Free advice

If you know me, you know I love to give people advice. So my recent “curbside consulting” sessions at the fall Healthy Community Institute had me as happy as a pig in Well you know. 😉

Read on for my advice and reviews of each organization’s web site…

  • Online strategy – being effective
    TechSoup (an all-around wonderful resource and a great place to start) has an entire section on web building, including case studies and work sheets.
    – Plan. What do we want to accomplish with this site? Who is the audience? How will it be updated, by whom, and how often?
    – Organize. What information do we want to share and how should it be structured? Make a hierarchical outline of the site and try to keep it simple, the top level should have no more than 5-6 items. These will be the different sections of your site, with other pages under each as needed, and room to grow.
    – Design. How can you visually convey the spirit of your organization and the need for your work? Pictures really are worth a thousand words, but also think about what symbols, style, and colors fit the organization.

  • Online fundraising tools – make the ask!
    These are cheap and simple ways to allow supporters to give you donations online. All take a small-to-moderate fee depending on the services provided. You may want to read Online Donations: Sorting Out the Chaos from TechSoup.
    Network For Good
    Democracy in Action (part of a suite of online communication tools)
    Groundspring (part of a suite of online communication tools) I just learned that this company is not stable right now, so I can’t recommend them.

  • Blogging tools – to add a first-person voice to your web presence.
    Blogs can be an effective way to share the unique and compelling stories of your clients, volunteers, supporters, and staff. This kind of openness builds your relationship with the public and increases trust and personal investment in your organization. It’s often the best case for why anyone should help or support you, plus it can be empowering to the people you are helping by showing their words are important enough to publish! To learn more about blogging in general, see Anton Zuiker’s Blogging 101 and my class on blogs.

    There are a variety of tools that range from cheap to free. The right one depends on how you plan to use it, and how your website is managed. Some options are hosted for you, some have to be installed on your own site. All offer pre-designed templates, but many will also let you roll your own so you can match the rest of your website. You also have many options about whether and how to allow comments on your blog. Here are some of the top choices:

  • Maintenance – keep it going.
    Every organization should have someone on staff (or on board at very small orgs) who is responsible for the website, even if they don’t make the updates themself. This is sometimes not the same person who designs and creates the site. Your website administrator will be responsible for having a vision and strategy for the site, which may then be delegated to a volunteer or a consultant. If you are maintaining a web site (or supervising somone who does), you should have at least a basic understanding of how web sites are made.
    The Barebones Guide to HTML is a great reference for getting started in web sites. (HTML is hyper-text markup language, it’s the code that all web pages are made of.)
    – Web design classes are often available at your local community college and other educational institutions, such as the ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC.
    – There are many books on the subject as well.

  • Avoiding spam
    There are two good ways to make your contact information available to the public without also sharing it with spammers. Visit the Wikipedia to learn more about spam and how to avoid it.
    1. Use a contact form that visitors can fill out to send en e-mail to your organization. Examples: The Fellowship Home, Fill My Cup, Roanoke River Partners (reservations)
    2. Encrypt e-mail addresses so that spammers can’t read them. Examples: Address protector, Obfuscator

Here are the organizations that visited with me (in the order that I met them). There were a surprising number of Christian and faith-based organizations. I wonder if it’s just a coincidence, or a result of increased government support for them.

  • Horse and Buddy
    This website was recently created by a professional designer, who did a very good job. The director is able to make text changes and updates on the site herself. Some suggestions for improvement include: using web forms for contacting staff instead of publishing their e-mail address, incorporating a calendar of events, creating a listserv for communication to and between volunteers, and creating a blog.

  • Fill My Cup
    Their website was done by a volunteer, and it shows. But there is great potential with some interesting tools already built in. Unfortunately the volunteer webmaster still hasn’t told the staff how to update or administer the website. The site has some good information on it and can highlight that information better by reducing the number of items in the navigation bar, and making use of the front page. The director has photos of her participants that she hopes to add to the web site.

  • Phoenix Employment Ministry
    Although this site has some useful information, it is really failing to tell the story of their work. This is another one that clearly shows that it has been designed and managed by a volunteer.

    I would recommend a complete resdesign and addition of a content management system that will allow the staff of other volunteers to easily update the site. More images would help to express the organization’s vision, especially photos of people they help. One area of concern is listing the names (and photos, in the future) of past and present clients. While it’s great to show off how many people they help, the organization needs make sure they have permission to post what may be confidential information online.

