Selecting a website platform or content management system (CMS) for your nonprofit is an extraordinarily difficult task. Making the wrong decision can have big consequences down the line, both for your organization and its finances. So it’s important to carefully consider your options.

Many people make their selection based on who has the most convincing website, the highest market share, or what their peers are using. However, picking the right website platform is a much more involved process and requires you to look at your options from many different angles.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through a step-by-step process to show you how to plan for, evaluate, and ultimately choose the right platform for your organization.

Step 1: Start with your goals and requirements

Starting with your goals is all about giving yourself the proper framework to make decisions about your website. It sounds so obvious it’s silly, but you’d be surprised how many people make technology decisions without the proper context.

You need to understand your organization’s mission and vision in order to properly understand the role your website plays. Start by writing down the specific outcomes you’d like to see as a result of your website project, and why those outcomes matter to your organization.

Here are some examples to help you get started:

  1. Within 6 months of launching our website, I would like to see a 100% increase in traffic coming from social media. This is important because we do not have enough awareness to recruit sufficient volunteers for our programs.
  2. Within 30 days of launching our website, I would like to see visitors spending an average of 50% longer on our resource pages. This is important because it indicates that visitors are receiving more help from our information.
  3. Immediately after launching our website, I would like to see our staff spending 20% less time on website administrative tasks. This is important because we need to be spending more time on other critical projects that have been neglected this year.

Once you have defined your outcomes, think about the specific features you might need on your website to achieve those goals. This will form a list of practical requirements you can use to evaluate your website platform options.

Here’s some example website requirements for the outcomes I provided earlier:

  1. Every article on our site must have social media sharing buttons on the top and bottom of the page, and have the ability to include tweetable quotes in the middle of the article.
  2. Each resource page must have a sidebar menu containing other resource options, and a next/previous link at the bottom of each page to direct the reader to another piece of content they should read.
  3. Our staff must be able to paste website content from Word with minimal formatting needed, because we are spending an average of 10 minutes per page resolving formatting issues.

Your list of requirements will be longer and more detailed than your goals, and you may need to list 2-3 (or more) requirements per goal.

As much as possible, try to be specific with your requirements. Subjective phrases like “easy to use” or “edgy design” are often vague, difficult to evaluate, and should be used sparingly.

As you jot down your ideas, you will find your thoughts assembling into a hierarchy of needs. Certain things will stand out to you as mission-critical, while others will simply be “nice to have” or not useful at all.

When you are done, go through your notes and prioritize your list of goals and requirements for your website. Put the most-important aspects at the top and the could-live-withouts near the bottom.

Your hierarchy of needs will form a framework in which you can assess your various options in the website platform market. This keeps you thinking clearly when you’re being persuaded by the pretty sales page for a website platform that doesn’t meet one of your core needs!

What if I don’t know how to achieve my goals?

It’s very possible you won’t have the technology experience or knowledge to list all the website requirements and tactics needed to generate the outcomes you desire. Maybe you are even struggling to define the right outcomes to begin with. In that case, just write down your best guesses, or find someone more experienced to talk with. A small list of general requirements is better than nothing at all!

If you plan to hire a consultant or vendor to build your website, many of them will begin the project by helping you form a website strategy. This is a more formal process where they’ll look at your tactics and requirements and help you refine them as needed to ensure you’ll achieve your goals.

For those of you doing this by yourself, here are some useful questions to get you thinking:

  • If your website had a job description, what would it be?
  • What are your “must have” website features? What features will you need in 3-5 years? Consider items such as multi-lingual support or accessibility for disabled visitors.
  • Who will be updating the site? How tech-savvy are they? Will you need different levels of access for staff members or volunteers to update your site?
  • Will you be storing or collecting sensitive information? What are the consequences if there is a security breach?
  • How complex is your content model? Certain website platforms may struggle to handle your needs if you have complex relationships between your content.
  • Does your website need to integrate with your CRM or donor database? If so, what information needs to be shared?
  • What is your budget? Can you set aside money for ongoing maintenance?

These questions are designed to get you thinking about what your website needs to accomplish and what unspoken or implicit assumptions you are making about your website requirements or constraints.

Trust me when I say that you should not skip over this step or move too quickly through the process. It’s much easier to spend extra time now, thinking and planning, than it is to make a massive change later in the process if you’ve chosen the wrong solution.

Step 2: Understand the playing field

Once you have a good handle on your website goals, you need to understand what options exist in the market. I like to break the playing field into two categories: open source and proprietary.

Open source vs. proprietary software

Proprietary software is owned by a company or organization and sold to customers via a one-time fee or subscription model. This is familiar to most people and usually what first comes to mind. Examples of proprietary software vendors include Microsoft and Blackbaud. They own and update the software and you pay to use it.

Open source software is developed by a community of people and released for free to the public. Users can download or distribute the software however they please. Examples of open source software include browsers such as Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, and website platforms such as WordPress and Drupal. In this case there is no “owner” in the traditional sense. A community of people or a company maintains core elements of the system, but it’s ultimately being built, used, and customized by a community of its users.

Some people have a strong preference for one option, while others are indifferent as long as the website platform meets their needs. Here are some pros and cons for each:

 ProsCons
Proprietary
  • Less setup time because the software is already customized for a specific purpose

  • Direct access to the people who wrote the software

  • Safety in numbers if going with a major vendor

  • Can be difficult to export or retrieve your data from a closed system

  • At the mercy of your vendor if you need customizations

  • No guarantee your vendor will be around in the future

Open source
  • Software is free for life

  • Not locked to a specific vendor

  • Free to customize however you please

  • Need to budget for a third-party vendor to create and maintain your site

  • Support quality can drastically vary between vendors

  • May attract a higher number of attackers depending on the popularity of your platform

This is by no means an exhaustive list of benefits and drawbacks, but it gives you a framework to understand the fundamental differences. If you find yourself drawn to one option or the other on the basis of philosophical, technical, or budgetary reasons, you should still take the time evaluate the other option to confirm that the benefits will outweigh the drawbacks for your organization.

