The big problem with nonprofits’ websites

A sizeable chunk of my business is the development of content for websites. I write websites from scratch and I work on redesigns.

A few months ago I realized that, while all web design projects have their frustrations, there were some telling differences between the redesign projects for nonprofits and those for businesses. A few examples:

• Businesses typically want redesigns because an existing site doesn’t meet certain performance goals; nonprofits want redesigns because their sites are confusing, out of date, or unattractive.

• Business site redesigns are led by someone at the company’s director level; nonprofit site redesigns are usually led by committees made up of line staff from different departments.

• Business site redesigns are top priority, and take less than three months; nonprofit site redesigns often take more than a year.

• Business site redesigns usually start with the director presenting a list of goals and features, and asking the consultants to work from those; nonprofit redesigns began with the consultants being asked to explain what is wrong with the current site.

At this point, anyone who knows about organizational effectiveness should be seeing the red flags.

As a consultant and contractor, the difference that concerns me the most is client satisfaction when the redesign work is complete. The businesses are generally happy with their sites, which have new features that solve the old problems. The nonprofits, however, are often disappointed with their sites, which for some reason still look old-fashioned and still sound stilted and confused.

Seth Godin has some brilliant, and very troubling, observations on the topic of nonprofits today in his post “The problem with non.”

I read his post with great interest because I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something in the nature of nonprofits that leads them to have websites that appear flabby, undistinguished, and ineffective.

Let me be clear: This problem nonprofits have with their websites is not lack of money to spend on website design — although that’s the factor some of them chose to blame. Consider that some of the most attractive and effective websites around are small-business sites that were done for less than three thousand dollars — including full graphic design.

No, what I think hampers nonprofits’ websites is a lack of organizational commitment to communication. Many nonprofit websites are doomed to crumminess because, no matter how much time the organization spends moaning about it, the website remains at the absolute bottom of the organization’s priority list. That’s evident when you see that the person assigned to be in charge of the site is likely to be either someone at a level where she has very little organization-wide authority or someone who is so busy doing her “real job” that she has no time to devote to fripperies like managing the site.

Watch how this plays out. (Warning: It’s not pretty.)

Over at the business website, the director of communications or marketing is deluged with requests from all over the company (HR, sales, the board of directors) to put new material up on the website. Often it’s a request to feature something on the front page of the site. The director of communications weighs how much value each item has to the company. Then she firmly tells people whose requests don’t substantively help the company’s bottom line or public image that their stuff isn’t going to make it onto the website. Material that is in the company’s best interests gets written up in the correct style, edited, and posted on the site — but rarely on the carefully designed and carefully maintained front page.

At the nonprofit website, the staff member who “does” the website is also deluged with requests to put material up on the site. But in this case, the individual has no authority to say “no” to anything — a problem when most of the requests are coming from the managers of other departments. And, to be fair to the individual, most nonprofits have no easy way of quantifying the value to the organization of any particular piece of communication or information. After all, the agency isn’t booking appointments, or selling widgets, from the site.

As a result, the nonprofit’s homepage is soon cluttered information that has more meaning to internal stakeholders than to any web visitor. You’ll find a client interview, a new slogan, a video of a United Way commercial, blurry snapshots from the company picnic, and a teeny graphic that no one can tell is the cover of the annual report. And the rest of the site gets cluttered with pages and pages of dry material that quickly go out of date. Once something goes up on the site, it never comes down. Because nobody has any authority — or any time — to remove it.

Is the solution to hire another couple of freelancers to do yet another web redesign? I don’t think so. Read “The problem with non” first.

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