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What Am I Buying?! Understanding Nonprofit Website Cost & Technology

If you’re a nonprofit leader looking to redesign your website, you’ve no doubt been thinking a lot about thinks like CMS, CRM, donation platform, hosting—you know, all the things that made you want to work in the social impact sector in the first place! Yes, it can be seriously confusing and stressful trying to figure out what your nonprofit website cost should be if web technology isn’t your area of expertise—especially because the choices you make now are ones that will be felt for years after your new website is launched.

Given the importance of website technology to a nonprofit website’s cost, it’s important to be informed about what it actually takes to build and maintain your site. But what’s a person to do if they are confused—or flat-out turned off by—technical jargon? And how on earth can you possibly evaluate the cost of building your website if you don’t understand all this technical stuff?

Well, there are a lot of technology factors that impact both the quality and cost of a nonprofit website. And when we talk about nonprofit website cost, we mean more than the financial impact. Website cost also includes your time and effort. After all, time is money, right?!

It’s important to consider a website’s “total cost” — how our technology choices will impact both operations and the user experience. That’s because everything from your choice of CMS and how your website is  built, to the systems that will be integrated into it impact nearly everyone in an organization. So, it’s critical that when assessing your nonprofit’s website cost, you understand technology choices. As a design-driven development web development firm, Constructive’s approach is to approach (and help explain!) technology from a human-centric perspective.

So, if you’re considering a nonprofit website redesign and are having trouble navigating the technology playing field and setting an appropriate budget, what do you need to know to make smart choices?

The Technical Hurdle

Similar to the medical industry (and a lot of nonprofits), the biggest barrier to understanding web technology is often the over-reliance on jargon in technical discussions. All those acronyms, weird phrases, foreign concepts, and inside jokes like the ID10T error—they almost seemed purposefully designed to keep non-technical folks on the outside looking in!

When people try to explain how the internet works to the non-expert, one analogy is that it’s like “a bunch of tubes.” Now, while this may be passable, it’s also a gross oversimplification that  limits how we understand the web. For example, a pipe implies, from everyday experience, continuous flow and permanent connection. But that’s not how the Internet works.

The internet is a distributed network of wires, radio waves, machines, and software. It’s governed by standards and protocols. Information transmission may seem continuous, but in fact is broken up, sent to travel across many paths, and then reassembled as needed. There are machines and software that route and filter these broken up “packets” of data to their destination (which like your home, probably has an address). And at that address, you’ll find some kind of server (not the restaurant kind), which may be a dedicated machine in a physical location, or may be in “the cloud.

And then we finally get to your actual website—a combination of a database that stores all your information, and HTML, CSS, and Javascript, a programming language like PHP, and controlled by a CMS (Content Management System).

If you’re nontechnical, your mind may be spinning right about now—and that’s OK! The point is to understand the basics.

So, What Do I Need to Know?

You don’t need to understand things like network protocols, code, or deployment scripting to understand how web technology impacts the quality and cost of your nonprofit’s website. You should, however, understand the basics of what a website is and what it takes to build one. Otherwise, you run the risk of a website and a bunch of connected systems like a CRM or Grants Management platform that don’t work well together. So, for example, which CMS is right for you? We’ll explain a bit more later, but, unless you’re using an expensive closed-source CMS like Ektron/Episerver, (pro tip: don’t!) you’ll likely be choosing between free, open-source CMS’s like WordPress or Drupal. Curious which of these is the right choice for you? This webinar we gave a while back, WordPress vs. Drupal may help.)

What’s Actually Being Built?

You’ve probably heard of user experience (UX) design (or information architecture), but what is it? Combined with the functional requirements of your website (written descriptions of how it needs to work), they’re the blueprints to your website. If you think of your website as a house with plumbing and electricity, this is the foundation of what you’ll be building. When it comes to technology, through code and configuration of the server and content management system, web programmers take “UX and specs” along with design comps and style guides to assemble the pieces needed to meet the design. Some web programmers focus on the stuff behind the scenes (the backend) while others on how the site looks when delivered through a browser (the frontend).