The major CMS players

Now that you understand the difference between open source and proprietary software, let’s look at the most popular website platforms for nonprofits by the numbers.

According to NPengage, only 5 content management systems drive 62% of nonprofit sites:

  1. WordPress: 41%
  2. Drupal: 9%
  3. Blackbaud: 4%
  4. Joomla: 4%
  5. Adobe: 4%

First, let me be clear: this list will not tell you the right website platform for your nonprofit.

Each website platform brings something unique to the table, and you should evaluate each option based on the hierarchy of needs you determined previously.

In addition, while the list above is a good starting point to familiarize yourself with the major players, there are plenty of other options that could be perfectly viable for your organization. I encourage you to do some additional research and come up with a few more options that may be right for you.

Step 3: Narrow your list to 2-3 options

It will help you tremendously if you can reduce the number of options you are seriously considering to 2-3 top contenders.

To do this, browse through the website of each CMS and compare its list of features to your major goals. Is there anything missing? Does this option feel like it aligns with your hierarchy of needs?

Keep in mind that while a CMS might boast a broad set of features, the things it does better than anyone else are likely to be the most heavily promoted on their website. They will also usually have a section that details things like technical and functional features.

Evaluate each option based on your list of requirements that you created in step one, and see which options meet either all or most of the things that you identified as being most important.

If you are having trouble narrowing your list, one thing that might help is looking at a list of sites that were built with that specific platform. Try Googling the following phrase:

what sites use <platform>

Substitute “<platform>” with the name of the option you’re considering (e.g. “what sites use drupal”). This should give you a list of a sites you can look through. Do the sites have the same features you’re considering for your site? Do you like what you see?

Use this information to create a list of 2-3 website platforms you feel are your best options. During this process, you may have to exclude a number of platforms that might work for you, but don’t rise above the crowd. Go with your gut and remember that you may have to say no to a perfectly good option in favor of a better one.

Step 4: Talk to other people using the website platform

You can learn a lot about a CMS by simply talking to other organizations who use it. They will be able to readily tell you the strengths and weaknesses of the platform, why they chose it, and whether or not they’re happy with their choice. This can really help when you’re trying to decide between your top 2-3 options.

A word of advice, though: don’t place undue value on the feedback you receive from people outside your organization.

Why? Because each organization has different goals. Just because a CMS works or doesn’t work for them doesn’t mean the same will be true for you. Instead, use their feedback to validate your assumptions about the strengths and weaknesses of a particular platform, and use that information to decide whether it’s right for you.

If you are struggling to find people using a certain platform, I would suggest posting on the NTEN community forums to find people who use the software you’re considering.

Step 5: Demo your top contenders

Nothing beats seeing a piece of software in action. Watching someone use a website platform you’re considering can instantly clarify what your day-to-day life might look like when using it.

Start by visiting YouTube and searching for the following phrase:

<platform> website demo

(Again, where “<platform>” is the name of the software you’re considering.) You will get a number of helpful results that give you a glimpse into the inner workings of a particular CMS or website platform.

If you plan on talking to other organizations (or have already done so), another option is to ask them to show you around their website. Make sure they show you the back-end, administrative interface, too. This gives you a real-world example that might be more practical than watching a demo containing generic or example content.

Finally, if you are considering a proprietary CMS, contact them and ask for a demonstration. I would recommend saving this for last as you’ll probably get a sales pitch on their platform, but it can help you decide if you’re still on the fence.

For those considering an open-source option, you may want to contact a few vendors prior to making your final choice. Give them your list of requirements and ask if the platform will meet your needs. Of course, be careful for any overselling, but they should be able to answer questions and/or point you toward examples of similar functionality on other websites using that platform or CMS.

Step 6: Make your final decision

Ultimately, you’ll need to choose a single solution.

With all of the knowledge that you’ve gained throughout the previous steps, and with your requirements list in hand, it’s time to choose.

Do as much additional research as you need until you feel comfortable and confident.

Pick. Then take a deep breath.

Wrapping up and next steps

Once you select your website platform, the journey has only begun! You have a number of other steps ahead of you, including:

  • Putting together a budget and ensuring you can build your website on that budget
  • Choosing a vendor (if you go open source)
  • Ensuring you have a plan in place for organization-wide adoption of your new website

Though the path ahead is long, if you follow the guidelines above you will be well on your way to a successful website project that will serve your nonprofit for years to come.

What questions do you have about selecting a website platform for your organization? Any tips or tricks you’ve learned? Leave your comment below to join in the discussion.

A special thanks to Johanna Bates, Margaux O’Malley, and Larry Hugg from NTEN for contributing their thoughts to this article.

Spencer Brooks

Spencer Brooks

Founder & Principal at Brooks Digital
Spencer Brooks is the owner of Brooks Digital, a web firm that specializes in helping nonprofits implement, maintain, and improve open source websites (most notably the Drupal CMS). He also writes on nonprofit technology at http://brooks.digital/articles. When he's not teaching or mentoring nonprofit staff on effective use of technology, he can be found traveling to new countries with his wife, Hannah, and son, Weston.
Spencer Brooks
Spencer Brooks