How to Choose the Right Web Design Company for Your Nonprofit

Choosing a Nonprofit Website Design Company

Your nonprofit has been putting off rebuilding the website for a couple of years and now, when you finally have time between your event planning, volunteer management and fundraising, your staff has decided it’s time for something new.  As you sit down to start the process, you might realize that it’s not like buying a box of pens.  It’s a big investment, and thus, something you want to make sure you handle correctly.

While every nonprofit’s case varies and the best steps may differ based on your needs, we’ve outlined a process here to help you hire the right company and hopefully provide you the direction you need to create the best website for your nonprofit.

I want to add a disclaimer before we start walking through the process.  We are a web design company, but this article isn’t meant to promote our services.  Just like you, we want to work with clients that feel we’re the best fit for their project.  It’s our hope that this information will help you to find the organization that’s best for your nonprofit, even if it means not working with us.

Alright, now that that’s out of the way.  Let’s get to the good stuff.

1. Prepare the Necessary Information

Before jumping on the phone to call all the web design companies you know, it’s a good idea to compile some important information.  Most web design firms will ask you some similar initial questions, so you might as well be prepared.  Here is a list of the questions you should be ready to answer up front.

  1. Who is going to be the point person on the project? – While it might make sense to have two or more people providing feedback throughout the project, it’s always good to have one person responsible for communicating with the web design firm and delivering materials by the given deadlines.
  2. What is your nonprofit’s target market for donors, and also for anyone else your nonprofit will serve or help through your website? – It’s important to provide details such as gender, age, ethnicity, language and economic status for both your target donors and those you intend to serve online.
  3. Can you list some organizations that provide similar services to your nonprofit? – List out some of your organization’s competitors and their websites.  Based on the competition, web design firms can determine what techniques are likely to succeed and which are likely to fail on your website.
  4. What are three websites you like and three that you don’t like?  Why? – This allows web design firms to get an idea of the type of design or specific functionality that you like.  Once you start the project you will probably have to answer questions like this in much more depth.
  5. What are the goals of creating a new website? – Do you want to increase your fundraising using the internet?  Are you trying to provide a service on your website?  Do you want to increase your organization’s name recognition?  Do you want to grow your volunteer base?  This question is one of, if not the most critical question to answer before you begin the process of building a new website.  Remember, your new website is an investment, not an expense.  It should generate a return for your organization.
  6. What do you want your website to do? – Many of the answers to this question stem from the goals you provided before.  Do you want to have photo and video galleries?  Do you want to manage volunteers or collect donations on the website?  Do you want to allow board members to download files from the website?  There are an enormous number of things your website can do, so having an idea of what those things are will streamline the process of finding and selecting a company to help you.
  7. What is your budget? – This can be a tough question, but you need to have an idea of how much your nonprofit is willing to spend.  Whether you have an exact number or a range, knowing your budget can save you and a web design firm an enormous amount of time.  You never want to meet with a web design firm, answer a ton of questions, and then get a proposal that’s five times what you were hoping to spend.  Save time and give them your budget up front.

I would recommend placing these questions and the answers to each into a document you can provide to each website design company when asking for a proposal.  This will not only speed up the time it takes to receive proposals, but could actually lower the price if the firm sees you as an accountable organization that will finish deliverables on schedule.

2. Choose a Small Number of Web Design Firms

There are about twenty million (well maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration) web design firms in the United States and not surprisingly, almost every one of them has a website.  So how, out of all these companies, do you find the firms that will be a good fit and pick which ones to talk to?

How to Search for Web Companies

There are a lot of ways to find a website design company for your nonprofit, but in case you need some additional options, here are some ideas.

  1. Google Search “Web Design” + Location or “Nonprofit” – This one might seem obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to mention it.  Two examples would be “Web Design St. Louis” and “Web Design Nonprofit”.
  2. Look in the Footer of Websites You Like – Often, the company that created a website will be listed in the website’s footer.  If you find a website you really like, check the footer to see if you can find the company that made the website.
  3. Check Out Blog Authors – If you find a particularly helpful article relating to website design on a blog, check out the author’s background.  It’s possible the author works for a website design firm.

How to Filter Out Companies Without Talking to Them

During your search you’re likely to find a lot of companies, but if you want to have time to do anything else besides talk to website design businesses, you should cut down the list to a manageable number.  We suggest starting with a list of five, but it’s really up to you.  Remove a firm from your list if it meets any of these criteria:

  1. You Don’t Like Their Website Designs – Check out the company’s portfolio and if you don’t like any of the websites they’ve made, chances are you won’t like the website they make for your nonprofit.  You likely won’t love all of their designs, but you should see some work that resonates with you.
  2. They Haven’t Tweeted or Updated Their Facebook Page in More Than Six Months – An outdated social media presence is a good sign that the organization doesn’t have the capacity to handle your project or doesn’t understand the technologies they’re offering.
  3. Pricing is Out of Your Range – Sometimes organizations will list their pricing on their website.  If their price is out of your budget, you can take them off of your list.
  4. They’re in a Niche That Doesn’t Fit – If the company’s website says they focus on mobile app development, or websites for lawyers, they’re probably not a good fit for your new nonprofit website.

One of these might not be a deal breaker for you, and that’s okay.  Just remember that there are tons of web design firms, so you have the opportunity to be a little picky.

3. Send Your Information to the Firms

You gathered your information and found some great web design firms.  Now it’s time to send over the information you compiled in step one.  At this point it’s up to the web design firm to guide you through the remainder of the process.

