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4 Strategic Foundations Of Effective Websites

When it comes to mission implementation for most nonprofits, things like conducting research, operating programs, building partnerships, and fundraising are front-and-center. Equally important, but sometimes undervalued, is the role websites play in making change possible. Yes, a nonprofit’s website is critical to branding and communications; helping raise awareness, share knowledge, and generate support. But they’re also integral to operations; tied into mission-critical systems such as CRM, document management, analytics, and donation processing.

At the epicenter of organizational strategy, nonprofit websites are brand ambassadors that welcome in audiences; making the crucial first impression, helping them understand an organization, and nurturing ongoing relationships. They are also trusted advisors, providing leadership and resources to the field. And they are operations managers help make sure everything’s running smoothly.

Common Website Problems

Unfortunately, after years of reviewing RFPs, speaking with clients, and researching the field, it’s clear to me that too many nonprofits suffer with websites that hinder—rather than help—their efforts. What’s worse the list of things nonprofits say are problems with their websites are so consistently similar:

  • Confusing and difficult to navigate
  • Content that fails to engage
  • Underwhelming design
  • A CMS that’s painful to use
  • Clunky systems integration
  • A poor representation of the brand

But aren’t these the most basic things a good website should accomplish? Can you imagine if people had similar complaints about how well other areas of their organization achieved their most fundamental goals? It would be a miracle if anything got done!

So, why do so many nonprofits continue invest in websites that fail to support fundamental strategic objectives? Well, sometimes design firms, for whatever reason, just do a bad job executing. Often, nonprofits undervalue and/or under-invest in their website. And even when a good design firm is paired with a client who’s properly prioritized their website, a lack of strategic collaboration can undermine execution.

The Risks in Getting it Wrong

As Stanford’s Web Credibility Research demonstrates, websites have tremendous power to persuade, and to change what people think and do. Every part of a website—it’s content, design, and technology—contributes to how strongly audiences believe in an organization. And for organizations seeking to elevate issues and generate support to create meaningful social change, the negative effects of a bad website are profound:

A Weak Message. When a website fails to engage audiences with an organization’s  story, speaks in organizational terms and jargon, or simply isn’t written for online reading, the result is a brand that lacks clarity of purpose, doesn’t resonate, and fails to engage.

Damage to the Brand. When a website is difficult to use, is hard to read, or just suffers from poor design, the bad user experiences it creates undermines an organization’s credibility—eroding valuable trust in its brand and belief in the mission.

Operational Inefficiency. When websites suffer from clumsy integration with business systems or CMSs that are just frustrating to use, it does real harm to operations—making websites a cost center rather than a tool that improves efficiency.

Of course, if an ineffective website creates so many problems, an effective one can delivers equally profound benefits: greater clarity of purpose, better brand alignment, deeper engagement, increased efficiency, and ultimately, greater social impact.

What It Takes to Get It Right

So what can social change organizations do to make sure that the considerable time, money, and effort put into websites is well spent? Obviously, hiring a web design firm that has proven expertise in translating nonprofit strategy into effective user experiences is a good start! Equally important to hiring a team with the skills and knowledge to get the job done is a good client/design firm relationship—one built on listening, transparency, collaboration, and accountability—so that everyone can execute at the highest level.

Over 16 years of collaborating with social change organizations, we’ve created a process that delivers on both fronts—bridging knowledge gaps across teams and increasing learning to translate strategic priorities into exceptional websites.

A New Approach to Strategic Collaboration

Every website is created with four essential ingredients: brand, content, design, and technology. If you’re a practitioner in any one of them, there’s no shortage of resources to help perfect your craft. But what if you’re a designer who needs to understand how your choices will impact the work of web developers? What if you’re a developer who needs to understand how your code needs to execute brand strategy?

And what if you’re a client trying to make sense of this all when you barely speak the language?!

