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An insider’s look at creating a non-profit website

by | 04/17/15 | Website


Business websites are designed to bring, well, business. Targeted demographics are developed and calls to action such as, “Buy Now”, “Call Today” are built into the site to elicit a transaction. These elements do not translate into a non-profit web design. While both types of sites must offer easy navigation, and a user-friendly format enabling the visitor to discover what the organization is all about, a non-profit site needs to offer more.

This is something I recently discovered during a website redesign for a Connecticut nonprofit, The Center for Family Justice, which provides services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. Although I have been a volunteer at The Center for a number of years, and would be the primary writer for the website copy, the process became an incredible learning experience, something that was obvious after the first meeting The Center staff had with our web designer, Synerge-marketing.

Today, I share some the most important take-aways from what I learned working on the project with the Synerge-marketing team.

1. Website Navigation – organizing the information

The first step in the process was to talk about our needs and the goals of the website. Synerge asked us to segment the audience and outline the various types of information each segment would need.

We originally had thought that our menu would look a lot like a business website including categories like About, Services, Resources and Contact.  In our meetings, we were asked to think differently.  Instead of organizing the information from our point of view, we were encouraged to think about what our VISITORS would need so that each type of visitor could access the specific information relevant to them.  For example, someone who wanted to volunteer wouldn’t have to weed through information directed to a person in crisis or information provided for donors.

Together, we segmented our visitors according to their needs:

  • Donors, vital to The Center’s existence, needed information pertaining to how to donate, where to donate and what donations went towards.
  • Victims. We needed to make it  obvious where to get immediate information about how to get help. A victim might be fleeing in the middle of the night or secretly discovering what they can do while their abuser is in the next room.
  • The community. This category contained information about educational services The Center provides, designed to break the cycle of violence, and was targeted to educators, gov’t officials, and leaders in the community that can effect change.
  • The public.  We needed to create a place for people to learn about events in the area surrounding the cause.
  • Volunteers.  Always essential for a smooth operation, volunteers could learn how to get involved with The Center and in helping domestic violence victims.

The tabs at the top of the page were one way to define our visitors and a way for our visitors to access the area of the site that specifically spoke to their needs.  We came up with these main navigation categories:

Get Help – Victims

Make a Difference – Volunteers and the public

Community Education – Community leaders and the public

Donate Today! – Donors

About Us – All visitors – where they could learn about The Center and feel comfortable that it was a trust-worthy place.

FAQ – Victims – A place to to so research and find specific answers to questions about domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Home Page Components

After we figured out how all the information would be organized, the next step in Synerge’s process was to itemize the most important things to include on the home page.  We were urged to think about the information that would give the site both credibility and also help visitors enter into the area of the site that would be most helpful to them.

  • We created three revolving banners as the home page’s focal point: two that stay constant, Get Help (victims) and Get Informed (community, volunteer and the public), and a third that can be updated as needed with highlights of current events – fundraisers, dances, walks, lectures, candlelight vigils, etc.
  • We decided that we should reinforce what was included in the main navigation and provide one-click access to three of our most important sections: Donate Today, Get Help, Get Involved.
  • Understanding The Center’s mission and the types of people that we help and those that help us was also paramount.  We created a section on the home page which quickly summarized “Who We Are”, “What We Do” and “Whom We Serve.”
  • To show victims that the site would be a valuable resource for information, Synerge came up with a creative way to communicate this by asking questions from the visitors point of view (and providing answers within the site) “What is Domestic Abuse”, “How can I help a friend or family  member” were the kinds of questions we felt were on our visitors minds.

It all looks so simple now that it is done, but before I got involved in the site’s structure I had no idea the manpower hours it takes to plan and design a website, decide on the information, and define exactly who you are trying to attract. I soon learned that the simpler something appears, the more complicated it actually is to achieve.

2. Content Management

One of our first conversations concerned content management: Once the site was operational, The Center wanted the ability to edit any page when needed. The content management system that was designed allows us to add content or edit existing content. Adding a page is also simply accomplished, important as The Center for Family Justice begins adding community partners to its structure.

3. Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design seamlessly optimizes websites for all devices – desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones. It’s effortless for the user, automatically reorganizing the website and changing the orientation from portrait to landscape to fit the device being used. So a victim fleeing in the middle of the night seeking help can find it immediately on a smartphone.

Once Synerge explained how responsive works, everyone at The Center knew it had to be incorporated into the design. And it is magic and so much fun to explain to our supporters. It also became an integral part of every presentation we give about our new website, a chance for us to brag about how modern we have become!

4. Web Graphics, Images & Illustration

The Center deals with serious issues, but its message is one of hope, that victims can become survivors. And although many of its clients are women, abuse does not discriminate: 1 in 6 men are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and approximately 2 in 5 victims of domestic abuse are male.

To appeal to all victims, Synerge suggested we use illustrations as the main art. Although some at The Center felt pictures are more powerful, the two primary illustrations that were chosen for the home page – one, a tree of hands offering support and help, the other a row of reaching hands, seeking help – set the perfect tone and made converters out of the most skeptical.

Colors chosen were equally important: Purple, the color of domestic abuse, and teal, the color of sexual assault are dominant.

We decided to create a recurring message for the bottom of every page, and after much thought we decided on “Hope Starts Here! Let The Center for Family Justice Become your Lifeline” with information on how to reach The Center. It was such a simple concept that afforded us the opportunity to spread our message in a few words while offering the all-important – and sometimes lifesaving – contact information.

5. Writing for the Web

During the consultation process, I learned a lot about search engine optimization, which addresses how search engines work and the search terms people use. We were provided with the search terms that needed to be unique for every page, with the goal to increase our online visibility.

I also learned how to adjust my writing style for the web.   I was asked to write in short, easy-to-absorb, concise sentences. It was suggested we use bullet points to provide information, and separate longer blocks of text with sub-headlines to make the page easy to skim.

It was imperative to include an area for the visitor to leave the site immediately in case the abuser enters the room. The Center’s old website had used the phrase “Escape Now,” but when Synerge analyzed those words, it was decided a more direct approach would be to change escape to exit. Synerge also insisted we include a page on Internet safety tips, so victims can learn how to erase tracking history from their computers.

6. Donations

Since 40 percent of The Center’s income comes from donors, creating space on the website for them was imperative. Our goal was to make it a simple and straight-forward process for people to donate.

We were advised to create a section just for donors, which includes:

A “click here” button that directly links to The Center’s PayPal account. Donations can be one time or recurring monthly.
A list of other ways people can donate;
A section on how to leave a gift in your will;
And stories from donors.

In addition, on every page of the website Synerge strategically placed a “donate today” button, so every visitor is just a click away from making a difference.

But Synerge advised us to go a step further.

On every page there is a box titled “YOU can make a difference,” illustrated by a simple lighted votive candle. The words are important for every donor to know: “76 cents of every dollar raised by The Center for Family Justice is dedicated to helping victims become survivors and educating our communities about how to build healthy relationships, stop bullying and end dating violence.” Donors like to know their money is being spent on helping people not paying salaries.

7. Events Registration & Management

The Event manager that Synerge chose makes our job simple and seamless. We easily upload information about each event that appears on the event page, and the “View Event Details” links you to a page to make reservations and buy tickets if needed.

In addition, the two most current upcoming events automatically appear on the home page. There is no extra step for us, something we appreciate.

Throughout the process, Synerge was there to answer any questions and offer suggestions on how to make the site better. It was a true partnership that grew from our first exploration meeting and continues today. For me, it was an invaluable learning experience that I will fondly remember each time I log onto our lovely website.

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