Once you’ve sent your information your nonprofit has an often overlooked opportunity to get an idea of each firm’s ability to communicate effectively.  Take note of how long they take to respond with a proposal, whether or not they respond when they say they will and how quickly they get back to you via email or over the phone.  If they struggle with communication during the sales process, they likely won’t fare well when the project starts.

4. Get Answers to All the Important Questions

At this point the process can move in a number of different directions depending on how the web design firm handles potential projects.  Instead of trying to walk through each possible scenario, I’ll provide a list of questions that will help you determine the best firm for your website project.

General Administrative

  1. What is the price of the project?  Is that price fixed or is it possible the price will change throughout the project?  If it’s going to change, will you be notified before receiving an invoice?
  2. How long will it take to complete the project?
  3. Do they have any sample work that includes the features and functionality you want in your new website?
  4. Do they have any references you can call to ask about their work?
  5. Who will be in charge of managing the project for the web design firm?  Do they have a single point person?

The Website Design Process

  1. What information must be provided before the project can start?
  2. Will the website be built from a template design or designed from scratch?
  3. How many different initial website design comps will be provided before the entire website design is created?
  4. How many pages will be designed for your organization before the website is programmed?
  5. How many times, if at all, will your organization be able to see a fully programmed and workable website before it goes live for the world to see?
  6. At what point in the process will content be added to the website and who will be adding the content?

Ensuring Website Quality

  1. How will the firm go about making the website search engine friendly?  They should at the very least talk about programming code, content, sitemaps and file size.
  2. What web browsers will the firm test in prior to launching the website?  The firm should test in at least Internet Explorer 7, Internet Explorer 8, Internet Explorer 9, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera.  If you want the website to be mobile-friendly make sure to ask about testing there as well.
  3. What steps does the firm take to make the website load quickly?  They should be doing caching, image compression, image sprites, HTML and CSS minification to name a few.

Outside of the Website Itself

  1. How does the firm recommend you host the new website?  How much will it cost initially and on a recurring basis?  Are support and security updates included or do they cost extra?
  2. How does the firm recommend you handle email hosting?  How much will it cost initially and on a recurring basis?
  3. If your organization doesn’t already have one, how does the firm recommend finding and securing a domain name?
  4. How will the website integrate with your social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.?
  5. How will the website integrate with your other online tools, such as a donor management system?

After the Website’s Completion

  1. What training, if any, will be included at the end of the project?  Will your nonprofit be able to update the website without the assistance of the web design company?
  2. How will the firm handle any additional maintenance and support after the project is finished?
  3. Does the firm include any process to review the website at a later date and tell your organization what’s working and what isn’t?
  4. How can your organization determine if the website is successful after the website goes live?  Make sure they are providing some type of analytics and measurement tool for you to use (Google Analytics is an awesome, free option).

While some of these questions will be more important to your nonprofit than others, the above list should serve as a good starting point for the information you’ll want to know before making a final decision.  The key is to make sure you’re comprehensive.  We know it takes time, but the web design process is long and detailed.  You definitely don’t want anything important to slip through the cracks.

5. Choose the Best Firm for Your Project

After careful review and questioning it’s time to pick the best firm for the project.  The qualities that make one firm stand out compared to another will be different for every organization.  The key here is to make sure you are comparing apples to apples.

A firm you really like may have a price that’s much higher than the others. Before tossing them out, make sure they’re providing the same features, functionality and quality as the other organizations.  Maybe they’re including mobile development and a better plan to optimize your website for search engines.   Maybe they’re integrating your online donations with your donor management system.

In any case, make sure you’re looking at each firm on a level playing field.

Common Pitfalls in the Process

We’ve been through this process quite a few times and have seen where projects can fall apart.  Here are the most common pitfalls we see during the process of selecting a web design firm.

  1. Choosing the Cheapest Firm Because They’re the Cheapest – This really goes for any vendor, but be careful when choosing the cheapest firm to do your new website.  If the quality isn’t good your visitors will suffer, and the investment you made won’t provide nearly the return you were hoping for.  First and foremost, make sure you pick an organization that you think will do a great job.  After that, if they’re the least expensive, then consider that a bonus.
  2. Choosing Someone to Make the Website Who Does This Part-Time – While it may be tempting to work with someone who makes websites part-time because of the low cost or a personal relationship, this comes with a lot of risk:
    • The person may take a lot longer than a typical web design company to finish the project.
    • They may get really busy in their full-time job and stop working on your project completely.
    • They may do both the design and programming for your website.  This can work, but we’ve found that usually someone is really good at one or the other.
    • They may not be around after the project is complete to offer maintenance and support.
  3. Asking a Print Designer to Design for the Web – The web world and the print world are very different.  In the print world you use inches instead of pixels.  In the web world you have to be concerned with links, rollovers and navigation, along with considering user experience.  While someone might be great with print design, they might not understand the intricacies of designing for the web.  If possible, use a web designer to design your website.
  4. Not Having a Point Person for Your Nonprofit from the Start – I listed this one above, but it deserves repeating.  It is always a good idea to have someone who is accountable for keeping the project moving forward and getting things done right.  When the point person is unclear deadlines get missed, emails disappear without a trace and the quality of your final website suffers.  Do yourself a favor and pick someone that will have ample time from the beginning.

When all is said and done, your nonprofit should be on its way to an awesome website with a qualified web design firm.  If you go through this process and create a website that delivers in every possible way, contact us and let us know.  We’d love to hear about your experience.

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Image courtesy of Christopher Matson, Flickr