  • Bethlehem Center
    This site has a good navigation system, with one funny glitch: the link back to the home page was hiding under the About Us menu. It has a nice photo montage at the top of each page, but this leaves little room for highlighting new and important content. I suggest they (and everyone) remove scrolling text from their site. They could also benefit from adding the ability to take donations, and testimonials or first-person stories.

  • Cumberland County Council on Aging
    Years ago, they had a website that was maintained by the local newspaper but have nothing right now. We reviewed my presentation Your Nonprofit: Online which covers some of the qualities of effective websites for grassroots organizations.

  • Mecklenberg Ministries
    They have a simple website which makes good use of the front page including upcoming events, current campaign, links to the mission/staff/board, and a donation link. One area for improvement is the use of images. The site is consistent with colors, but could be jazzed up a bit. We found that the web site designer has a page bragging about this organization as a client which says there is an administrative interface for the staff. Someone just needs to let the staff know about it!

  • N.C. Prevention Partners
    The website is very smooth and professional-looking, and the office manager is able to make updates and add new content. Some suggestions: No need to repeat the mission on the front page, and in general the basic info about the organization is too prominent. It’s great to put it on the front page, but it doesn’t have to be front and center. This valuable “real estate” should be used for more important or compelling information.

    I suggested that the manager take an HTML class so she can do more sophisticated work on the site. It’s also important for her organization to acknowledge this important work by making it a clear part of her job description and allowing her more time to dedicate to thinking strategically about how to use the site.

  • The Fellowship Home
    This organization is very fortunate to have a “web person” working as their office manager. She created and maintains their website. The sites give a visual sense of the organization by using photos of their facility.

    We did find some important information missing from the site such as their newsletter, a donation link, and names and photos of the staff and board. They also can take advantage of the many stories of their clients/residents as well as volunteers and others impacted by their work. We discussed adding a “testimonials” page, and maybe a blog to bring those voices to the forerefront. As with Prevention Partners (above), I suggested formalizing the role of web site management and maybe even promoting the office manager to “communications director.”

  • La Leche League of North Carolina
    This site was created and is maintained by a volunteer. The design would probably have looked modern in 1995, but these days the moving logo, handwritten font, and patterned background are simply detracting from the site’s ability to communicate it’s message without adding anything of value.

    There are a few important peices of information this group has to share, such as a state map of local groups, and these should be made more prominent and accessible. Links to outside content should be separated from navigation links, and should open in a new window (and internal links should not!). These folks could also benefit from adding first-person stories (and pictures of their adorable babies) as well as a donation link. This site is a good first step, but needs some work.

  • Threshold
    This group has a Front Page (boo!) web site which has been inconsistently maintained in the past. They have a new staff person with some web skills, and I suggested that this would be a great time to take a step back and do some planning for their site.

    The new staff person should convene a group of people for a few meetings to discuss their goals and vision for online communication. They can discuss what content goes on the site and how to organize it (navigation), and what image of themselves and their participants they want to convey, keeping in mind that the person or people who maintain the site might not be the same people who create it. Some investment in a good design with a simple content management system will allow the staff to have more control over the site on a day-to-day basis.

  • Roanoake River Partners
    This website is essential to the organization’s mission and they have taken advantage of it in many ways specific to their work. The site is very-well designed visually reflecting their values and also sharing pretinent and well-organized information. I like how the updates on teh front page are each accompanied by an icon or small picture. The first-person voice that I have talked about is highlighted on their “Trail Tales” page, but would probably bemore prominent, with an excerpt on the front page, for eaxample. Since there is only one paid staff person, it is very helpful that the websit can be used to share information and even make reservations, which would otherwise take away from her busy schedule.

    The one main drawback of this site is that the organization can’t update it directly and require semi-volunteer techies to make any changes. I suggest that the site should be set up with a content management system (if it doesn’t already have one) and that either the director or a well-supervised volunteer maintain the content. (Perhaps a trade would be possible to “pay” a web volunteer.)

    RRP had several good questions about the site such as how to accomodate organizational growth and whether to consider placing or accepting advertisement.

1 thought on “Free advice

  1. I just want to thank Ruby so much for all of her great constructive criticism. She wasn’t speaking in crazy web terms that I couldn’t understand and took time to make sure I understood what corrections should be made to our site. In just the short half hour I sat with her, I feel like I’m ready to go back to the office and try to make some decent changes to our site. Thanks, Ruby!

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