How Web Developers Hurt Their Nonprofit Clients

Grrrrr . . . bad nonprofit website consultants!I’ve run into more than the usual number of nonprofits who have crappy websites built by consultants lately. I’m not talking subjective design preferences here, but flat-out terrible decisionmaking and implementation. When I’ve questioned the nonprofit communications staff about these websites, the answer is always “The website consultant did it that way.”

Enough is enough.

If your web development/design consultant is doing any of these things, they are hurting your organization’s ability to communicate effectively, which is the whole point of having a website. If you are a web developer who does these things, please stop working for nonprofit clients. They can’t afford the pain you are inflicting.

1. Not using a standard content management system.

It is not acceptable to provide your nonprofit clients with a bunch of flat HMTL files and scripts. Nonprofit staff should be able to login to a content management system (CMS) to make simple changes to the text and graphics on their own sites. They should not have to pay you or another consultant to fix a typo, to update their event calendar, or to put their latest news on their home page.

Nor should they have to learn how to code, or to invest in expensive software, in order to make basic changes. They shouldn’t even have to learn how to FTP! Adding a new page of content, or editing an existing one, should be as simple as writing an email — which demands that consultants use content management systems.

Idealware recently reviewed the major open-source (free) content management systems. WordPress is what I use most often and is a great choice for most small nonprofits.

2. Not explaining how to use the content management system.

I don’t think web consultants are obligated to turn their clients into CMS experts. I do, however, believe that web consultants are obligated to build some basic training into their contracts (like an hour or two).

At least two people at the nonprofit should be trained by the consultant on how to make basic edits to existing pages, to add new pages of content (including how to upload photos), how to embed code from sites like YouTube, and how to delete pages. Ideally consultants will also teach them how to change the navigation too (e.g. adding and renaming menu items). Even the least tech-savvy staff can handle these kinds of changes.

Granted, some nonprofits will want to outsource even the most basic updates to consultants. But they shouldn’t have to, and I think good consultants should use these requests as training opportunities, helping the nonprofit learn the difference between what they should and can do themselves and what should be outsourced.

3. Not creating adequate space in the design for timely updates.

I’ve seen many nonprofit website home pages that look perfectly lovely, and yet are communications disasters. Why? Because there is very little space in which the nonprofit can make timely changes. Five lines of text that staff can edit in the corner of the home page doesn’t cut it. Photos that can’t be easily changed because they are part of CSS backgrounds (even though they look like current content) don’t cut it.

I know that nonprofit staff are often afraid of “breaking” their websites, and so consultants often lock down as much as possible in the design to prevent the nonprofit client from messing up the design. But I’ve seen several websites that cross the line. Give your nonprofit clients at least several paragraphs worth of text they can update, especially in the key locations on the home page. Give them space where they can upload photos or embed videos — and where those can be changed easily over time without having to rely on you or another consultant.

Rant over.



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  • Judy A

    Very good insights. I too find this to be a challenge with nonprofits. Part of it seems to be diference in “design” vs. “communications” and the need to clarify that the website users and uses have changes, thus it is now an avenue that necessitates more “in the moment”, emotional connections, and interaction that staff or volunteers need to be able to do.

    • What’s “good” is constantly evolving . . . Who knew five years ago that we would want a place for YouTube embeds? But I think if you are paying a consultant who is marketing expertise, you should expect some level of knowledge about current best practices. Would love you take Judy on good (and bad) land trust websites!

  • Anonymous

    Great points. To me, the whole customer service thing as far as the CMS installation and training is concerned is a no-brainer. I do occasional freelance web development and am working on a portfolio site for a buddy of mine built on WordPress. For me, I would rather spend time working on new projects as much as possible than becoming the webmaster of a client’s site, which is what may happen by locking them out of it as you have described. I will, of course, offer site support when they need it, but I’d rather empower them to do what they need to do with it than keep that kind of control over it myself.

  • You’re absolutely right, Kivi! I’ve worked with too many clients who were held hostage by their developers to make even the smallest revisions or additions to their websites. It’s vital that a nonprofit, or any site owner really, have control over their own site’s content–if you can’t update it yourself, what’s the point? There’s no reason not to build websites on content management systems anymore, especially for nonprofits.

  • Good advice for designers. As someone who used to work as an in-house grantwriter and web designer, I was always horrified at the thought of a staffer breaking “my” website. The site was beautiful and extremely functional. But the consequence was all of the updates got bottle-necked on my desk. That was my error and it made my job frustrating. After I left they paid for a staffer friendly website. The site is still functional but it is butt-ugly and a pain to navigate. So I recommend designers not sacrifice good design for the sake of enabling staffers.

