If your nonprofit is in the market for a new website, chances are you’ve heard of WordPress. But what is it? And, more importantly, what can it do for your organization?
Here is a crash course in WordPress: the benefits, the trade-offs, and the reasons why it is one of the best ways to design and manage your nonprofit website.
The 30 Second Explanation
WordPress is a free, open source website platform that makes it easy for you (and anyone you want) to update your site and add new features.
Now, for the longer and slightly more technical version:
WordPress is a content management system (CMS). Content management systems make routine website tasks — like adding new pages and making sure they link to one another — easy-to-do, without the need to hand-code. Themes (essentially pre-packaged styles) allow you to change the look of your site with the click of a button. If you need additional features that aren’t offered in the core version of WordPress, you can install a plugin that adds the new functionality you’re looking for.
WordPress is Perfect for Nonprofits
Of course, WordPress isn’t the only way to build a website. You could use a site builder like the ones offered by Wix and Web.com, or hire a designer to create a site made up of static (hand-coded) pages. But WordPress has some key advantages for nonprofits in particular:
- It’s inexpensive to maintain.
The WordPress CMS itself is free, as are most plugins. There are many cheap, reliable hosting options for WordPress sites. Premium plugins and themes cost extra, of course, but they often include better functionality and support.
- There are plugins and themes designed specifically for nonprofits.
From simple donation processing to event planning and mailing list signups — there’s a plugin for it. Search the Unofficial WordPress Plugin Directory for suggestions.
- The learning curve is small.
WordPress is designed to be simple to use. Anyone in your organization — even the most technologically-challenged — can learn to edit a page or write a blog post. From there, it’s easy to change a site’s theme or install a plugin.
- Technical support is easy to find.
Finding a solution for any problems you run into won’t be hard. WordPress is the world’s most popular content management system. You can ask questions on the official WordPress forum, or look for tutorials on sites like WPBeginner or Lynda.com (subscription required).
Working with Multiple Users
One of WordPress’s biggest features is the ability to add multiple users and set their roles. Editing a hand-built site requires someone with technical expertise, and some popular site builders charge you to add more users. WordPress allows you to delegate roles — like writing articles, proofreading, and administering the site — to as many people as you want, for free.
Say that you want a long-time volunteer handle your blog posts. With a few quick changes under the “Users” panel, you can allow your volunteer to write and submit articles, but require a staff member to approve them before they’re published on the site.
With plugins (see below), you can extend WordPress’s user management system to do even bigger things.
Enhancing Your Site with Plugins
With a conventional website, adding new features can be difficult and costly, requiring a knowledge of two additional programming languages, and the ability to modify server files that your host may not give you access to.
WordPress simplifies that process with plugins. Think of plugins as mini applications that live inside your WordPress installation. They add features that aren’t included in the WordPress core.
The official WordPress directory lists over 40,000 plugins (as of October 2015). No matter what kinds of additional features you need, there’s probably a plugin for it. Some of the most useful and popular plugins for nonprofits include:
- Jetpack – an official WordPress plugin that adds a bunch of handy features, including user statistics, social sharing buttons, and a URL shortener for sites like Twitter.
- BuddyPress – transforms WordPress into a fully-functional social network, complete with profiles, groups, and user messaging. It can be especially useful for neighborhood-based organizations and community organizers.
- Fundraising – lets you accept donations and manage fundraising campaigns, complete with goal indicators and donor rewards at different contribution levels.
- WooCommerce – an advanced, but easy-to-use, e-commerce system. Especially useful if your organization raises funds by selling products.
Other popular plugin categories for nonprofits are event calendars and management systems, mailing list signup forms, and SEO (search engine optimization) tools.
Plugins are managed in your WordPress administration screen. You can install, uninstall, and configure most plugins with a few mouse clicks.
A word of caution here: Just because there’s a plugin for everything doesn’t mean that you should go overboard. Too many plugins will slow down your site. Outdated and poorly-maintained plugins can also cause security vulnerabilities. For a curated list of well-maintained plugins, check out Tidyrepo.
Changing the Look of Your Site with Themes
The problem with updating a website made up of static HTML pages — or one that was built with a site builder — is that changing the appearance of your site often means making substantial changes to the structure of your site, too. The result? Broken links, text in the wrong spots, and ugly errors when users try to access pages that were moved or deleted.
Here’s the great part about the WordPress theme system: You can quickly change the look of your site without having to build a new site from the ground up.
The internet is full of free WordPress themes, but it’s generally best to purchase a theme from a reputable studio. Free themes can be poorly maintained, which leads to security issues. Commercial themes can be bought for between $30 and $100 from reliable sellers like WooThemes, StudioPress, and Themes Kingdom (affiliate link).
Good themes are easy to customize. Most commercial themes let you change the color palette, add your own logo and pictures, and add or remove components like sliders and contact forms. Look for “responsive” themes, which are designed to display correctly on mobile devices.
Professional theme designers stand by their products, and will offer you multiple ways of contacting them in case you find a bug.
What WordPress Isn’t
WordPress isn’t 100% trouble-free. As with any content management system, you can expect to encounter occasional problems — especially when you’re first setting your site up.
But with over 24 million active WordPress sites on the internet, it’s likely that someone else has encountered the same issue, and that someone has posted an answer.
While WordPress works great out-of-the-box, you should consider bringing a WordPress expert on board. A developer can optimize your site so that it loads quickly. Designers can create a custom theme that sets your organization apart. They can also make sure that your site displays properly on smartphones and tablets, which are increasingly being used as replacements for desktop computers.
That said, WordPress is still one of the best website platforms for nonprofits of all sizes.
If you are interested in WordPress and think it would be a good fit for your organization, why not try it out first?
WordPress.com offers a free package, which is a great way to learn how WordPress works (although you can’t use third-party plugins). Also be sure to check out the free WPBeginner video series, designed for first-time WordPress users.
We’ll explore the full process of setting up a nonprofit website with WordPress in a future article. Feel free to post questions in the comments section in the meantime!