A Non-Profit’s Guide to Websites

by Jonathan Longnecker

Non-profit organizations have a special place in our hearts here at FortySeven Media. We love it when people decide to change their world for the better, and do our best to help them however we can. Several months ago we completed the Knoxville Leadership Foundation's new website. Shortly there after Dan Myers, the Director of Communications and Operations at KLF, asked us to be part of a seminar for non-profit organizations to better equip them to use their websites. The following is a condensed version of that session. We had a grand time chatting with everyone there and hope you enjoy the information! The slides of the presentation and the handout companion are available in PDF format at the end of the article.

1. Evaluate Your Current Website

Before we jump too far into this, let's take a moment to think about your current website. Are you excited about it? Do you tell people about it or do you try to not bring it up? When was it last updated? These are great indicators of the current condition of your site. Most organizations can answer these questions instantly. The short version for most, is “No, we aren't excited about our site, it's awful!” The good news is that it doesn't have to stay that way. Let's look at a few ways to get your website tuned up and working for you.

2. Design and Usability

The design of your website is the first greeting many people get from your organization, so make sure it fits the tone of your organization. A good design serves the content. Now that you have a good idea of what takes to make up a great design, make it easy for visitors to find their way around. The navigation should appear on each page and get the user anywhere they might want to go in as few clicks as possible. Remember, keep it simple.

3. The Importance of Great Content

Content is the heart of your website. Writing great text and finding the right images for your site is of the utmost importance. We've all seen pretty sites, but the ones that we come back to again and again are the ones that have the wittiest articles and the funniest pictures. When you are writing, speak plainly. Your passion is what will impress people, not your exhaustive vocabulary. And do try to have some personality. We are not robots. Even the most professional among us appreciate a touch of wit and humor.

4. Good Icons and Photography

Finding great images can be tough. Many well intentioned staff, armed with their digital cameras, will offer you their services. Have a look at their handiwork before you take them up on it. Where ever possible, use a professional photographer. They are worth the money. In the event that you aren't able to work with a professional photographer, don't worry, you can still find professional work.

  • iStockphoto - http://istockphoto.com/ - is a great place to look for images. They are very affordable and very high quality.
  • Stock.xchng - http://sxc.hu/ - Many of their images are free. Just be sure to read the details on that photo's page.
  • Flickr - http://flickr.com/ - is a another great resource. Use the advanced search to find pictures that have a Creative Commons Commercial license.

Great icons can really polish up a site. Use them to direct your visitor's attention to important elements and provide quick visual cues. Here are a few icons sets that we have found extremely useful:

5. Blogs

What's a blog, you ask? Well, you're reading one right now. Think of it as a personal journal that's available for everyone to read. An everyday newsletter of sorts. It gives you a chance to share your thoughts, offer advice and opinions on what matters to you. It's also a fabulous way to keep your site updated with fresh content on a regular basis.

Why do I need one?

Like I said above, it lets you keep your site current. You don't have to wait on a new event or change in your organization to update your site. And guess what? When you start writing good stuff, people come back. Your readership goes up and so does your traffic. All because you are constantly pumping out useful, relevant information. You can add comments to your entries and encourage participation among your readers. This creates an online community that will reach out far past your local area. As you continue to give useful tips and insight, you start to be seen as an authority in your field, and as respect for you grows, so does everything else. This is also a great way to give back to your community and invest in others' lives that you wouldn't be able to face to face.

How can I get one?

  • WordPress - http://wordpress.com/. For non-profits, WordPress is your most viable option. It's free, has a great open source community supporting it, and there are tons of decent looking themes so you can change the look of it to match your site. It will run on most servers and is super easy to install. It's not a great Content Management System, so you may want to simply add a WordPress blog to your existing site rather than try to make your whole site with it. If you're trying to save money and get things going yourself, check it out.
  • ExpressionEngine - http://expressionengine.com/. This is our blogging platform of choice as it allows for much greater flexibility in design and customization. It cost $100 (for non-profits) and you'll need someone who knows what they're doing to get in installed and setup. The benefits are that it's a great Content Management System, too. So your whole site can be managed in one place, including your blog. If you're looking for custom design and a great CMS, start here.
  • TypePad - http://typepad.com/ and Blogger - http://blogger.com/ are good free blogs that would be a great way to explore the whole blogging thing a bit. These generally seem to run on their domains; so ours would be http://fortysevenmedia.blogger.com (which you probably don't want for a professional organization) so we wouldn't recommend this as a replacement for your site at all. It's super easy to create an account and get started, and is also a good way to explore what blogging is all about without too much commitment.

Now what?

Well, be yourself. Write about what interests you. Do it often and do it because you love it. Your readers will pick up on apathy in a second, so be real with them and yourself. And be realistic, too. If you aren't in a place where you're going to have the time to post at least once a week don't even make a blog.