    • Now THAT is worth paying a good web developer for: a site that staff can update that still looks good. If you are paying for expertise, let’s see some guidance to that happy middle ground!

  • I would also add one more item, which is:
    Not informing the nonprofit staff that there will be security updates to their site software and not providing them with a system for updates (either by training them to do it or providing a simple and affordable service for maintaining the site). We’ve had a number of groups who come calling because they had their site built in a CMS with a bunch of add-on modules and then were left alone. Security updates were released, but their sites weren’t patched, and suddenly the site is down or defaced. Nobody wants that.

    • Very, very good point!

    • Yes, this is one of the largest draw-backs that I find with open-source CMS platforms. Sure they are easy and accessible and you could host through a wide variety of platforms, but I’ve seen enough glitches and hacks to make me want to withdraw from using them. I recommend a lot of client to Adobe’s Business Catalyst for that very reason. It may cost $5-20 more a month, but Adobes take care of all of the patches, system upgrades, etc, and Adobe provides 8-hr turnaround tech support for the platform, something you won’t find in open-source.

  • Yup. I’ve seen many nonprofit websites that were beautifully designed but were rendered literally unusable for the end user and the NP staff.

    The misdemeanor can fall on both parties, though. Some will believe their website is just a presence which must be super pretty without taking into account the purpose OF a website, and how good design and usability actually come into play. The webdev consultant that was brought on board should’ve educated the client on such matters, and plus should’ve come up with some kind of training for staff, but ultimately neglected to.

    This wasn’t mentioned on the Idealware report, but I’d also recommend Concrete5 as a more leaner and staffer-friendly CMS. I used it once for a small tech company and it required minimum hand-holding on my part.

  • Which CMS is used makes such a difference. We’re working with a WordPress designer now on a new site for a fraction of what our previous firm was going to charge us to fix all that had broken or not planned for in our current CMS. We’ll own the new code, so there’s a comfort in knowing that if we’re not happy with this firm, we can have a different developer pick it up without starting from scratch.

  • Anonymous

    Boy, I think we need to start a therapy support group on this topic.

    I feel everyone’s pain. Being clear on the kind of dialog client and developer want have is crucial. Some developers see all nonprofits as the same. As a nonprofit communications person you need to be direct with the developer about how involved you want to be. Personally – I want to be very involved because digital marketing is my passion. I don’t want to give some ideas, hand the project over and check in for certain milestones. If a developer isn’t up for that level of partnership or engagement, it benefits both parties to look elsewhere. Likewise, if a nonprofit wants to be very hands off, make that clear too. If there’s agreement on work flow and ownership the rest gets a lot easier.

    Also, don’t hold clients to deadlines, then miss some yourself. Sadly, that doesn’t go without saying.

    Thanks for this post Kivi! I spoke with you briefly at NTC at it was great to meet you in person.

  • These are all valid points, but I would also like to see a companion post: How nonprofits hurt their web developer consultants! Things like:
    1. Changing the staff member who runs the project 2 (or more) times during the project’s life
    2. Being really insistent on a design that has not been developed for use with a Content Management System, and does not have “changeable content-friendly” areas
    3. Handing the web project to the youngest staffer because “they know technology”
    etc etc etc 🙂

    All this to say that if there is good communication between the nonprofit and the web development firm, then these types of problems can be avoided.

    • Great points, of course, Marc. I’ve have ranted before in a similar vein about hiring freelance writers. You are hiring creative professionals, not miracle workers and mind readers. So nonprofits do need to keep up their end of the bargain too.

  • Love the rant Kivi! With so many user-friendly content management systems available and the abundance of affordable web designers there is little excuse for having a sub-par nonprofit website these days. But as much responsibility is there is on the web developer to meet their clients needs, nonprofits must also work to enhance the computer literacy of their staff, as well as provide a clear and comprehensive RFPs (request for proposals) when seeking web developers. Too often I see nonprofits asking for features that “look nice” but are expensive and complicated to create. It’s a tricky balance, but certainly one that must start with web developers understanding their clients better.

  • One problem I’ve run into is that nonprofits are often not “paying” for these services, they are donated. It’s tough to talk them into paying for their websites so they can have control and better quality when a well-meaining donor has done the work for nothing. I like all three of these, but my question is, just three? Thanks.

  • BobbyB

    This is a great rant, Kivi, and very on point in my experience. I agree there are two sides to the story and both parties have responsibilities. When my organization undertook its site redesign our developer was saddled with taking into consideration the needs and skill levels not only of our national HQ staff, but the needs and skill levels of our affiliate offices, which varied wildly. This meant we ended up not building on a CMS platform that would best serve us down the road and provide us with an excellent and flexible end-product. Instead we had to lower the bar on the functionality and design to accomodate people who had no experience with website maintenance, nor any resources to maintain even the simplest of sites.

