The Trouble with Nonprofit Website Design Inspiration

The Trouble with Nonprofit Website Design Inspiration

When you need a creative spark, looking around for website design inspiration can jump-start your brainstorm and help you decide your likes and dislikes. But if you’re not careful, compiling a bunch of examples can get your website project off on the wrong foot.

Before you spend too much time searching for lists of award-winning websites or asking colleagues and friends for ideas, make sure you have a plan for what you want to accomplish. There are a number of ways you can be led astray, which only snowball as you move forward with putting together a budget, creating a request for proposal, and choosing the right web design company.

7 Ways You’re Getting Off Track

Managing your nonprofit’s website project is hard enough without getting derailed right at the start. Looking for inspiration and website examples is a good way to define your likes and dislikes, but it can distract you from the most important website considerations. Here are some of the common problems we’ve encountered working with all types of organizations.

You don’t prioritize your audience

Your nonprofit has a unique target audience full of specialized interests. Within that audience, you also have personas that are on different journeys with and through your organization. This uniqueness should be reflected in your website structure and page names, the voice and tone of your content, and calls to action on your site.

Even if you’re browsing a list of the best nonprofit websites out there, it’s extremely unlikely that another organization has created something that you can (or should) mimic exactly in order to serve your mission and constituents.

You overlook your nonprofit’s goals

Let’s say you find an example of a nonprofit website that looks really modern or has innovative features that you hadn’t even considered until now. Your website wish list starts to grow longer with interesting ideas. But what do you need your website to be able to do? The start of any website project should include a concrete list of goals that tie into where you want to go as an organization.

From there, start with a list of essential website features and start separating the must-have from nice-to-have items. You might decide to pass on a custom community forum and create a Facebook group. Or maybe that online store is a distraction from other revenue-generating activities. You’ll feel more comfortable making decisions like these if you prioritize your goals now.

You devalue your brand

Chances are that you’ll come across a few websites that have a great look and feel but don’t really match your organization’s aesthetic. Maybe you can picture using different colors and fonts with similar results. Or you start to think that now is the time to uplevel your marketing to fit this aspirational example.

Ideally, you’ll feel great about your nonprofit’s brand and style before heading into a website project. From this position, you’ll be better able to identify and communicate design preferences that align with your brand and overall tone. You’ll also want to consider your brand’s strengths and how that plays into website design. For example, avoid photo-heavy approaches if high-quality photography is a big challenge for your organization.

You forget about usability & maintenance

The excitement of looking around for website design inspiration can inadvertently shift your attention to what a site looks like more than how people will be able to use it. Nice first impressions don’t automatically mean impressive usability. A website should work for a wide range of abilities and tech know-how, especially if your nonprofit wants to (or must) meet accessibility standards.

Seeing web design from the front end also doesn’t tell you much about how the site actually works on the administrative side of things. For the website managers out there, that means you won’t have a good idea of how practical it is to maintain given your own skills and abilities.

You don’t factor in budget & time

One of the toughest questions web designers get is “how much would a website like ___ cost?” There’s so much that goes into making a website, from the platform itself, graphic elements, and content creation—not to mention custom features. And, of course, a lot of time.

At the start of your website project, you probably won’t know how much different components cost, the potential return on investment, or what you’ll pay to keep it updated. (Which is why we offer easy monthly pricing.) But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream big. Just keep in mind that going extra comes with the need for extra budget. A more complex site could also mean a longer timeline to build it.

You assume high performance

We’ve all been guilty of looking at a gorgeous nonprofit website and thinking “Geez, they must rake in the donations.” If an organization invests a big chunk of change into a new website, it’s easy to assume that it more than pays for itself. The same goes for lists of top nonprofit websites—but there’s a lot that goes into these curated selections of websites that don’t necessarily have anything to do with how well the sites perform.

Unless you know an insider who’s willing to share analytics, take flashy functionality and design with a grain of salt. You can’t know if a site is helping an organization meet its goals. While it might seem boring right now, having a practical site with some longevity and the potential to grow with you should still be a priority.

You overload yourself with ideas

If your Pinterest account, bulletin board or file folder is overflowing with website design inspiration, you’re not doing yourself any favors. When our team asks clients for some examples of sites that they like, we’re looking for a list of 3-5 max. Culling your list of ideas down to a smaller selection is a good sign that you’ve set clear goals and priorities.

As you look for examples, stay focused on what’s most important. Try to filter out inspiration that you personally like versus what fits your nonprofit’s reality. This can also help you avoid the sticky situation of giving your colleagues, boss or board the wrong expectations for what’s possible.

5 Questions to Ask Instead

As you look for inspiration, keep your website project on track by asking yourself the following questions when you find a site you love. Taking notes like these can also help you put together a great request for proposal later on in the process.

  1. What is it exactly that I like? Get specific and try to articulate things clearly for future reference as you sort through your ideas.
  2. What is it like to get around on the site? In addition to how easy it is for you to use, imagine how your audience might react to a design or feature.
  3. What does this site allow people to do? Identify functionality that is also important for your site to include, like email signups or online donations.
  4. What kind of platform is it built on? If you’re hoping to do updates in-house, you might prioritize a system you’re familiar with, like checking to see if it’s WordPress.
  5. How is it different from what we need? Even if you like a lot of the site, calling out what you don’t like or need helps narrow down what you’re looking for.

Where to look for website design inspiration

Now that you’re better prepared to scour the internet for inspiration and ideas, here are several sources we recommend.

  • Lists of great nonprofit websites that explain their rationale, such as those from npENGAGE, CauseVox and Double the Donation
  • Asking for ideas (or referrals) from colleagues at other organizations, even if they don’t work on causes like yours
  • Looking at the websites of organizations that your board members and top supporters or funders are also involved with
  • Considering websites from outside of the charity sector

The process of finding design inspiration should be as purposeful as it is fun and hopeful. Nowadays, the vast majority of nonprofits around the world have websites, giving you a seemingly endless pool of examples to swim in. Being strategic about where and how you look for ideas can keep your website project on track. Even better, clearly articulating your goals, must-have elements and style preferences will help you build a strong relationship with your website designer.

Where do you look for website design inspiration? What else do you think people should consider when searching for examples? See you in the comments!