A website is one of, if not the most important strategic assets a nonprofit has in representing itself to the world. Given its value, it’s also important to make sure that the strategy and execution of a website are deeply informed by and closely aligned with another vital strategic asset—an effective brand strategy. Get these two things right and get them “talking” with each other, so to speak, and a nonprofit has about 80% of what it needs to support both its organizational strategy and its strategic communications.
The truth is that brand strategy is the essential foundation for all design and communications, whether this means a visual identity or website. And when it comes to a website, the value of an effective nonprofit brand strategy really shines. That’s because the breadth of things that a website can do and must do well to support a nonprofit make deep alignment with the brand strategy that guides the organization vitally important.
What are some of these important things that a nonprofit’s website must do and how are they connected to brand strategy?
Of course, a nonprofit’s website is essential to brand communications. It’s often the first place people go when they learn about an organization. It remains the epicenter of digital communications, with marketing channels and external media continuously directing people there—kind of an “all roads lead to Rome” in communications strategy. This makes a nonprofit’s website its ultimate brand ambassador, remaining ready to welcome audiences in and engage them 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s a platform for articulating the who, what, when, where, why, and how of a nonprofit’s impact strategies—a powerful window into a nonprofit’s world and the ecosystem in which it exists. And through the many choices made in a website’s content, design, and functionality, it becomes an expression of a nonprofit’s values and a connection to the value the organization has to offer.
For some nonprofits, particularly research institutes, think tanks and nonprofits who deliver service online, a website is much more than just a platform for brand storytelling. It’s also a primary channel for advancing the work—whether this means knowledge mobilization to address climate change, providing resources and professional development for teachers, or increasing access to vital mental health care services. For associations and member-based nonprofits, websites are invaluable to building and connecting community. For advocacy nonprofits, a website often drives support for campaigns. And, of course, for organizations who fund their programs through individual donations, their website is a vital fundraising channel.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting! And it doesn’t stop here because a nonprofit’s website is about more than these essential external-facing roles that it plays for the brand. It’s also integral to operations—a tool that staff often rely on to do their daily work. For some nonprofits, staff may be some of the most heavy users of the software that the website is built on. If there’s an intranet involved, even more so. Modern nonprofit brand strategy theory emphasizes its ability to increase capacity, and the same holds true for websites, which empower teams working on community building, grants management reporting, research publishing, and more. And just like the quality of the experiences that a website creates for external audiences says a lot about its brand, so does how well the workflows and integrations empower staff to connect with the work.
The Power of Brand Strategy in Design
What makes brand strategy so valuable to creating a website that expresses what a nonprofit stands for and engages people inside and outside the organization in the mission? The way I think about it is that design (in the most encompassing sense of the word) is all about context. Anything that is designed (which is to say, everything that is not part of the natural environment) is designed for a specific use, for a specific person or group of people, to be used in a specific place or way, and for a specific goal or goals. In short, to design successfully, you must understand context—and you must design for context.
Design is also inherently done for someone other than the designer. When design is successful, it can almost become secondary—an intuitive experience that is fully about the activities it makes possible and what we think and feel about the experience. That’s why the best design takes a human-centered approach to meeting these needs. So, to design websites that do all of the important things mentioned above, the more deeply we understand a nonprofit and the context in which it exists, the more effective we are likely to be at uniting design, content, and technology that are aligned with the organization’s purpose and people’s positive perceptions of the brand. And, as a result, the greater the value a nonprofit’s website is likely to deliver for the audiences it’s created for.
The place where you find all of this invaluable context is in a brand strategy. Which is why it is so important that a nonprofit’s website be built on a foundation that includes it. As someone who has been a designer and a brand strategist throughout my career, I’ve felt the power of this connection first-hand. When teams that collaborate on a website design have a deep understanding and appreciation for what the brand truly stands for, and the value it creates for different stakeholders and the world in pursuit of its mission, the better they are at translating these ideas into brand engagement online.
