Really. There’s only one rule for making a great nonprofit website. (It’s actually the rule for making any great website.) KISS. Keep It Simple; Seriously.
There’s more to an effective website that simplicity (otherwise I wouldn’t have any more to write) but take that as your starting point, and come back to it during every phase of the design process. Think about one of the most successful companies on the web; Google. Their homepage is a study in simple, clean design. Or the difference between Facebook and MySpace.
Now, don’t think that because you want your website to be simple that it should be plain. Simple can and often is beautiful. Vintage Hope and the World Wildlife Fund are two great examples of simple website design that highlights the images they use to explain their cause.
Nor does it have to be boring. You can use video, audio and side (or parallax) scrolling, if it tells the story you want to tell. A good example of a more story-based website is Every Last Drop, which uses the viewer’s scrolling action to animate the story.
The first question you need to ask when designing your website is: what do I want to get from people visiting my site?
Donations? Put that Donate Now button prominently on the top of the page. Don’t beat around the bush if what you need most from visitors is a donation. Don’t make them look for how to donate, make it easy. It’s not rude to be up front about donations. Most people expect that a nonprofit will need donations, so just ask.
Volunteers? Leave the Donate Now button where it is, but put a prominent link (images work better than text) to your “How to volunteer” page on your front page.
Awareness? If you need people to spread the word, again, make it easy. Have a “Share this!” section with [links? widgets?] to all the (appropriate) social media sites. The icons for Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook and LinkedIn are small, and people are used to seeing and using them.
Overall: Whatever you want from visitors to your website, make it easy for them. No one likes having to scroll and click around to find what they’re looking for.
A few other parting tips:
Absolutely no auto-play audio. Some people will visit your website at work (gasp), and there’s no faster way to get someone to leave your website than if it starts playing audio (this is the “make it stop!” response). It is fine, even good, to have audio if it is relevant to your organization and programs, but give visitors control over when it plays (so they can get their headphones on).
Check how your website looks in multiple browsers. Yes, even Internet Explorer. People are turned off by badly rendered websites, and are almost never willing to open another browser to see if it looks better there. You might also try loading your website over different quality connections, especially if you are trying to reach people who might not have high-speed access.
Don’t fear whitespace. Blank space is good. You might feel like you need to use every square centimeter of space on your page, but remember that pixels are essentially free. You aren’t publishing a newspaper. Spread out and relax. It will be easier to read, and come across as more confident.
For a more in-depth review of website building, including specifics on what platforms to use and which Donate Now service to hire, see Chapter 1 of Heather Mansfield’s “Social Media for Social Good”.