Which End is Up?

You may have heard people refer to the “backend” and “frontend” of a website. What’s this mean? Simply put, the backend includes all the things you don’t see when visiting the site: mostly how your database(s), CMS, and any other systems running your website that users can’t see. The frontend is what everyone sees when they visit your website. Why does this matter? Because very often, people may judge a website by how it looks (remember what they say about books and covers…), and as a result, overlook that how well the backend is structured and designed cmakes a major impact on the quality and cost of a nonprofit’s website—not to mention how easy it is for staff to update. There is tremendous value in spending time crafting a user-friendly CMS, detail that can sometimes be overlooked by nonprofits when evaluating website proposals

Of course, choices in features and functionality have a major impact on how much work needs to go into designing and building both the frontend and backend. And sometimes, what seems like a simple change can actually significantly drive up development costs. That’s why it’s a really good idea to make sure to have answers to a lot of the questions about website features and functionality before finalizing a budget for your nonprofit’s website. And the discovery process is invaluable to helping everyone understand the costs and trade-offs between different choices.

Does My Choice in CMS Matter?

Absolutely! Programming for one content management system over another makes a huge difference—not only in how much time, effort, and cost it will take to build your website, but also in the impact it will have on your organization’s operations. For example, there are big differences across CMS’s in what’s offered out-of-the-box (think of this as what comes “standard” when buying a car) vs the extras via third-party modules (or plugins) that add all those advanced features you want. And your choice in CMS especially matters for the people who are going to be using the CMS every day—your site administrators. A CMS that’s hard to work with is a long-term drain on costs and productivity that’s often a demoralizing burden on your people.

The choice in CMS can also determine how easy or difficult it can be to integrate other systems into your site. Need a newsletter signup? What about your CRM needs, like Salesforce or Zoho? Do you have or are you going to allow users to login to your site? What about Single Sign On? Your website is an epicenter of your organization’s digital strategy that’s connected to systems that significantly impact operations. Getting the choice of platforms right matters!

Where Will My Website Live?

Your site will run (be hosted) on servers and infrastructure I mentioned earlier, and that has to exist somewhere. That somewhere must meet the technical needs of your website, and there are many hosting options to choose from. Your budget and capacity to manage the infrastructure (or not) should be factors in any decision—but long story short, for most websites, a solid shared hosting plan or cloud-based solution that leaves server administration and maintenance to your host provider (so you only need to worry about your website and CMS) is the best way to go.

OK, What Else?

While choice in technology can impact nonprofit website cost significantly, the impact of non-technical decisions about things like functionality and features should not be taken lightly—especially at the start, where choices can have cascading effects on other areas of your website. Success is won and lost in the details. Uncertainty and unknowns about technology are also risk factors for blowing your nonprofit’s website budget.

So, if your organization uses other platforms such as CRM or grants management software, before initiating a major website redesign consider the value of undergoing a technology audit (also known as a digital ecosystem analysis) to understand your technology landscape. A website redesign is an ideal time to make sure your different systems work well together and deliver the best possible experience with your brand.

Also, having a clear sense of your goals and functional requirements bridged with technical insight can help understand the bigger picture in what it will take to execute. For Constructive, this means a thorough Strategic Brief that details a nonprofit website’s goals and requirements. Focus on what’s important for you, your users, and your organization—and use this process to give your website the budget it deserves!  And if you don’t have the budget you need, rather than trying to fit in every feature and wish-list item into a redesign, consider about using a phased approach. While it’s tempting to try and solve every problem in the first go-around, it’s much wiser to build a solid foundation that’s designed to scale and last for the long term; then add intelligently over time as more resources are available.

What Can I Do to Learn More?

Yes, web technology is confusing (and constantly changing!), and this makes determining nonprofit website cost. But you don’t have to become a technologist to make better decisions when it comes to your website. If you have a technical expert in your organization who can help you bridge the knowledge gaps for you—great. Bring them into the conversation and rely on their expertise to inform the decisions you make. If you don’t, we’d love to talk with you about how Constructive can help you better use web technology to strengthen your organization and your brand.

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