When Website Redesigns Come Up Short
When nonprofits initiate a website redesign, the problems in need of solving inevitably include things like “confusing navigation,” “not user friendly,” “content hard to find,” “not engaging or visually appealing,” and, perhaps most most telling of all, “does not represent who we really are,” or “fails to clearly communicate our mission and work.” These are all the basics of an effective website, so it’s surprising how often nonprofits feel that their websites fail to succeed on these measures.
But perhaps not. As explained earlier, websites can be really complex. A lot goes into them and they require the collaboration of interdisciplinary teams of strategists, content strategists, UX designers, visual designers, writers, engineers—and of course, multiple stakeholders from the nonprofit itself. All of these experts need to work together with a clear vision for how a website with both represent an organization and deliver on its brand promises. They must make sense of an incredibly complex set of tangible and intangible ideas that represent what a nonprofit stands for and translate it into a cohesive online experience that engages, informs, and activates people to participate in the mission.
Remember, a nonprofit’s website is its 24/365 brand ambassador—one that must anticipate all of the needs and wants of visitors so that it can successfully meet them. It is one of the key conduits for audiences to connect to the value a nonprofit has to offer. As the saying goes, execution follows strategy. And when we try to clearly communicate the who, what, when, where, how, and why of a nonprofit’s work, if we limit the lens we use in design is limited to digital strategy, then the solutions we come up with are almost certainly going to be website specific. We might end up with better looking, better functioning, more “user-friendly” websites. But we are also less likely to create websites that are the embodiment of a nonprofit’s brand and active contributors to mission implementation.
Forget About User Experience!
User experience design (UX) is the foundation of website design. It’s impossible to design a great website without great UX design. But nobody visits a website looking to have a great user experience. They visit for the opportunities that a website creates for them to interact with an organization. A person may not think to themselves that they are visiting a website for a brand experience, but that’s what’s happening
So, while UX design is an essential discipline to successful website design, I think it should be reframed to go further than some of its limiting definitions of success (e.g., “user-friendliness,” “aligning user and business goals”). Again, if the lens through which we plan is a website-specific discipline, then the solutions we design are very likely to also be website specific. When our goals are much loftier than “online conversions” or “page views”—when we are working to address a significant social and environmental issues and hope to empower an organization and its audiences to work together towards significant impact, there’s a lot of value in understanding the deeper underlying dynamics about why the brand matters.
Consumer brands have focused on the principles of customer experience design for some time. For social change organizations, this means creating an experience that is more ambitious than the “buying cycle”; it means creating experiences with the specific objectives of educating our audiences, deepening their engagement with our cause, and, ultimately, helping people from different backgrounds and with different skills and resources to contribute to solving a serious problem—often one that requires sustaining engagement for the long-term despite the difficulty inherent in measuring progress toward our goal. In this, the experiences a website creates are significantly about building a brand relationship rather than being transactional.
Build Brand Experiences
So, if your organization is looking to redesign its website and has never taken the time to develop a brand strategy, now would be a good time to do so. Yes, it will require time, money, and patience. But it is an investment well worth making—and one that will pay you back many times over. What’s more, not only will your team be energized by the process, you’ll be amazed by how much easier decision making about things like website structure, navigation, content strategy, and design is when it’s clear to all what the real value of your organization to its audiences is.
However, it’s not always possible to undertake a significant brand strategy process—and that’s OK! That’s because it’s very possible to integrate elements of the brand strategy process into the research, strategy, and design phases of a website redesign. While your nonprofit won’t gain the organization-wide benefits that flow from defining an effective brand strategy, integrating brand strategy thinking and exercises into a redesign absolutely will ensure that your website is more effective at communicating and connecting people to your nonprofits value.
Whichever approach you take, before you jump into the website redesign, be sure to pull your key stakeholders together and engage them in the kind of thoughtful strategic exploration that should inform every branding process. Doing so will enable you to build your website—and the brand experience—around the deeper, underlying values that do so much to energize audiences to believe in your brand and support your mission.