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Salsa Blog

How to Build a Website for Charitable Organizations Salsa - Part 1

by Christine Schaefer, VP of Community and Marketing, Salsa

This is part one in a three-part series on building a website for your nonprofit. To learn how to find the right person to build your website read part two. For optimization tips, read part 3.

The first step: How to Choose a CMS for Your Nonprofit

If you’re ready to build a website for your charitable foundation, you no doubt have some very clear needs. Whether you are building new or rebuilding an existing site, you want your site to be easy to update, maintain, and customize. You also want to be able to hit the ground running from the get-go, stay on budget, and not have to worry about support.

For this you’ll need a content management system (CMS) - the back-end interface that lets and your staff add and organize content on your website.

Choosing a CMS that fits your budget as well as the current and future of your nonprofit is an important decision. Should you use WordPress or Drupal? Or perhaps invest in a custom solution?

Chances are, unless you’ve done this before, you’re feeling overwhelmed already. But since Salsa has worked with so many clients at various stages of their website launch and redesign, I figured I’d try to help ease some pain and hopefully save you a few headaches in the long-run. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of some of the most popular content management systems available, plus some tips for finding the right one for your needs.

CMS Platforms - Understanding Open Source and Proprietary Software

Let’s start by defining your options at the 10,000 foot level then I’ll drill down a little more into the pros and cons of each.

CMS platforms come in two flavors – open source or closed source (aka proprietary software).

An open source CMS is free web software that can be download and customized to your liking. With an open source CMS you can build a decent site fairly fast, often without the help of a developer. One of the great benefits of open source is it gives you the flexibility to scale your site as your nonprofit grows and changes over time thanks to a plethora of free plug-ins and add-ons. WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are the big guns in this space.

Closed source software is the exact opposite of open source. What you pay for is what you get, the source code can’t be modified by anyone except the owner of that code. Some of the players in this space are Microsoft SharePoint and Shopify. Although these solutions lack the flexibility of open source CMS, they do provide better support and security – although the upfront and ongoing support costs can be much higher.

What’s the best option for your nonprofit? The decision you make comes down to three things: your organization’s mission, what you intend on accomplishing with the website, and what web resources you have on staff.

Okay, time to drill down further.

Choosing an Open Source CMS: WordPress, Drupal and Joomla

WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are trusted by millions of for-profits and nonprofits to manage their web sites. Here’s what each can offer:

WordPress – While WordPress started life as a blogging platform, it has since evolved into a feature-rich CMS platform proven to support complex nonprofit sites (take a look at these 20 Great Examples of Nonprofit Websites Built with WordPress).

Ease of use is a big plus for WordPress users, especially in the nonprofit community. Thanks to its intuitive interface and minimal learning curve, users can start adding content including pages, posts, images, videos, and other dynamic content quickly and easily.

In terms of features, WordPress is backed by a huge developer community which makes available thousands of themes (basically the template on which your site is based), tools and plug-ins (such as event registration, PayPal donation buttons, social media tools, domain mapping – which lets your chapters have their own domain name), and more. With these add-ons, you can customize your site to your exact needs (rather than paying for out-of-the-box proprietary software features that you don’t have a use for).

When to comes to getting support for any issues that might arise, users can turn to WordPress’ robust community (much larger than Drupals) which includes support manuals and forums, you can also hit up Google and you’ll surely find a fix to your problem.

While WordPress is ideal for nonprofits with 1-2 site administrators and a small group of content contributors, if you need to build a larger community-based site with a more contributors and lots of pages, come with me and take a look at Drupal.


Charity Water - Built on WordPress

Drupal –Drupal offers nonprofits a great deal of flexibility and is considered the go-to solution for nonprofits looking to support a high-performing, scalable website. Now, that’s not to say Drupal is purely an enterprise-grade solution, depending on your needs Drupal can be a great CMS tool for everyone from the smallest grassroots movement to large, national charities. (See how we helped the awesome folks at Earth Day Network make Drupal work with their Salsa integration.)

Let’s take a look at Drupal’s features and some of the reasons why it’s earned a reputation as a great CMS for scaling out your nonprofits online ventures.

First, Getting started with Drupal does require a more technical expertise than WordPress and, depending on your needs, you may need development help or access to a site administrator who’s worked in Drupal before. Once you’re up and running, you’ll find that Drupal offers a lot of features that appeal to nonprofits, particularly if you’re building a more dynamic, community-driven site.

For example, if you plan on having volunteers or non-staff contributors writing or creating content for your website, Drupal’s strong permissions functionality lets you control who can post what and where. This intelligence can also be extended to site visitors and enables you to control what content visitors can view, comment on, and share. Drupal also comes with useful automated tasks such as adding donors to a specific website user group after they make a donation.

As with WordPress, the Drupal community of support is also strong.

Finally, Drupal is notoriously search engine friendly, and can help boost the profile of your cause through SEO.


Relay for Life - Built on Drupal

Joomla – Another popular choice is Joomla. Joomla is almost a hybrid WordPress / Drupal CMS because it’s flexible enough to support a full-featured site (for power users), but is also easy-to-use. Beginners can get up and running very quickly and first-time users can expect a lot of support from the Joomla community. Joomla plug-ins and third party extensions can be added as your confidence with the environment grows – add everything from secure online donation forms, email sign-up capabilities, and even CRM systems!

Choosing a Commercial or Custom CMS

While open source CMS platforms offer affordability, paid out-of-the box or a custom solutions do have their advantages.

With these tools, website functionality comes as standard, there’s no need for plug-ins or themes. Web hosting, maintenance, technical support, and upgrades are also included in the price (although not always). Security is also more tightly controlled.

Of course, these features come at a price. If you have the budget, a clear idea and plan for the scope of your site, and don’t want to deal with open source hassles, then an out-of-the-box solution is worth a look.

If you need help, but don’t want to throw money at features you don’t need, consider a custom CMS. There are many website design and development firms geared towards helping nonprofits build and manage their own sites like PowerThru ConsultingCornershop Creative, 4Site Studios, and Beaconfire Consulting to name but a few.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, one CMS doesn’t suit every need. If you need functionality, look for solutions that allow you to scale your system as you nonprofit grows. If you have the right platform and the technical skills, open source is a great option for doing this. If you’re looking for integration with your nonprofit’s CMS and the Salsa platform, talk to your account manager. They will steer you in the right direction for a seamless, easy solution.

Above all, don’t be drawn in by flashy tools and features that you’ll never use, choose a system that meets your needs, your budget, and your plans for the future. If you plan on working with a developer or web design firm, select that person or company first, then draw on their experience and understanding of your needs to guide your choice of CMS.

Read part two in this blog series for how to find someone to build your website, ensuring it’s social and mobile-friendly, and choosing the right tools and add-ons


Topics: Marketing