5 essentials that will help you build a strong foundation for your nonprofit organization


Building a solid eye-catching website for your nonprofit organization is key to your success.  It opens up the doors for effective communication with your supporters and it creates an accessible and convenient platform for your supporters to make donations.

In 2014, the average American spent 159 minutes (just shy of 3 hours) per day surfing the internet on either a desktop or a laptop.  With the explosion of smartphone and tablet usage, North Americans are spending more and more time online.  If you stick to good ol’ fashioned print, you might only make it to the periphery of people’s attention!  Let’s face it, the only kind of pages your supporters are likely to read are webpages.  So it looks like you’ll need to meet your supporters online.

In her book A How-to Guide for Nonprofits: Social Media for Social Good Heather Mansfield (a social media expert) shares what she calls the “must-have characteristics of a non-profit website”.  Heather is the founder and principle blogger of Nonprofit Tech 2.0 (found at www.nonprofitorgsblog.org) and she has more than 500,000 followers on various social media platforms.  Many trust her advice and so should you!

5 must-have characteristics of a non-profit website:

1. Easy-to-use content management system (CMS)


You need a CMS that you can learn how to use on your own so that you can minimize the cost needed to edit and maintain your website once you make the initial investment of setting up and designing your website.  There are 4 open-source CMS software programs that are great for nonprofit organizations because they are low in cost or even free: WordPress, Joomla!, Drupal, and eZ Publish.  Depending on your budget, there are some other options such as Squarespace.com (starting at only $12/month) and if you have a budget of $5000 or more/year, two of the best known CMS’ in the nonprofit world are Blackbaud and Convio.

2. Good writing


It’s important to be able to communicate the most important things about your nonprofit succinctly.  Two or three sentences, about 100 words per paragraph, is all you have in order to capture and maintain a  reader’s attention.  (Are you still with me?) I’m only at 43 words so far for this section!

Tip: Increasing your vocabulary will improve your writing skills (say more with less)

3. Well-designed graphics and photos

Graphic Design

Say it with pictures. It’s important to describe your nonprofit’s goals and mission, your needs, and your stories of success through graphics and images.  This will likely be the largest expense for your website start-up.  You can start by having a graphic designer create a banner for your main page and if you have more funds available, you can invest in creating banners for your other pages. Make sure you stick to using images and colours that are complementary (or tastefully contrasting) which have a consistent look and feel as you navigate your website.  Let onlookers get a good sense of your online branding and style so that no matter what page they are looking at, they can recognize your website from afar.  If you like photography or know someone in your organization who enjoys taking pictures (and is good at it), you can start creating your own digital photo library and save on the cost of purchasing photos in the long-run.

4. Simple, consistent navigation


Make sure to keep a consistent navigation bar throughout your website using the same colours throughout.  Keep in mind that it should be easy to browse your website without getting lost.  Make sure that you devote some time towards testing your website.  Have someone who was not involved with the website design and who’s not really familiar with your organization to test the website for ease-of-use and functionality.  If it’s easy to get lost on your website, you may loose a lot of supporters.

5. A dot.org website address


Using .org for your website domain name (as an abbreviation for organization) is considered best practice for nonprofit organizations.  Not everyone follows this unwritten rule but it is recommended!  It only costs ~$10/year to purchase a domain name but if you also want to buy a website hosting package and email account services (so your email addresses will also use the same domain name), the cost can go up to $150/year.  It’s important to maintain a professional image of your organization, which increases your credibility, and meets the expectations of your supporters and donors.

A Great Website is not Enough! 

Having a website is extremely important but it’s not enough when it comes to building a strong foundation for your nonprofit organization.  Of equal importance is your organization’s e-newsletter and “Donate Now” campaigns (both featured on your website).  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube (and other social media tools) are important too, but make sure you prioritize setting aside time for producing a e-newsletter on a regular basis.  Since so many people use email in today’s day and age, distributing your e-newsletter through email subscriptions is an effective way to share accomplishments with your online community, shed some light on progress you’ve made towards reaching your organization’s goals and to solicit financial support.  Mansfield shares 10 e-Newsletter Best Practices for Nonprofits on her Nonprofit Tech for Good website blog.  Speaking about financial support, featuring a “Donate Now” campaign on your website is vital.  Using donate now technology to accept payment via secure platforms enables your supporters to use their credit cards to safely make donations from the comfort of their own home.  Seconds after making a donation, they can also receive an official receipt for income tax purposes.  Mansfield also shares on her website blog 11 Donate Now Best Practices for Nonprofits.  Featured in a Forbes article, Blackbaud (an open-source CMS software system mentioned above) describes how online giving is growing.  In 2013, there was a 4.9%  increase in charitable giving as a result on online donations.

