4 Things the Best Nonprofit Websites Have in Common

Created by Camille Winer

4-lessons-from-the-best-nonprofit-websitesNonprofits have unique concerns when it comes to launching or revamping their websites. There's pressure to channel every last resource into mission‑critical activities, leaving little for branding and marketing. As a result, nonprofits often try to do as much in‑house as possible. Maybe staff members create site outlines, content, and even wireframes, then hand the plans to a designer or nonprofit marketing agency. Sometimes a lucky staff member gets to take on the role of developer and designer too.

Make no mistake, the people working at your nonprofit who are experts in your mission, how you deliver it, and the people it benefits definitely have a role to play in your organization’s website design or redesign. Your team knows what needs to be at the heart of your nonprofit’s website. They know what's necessary to generate support, advocacy, and thought leadership.

But sometimes staff members don’t have the right tools to channel their expertise into a website that’s going to work most effectively to help you advance toward your mission. When inexpert web design is cobbled together, the organization could face expensive revisions.

To avoid do‑overs, adopt an effective website strategy for your nonprofit before you invest in professional development or design. Start by taking these steps to include the four things all the best nonprofit websites have in common.

1. Meet the needs and goals of your key personas.

Buyer personas are detailed, semi‑fictional representations of your organization's ideal customers. In the case of nonprofits, "customers" are advocates, donors, volunteers, and other stakeholders. Buyer personas are based on market research and real data about existing supporters. The data should include your advocates' demographics, attitudes, concerns, goals, motivations, and behavioral patterns.

Your buyer personas will drive every marketing decision you make as a nonprofit, including your website outline.

Of course, you can't design a website that engages your ideal donors if you don't know who they are. Having them defined on paper and getting buy‑in on your personas from everyone across the organization will help you avoid short‑sighted decisions. It will also make your web design process rational and effective. You can download a free template for creating these personas here.

2. Are organized to match the supporter’s journey.

Organize your website so that your ideal advocates can be educated about the issues they care about, find answers to their questions, and know how to take action.

To make sure this happens, you can create user paths before drafting the site outline. A user path charts a user’s journey through your website. It shows the actions that one of your key personas wants to take, and it indicates the content and features needed to encourage these actions.

Your user paths need to be based on the journeys people take to understand your issues and support your mission. If an organization doesn't have user paths, or if they're inaccurate or are ignored in the website design process, here's what can happen: After a lot of work creating a new website, the site goes to the executive team/board for review, and comes back with suggestions for new menu items, shuffled navigation components, or reworded content. These requested changes might sound logical. Maybe they're excellent ideas. But they're also subjective, and sometimes they miss the big picture. Even worse: Making so many changes after web development can double your website costs.

The site outline should be a direct product of your user paths. This means that some revisions over time are inevitable. Your site outline will evolve with your buyer personas' goals and motivations. But planning your website according to users' interests and needs means that the site outline and navigation are sound. Building on this foundation eliminates second‑guessing throughout the development and design process.

3. Provide appropriate calls to action.

Great websites don't just provide information for their audiences. They give their audiences a clear picture of what to do next.

Give your readers opportunities to take action on every page of your website. Include calls to action (CTAs) in every major step of your buyer's journey. Provide clear actions for casual researchers ("Download our free e‑book"), advocates interested in your organization ("Subscribe to the e‑newsletter"), and steady supporters ("Donate" or "Join" CTAs). You'll see concrete examples of effective CTAs in our nonprofit blogging e‑book.

4. Tell great stories.

There are so many ways to bake storytelling into your website and digital content. Your “About” page should rely on great storytelling. Your blog can brim with meaningful stories of your nonprofit’s mission and impact. Your monthly e‑newsletters can tell stories of staff members, key donors, and community members.

Successful nonprofit websites often incorporate these five types of real‑life stories:

Nonprofit Story Type 1: “You did it!” 

As a nonprofit, it’s your job to produce stories about people doing good things. These stories are one of your “products.” They’re proof of the good your staff does, inspiration for your donors, and an antidote to the dearth of bad news around us.

Nonprofit Story Type 2: “Just do it.” 

Your supporters are looking for concrete ways to make a difference. These stories educate people about what’s happening, then tell them how to help.

Nonprofit Story Type 3: “Here’s a new way of seeing it.” 

When topics are “trending,” people are looking for expert opinions on those topics. But it’s crucial to strike a balance: be bold, be timely, but be appropriate for your organization. Sometimes commentary relevant to the news cycle is better on social media than on your website.

Nonprofit Story Type 4: “Look at this!” 

Compelling images should provoke in order to educate. Your images don’t need to be disturbing, but they need to be strong. Powerful photos also help you attract your ideal supporters’ attention on social media.

Nonprofit Story Type 5: “Meet Susan.” 

Write a story about a person with a relationship to your organization. The person doesn’t need to be a program beneficiary. They could be a member of your community, a leader in your field, a staff member, a donor—anyone whose experience connects to your mission.

By taking these steps to build or revamp your website, you can develop a website strategy before development and design begin. This will ensure that your organization's investment in web design pays off. You'll also end up with a site that attracts ideal advocates, nurtures them as leads, converts them to donors and supporters, and continues to delight them with great stories and information they crave.

Looking for more inspiration or just a wide range of nonprofit websites? Take a look at the websites of Forbes’ top 100 charities in the nation. These are the biggest nonprofits, so they may not match up with your organization in terms of resources or mission, but it’s a good way to get a broad range of approaches to design. As you scroll, take note of the way the sites you like feature appeals to their key personas, strategic site organization, compelling CTAs, and, of course, great stories.