Experts Weigh-In on Nonprofit Website Design Best Practices | npENGAGE

Experts Weigh-In on Nonprofit Website Design Best Practices

By on Aug 25, 2017


nonprofit website design best practices

As an educational consultant, I offer nonprofits instruction on best practices around their technology. I often get asked questions about how a nonprofit’s website should look and behave and what benchmarking or evaluation tips I might have. And while I’m usually able to offer some general guidance, nonprofit website design best practices have never been my area of expertise.

To get a better understanding, I turned to the experts. Recently, I sat down with TJ Nicolaides and  Allison Hossack of Think Company, a Philadelphia based design firm specializing in research, strategy, development, and design. 

While we covered a host of topics, the primary goal was to cover the nonprofit website best practices that will help move a website visitor’s interest to action, and what steps nonprofits can take today to get started.

Here are 6 questions and answers from the experts on nonprofit website design best practices:

1. What steps should an organization take to audit their nonprofit website performance?

Allison: When I consider a site, I take two different approaches. First, I believe in forming a user-based perspective for the design. The second approach I take is from a research perspective and is called ‘Jobs to be Done Theory’.

When you’re taking a user-based perspective, you must first imagine that you’re a user of the site. Test drive the site and figure out what the biggest goals are when arriving on your site— whether it’s donating or becoming a member—and understand what frustrations or barriers are detracting users from taking action. A smart approach to better understanding the perspective of the user is to actually have a user volunteer to test drive your site while you monitor their behavior.

Jobs to be Done Theory is about understanding what problems the website is solving for and the its responsibilities to end users and the organization, and then deciding how well is it performing those tasks.

TJ: When I get involved, we’re already in the process of building the site, so I have a very ‘Jobs to be Done’ approach. I’m focused on accessibility, speed, and responsiveness to make sure that we’re enabling the user to accomplish whatever they’re meant to accomplish—and that it is a consistent experience across browsers.

We’ve come a very long way from Microsoft and Internet Explorer having 90% of the market share. Nonprofits must make sure to test whether their sites look right and works correctly across all of the different browsers and devices. I advise using Google Analytics to determine the browsers and devices visitors are using to view their site, make donations, or read newsletters.

From just looking at the analytics, you’ll be able to see if your users are experiencing frustrations with your site. If your site is only optimized for desktop and you see that you’re getting a lot of mobile traffic, that is indication that your users are having difficulty accomplishing their goals.

2. How can a website serve a nonprofit’s mission and vision?

Allison: A good nonprofit website tells a story that leads the user on a journey where they’re offered the information they need, when they need it. For instance, if the user arrives wanting to learn more about the organization, they can easily navigate along and find more information about the organization. As they decide to get more involved, give a donation, or  sign-up for a newsletter, the options to do so are there for them.

A site also should have a voice and a tone that’s representative of the mission. So, it feels like “oh, this is what this organization is all about. This is how they treat their public or their benefactors.” And being able to get that feeling from more than just the content itself.

A good website also conveys a deep understanding of those they serve while also serving as a platform for those who want to help or get involved in the mission.

3. What are the most important website metrics to measure?

Allison: It depends. It’s easy for us to measure clicks and time spent on pages, but that’s only relevant based on what an organization wants their users to do. The metrics should follow those goals.

TJ: Those metrics—clicks, time spent on pages, bounce rate— are a short way of measuring toward your goals and whether tactics are succeeding. These metrics can add color, but page views aren’t the story. It’s an addition to the story.

Allison: These metrics can tell you what visitors are doing, but they can’t tell you why they’re doing it. So, unless you’re going to be making changes and running tests to see how those behaviors change, it’s only part of the picture.

4. How should a nonprofit balance website content and calls to action?

TJ: I think it’s unlikely to that a user will hang out on a site clicking from one article to another. Most of the time, when you’re looking at an analysis of page visits, you see visits of 30 seconds to a minute. The real benefit of having a depth of content is that you’re able to attract visitors from search engines across a larger breadth of topics. Google and Bing will send searchers directly to the areas of your site most closely related to their search intent. For example, if someone is searching for information on the next volunteer opportunity, search engines will serve up the content/page about your volunteer opportunities versus sending them to your home page where they would have to navigate to the information themselves.

Allison: I think for most end users, the measure of success is based around whether they are able to visit the site, get what they want, and move along. If you have a mission that supports a depth of content and you can share news, media, or direct people to information to be better advocates, that’s great. Content is valuable because it can get people into the funnel of supporting an organization, but content itself is rarely the end goal for the user or the organization.

