When you’re trying to figure out the best approach for a new nonprofit website, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the options. You want to be responsible with the cost, but not at the expense of ending up with something that’s not professional or has to be redone in a year or two. Many organizations are left wondering if free website builders are a sustainable or solid choice.
Of course, Wired Impact has some experience and opinions when it comes to the best way to build nonprofit websites. We moved from custom web design to offer a website service in 2017 because we feel like it helps more nonprofits looking to grow with a marketing ally they can depend on. Our approach is what we think WordPress for nonprofits should look like.
And even though we’re a little biased, we’ve had plenty of conversations with organizations who are weighing free vs. paid options and struggling to determine what works best for them. (We strive to be honest throughout our sales process and tell nonprofits when our service is not a good fit.) If you’re in the same boat, this post offers a breakdown of things to consider based on your goals, needs and budget.
Frequently Asked Questions About Website Builders
Here are some of the common comparison points for paid vs. free website options so that you can decide the best approach for your nonprofit.
What’s the difference between a website platform and website builder?
Usually the term “website platform” describes the underlying technology that powers a website. It can also refer to the site’s content management system. Common platforms you may have heard of include WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Squarespace and Wix.
While there’s some overlap in how people think about website builders, a site builder typically implies a do-it-yourself approach to web design. This allows beginners to create a website by dragging and dropping different elements on a page with little to no coding.
For example, it’s possible to use WordPress as your website platform but have a fully custom design from a web design firm. Or to use the Wix website builder and take a DIY approach to put it all together on your own using a WYSIWYG editor and pre-made design templates. (We like to think of Wired Impact websites as in the middle of those two approaches.)
Do free website builders offer nonprofit-specific features?
It’s surprisingly rare to find website builders, especially free ones, that are geared toward the needs of nonprofits—like easily accepting online one-time and recurring donations, email newsletter signups, a custom form builder, or event management.
In some cases, you can add these types of functionality if you find a third-party tool to integrate with or embed, but don’t forget that you’ll need to sign up for, maintain, and potentially pay for another piece of tech in your marketing and fundraising ecosystem.
To assess the best option for your nonprofit, be sure to compile a list of must-have features and functionality that go beyond great content. Here are some resources for guidance:
- 10 Must-Have Elements for Nonprofit Websites (sgENGAGE)
- 10 Features All Nonprofit Websites Should Have (Get Fully Funded)
- What Happens When You Post Volunteer Opportunities on Your Website (Wired Impact)
What level of technical know-how do I need for a website builder?
If the thought of doing anything related to CSS or HTML gives you the chills (in a bad way), going a website builder route will probably seem more comfortable. You’ll want to prioritize an easy-to-use interface but not fully sacrifice your ability to control some technical elements of your website, including:
- Integration set up with tools like your donor database or email marketing platform
- Access to website data, like installing Google Analytics or even a Facebook Pixel
- Search engine visibility and optimization (more on that below)
- Ability to check for and fix broken links or create redirects when needed
That’s not to say that you personally must be able to take on all of these tasks, but anyone you bring in to help maintain and troubleshoot your site will want the technical keys to the kingdom.
What are the designs and customizations like?
One of the main perks of using a website builder is access to pre-made templates or themes that style the look and feel of your site. It can make getting to launch so much quicker compared to custom design! Of course, the downside is that you’re banking on the themes being made with care (has it been browser tested?) and in adherence to best practices, like accessibility and responsive design. This is why we create our own nonprofit website themes rather than use ones made somewhere else.
Be on the lookout for customization options like the ability to use your own photos (or access to free stock images), match the colors to your branding, and upload your logo. Here are some additional tips as you consider your design options:
- The Trouble with Nonprofit Website Design Inspiration (Wired Impact)
- Selecting the Perfect WordPress Theme – 9 Things You Should Consider (WP Beginner)
- 38 Nonprofit Branding Questions to Consider on Your Website (Wired Impact)
What kind of search engine optimization will I get?
When it comes to making sure that your nonprofit’s website is visible to search engines, there are a lot of factors that come into play. First, you should have quality content and a great structure that makes it easy for people and search engines to find their way around. Then comes the more technical side of things.
The sad truth is that website builders are known for having terrible search engine optimization (SEO), as outlined in this recent post from Search Engine Journal. In addition to technical limitations, some don’t allow you easy access to vital SEO settings or site speed is so slow that search engines give you a failing grade.
If you want to build new website traffic and supporters from search engines (and who doesn’t?), don’t forget to look into how a website builder performs in terms of SEO. You can often find this information in product reviews, by asking them directly or looking to see what kind of SEO-specific features are offered. For example, Wired Impact websites have the Yoast SEO plugin automatically built-in.
How much customer support can I expect?
This is definitely an area of nonprofit web design where you get what you pay for. With most free website builders, you can expect access to written documentation and support articles about how to use your website and key features. Maybe there’s a contact form to reach out with questions.
Otherwise, you can expect to pay for more hands-on help, like through live chat, emails or phone calls. If you think you might need more guidance at the start of your project, look for plans that allow you to scale up and down as your needs or in-house capacity change.
Are there hidden or extra fees I should be aware of?
There are usually a few price tags that come along with making a website for your nonprofit, including hosting and domain registration, that can make a seemingly “free” website builder cost a bit more at the end of the day. Or you might discover that it’s free to have the site but you’re stuck with third party advertising across your pages.
Carefully evaluate each website option to see what exactly is included and if there are standard features or potential upgrades that have a cost associated with them (like payment processing). Plus, consider if you’ll be stuck in a long-term contract or will need to pay any cancellation fees. And if you have a hard time finding any of this information or need to reach out for a quote, chances are you’re going to need at least a little bit of budget money to fund your site.
All things considered, paying for a service that best meets your needs is worth the investment in terms of time and energy savings.
How to Choose Between Paid and Free Website Builders
Now that we’ve filled your head with lots of considerations, where do you go from here? There are a number of resources available to assist you in making a decision and finding all of the options out there. Here are a few to check out:
- How to Choose the Best Website Company for Your Nonprofit (Wired Impact)
- 6 Best (REALLY FREE) Website Builders for Nonprofits in 2020 (Website Planet)
- Do-it-Yourself Nonprofit WordPress Websites (Nonprofit WP)
Doing your homework on free website builders, paid website platforms and custom web design can leave you with more questions than answers. If you start to feel stuck, take a step back to make sure you’ve answered some core questions, properly prepped for a website project, and have a handle on your website goals. From there, we think it’s helpful to start having conversations with potential companies and designers to get your questions answered.
How did your nonprofit decide between free or paid website builders? What questions do you have about website platforms that we didn’t answer? See you in the comments section.