Sustainable Digital: The Shame of the Aging Nonprofit Website

By Bob Lawson, Founder of Sustainable Digital

How many aging nonprofit websites have you seen lately?

The sites are four, six, or even 10 years old and apparently nothing has changed for that entire time.  It’s not good. Certainly the organizations behind the sites have changed in that period of time. But the websites have not.

The problem is that websites are expensive to create and they’re more expensive still to update. And so they are left to age.

Let’s have a look at the causes of this problem.

Content Management Systems, or CMSs, form the skeleton on which websites are built. It is what a web developer uses to initially build your site and it is what you use to update and grow your website over time. Almost all sites now use a CMS, so naturally, the selection of a CMS is extremely important.

Some CMSs make it easy for nontechnical people to make changes to the site. Other CMSs are not so good. Having a CMS that is good at this means the difference between paying a web developer to make changes to your site (over and over again) and making those changes yourself.

WordPress, it is estimated, powers nearly a third of all websites. It has grown so popular for good reason. It’s good software and it is supported by a large group of programmers and companies that supply it with design templates and plugins.

 

WordPress is good, but now there are new competitors nipping at its heals. These new competitors, including such systems as SquareSpace, are able to offer people the ability to manage their own websites. And this is something quite valuable, indeed.

 

I have nothing against WordPress. It’s a good system that is quite appropriate for more complex needs, and I love that it is Open Source. But the vast majority of websites require nothing complex. What they require is an interface that makes it easy for nontechnical people to make updates. This is where WordPress has trouble and Squarespace shines.

 

Squarespace gives you an interface that is a bit like PowerPoint. Like many people, I have many complaints about PowerPoint, but one must admit that it is easy to use. If you want text somewhere, you insert a block of text. If you want a photo, you insert it. And once you have them on the screen, you can move them about, change their size, and so on.

 

Fortunately, Squarespace is more sophisticated than PowerPoint and the final product is much more pleasing, but the process is much the same. You start with a template (and Squarespace has some lovely ones) and then you make the design your own, adding your own photos and text along the way.

 

If you have some experience in web development, or are willing to spend some late nights in front of your computer, you may be able to do your website all on your own. More likely, you’ll want a web designer to start you off, as she or he will have the design ability and the in-depth knowledge of Squarespace to produce a site that rises well above the ordinary.  

 

After this, you can take over.

Content management systems like Squarespace have changed the nature of web development.  This is why I now talk about “web mentoring” rather than “web development.”  Mentoring is a process by which I develop a website together with the client. At Sustainable Digital we find that we are now working with clients rather than for them.

This way, when the website is complete, the training of the client is also complete and the client is ready to take over maintenance of the site. It is as much a process of knowledge transfer as it is website development.

And hopefully this will mean the end of old websites.

 

Bob Lawson is the founder of Sustainable Digital (www.sustainabledigital.com), based in Putney, Vermont. The firm offers digital communication and technology services to nonprofits and international NGOs.

 

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