    I suspect this is a very common problem for nonprofits that can’t afford to hire dedicated Webmasters or train existing staff to do Webmaster work. No matter what CMS you’re using there will come a time when something that needs to be done can’t be easily accomplished through a WYSIWYG program. Other skills will always be necessary.

    While I do think our developer ultimately led us down the wrong path and I’m not really happy with the final product, I do get that they were tasked with a very challenging situation. I wonder sometimes what our site would be like now if the developer had simply come to us and made it clear that we were going to end up with a less than ideal website unless we made the decision to raise the bar for our entire organization. Hindsight: almost always 20/20.

  • alex

    As a designer who has developed just a handful of simple websites, not using CMS, for very small nonprofits, I find myself BEGGING them for updated content. They’re all gung-ho to post an invitation to an event, but then they let it sit there for months after. It’s not because they have to use me (or somebody else) to do the update — they just don’t pay any attention to their sites. Of course I’m talking about really small groups here, often volunteer-run, to whom communications = fundraising, and fundraising = writing grant proposals and holding events. sigh.

  • I agree with you hundred percent. We are a perfect example who is suffering from these issues.

  • I am with you in this 100%, especially #2. Training should always be included in the package price of a redesign. Furthermore, as a designer/developer, it’s much easier and faster for me to make updates to a WordPress or Drupal site in case I need to down the road.

  • Hello Kivi,
    I really appreciate your post – and I’d like to share my (peculiar) experience.
    I’m a “nonprofit developer” from Italy. Nonprofit because (1)- i work for a nonprofit org, and (2)- sometimes I work for free..
    The Organization I work for provides free services to volunteers and supports local nonprofits’ projects. Being also a volunteer elsewhere, I have the chance to see these problems from different points of view. I’m the “strange tech guy (who does everything related to computers)” in the team – so my “clients” are colleagues and many volunteers / nonprofits; a varied folk, with very different skills and levels of digital divide (sometimes technophobia 🙂 )
    I try to use most of my time developing custom applications with cakephp, tools and sites for internal and external use, based on various needs and projects – but this often seems to be considered marginal. A good design often seems to make the difference – a lot more than the features and implementations. Imposing what I could is the strategy that worked, to some extent. But, looking back, it’s not something I would recommend.
    My goal has always been empowerment; helping others become self-sufficient in using tools made for them – not depending on a single person / bottleneck for the simplest task, as was already pointed.
    But – here is my point – one of my challenges has been (while working more on usability and user interface) to persuade people to be empowered 🙂 For a lot of understandable reasons, technical abilities and skills are often low priority.
    “Even the least tech-savvy staff can handle these kinds of changes.”
    Well, not in my experience 🙂
    I started trying to always raise the bar (collecting frustration, not only for me I suppose); sometimes it worked, but more often than not I met resistance. Then I surrendered, lowering my expectations; with some unexpected surprise here and there, but I felt it could be better. Then I went.. zen. Realizing there is no “perfect” height (for both the skills “bar”, personal desire to invest time and resources learning, and expectations), but we are always adjusting, looking for the best fit in each case.
    Understanding when it’s worth to teach to use the fishing pole (when they ask you for fishes), and how to do it, it’s probably an art.
    I know I have a lot to learn, about this. Here is the ultimate question: Could you point me in the right direction? Well, some links of posts or sites will be enough 🙂

    (and oh, my goodness, static sites manually updated via ftp, it’s so 90s!)

    • Stefano — You are right. When I said “even the least tech savvvy staff can handle the changes” I should have added the qualifier “if they are motivated to do so.” There’s a big difference from having the tech skill to update and actually wanting to embrace the idea that it belongs on your to-do list.
      Thanks for a great contribution to the conversation!

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  • Anonymous

    It’s not just non-profits that get this treatment. I’ve seen the same perpetrated on small businesses.

    I have to add, if you’re operating a non-profit or small business, get at least one computer literate person on staff! Your business or organization may not be all about computers, and you probably need certain skills in a candidate that relate to their normal non-computer responsibilities, but computer skills are common enough that you should be able to find someone with both.

    • Bobbyb

      While I’d assume that most people hired for office environments these days are computer literate — meaning, they know how to turn on their computer, can do word processing, manage their email, search the Web, etc — those are very basic, standard-operating-procedure skills. There’s a different skills set required for doing online work, in my experience. Yes, certain CMS lends itself to assisting with basic posting of copy/content, but there’s a lot more needed to maintain a thriving, dynamic, effective website. Those skills are usually held by people who understand how marketable those skills are, and they understandably want the salaries that accompany that skills set.

