Using these nonprofit website best practices turns your website from an expensive electronic brochure into a hub of supporter recruitment and engagement.
A website that converts turns casual browsers into action-takers – signing petitions, making donations, volunteering and more.
And with every action taken websites that convert grow their organisation’s email supporter database, one of the most important communication channels for every nonprofit.
Turn your website into a hub of supporter recruitment and engagement by following these nonprofit website best practices:
- Know your audience
- Give your audience things to do
- Emphasise your most important actions
- Use a simple design
- Make navigation easy
- Write compelling text
- Use pictures that tell a story
- Get found
- Be fast
- Be responsive
- Be connected
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Nonprofit website best practices
Know your audience
A website is a communication channel.
And, same as every other channel through which you communicate – from email and social media to billboards and town hall meetings – you will be more effective at getting your message across when you know your audience.
So, the first of our nonprofit website best practices is answering the question, Who is your website for?
Start by identifying your most important audiences.
For advocacy campaigns this is probably the people you need taking actions such as signing petitions and attending marches.
For behaviour change campaigns this may be your change community – the people whose environmentally damaging behaviour you are working to change (e.g. litterers in a campaign to reduce public littering).
But there are other audiences who may be more likely to visit a behaviour change campaign website and take action, especially when the change community is unlikely to visit, such as communities with limited Internet access or low-levels of literacy.
In such cases your most important audiences are most likely segments of the general public you have identified as being supportive of your campaign.
Segments of the general public also make important audiences for advocacy campaigns. After all, you never know who may stick their hand up (or in their pocket) to help.
In addition, both campaign types should recognise the following secondary audiences:
- Politicians and policy makers
- Targets (advocacy campaigns)
Once you’ve identified your audiences you need to get to know them. Assuming an audience has the same interests and concerns as your organisation is a mistake that can result in your website emphasising campaign elements they are uninterested in and ignoring the things they really care about.
Learn to identify effective audiences, conduct audience research and develop campaign messages that motivate action and change with Silent Reef’s Communicate Effective Campaign Messages online course.
Give your audience things to do
Your website – just like your raise awareness activities – must do more than simply educate.
Here are some of the actions you can ask your visitors website to take:
- Take advocacy action (e.g. sign a petition)
- Pledge to change environmentally damaging behaviour
- Become a member
- Make a donation
- Subscribe to an email newsletter
- Book to attend events
- Join a conservation project
Within reason there is no limit to the number of different actions you can make available for visitors to take on your site. However, make sure your most important actions aren’t getting lost in the crowd. You see how next.
Tip – Develop all website actions to collect the action-taker’s email address and permission to keep them informed of campaign activities.
Emphasise your most important actions
Here’s a phrase that’s migrated from printed newspapers to websites – above the fold.
Above the fold newspaper content is visible when folded newspapers are displayed on a vendor’s rack. Above the fold website content is visible when a page first appears on a monitor before the visitor scrolls down.
This is the most valuable real estate on a website. As such it is where you should put your most important website features, especially calls to action.
A review of environment campaign website home pages shows it is common practice to include up to three calls to action above the fold.
For example, Friends of the Earth UK has the following call-to-action links above the fold on their home page (all may not be visible when viewed on phones):
- A Donate button top right of the screen
- A link to a Take Part page in the main navigation menu
- A subscribe form imposed on the main picture (known as a hero image)
Note that the Donate button and Take Part link are in the website’s header and so appear on every page.
However, you don’t have to make these links go to different actions. For example, an advocacy campaign in the midst of a major petition drive could have all three linking to their petition page.
This is the beauty of websites today – they are easy for non-techs to edit. If a developer is creating your site (and if your organisation doesn’t have dedicated website staff) ask him or her to make your site customisable so you can easily change your call-to-action links.
Tip – Never assume people will act, persuaded perhaps by the eloquence of your website text and their concern about nature. Always ask them to act.
Use a simple design
When browsing online people tend to glance rather than look, and flit rather than linger.
So, whether you’re having a website custom built or using a free or paid theme, keep the design simple.
Make good use of blank space around elements. Remove all unnecessary features. Make your calls to action stand out.
Less is best when it comes to website design.
In addition, the look of your website (e.g. colours; graphics; design elements; fonts) should match the look of your other communication materials (e.g. brochures; emails; direct mail).
Maintaining a consistent look helps establish your nonprofit’s brand. A brand is what people think when reminded of an organisation – is it welcoming, professional, serious, fun? All organisations have a brand, whether they actively manage it or not.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to make your shiny new website look the same as those 1970s designed brochures in dusty boxes in the store cupboard.
It means that you need to be thinking about the design of all your communication channels when designing your website, even if it takes a while for other channels to catch up.
Another advantage of simple designs is that they load fast, one of the most important nonprofit website best practices that we explore below.
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Make navigation easy
People don’t have the desire or time to work out how find their way around your website.
Further, inventing creative website layouts risks confusing Google and other search engines, the last thing you want to do if people are to find your website.