Doctors Without Borders: A Great Example

At first glance, Doctors Without Borders has implemented some best practices into the design of their organization’s website.  The home page features dynamic, large, and powerful images, the navigation is consistent throughout the content pages, social media icons are clearly visible on each content page as well as on the top and bottom of the home page, under the “News and Stories” tab you can access their website blog, a “Donate Now” button is visible on every page and last but not least, you can subscribe to an e-newsletter that is published on a quarterly and annual basis through the “Our Work >> Publications” tab.  You can read more about these best practices in Mansfield’s book A How to Guide for Nonprofits: Social Media for Social Good (also mentioned above).

Here’s a sneak peak of the Doctors Without Borders website:

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 8.37.47 PM

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 8.37.56 PMScreen Shot 2015-08-14 at 8.37.08 PM

Well I hope that you’re feeling ready to take the plunge to build a strong foundation for your nonprofit organization (if you haven’t already).  Or if you already have a website up and running, it doesn’t hurt to take a look at how well you line up against these best practices.  It all starts with the 5 must-haves for building an effective website and there’s plenty of guidance along the way from the experts!


8 thoughts on “5 essentials that will help you build a strong foundation for your nonprofit organization

  1. I really liked the way you used the idea of 5 important things to know. It is good to use an uneven number like 5 or 7. Another suggestion from Heather Mansfield’s book is to limit the layout to 2 columns. I sometimes see 3-column websites, and I think they look crowded. You make a good point about thinking clearly. Too often we write first without thinking about how best to convey the message with a simple, visually powerful design. I also liked that you showed examples of a good website — Doctor’s without borders. It made an impact to see the screen shot rather than having to click a link — which I am often hesitant to do because it will take me away from the initial post. I think you did a nice job of summarizing the points made by Mansfield.

    • Thanks for your feedback Julie, especially for pointing out Mansfield’s recommendation to limit the layout to 2 columns. I read about it but just didn’t add it to my blog but it is an important point to make right off the top.

      I usually learn best from examples so that’s why I added the Doctors Without Borders screenshots. And this is why I attempted to take Mansfield’s text and add visuals to it, because it’s hard to remember what you read if you don’t try to apply it right away!

  2. A really comprehensive list of do’s, and all backed up with data and supported by images. I read the same list in the Mansfield textbook, but the visuals make such a difference in driving the point home. Nice job starting with KISS principle!

    • Thanks Lucy, I appreciate your feedback! I feel that Mansfield’s tips are always very helpful and practical but that they would “stick” more if there were visuals to accompany them. Using the KISS principle is not intuitive to me, because I tend to write a lot!! But this blogging exercise helped me to curb my tendencies by keeping the message simple and to let the images do some of the “talking”.

  3. Shannon, this is an impressive post! You do an excellent job of incorporating a wealth of resources and knowledge for your readers in your post. Throughout your entire post I was intrigued and interested. Your visuals were excellent and went perfectly along with what you were writing about. I also appreciated how you included examples of what a good website looks like. Great job bringing all this important information together!

    • Thanks for your feedback Alissa! I’m glad you found it interesting. One of my main goals was to try to keep the reader engaged by keeping the messages simple and short and to use lots of images to illustrate the points. I’ve realized that seeing Mansfield’s guidelines put into practice in many others’ blog posts in our class has really enhanced my overall learning experience!

  4. I also really like your post, Shannon. The 5 points that Mansfield highlights are really key to a successful website, and I appreciated how you wrote out each point. What I liked most about your post is that in your example (the doctors without borders website), you bolded each point that fit into Mansfield principles. It really helped to understand your example better. One suggestion that could also be interesting is providing examples of bad websites for each of Mansfield’s points to highlight their importance. I found this website (http://www.boogersite.com/bad-website-design.cfm) that contains lots of bad websites, and looking through them all is pretty entertaining. I actually found that reviewing this site was very helpful when I was building my own website. Sometimes seeing a bad example is better than seeing good one!

    • Thanks Luda, I really like your suggestion to provide examples of bad websites. You’re right, I think sometimes it’s easier to learn from bad examples (compared to good ones) and I think you did a great job of highlighting this in your post. I too think it’s quite entertaining!

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