A Few Good Tools to Manage Content on Simple Sites
Are you embarrassed by your organization’s Web site? (Come on, you can admit it.) Was it built in a volunteer’s nephew’s basement — or does it look like it was? Does it feature events or breaking news that are sadly out of date? Are you still trying to get around to adding that program you started last year?
These days, it’s critical for every organization to have a solid, professional-looking, reasonably up-to-date Web site. Just like your physical address or a good brochure, a professional Web site enhances your organization’s credibility and helps people understand what you do. If you’re hosting a big event but nothing is mentioned about it on your Web site, or if your site prominently displays news from last year, these inconsistencies raise questions about your ability to get things done.
Your organization needs not only a Web site, but a reliable way to update it. That said, not every organization requires a complex site or sophisticated software to manage it — sometimes, a simple 10- or 20-pager is sufficient for your needs. In this case, a complex content management system designed to update sophisticated sites just doesn’t make sense — such systems are time-consuming to set up, and are overly complicated by a bunch of functionality you’ll never use.
What content management software would make sense? We asked six nonprofit technologists with extensive experience with small Web sites what solutions they would recommend. Our experts offer a number of tools that have worked for them — including Web-site-in-a-box tools, WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) software, nonprofit integrated tools, and robust content management systems. Maybe these options will work for you as well.
Relying on a Trusted Person
Many organizations rely on a trusted staff member, consultant, or volunteer to build and update their Web sites for them. If you only need to update your site a couple times a year and you don’t expect your organization to grow or your Web site to change substantially, this method can work in a pinch.
This solution is not ideal, however. In many cases, the inevitable delays of handing off text will cause site updates to become increasingly infrequent. If a consultant is charging you for updates, these fees can mount up over time. Moreover, what will happen if your trusted Web designer is no longer available, or decides to charge more than you want to pay? If you do rely on one person for updates, make sure you have a backup person who knows how to update your site, and ensure that the site is built using standard tools that another technical person could learn if necessary.
For most organizations, however, having a Web site that can be updated by a number of people in your organization and that can provide a platform for your future growth is worth a small investment in one of the tools described below.
Let’s say you need to put up a simple Web site quickly, and you don’t have any technical expertise, graphic-design skills, or experience with Web sites. “Web-site-in-a-Box” tools are designed to help you in this situation. These tools allow you to go to an online site builder, pick out a design and layout from hundreds of templates, upload a logo, define your navigation, and create your text and images — all with easy-to-use tools that are intended for anyone accustomed to using software like Word or Outlook. They're inexpensive as well — typically little more than you would pay to host a Web site.
Moreover, sites built with Web-site-in-a-Box tools will only scale so far. When you’re ready to add more functionality or create a section with another 30 pages, you’ll likely need to start over with another tool. On the other hand, these kits offer a very quick way to set up a site, and there’s no reason you can’t use them to create a temporary site now and then discard it when you’re ready to replace it. You can usually try these tools out on a trial basis to see if they will work for you.
Exceedingly easy to use, Homestead allows you to pick from one of hundreds of professional-looking templates, drop in your own text and graphics, and publish your site at Homestead's URL (homestead.yourorg.com) or your own (www.yourorg.org). It starts at about $5 a month for a simple site, and ranges up to $20 a month for sites with more pages that are hosted at your own URL.
A bit harder to use but more powerful than Homestead, SiteKreator offers similar functionality — the ability to customize the graphics and text in a templated Web site, and publish it to your own URL or one of SiteKreator's. It starts at $8 a month and goes up to $40 a month for a package that includes features such as forums, e-newsletters, and more.
Squarespace is more complex to set up than either Homsetead or SiteKreator, but offers more options tailored to those who are publishing articles, news, or content on an ongoing basis. Their feature set includes print-friendly and forward-to-a-friend functionality, advanced blogging features, options for members-only areas, and more. It starts at $7 a month and ranges to $12 a month for the full package.
Tools Offered by Your Web Host
If a Web-site-in-a-box sounds promising for your organization, and you’ve already set up a relationship with a company to host your Web site, check to see if that Web host offers site-building tools similar to those described above. Many hosts offer simple Web-site-in-a-box tools for free, although they vary widely in quality.
Hosted Integrated Tools
For many nonprofits, features such as online donations, event registration, and email newsletters are as important as the Web site itself. If this is the case for your organization, consider a hosted-integrated tool.
Hosted-integrated tools are similar in concept to the Web-site-in-a-box tools, in that you pay a monthly fee and get access to an online tool that helps you to build and update your site. However, the packages in this section offer nonprofit-specific functionality, such as online donations and event registration, and help you to not only manage your Web site but also your entire list of constituents. While the feature set is considerably broader than the Web-sites-in-a-box, you are still limited to what the tools offer. If you want to do something extra, it likely won’t be possible.