So, put your website pages where people expect them to be and call them what people expect them to be called.
In your header (which appears on every page) place your organisation logo top left and a call-to-action button top right. In between place your main navigation menu with links to your most important pages, such as:
- What We Do / Activities / Campaigns / Projects
- Get Involved / Take Action / Take Part
- About Us / About
The less is best website design philosophy also applies to navigation, so keep your main navigation menu items to a minimum.
Other links belong in the footer (which also appears on every page), such as:
- Social media
Tip – About Us is one of your most important pages.
Write compelling text
Of all the nonprofit website best practices writing compelling text may be the hardest to achieve.
Well-written nonprofit website text inspires and motivates. To a lesser extent it also informs.
You cannot expect to achieve this without a good understanding of your website’s intended audiences.
Find your writing voice and maintain it throughout your site. Will your organisation present itself as serious yet welcoming, youthful and fun, scientific yet relatable?
Again, this voice should align with the preferences of your intended audiences.
Here are some pointers to get you on the right track:
- Research similar sites for inspiration
- Avoid large chunks of text (puts people off)
- Do not use jargon, unfamiliar terms, corporate gobbledygook
- Never suggest the issue is insurmountable (It’s not too late if we act now)
- Write in active voice (We can do this rather than This can be done)
Don’t expect to dash off some text and publish it on the spot. You will be amazed at how much you can improve your writing after setting it aside for a day or two.
Delete superfluous words. Check for unintended double meanings. Trigger emotions to motivate action but avoid emotional blackmail.
When you have a strong draft ask others to comment, especially people from your primary audience.
Integrate their feedback and give your text a good solid edit. And then edit it again.
Important – Be honest and ethical in your writing, and never make claims you cannot support with verifiable evidence from reliable sources. Leave the post-truth communication tricks (i.e. lying) to your opponents.
Use pictures that tell a story
The old adage, A picture is worth a thousand words remains relevant today.
Just make sure the pictures you’re using are telling the story you want to tell.
Use images on your website to set the scene for what you want visitors to learn and stir visitor emotions to motivate action.
Consider using pictures of:
- Wildlife, landscapes and people helped by your campaign
- Volunteers participating in campaign activities
- Campaign team members at work
For environment campaigns finding ways to include people in website pictures can be tricky. However, it is worth the effort as research shows visitors stay longer on sites with pictures of human faces. Using pictures of people typical of your intended audience allows visitors see themselves represented on your site, which may break down their barriers to taking action.
This striking picture on WWF Australia’s home page effectively tells the story of people helping to protect nature. The woman looks strong, determined and caring – an inspiring role model for visitors considering getting involved.
In 2021 your website is in the company of more than 1.86 billion other websites.
Now, people who search for your website by name should find it easily, provided your nonprofit organisation name isn’t in regular use for anything else.
But everyone else is going to need help.
The way you help them is through the art and science of search engine optimisation (SEO).
Of the nonprofit website best practices explored in this article improving your SEO will take the longest. Don’t be surprised if it takes six months or more to see results. Further, it will take a lot of staff (or volunteer) time. But it’s worth pursuing as more website visitors means more actions taken, and that’s how you win your campaign.
A fast website load speed onto a visitor’s device is a crucial necessity rather than an optional extra.
People do not wait for websites to become visible and usable. Causal browsers will flick off after a couple of seconds of blank screen. Motivated browsers keen to learn about your organisation may wait longer, but don’t count on it.
Website load speed is so important that Google has made it a primary ranking factor.
If you want to get on the first page of Google results for search terms related to your organisation (and you do, because making it to the second the page is close to being invisible) your site must load fast.
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A responsive website works and looks good on any device (desktops, laptops, tablets, phones).
If you’ve ever viewed a non-responsive website on a phone you’ll understand why – illegible text, unclickable links, unusable menus.
But it’s not just visitor convenience that requires your website to be responsive (though that should be enough). Google does too.
With more than half of Internet traffic now conducted on phones, search engines prioritise responsive websites over non-responsive websites.
Now, this isn’t new so no respectable website developer or theme maker should still be producing non-responsive sites. However, as being responsive is so important it’s worth checking before you commit.
Having people click to follow your social media pages from your website could be considered one of the actions you want your website visitors to take. So too could having visitors share your website pages on their social media pages.
However, both of these feel like weak actions compared to signing a petition, making a donation or becoming a member. And neither of these builds your email database, a particularly important communication channel.
But there are genuine benefits from people following you or sharing your content, some of which can indirectly improve your SEO.
So it’s worth providing appropriate social links, such as links to:
- follow your social media pages placed in your footer
- share your pages placed on your blog posts and perhaps other important pages
This article has explored 11 nonprofit website best practices.
Some are easier to implement than others. Some only require a little upfront work while others need constant attention. None give results that are easily measured in isolation.
But, together they turn your website into a hub of supporter recruitment and engagement. They make the difference between a website that people bounce off leaving no trace of their visit and a website that actively builds your nonprofit’s ability to achieve its goals. And that makes it all worth the effort.
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