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How to Build a Better Nonprofit Website with Brand Strategy

In a previous article, I noted that the best place to start when creating a nonprofit website is with a clear brand strategy. It’s what provides everyone with the shared understanding they need to unite the big ideas and strategic plan of a social impact organization’s into n engaging and effective online experience. It’s the glue that ensures that a nonprofit’s website design, content, and code work together in harmony to express the entirety of the organization’s mission, vision, values, and impact—and do so in ways that are meaningful and engaging for different audiences. No small task, especially when talking about a website design process that spans months and involves so many stakeholders.

A Complex, Multidisciplinary Process

The process of creating a nonprofit website is, by its nature, collaborative and multidisciplinary. There are lots of contributors, each who bring a different area of interest, expertise, and professional vocabulary. The process usually takes a long time, with countless decisions to be made along the way—which means there’s no shortage of opportunities for miscommunication and stumbles. Over the years, I’ve learned that these can be minimized (they’re almost never eliminated, trust me!) by a framework that emphasizes collaboration and establishes clear goals for the team in a language everyone can understand.

That is why brand strategy is such an effective unifying force. In a medium like digital that calls for collaboration by so many people, it’s the kind of holistic, big picture, strategic thinking that people in nonprofits and digital design agencies can apply to the areas they contribute to in a website redesign. Sounds great in theory, but what’s it look like in practice?

Every nonprofit website is made up of four essential elements: brand, content, design, and technology, and design. The most effective ones are those that get all four working together like members of a band — each playing their part, and each complementing the work of the others. When executed well, the results are much like the experience of hearing a great song: harmonious and uplifting, with a clear point of view that immediately connects with you on multiple levels.

Over many years of years working with social change organizations, my firm has developed an approach to website design called the 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites™ that has helped many clients achieve these results. Our approach uses Brand (the most important of the “foundations”) to contextualize the other three (Content, Technology, Design) for members of the team and establishes a shared vision that helps keep clients, content creators, designers, programmers, and other contributors all pulling in the same direction. It clarifies decision making at every level by ensuring that the questions everyone needs to answer are grounded in one important goal: strengthening a nonprofit’s brand to advance its mission.

Putting It to Work

Again, sounds exciting, but how does it actually work? At its core, the process is about increasing communication, collaboration, and shared learning between a nonprofit and their design firm, and between members of the client’s team and an agency’s branding, content, design, and technology experts. It makes sure that everyone working on a nonprofit website project starts with a clear understanding of an organization’s strategic plan and story, and bridges organizational silos to increase awareness of how decisions in one area (such as content or technology) affect the work of others and the end result.

Of course, to really understand and appreciate a process you need to experience it. While we can’t do that in a short article, I’ll do my best to explain the top-level thinking behind the approach that Constructive has cultivated and refined over the last 19 years.

The 4 Strategic Foundations of Effective Websites

Brand Strategy. As the thing that informs every experience you create for your audiences, it’s easy to see why brand strategy is so important to mission-driven organizations like nonprofits. And when it comes to a nonprofit’s website, brand strategy is both its anchor and North Star, contextualizing all the choices to be made and focusing everyone on what really matters by:

  • clarifying an organization’s core mission and how it is fulfilled;
  • defining an organization’s key audiences and elevating what is meaningful to them; and
  • providing a visual, verbal, and experiential framework for designing experiences.

How does brand strategy accomplish these lofty goals? As with every strategy, brand strategy helps the team establish clear goals and effectively allocate resources to accomplish them by providing answers to questions such as:

  • What is our mission and what do we believe in?
  • How does change happen in the areas in which we work?
  • What role (or roles) do we, or should we, play?
  • Who’s in our brand community?
  • What differentiates us from other organizations?
  • What does the journey to success look like?

Content Strategy. Content strategy helps establish messaging architecture and ensures that the content you produce is meaningful, engaging, and cohesive. Regardless of the communication vehicle, it means having a clear understanding of your brand strategy. For a website, it means:

  • identifying content goals and gaps;
  • making sure the content is useful and accessible to everyone;
  • creating a consistent tone and structure; and
  • delivering the right content, to the right audience, in the right format.

To ensure that the written content, images, audio, and video on the site contribute to an effective presentation, your content team should understand the organization’s brand strategy and be able to answer the following:

  • What content do we have?
  • Who consumes our content, how, and why?
  • What, if anything, about it needs to change?
  • What content do we need to create?
  • How will content be created and maintained going forward?

Technology Strategy. You can’t have a website without technology—both to create user experiences on the “frontend,” and to keep things organized and running smoothly behind the scenes. Technology strategy is how a web development team translates the many different ideas and goals driving a nonprofit’s brand into online experiences that advance its mission. It also:

  • informs the platforms, frameworks, and tools your organization will use;
  • identifies needed system integrations;
  • supports the organization’s back-office and operational needs; and
  • provides cross-checks that inform content creation and design execution.

Unfortunately, Too often, web developers are kept in the dark about things they need to know(like brand strategy) and aren’t asked to offer their opinions until most decisions have been made.—and that’s a huge mistake! The advantage of design-driven web development is that it helps deliver the greatest ROI from technology by making sure developers “understand the story” and can help teams answer the following questions in ways that meet the needs of the brand, content, and visual design:

  • What systems and platforms are needed?
  • What’s the anticipated development effort and timeline?
  • What are the implementation challenges and risks?
  • How much content will be migrated and how will it be done?
  • How does the plan accommodate operational needs?
  • What can we do to future-proof the strategy?

Design Strategy. If the broad definition of design is “deciding what to create, what to do, and why to do it, both now and for the future,” and if design itself is understood though the lens of design thinking and problem solving, then design strategy is truly the ultimate strategy—and extends far beyond the visual to include:

  • deepening our understanding of context, relationships, and pathways;
  • synthesizing and uniting brand, content, and technology strategies; and
  • balancing all of the above to create meaningful brand experiences.

Design is the emissary of our ideas. For a website, it unites the ideas driving your brand, your content, and your technology to create valuable experiences for different audiences by answering questions such as:

  • Who are we designing for and what is their mindset?
  • How can we both meet their needs and advance our mission?
  • What results are we looking for, both online and in the real world?
  • What are the elements of our visual language?

So, if your goal is to have significant social impact and you want a website that makes major contributions, be sure you’re working with a clear brand strategy. It adds invaluable perspective that contextualizes how content, design, and technology will work together to achieve your ambitious goals. The alternative, in most cases, is a lot of time, effort, and money poured into a website that either misses or ignores that context and, as a result, never really connects with the people on whose support you rely on.

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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