Keys to an Effective Nonprofit Website

From Minimum Requirements to Best Practices

Q: How important is it to have an effective website for your nonprofit?

A: It’s mission critical!

While every element of your online presence is an important part of your storytelling strategy, most of the bigger actions (donations, registrations, etc.) are taken on your website. In marketing lingo, this is commonly referred to as a “conversion” because it converts a visitor into a supporter.

It’s where you control your story best, and where you drive traffic to most often. It’s where you should consistently be delivering much (if not most) of your value to your audience, and therefore also making your most powerful calls to action.

That’s why we believe that a website is the most valuable digital platform you have. It’s often the only one you truly own, and it is definitely the most pivotal to your mission success. How your website looks, feels and performs will affect how your audience perceives your organization.

Functional Requirements for a Nonprofit Website

While all businesses are concerned with money and infrastructure, nonprofits have some particular constraints and goals when it comes to their websites. Very few nonprofits have an in-house technology team that can implement the latest functionality quickly and at low additional cost. Similarly, working frequently with a designer to create new layouts and visuals every time, can consume more resources than you can spare.

That’s why, for a nonprofit to be able to get the most out of their website, it needs to be:

  • Easy to maintain

    Updates and security patches should be easy to apply, if they’re at all necessary. Backups should either be automatic or incredibly simple to perform.

  • Easy to update

    Quickly change or create new pages and posts without requiring a designer or a developer

  • Great at converting visitors to actors

    Give them calls to action that integrate with your donations platform, email platform, registration, sales, etc.

  • Fit within your budget

    Low (or zero) ongoing costs of hosting and maintenance, including technical support.

To make sure that your audiences can discover and use the website from whatever device they’re on, your site must also:

  • Load quickly

    Research says you have between eight and 15 seconds to capture attention on desktop, much less on mobile. When the page they’re interested in loads slowly, people’s patience is already running low before they even read a word.

  • Be search-engine optimized (SEO)

    If Google can’t properly crawl your site and understand what it’s about, how can it know when it should show it in search results, and to whom?

  • Integrate Social Media

    Your target audiences (beneficiaries and benefactors alike) discover and share things on social media. Your site has to make it easy for them to share your content and for others to discover it. That includes creating good-looking preview images and descriptions that show up when shared on social platforms.

  • Be optimized for desktop, tablet and mobile

    Crucial to user experience (UX), the user interface (UI) must respond to the screen size and look optimized on every device. Sites that use text too small to read on mobile, links that are too hard to click with a large finger on a small phone, etc. will frustrate users.

  • Perform well across most browsers

    Modern browsers (Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple’s Safari, and others) are complex tools that offer a lot of powerful options on desktop and mobile devices, but they don’t all work exactly the same way.

    If you’re still testing your site on Internet Explorer or even Safary, your audience may be getting a completely different (and worse) experience. Test your pages on each of the top browsers to ensure a consistent, quality experience.

Chrome: 62.4%
Safari: 13.5%
Internet Explorer & Edge: 8.9%
Firefox: 7.8%
Opera: 3.2%

As of June, 2017. Source:

Which browser do your potential donors use?

Many nonprofits are using Apple computers running Safari, or older Windows computers with Internet Explorer in their office. But that’s not how your audience is seeing your site. Be sure to install Chrome and other browsers to test the user experience.

Key Elements for Nonprofit Website Success

Beyond the core functionality and ease of use, nonprofit sites need to focus their energies on different areas than for-profit sites that are selling a product. Nonprofit sites must be able to provide value to their donors through stories.

In order to keep a site relevant and providing value to your benefactors and beneficiaries, a nonprofit website must meet the following criteria:

  • Emotionally compelling

    An emotional connection is the primary motivator in giving to a cause. You can site stats and achievements all day long, but if people can’t connect to the cause and the impact, they’re not going care about “cold numbers.” Effective storytelling can make an emotionally compelling experience which numbers can then amplify.

  • Visually appealing

    We do judge books by their cover, and we do judge things relative to similar experiences. If you want people to spend more time on your site, you have to make it pleasant on the eye and on the mind. For more on visual storytelling, take a look at Visuals: A Nonprofit Storytelling Superpower.

  • Timely (frequently updated)

    We live in a constant news cycle. Whether it’s politics, entertainment or human interest, “trending” topics are everywhere. You don’t have to compete with CNN or Twitter, but the more timely your content, the more likely it will garner attention and resonate with the people who you want to reach. This makes “easy to update,” above, even more important.

    Bonus: Google likes to see frequent updates on a subject as an indicator of expertise and timely relevancy in search results.

  • Easy to navigate

    This comes back to storytelling and the User Experience (UX). If it’s hard to find something on your site, people will look elsewhere. Make sure your most important content is quick and easy to get to. Give new users a way to find the things they’re interested in, and give returning users a quick way to get to the pages they visit often.

    Tip: Review your analytics regularly to see what your most popular content is, and make that easier to get to on your site.

  • Have clear and easy-to-follow calls to action

    What should your page visitors do when they’re done looking at the content on any given page? You can hope that they go to the main menu and find something else they like, or you can give them a clear suggestion of where to go and what to do next. This can include everything from reading another page or article, to making a donation.

How many of these keys is your organization’s site employing? Missing any one of them could mean you’re missing out on connecting with audiences, turning them into fans, raising more money, and increasing you impact.

This series continues next week, when we’ll compare the different platforms you can use to build the most effective website—wix, squarespace, wordpress, drupal, etc.—based on your needs and resources. Be sure to get that and much more when you: 

(You’ll also get a guide with eight free online tools, including free web hosting for your nonprofit!)