      • Anonymous

        A lot of tasks that seem simple to everyone posting here are surprisingly lacking in many small organizations I’ve had contact with:
        – Manage multiple email accounts
        – Search the web using operators or date ranges
        – Manage a Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress account
        – Purchase a computer without getting ripped off
        – Set up a computer, install software, and maintain minimal internet security
        – Set up an internet connection or local network

        I did a little work for an organization that coordinates social services. They had about 20 volunteers and an office. Not one person among their 20 knew how to set up a computer that was donated to them. (I’m not talking about anything fancy, just plug in the cords and turn on the power.) I could go on and on about the things they didn’t know how to do, but my point is that not a single person was recruited who had the technical skills of your average 14 year old middle-class kid.

        If you can, talk the boss into finding someone with the secondary skill set, “I’m pretty good with computers.” Having that person on staff can make a huge difference!

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  • web site developers

    Web development process is a very complex process. One need to give a lot of concentration when web designing a website. thanks for this post..

  • Jeff

    7 Things to Look for In a Non profit Website Design Company
    – Check their portfolio first
    – Ensure they are more than just a web designer
    – Knowledge of a Content Management System
    – Recommendations
    – Ask your developer to list top 3 benefits of working with them
    – Ask for a detailed proposal
    – Check the company’s website

    Also – Never Hire A web Design Without Asking These Questions:

  • tiffanyA

    As a developer who has worked with a large list of small to medium nonprofits, I’d love to weigh in on this topic. I agree wholeheartedly with items 1 and 2. Content Management is key, especially for nonprofits, because communications must be driven by an authentic voice. You can tell me all the reasons you are going to save the world. I may even be able to recite them back to you, but it isn’t my take on your organization that your audience cares about. It’s the REAL voices of the people you’ve helped and the passion your staff brings to work with them every day that matter. You will ALWAYS be able to convey this, via content, better than anyone else.

    That said, as a developer, I believe it is my job to help you organize your message by designing to the amount and types of content that best tell your story. This is where I feel item 3 could say “Not working closely with the client to develop a design led by content.”

    A design comp that contains empty boxes with “put your content here” is not going to yield an effective or usable design. Close collaboration is required to develop a design that is led by content. It takes a little more work on your part than simply handing the developer your brochure and a great deal more foresight than simply leaving a few paragraphs of DIY space. With all the “free” options out there, design should be on of the primary reasons you’ve hired a professional in the first place, and design is much more than just a pretty picture. Limiting user content spaces in the way suggested by item 3, forces the admin user to “get creative”, often using space for messages that don’t fit or flow, simply because there is only one place to put it. These kinds of compromises are confusing at best and downright damaging at their worst. A good design is future-minded and though maybe not fool-proof, at least “fool-resistant”.

    • Hi Tiffany,
      I agree wholeheartedly. My beef was really with not allowing enough space for timely updates. I agree that the team should discuss what kinds of content goes where. Ideally the design should be flexible enough to accommodate “breaking news” etc. in a way that doesn’t fundamentally interfere with the overall message/look of the site.

    • Mary Cahalane

      So agree, Tiffany! Especially that design is much more than a pretty picture. I’ve seen those pretty pictures (from the designer’s POV) that are actually not very functional. (Like taking up most of the important real estate).

      It’s that teamwork that matters. And good designers already understand some important things about nonprofits and what matters to them. Fundraising, for instance, isn’t a distasteful but necessary chore, it’s central to the organization’s success. And if the website is designed to just sit there and look pretty, it’s a failure!

      Phew. I feel better now!

  • ARGH!!! Thank you for bringing this all too common situation out in the open, Kivi. I can’t even tell you how many organizations I’ve worked with whose web developers have completely disappeared and they have no idea how to even access their own sites.

    And then you’ve got the cost factor. A solid CMS site shouldn’t run $5,000 and up.

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  • Amen.

  • Amen.

  • As a site designer, I can’t agree more. Another thing I see constantly is sites being created for NPO’s by volunteers who may not have adequate skills or pro-bono sites by organizations trying to rollout a new legacy product. Both scenarios prove untenable over the long term. I personally walked away from a lucrative contract when I learned that maintenance and regular updates would be handled by a volunteer that had absolutely no skills to do so.
    It is our philosophy that maintaining a site shouldn’t be painful We counsel our clients to standard, preferably open source programs that are widely available. A standard part of our package is a focus group with the client’s staff to try and clearly determine needs, followed by onsite training when we get close to going live and printed help pages. We also strive to get the site up and running as quickly as possible to minimize the complications of staff changes during the course of the project.

  • Frank

    Agreed. If you haven’t tried it yet you should take a look at Wild Apricot ( it’s a Content/Membership/Event Management tool I recommend to a lot of non-profits.

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