a list of 2-5 nonprofits that you think present their organization well.
- For each nonprofit website you want to evaluate, spend 5-10 minutes clicking around.
- Write down anything you think would work well for your organization, along with the URL of the page for later reference.
- If possible, have the staff members you identified above spend a few minutes on each website and take notes, too.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Though it can seem intimidating, consolidating your ideas and creating a plan for your website is the best way to get the ball rolling on a nonprofit website redesign. Avoid the temptation to move quickly just for the sake of getting things done, and know that 80% of the work—and definitely the strategizing—should be done at the beginning.
Remember: the #1 mistake for a website redesign is that the wrong thing gets built.
Website projects are a significant undertaking, and you don’t want to spend your team’s limited time, money, and effort only to end up exactly where you were before.
A little planning goes a long way.
Now, how do you plan to move forward with your project? By going through this upfront planning process, you’re ready to bring in someone who can turn your ideas into a reality.
Do you have an in-house web developer? Will you bring in an external digital agency? Some combination of the two? Whichever the case may be, avoid working with anyone who isn’t willing to put in the upfront work required to build out your nonprofit website strategy.