6. RSS Feeds

What is an RSS feed? It's a way for people to subscribe to your blog. How does it work? You can download a feed reader like NetNewswire or use an online service like Google Reader. Then you just look for the RSS icon (the orange one, right below our search bar) and grab (or click on) the link. Once you've subscribed, every time we post a new article it shows up in your “inbox.” And the awesome thing about this inbox is that there's no spam, just articles from the websites you've chosen to follow. A feed reader allows you to keep up with hundreds of websites without having to visit them and gives your visitors the convenience of doing the same. This way they are much more likely to remember you if they're receiving constant updates from you. Any blog you set up should have an RSS feed built right in.

7. The Power of Social Media

We've all heard of social networking. Some say it's a fad. Some say it's the future of the web. Who knows? But for now, it's a great way to give yourself multiple presences on the web. Almost all of these sites charge you nothing to setup an account and put your content up. In some cases - like YouTube - they take the burden of hosting videos off your servers. Here's the thing; your potential visitors are at these sites anyway. Why not be there, too? Social networking sites have loads of traffic, and by giving your organization a place on them you will only increase your traffic and spread your message.

  • MySpace - http://myspace.com/. Your kids are probably on it right now; it's huge in the teen market, but has moved into other areas such as music and movies.
  • Facebook - http://facebook.com/. MySpace's older, more refined brother. Draws young professionals with it's uncluttered interface.
  • YouTube - https://youtube.com/. Any kind of video you can imagine. Do note they have a 10-minute limit.
  • GodTube - http://godtube.com/. Like YouTube, but lets you have longer videos; ideal for sermons and such.
  • Flickr - http://flickr.com/. Photos! Use to hold event photos, staff photos; whatever you want.

8. Search Engine Optimization

SEO is the stuff of legend. Back in the day, you could “work” the system and cheat your way to the top of a Google search page. You can still do that to an extent, but you run the risk of being pulled out of search engines all together. We're here to tell you that while there are some expensive, advanced methods; most of what you need is pretty simple and cheap. It's not voodoo or magic, just common sense.

First, realize that there is a huge online community to interact with. If you throw up a website and don't give back to, or be involved in that community, don't expect much in return. Read others' blogs, post insightful comments. Join forums and help other people. Yes, leaving a link back to your site does help boost your rankings, but the bigger picture here is to just be involved in a real way; not only for SEO profit. It takes time, but you'll get back what you put into it. It's up to you.

Second, just write great, useful, relevant content. It's not brain surgery. Write posts that help, entertain, or make people think and they'll keep coming back. They'll link back to you. Your rankings will go up.

Third, write descriptive page titles. For blog entries, especially, use words you think others would use in trying to find more info about an article like yours.

Fourth, use meta description tags for each page. This text will show up in a Google search under the Title link. Make sure it's short and different for each page.

Fifth, Keywords. What are they? What people type in Google or other search engines to find something. So for us, people put in “awesome websites” or “css footer” (because we have an article on making a CSS footer). The basic logic is you find out what these keywords are in your industry and overuse them so you trick Google into thinking you know all about it. Well, I hate to break it to you but they're not the big deal they used to be. At least not in the header of your HTML. Word on the street is Google doesn't even look there anymore. I'd still put them in cause other search engines still do. Use some keywords in your page title, header tags and throughout the body. Don't go nuts and make things annoying to read, but responsibly placed keywords will boost your rankings.

Sixth, don't fall for unrealistic promises. There are a lot of SEO companies that promise the top spot in a Google search rank. Or charge you to submit your site to search engines. It's all garbage. Google says themselves that it's impossible to guarantee a top spot. They're going to rank you where you belong; and if they catch you trying to cheat they'll just pull your site. And search engines index sites for free. No need to pay someone to do that. Granted, not all non-profits may be in a position to pay for Search Engine Optimization, but beware of the companies that are cheap and promise huge results.

9. Getting Help

Getting a website developed is a big job; we know first hand! Where do you start? Who do you call? This would be an excellent place for a self promotional plug, but we won't go there smile. Below are some tips and links to get you going.

Get some inspiration by starting with a web gallery. They have thousands of the best designs on the web and are a perfect place to get some inspiration. The list below is just a few of the many.

You probably have a lot of questions by now. What's CSS? What's a Content Management System? The internet is a huge resource to fill in the gaps. First, try finding an online forum where you can ask questions and get free help. Second, read others bloggers columns. They give away free advice everyday. And third, just search for it. Google (or your search engine of choice) almost always has an answer.

Alright, so you're ready to get the job done? Realizing you may need professional help? Here are a few places to start.

10. Technical Stuff

We've tried not to get too geeky on you so far; we know this is quite a bit to take in all at once. But we do think it's important to have a bit of background on some terminology when dealing with your webmaster or potential design firm. You, too can be a geek like us!

Your Designer should use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), not tables for layout.

Basically it means that your colors, fonts and visual design are handled by one stylesheet file instead of being embedded in every page of your site. It's not 1999 anymore and the web has matured. CSS separates your presentation from your content, helps make your site more accessible for the handicapped and makes sitewide changes to colors, fonts, etc… much easier. It also helps reduce code bloat and keeps your site moving fast.