5. What are easy ways to amplify a website without making major overhauls?

Allison: Mine the data. Figure out was is already working and what’s not. Then, actually use that information and test different things out so that you can build upon what’s already working. You also can ask your users directly, it’s a great way to engage them and see what they want. Find your influencers and get them more involved in the process. This is done by providing a lot of opportunities to get more involved and interact with an organization.

I’ve seen articles with the option to like or favorite content on paragraph by paragraph basis. Give users the opportunity  to share their opinion. This can be incredibly valuable when you’re trying to grow.

TJ: Working with that data, you might able be able to find the unconventional ways that people are finding your site or are spending time with your content. I suggest seeing how you can use those paths to bring people in further. There might be opportunities to encourage involvement that haven’t been explored yet.

Allison: Trying out different mediums and incorporating it in different ways can be help too. Younger audiences have been shown to appreciate short videos, they have to be under 2-3 minutes but it can be a good way to get information out there to broader audiences. Podcasts, for instance can be listened to while you’re driving. Having content available in different forms for different audiences to interact with and share can really increase impact.

I also think you should steal like an artist. Look on your own phone or desktop and find services and sites you like using and  figure out what it is about that experience that you like. Incorporating ideas from your favorite web experiences is an easy way to make user-based changes.

TJ: I’d also add that if you have a strategy in place where you are providing lots of content and you are reaching out to people a lot: don’t worry about pestering them. The value of the response to your outreach outweighs the pain of the unsubscribes. For the people who want your content there’s a chance they didn’t see the first email, the second or third won’t annoy them.

6. What major tech trends will impact nonprofit websites and how can they prepare?

TJ: We’re really focused on forms as way to gather information. I’ve been seeing bots and chat interfaces having more of a presence on sites. These bots can be a way to engage the user and gather that same sort of information that’s been being gathered through forms, but it’s more fun.

A: That gets me thinking about the ‘Internet of Things.’ Devices like Alexa have changed the way people shop. If I could donate in the same way people have started making orders from Amazon, I feel I would contribute so much more simply out of the convenience.

Want more nonprofit website design best practices? Check out these posts:

Allison Hossack

Allison Hossack is Principal of Research and Strategy at Think Company. In her role, she ensures the successful execution of research to discover insights about user needs that inspire creative and effective solutions to enhance user experience. As a hands-on leader and problem solver, she savors big challenges and opportunities. Her user research has supported strategic initiatives, digital roadmaps, and product prioritization for companies spanning finance, energy, media, and health care including Johnson & Johnson, Transamerica, and Wharton University.

TJ Nicolaides 

TJ Nicolaides has been solving complex technical problems for over a decade. Whether it’s a flagship site redesign for, an Android live-streaming app for 93.3 WMMR, or a secure API for an EMR SaaS startup, clients have depended on TJ to find ways to make it work. In his role at Think Company, TJ mentors a team of talented developers out of the company’s Philadelphia East studio. TJ also enjoys coaching people who are starting out in the field and has taught introductory courses at University of the Arts and Girl Develop It.


Matt Connell, CFRE believes in connecting people to information and resources and is passionate about bringing understanding and access closer to being in reach. This passion has led him to a career in the nonprofit sector where he has honed his talents as an educator, fundraiser, researcher, and analyst. Matt is a Senior Instructor for Blackbaud where he helps to lead and develop their team of instructors in the delivery of training for nonprofit professionals.

When he’s not working with nonprofit organizations or the Blackbaud team, Matt is probably spending time with his dog Pete. He also enjoys cycling and home-brewing, another passion Matt occasionally enjoys ‘researching.’

Comments (1)

  • Jayne Cravens says:

    Nice to see accessibility at least mentioned. People with disabilities want to donate, volunteer and otherwise support causes they care about. Like all people, they love the arts, animals, and the environment, they enjoy beautiful parks and fun outdoor activities, and they support these and a variety of other causes. But if a nonprofit’s web site isn’t accessible to them, they are left out – and that means the nonprofit leaves out potential donors, volunteers, clients, ideas, talent and more.

    A nonprofit in Austin, Texas, Knowbility, has been promoting web accessible design since the late 1990s. Their annual OpenAIR (Accessibility Internet Rally) helps nonprofits get matched with professional web designers, as volunteers, who help them get a new web site that is fully accessible with people with disabilities. More info:

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