Too often, discussions about what’s important and necessary to accomplishing goals in any one discipline are self-contained. And in a web design and development process that spans months, important decisions, both big and small, are made before fully understanding the impacts on other areas of the project. Simply put, individual strategies aren’t enough. What’s needed is a foundational strategy that bridges the four core ingredients of user experience to increase awareness of how our choices work together and impact a website’s scope, budget, and effectiveness.

How it Works

The 4 Strategic Foundations to Effective Websites is a multi-disciplinary approach that’s been refined by many at Constructive through 16 years of hard work (and hard lessons) helping develop nonprofit websites that strengthen brands and support organizational strategies.

It is driven by two core principles:

  1. Establish a set of strategic organizing principles that focuses all decision making on supporting and translating a nonprofit’s organizational strategy into an online experience
  2. Prioritize cross-disciplinary collaboration and build a team culture of shared learning that leads to better choices, more efficient process, and more effective work

To deliver the best results, The 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites builds essential elements of the brand strategy process into digital strategy and design. After all, branding is a translation of organizational strategy, and as I’ve stated, websites are critical to executing it.

By generating a deeper understanding of a nonprofit’s organizational as the central organizing principle, everyone is able to contextualize their individual expertise and collective thinking in service of the brand. With a shared vision for how an organization’s website will support and strengthen the brand, design firm teams and clients can then explore ideas and collaborate more effectively across disciplines in service of this mission.

So, briefly, how do each of the four core website strategies work together?

Brand Strategy

Starting with a deep understanding of organizational strategies and how a nonprofit’s brand translates into experiences is the foundation upon which everything is built. Brand strategy workshops uncover critical insights and questions, identify organizational goals, and clarify what mission success looks like. Summarized in a Strategic Brief, specific goals for content, design, and technology development are then contextualized  for how they will support organizational strategy.

Content Strategy

Developing content may be the hardest part of most website engagements (especially for content-heavy websites). Content strategy makes this process much easier by answering questions like “What content do we have?,” “How good is it?,” and “How will new content be produced?” But because content development will likely happen throughout the design process, firm up things that are unlikely to change and make sure everyone understands where it’s likely adjustments will need to be made as things progress.

Technology Strategy

Online, it’s up to hardware, strings of code, and syntax to express brand ideas and digital design. They also connects to the business systems needed to make websites hum. Start with a core installation of  the right CMS to meet your needs, and don’t wait to bring developers in until the end! Proactive engagement with the web development team throughout the design process is critical to making sure budgets don’t get blown up or corners get cut. And design-driven web development informs content and design execution rather than waiting to be handed specs and comps.

Design Strategy

Design is what makes all our ideas, words, and code tangible—synthesizing the strategies that inform them all to create brand experiences audiences can engage with. That’s a heavy lift! Getting it right means always referring back to our Strategic Brief, making sure that design is properly supporting brand, content, and technology. Design should be regularly reviewed by everyone on the team to make sure that the website we’re designing will achieve our strategic goals, stay within budget, and be delivered on time.

Moving Forward

A website serve as a gateway for audiences to experience and embrace a social change brand and support its mission. They are vehicles for helping the world make progress on some of our most significant challenges. This demands that design firms be as strategic and ambitious in their efforts as their clients are in their own. The 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites helps us all reach higher and achieve more by uniting brand, content, technology, and design to accomplish ambitious goals and achieve significant social impact.


A version of this article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of NTEN: Change

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

For the last 24 years, Matt has specialized in brand strategy and digital design, focusing his passion for social and environmental issues to help organizations achieve greater impact. As Constructive’s leader, Matt plays an active role in collaborating with clients and our teams to develop strategies and design brand experiences that increase mission focus and deepen audience engagement. A frequent writer and speaker, Matt is a regular contributor to The Foundation Center, Communications Network, and other organizations. His work has been recognized for excellence by numerous organizations such as The Webbys, Communication Arts, Print Magazine, The Case Awards, Graphic Design USA, The W3 Awards, The Communicator Awards, and others. Matt earned his Bachelor’s Degree from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Arts. He then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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