Dynamic vs. Static content

For really small sites, static pages were ok. You hand coded the whole thing and then uploaded it to a server. But in the world of blogs and social networking, dynamic pages have become a necessity. A dynamic page is assembled on the fly each time it loads. This way, your page always has your most recent changes automatically. For instance, your header or footer file come from one place; it's not hard coded into every page. Want to change they copyright date in the footer? Do it in one place. Dynamic sites can search, sort and catalog all your data for you, and in the case of blogs, each entry creates a new page which is great for SEO.

Open Source

To keep your cost and development down, we recommend open source software. Stay away from proprietary technologies like ASP or Frontpage. Use free, open source languages like PHP and MySQL. The best content management systems run better on Apache, not Microsoft servers. They're also much easier to manage. Oh, and please don't host your website through your ISP (Internet Service Provider.) They do too many other things and are generally a large hassle to deal with when developing. Check out 3rd parties like Dreamhost or Bluehost.

Content Management System (CMS)

So we've mentioned this one a lot already, but here's some more details. As CMS lets you manage frequently updated content from an easy to use backend. You generally don't need to know any code once it's setup. You just enter information and the CMS takes care of the rest. This way the power is back in your hands. You don't have to call your web developer every time you have an update. If you have a site with more than 10 pages this is probably the way you should go.


At the beginning of this article (and at the seminar) we promised there would be downloads of the handouts and the presentation here online. So here they are. Download, printout and enjoy!


  1. Thanks for the good info on web design.

  2. This comment was smacked down by the Iron Fisted Spam Punisher here at FortySeven Media. He delights in keeping this blog spam free!

    Please enjoy this haiku instead:

    With an Iron Fist
    All Spam Is Thusly Smitten
    Word To Your Mother

  3. *happy word*, so many info - thanks!

    *EDIT* - Normally we would delete this…but it’s make so little sense it’s staying.

  4. real good tips, thanks

  5. You are right to recognize the power of social media. Sites like myspace, facebook are so popular these days, pretty much everyone has one account with them

  6. Good guide!

  7. I’m glad to see that you are providing a vluable service to the non-profite organizations. Wish everyone did their part

  8. when putting together all of my blogs, I always start with a good framework, and I’ve found ProSense, built by some SEO experts to be a great start. It’s a good looking template, extremely configurable and even has built-in adsense code, pretty sweet if you ask me smile

  9. About hot free layouts’ comment:

    Social Media sites are indeed a very powerful. However, I wouldn’t rely on them as a permanent traffic source for your sites unless you have a great article on the front page permanentely, which is something very difficult to achieve.

    To Jonathan Longnecker:

    Great post, and what a great blog! :D Is this theme one of your designs?

  10. Hey Ikki,

    Thanks for the kind words, sir! Yep we designed it. But we’re a design company so I guess that’s expected smile You’re right, social media is just a part of a good strategy; if the content’s no good when they get there then you’re wasting your time.

  11. Thanks for sharing the fantastic tips!  Very helpful…

  12. Great list and very true.  Each and every one of these point are critical to any website’s success.  I am definitely going to pass your list on if you don’t mind grin

  13. This is a very helpful list.  I’m going to pass on to a few people grin

  14. Thanks for sharing the detailed guidelines, I bet a lot of designers will benefit from this. A very good post.

  15. This is a Fantastic Blog. Anybody who whats to design their website better, they will definitely gain more with this article.Thanks for details.

  16. I love your detailed, but simple explanation of the steps involved with creating a website. We, like you, appreciate honest and ethical web designers who tell clients the truth and help them accomplish their goals. Bravo!

  17. Very helpful. I’m certainly going to pass it on to everyone who asks me for help in setting up a nonprofit site - but think some of the advice is worth returning to later. (Different nonprofits need sites for different reasons - the Disaster Accountability Project [http://disasteraccountability.org] - who I do pro bono work for - needs people around the country to report in. Others need sites strictly as calling cards or collateral.

  18. @Jonathan Soroko Good call; this is more of a general list of things and it’s absolutely true that different organizations will have totally different needs. We hope this will at least give them a place to start.

  19. Hi

    I rly like ur site. It just shines out ‘peace’. Very nice chosen colors indeed!.
    Im just new to EE but i like it alot. I came from drupal but this so much more freedom!

    But i wanted to ask you, what u asking for a simple design? I wish i could make stuff like you, but i’m more in Servers and networking. Doing webdesign as hobby., but for my business i want a slick fancy EE website. Wel let me know.


    Sebastiaan Bras

    ps: sorry for my crappy english <> dutch

  20. great guide! will share for sure! thanks, you guys! =)

  21. Excellent post, fair play to you giving something back.  The post is very well structured for a non designer / ngo / non-profit and gives key easy to understand information about valid aspects of creating or having a site created.

    There is a lot to be said for empowerment and the passing of valid informative information!

  22. Natasha Posted on   Thank you for sharing your story.  I’m sorry you are in pain, it’s very very dilfciuft.  Try to stay positive and move forward.  Peace and blessings, Natasha

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