Sniffing out low-cost and free services is a savvy skill, especially for organizations considering a tool that it’s not fully committed to or when a decision-maker is unsure about the potential return on investment. Pro bono web design for nonprofits often falls in this category—despite the fact that websites are a must-have piece of your technology stack.

Looking at the big picture, relying too much on free services and software is among the most common marketing mistakes in the sector. With limited budgets and capacity, it’s easy to do a quick search and end up with a free version of something you need—even if it doesn’t offer the exact features or integrations required.

If you’re meeting some of your organization’s core needs and the “solution” is cheap, what’s the real harm?

Take the case of nonprofit websites, where the price of a custom design and build can easily jump from $10,000-$50,000 and higher based on the scope of the project. Some organizations try to cut these costs by finding a company, freelance designer or volunteer for pro bono services to have everything taken care of, free of charge. Others look to free website builders with more of a DIY option.

Freeing up the money for a website project to spend elsewhere in your organization is certainly going to be tempting. But, while pro bono web design services may cut costs initially, it might not be worth it in the long run for your organization’s most important marketing and fundraising resource.

Common Red Flags & Considerations

There are lots of things to consider when creating a new website, no matter the approach. From project timelines, features and hosting to design options and managing content, we’ve put together a comprehensive list of website considerations as part of our guide on How to Choose the Best Website Company for Your Nonprofit.

However, if you’re thinking about pro bono web design for nonprofits, there are a few additional considerations that are important to your decision-making process.

Setting expectations with inexperienced or unavailable volunteers

Say you’ve found someone who has offered to design your website pro bono. Before proceeding, consider this person’s resources and experience. It’s common for those who are willing to do work for low rates or for free to have the least amount of experience. They are looking to build their portfolios and learn as they go, which might not be an ideal fit for the level of project management you need, an aggressive timeline, or what you’re hoping for in terms of visuals and technical performance.

A first-time volunteer web designer might try to change backend code for a pre-made design template that they may not fully understand. Or they could run into hurdles with more complicated features like accepting secure payments for donations and purchases, integrating online forms with your CRM, or setting up Google Analytics tracking. Will they know how to do browser testing and fix errors prior to launch?

Running the risk of losing valuable data and dollars, irritating your supporters, and having to do the work yourself are no small considerations.

What about more professional services?

There are also situations when a more experienced designer won’t necessarily be a good fit when it comes to pro bono web design. If a seasoned web designer is offering their services, they likely have many other clients. And these clients are paying them.

Should an issue come up that needs immediate attention, what happens if your web designer is working on a high-priority task for a paying client? You’re both in a tough position, trying to prioritize the work that means the most for your respective organizations. 

As one creative agency discovered, pro bono website projects don’t work out if there’s a lack of accountability and motivation on both sides.

Creating a second-best user experience because of cost and complexity

There comes a point at which a “free website” isn’t truly without cost. This isn’t for lack of trying from pro bono designers—you just can’t get some resources for free. Quality website hosting comes with a fee, but having a reliable and secure hosting service is essential for website performance. Payment processing for online donations comes with fees, but the ability to accept credit cards is a must-have for an effective donor flow.

So if you can’t cut out all costs, what about cutting corners on functionality? It’s common to lower the cost of a website redesign by eliminating “nice to have” features like an online store or more custom elements. A pro bono web designer is also going to push for a simple website because it makes for an easier project in terms of time and technical complexity and because it reduces the risk that the project stalls out and never launches.

Where you need to be cautious is when a simple pro bono website turns into one that doesn’t meet core standards of web design and usability, including responsive design and accessibility.

Responsiveness has become one of the most important and popular features of a website. 95% of North American organizations say that they have mobile-compatible websites, according to the Global NGO Technology Survey.

Nonprofit web design also needs to be accessible for those with different abilities. According to the same NGO Survey, North American nonprofits reported that only 25% of websites are designed for visual and hearing disabilities. 

If you’re not meeting basic and mission-critical standards with a free website, it’s time to question the real value of the project. Even though both parties want what’s best for the website, the reality is that a volunteer designer will have difficulty accomplishing everything you want—especially when relying on free labor, tools, plug-ins and themes to cobble a site together.

Making time to manage a complicated relationship

When you hire a business to design and build your nonprofit’s website, you sign a contract or agree to terms of service. Hiring a team guarantees you support, deadlines, and a certain level of quality. But when you use pro bono web design services, expectations are more loosely defined.

Designers will do their best to get tasks done for your website as promised, but you may not get priority when it comes to meeting deadlines or making requested revisions. To help keep things on track, you’ll need to find someone within your organization to manage the project. Given your other priorities, can you find a person who’s willing and able to oversee the website and serve as the point person for the designer?

Another consideration for working with a pro bono web designer is how you plan to manage the relationship beyond the project, as you would any supporter. Think about the ways that you’ll acknowledge them, like including them in a list of donors or partners and allowing them to promote themselves in the footer of your website. 

You might also need to discuss expectations around referrals (sending potential paying clients their way), including them in communications about the website launch, and whether or not their pro bono services are tax-deductible.

Web design and development is not a one-time project

Websites are more of a continued investment than a one-and-done project (which is why we moved from traditional web design to our website platform approach). No matter how your site is built, it will require maintenance, technical upgrades, and other updates to keep it functioning at its best for the long term. The same goes for website content, which should be continually refreshed to reflect the latest events, campaigns, news, programs and ways to get involved at your nonprofit.

With that in mind, what happens if you need an adjustment to your website? Is it appropriate to ask your pro bono web designer for help again? Your designer may have been willing to build your website, but continued maintenance is a completely different time commitment that could (very fairly) come with a price tag.

If your original designer is willing to provide continued services for free, you may face the same challenges with priorities, timelines and project management that you did with the original project. Imagine competing with paying clients who are busy with website projects for holiday shopping at the same time that you’re looking to launch a Giving Tuesday campaign or update your donation form for a year-end appeal.

In the case that you need to turn to a new designer to help with the site in the future, keep in mind that they will need time to get up to speed on your organization and the functionality of the site. If the original website design and build weren’t up to industry standards, or the original designer is the only one with access to key parts of the site, you could be left in the lurch. Document as much of the project as you can to help with your website’s longevity.

Alternatives to Pro Bono Web Design for Nonprofits

In theory, pro bono web design for nonprofits seems like a win-win situation for everyone. Nonprofit organizations gain a necessary resource to power their missions. Meanwhile, designers help out their community and gain more experience. But with websites becoming more complicated every day, finding a skilled professional (paid or unpaid) will help reduce the burden and risks that are inherent with technology projects.

If this is your first website, TechSoup offers a comprehensive outline of what a typical website project looks like from start to finish. From there, you can better assess the options out there to find one that meets your needs, budget and organizational capacity. 

Try the Nonprofit Website Matchmaker

Try out our free Nonprofit Website Matchmaker, where you can rate the best fit for designing your nonprofit’s website based on the different options you’re considering.

When exploring pro bono web design services, consider using services that can help you with the initial vetting process and project management side of things, like Taproot and Catchafire. And if you find yourself needing more than a DIY or free website but not a fully custom website, the Wired Impact platform could be the “in the middle” solution that you’re looking for.

What’s been your experience with pro bono web development, either as a nonprofit or as a volunteer? Any tips or tricks for building a great relationship with pro bono professionals? See you in the comments!