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4 Strategic Foundations Of Effective Nonprofit 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 that a nonprofit’s website plays in making tangible contributions to this work. Yes, a nonprofit’s website is critical to success in branding and communications—raising awareness, sharing knowledge, and generating support. They are also much more than just a platform for telling people about the issues and a nonprofit’s work. They’re also platforms for doing something about these issues and actively supporting the work. They are also integral to operations; tied into mission-critical systems such as CRM, document management, and member management.

If we agree that strategic nonprofit web design is the key to effective engagement online, then what are digital strategies that nonprofits can use to move their websites beyond being just vehicles for communications and storytelling (both essential, BTW), to becoming a more holistic representation of their entire organization that supports communications and operations?

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 from 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 to invest in websites that fail to support fundamental strategic objectives?

Well, there are a lot of reasons. Sometimes design firms, for whatever reason, just do a bad job executing. Whether it’s cutting corners or not being strategic enough, I’ve had many nonprofits approach us over the years in the unfortunate position of having to re-do their website just a year or two since paying to have it redesigned. However, many nonprofits do under-invest in their website—which is understandable when programs and people are where the majority of investment should go. 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 that it creates undermine 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 deliver 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 a 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 accomplish 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 organization as the central organizing principle, everyone is able to contextualize their individual expertise and collective thinking and focus it 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 for Nonprofits

In my opinion and experience, nonprofit brand strategy is the foundation of all web design. And, as I’ve written in the past, nonprofits will have far better websites if they start with 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. It’s easy to see how, if you start a nonprofit web design project by focusing on your brand strategy and making sure that everything you do is in service of that strategy, you’ll have a more effective website.

Content Strategy for Nonprofit Websites

While audiences may need design to actually see and interact with a nonprofit website, what they are really there for is the content. Trick is, developing content is probably the most time-consuming and important part of most website redesigns (especially for content-heavy websites). That’s where content strategy and content design come in. Content strategy makes the process of a website redesign much easier by answering questions like “What content do we have?,” “How good is it?,” and “How will new content be produced?” Once you know the answers to these questions—and you’ve evaluated this content based on how well it supports your brand strategy (and the needs of your audiences), you’re well on your way toan engaging website. 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 for Nonprofit Websites

Online, it’s up to hardware, strings of code, and syntax to bring nonprofit brand ideas to life online and to empower teams. Your website’s CMS connects to the back-office systems that run your organization. It’s also tools that your team will use regularly to manage and maintain your nonprofit’s website. Start by making sure your web development team prioritizes creating a user-friendly nonprofit CMS that supports your team. And, whatever you do, don’t wait to bring developers in until the end! Holistic work means making sure that developers understand the content strategy, taxonomies, and content modeling so that they can build tools that support them. Developers can also help streamline inevitable design inefficiencies by pointing out how to make components more repeatable—before it’s too late. 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. It also makes sure that the website you build actually works like you expect it to.

Design Strategy for Nonprofit Websites

Last but not least, 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! Without great design to engage an audience and allow them to interact with nonprofits online, all of our brand ideas, content strategies, and use of technology are pretty useless. Getting desgin right takes two things: 1) a really good brand identity design system that you can build with, and 2) referring back to our Strategic Brief, making sure that web design is effectively supporting the needs of our brand, content, and technology. Again, with a strong focus on the needs and aspirations of our audience. And as I alluded to when discussing technology, design should be regularly reviewed by everyone on the team to make sure that the website we’re designing will also meet the needs of each team’s work on the project, tat it will stay within budget, and that it can be delivered on time.

Moving Forward

A website serves 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 the nonprofits they work with are in advancing their missions. 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.

About the Author

Matthew Schwartz

Matthew Schwartz

Matt partners with Constructive’s clients and teams to make sure that we stay focused on what matters, and that both our partnerships and the work we produce meets our shared expectations and the highest standards. With 25 years of experience as a designer, brand strategist, and writer for the social impact sector, Matt helps Constructive’s teams create processes and practices that create brand value for nonprofits and social impact businesses—elevating how mission and purpose are translated into brand-aligned strategy, messaging, and designed experiences.

Matt contributes to the field of nonprofit design, serving on the Leadership Team for the NY chapter of The Communications Network, writing, speaking, mentoring, and conducting workshops. 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 BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Writing & Visual Studies, and then conducted post-graduate design studies at the School of Visual Arts, Rhode Island School of Design, and Parsons.

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