Similar to the Web-site-in-a-box tools, WildApricot has a pick-a-design-template approach to building a new, simple Web site. Yet WildApricot is specifically nonprofit-oriented and offers support for tracking members and other constituents, online donations, email newsletters, and event registration. Pricing runs from $12 to $200 a month, depending on the size of your constituent list. If you have a small list, or track your constituents elsewhere, it can be very affordable.
Nonprofit Soapbox (www.nonprofitsoapbox.com)
Nonprofit Soapbox offers functionality that goes well beyond WildApricot and the Web-site-in-a-box tools. As a hosted version of the Joomla content management system (described below), it offers considerably more functionality in designing a site that’s tailored to your needs, as well as integrated constituent-management functionality. The platform is $49 to $99 a month based on a sliding scale, plus a $1,000 to $2,000 setup fee that includes the creation of your site, migration of your content, and training. Custom graphic designs are available at an additional cost, as are integrated donation and powerful email functionality through Nonprofit Soapbox's partner Democracy in Action.
CivicSpace on Demand (http://civicspacelabs.org)
Similar in concept to Nonprofit Soapbox, CivicSpace on Demand offers a hosted version of the Drupal content management system, plus a set of additional tools to manage constituents, accept donations, send bulk emails, support sophisticated online community-building, and more. This option starts at about $50 a month.
The packaged software tool Adobe Contribute (formerly Macromedia Contribute) is in a category by itself. This WYSIWYG tool allows you to directly access the underlying code of the Web site and easily make updates to text and images.
Note, however, that Contribute is not a tool that can be used effectively to build a site. Rather, it’s intended to allow non-technical staff members to easily update a Web site that’s been designed by an experienced Web developer, making it a strong option for organizations that have already invested in a unique design that they don’t want it to give up. While it offers special features for sites that were built in Adobe Dreamweaver, it should work with any site built in standard HTML. This means that, as opposed to every other tool in this article, you may be able use it to update your existing Web site. In practice, however, Contribute tends to choke on any Web site that isn’t built to precise HTML standards, meaning that most sites will require cleanup by an experienced Web developer to get it working with Contribute.
Another plus is that Contribute is inexpensive — $149 retail —and is easy to use. Once you're in Contribute, you can simply click an “Edit” button to update text, photos, and documents, add new pages, and more, without danger of accidentally messing up the basic design elements of the site. When you’re done updating, a “Publish” button updates the Web site with your changes. If you are well-versed in Microsoft Word or Excel, you can likely learn to update a site in Contribute in an hour or so.
Contribute is not without its drawbacks. Problems with Contribute’s connection to your Web site, and discrepancies between how pages look when editing compared to when they are published, can occasionally make the system buggy and frustrating. For instance, line breaks are notoriously unpredictable — something that looks fine when editing may suddenly have too many line breaks, or too few, when you publish it. The transition from Macromedia to Adobe has also made tech support difficult.
Finally, think through your long-term plans. Although it’s likely a better option than one of the Web-site-in-a-box tools above, a site built to be updated through Contribute is inherently less scalable than a site built with a tool like Joomla (which we'll discuss below). If you’re going to add new sections and new functionality down the road, it might make sense to choose a tool that will better support your growth.
Open-Source Content Management Platforms
If you’re looking to build a Web site to grow with you and become feature-rich over time, there’s little argument: using a content management system (CMS), is the right way to go. A CMS helps you set up your own site, create pages, update pages, add new navigation, and more, all through a Web-administration tool. These tools are notably more complex to setup, and a bit more complicated to update than the Web-site-in-a-box tools, but they are also vastly more powerful: a site built with a tool like Homesite will always be small and fairly generic looking, but a CMS can support hundreds or thousands of pages, display a custom look for your site, and allow you to choose from a huge menu of extra features.
Open-source systems in particular offer several advantages. The software is free, and you’re able to do anything you want with it, including modifying the code (should you need to) down the road. Another key advantage is that standard open-source CMSs often come pre-installed in shared hosting environments. If your hosted site has a control panel, check to see if it offers an interface for one-click installation of software packages (for instance, look for a tool called Fantastico), which will let you easily activate many open-source CMSs, including the ones described below.
If you want a solution that is relatively easy to implement but still effective for much larger sites down the road, Joomla may be a great choice. Joomla focuses on usability, and anyone who’s technically adventurous can get a substantial — albeit fairly generic-looking — site up without the need for any specific skills. If you’d like to have a custom look to your site, you’ll need someone with HTML and CSS skills to create that look for you.
Joomla supports most straightforward sites out of the box, but its extended community also offers hundreds of plug-ins that you can add to support additional functionality, such as forms, event calendars, directories, and much more. Both the core CMS and all the plug-ins are supported by an extensive user community that is quite friendly to novice users. While there’s no official “support,” questions that are posted to user forums are generally answered quickly and usefully.
Setting up a Joomla site is more of an investment than creating one with a Web-site-in-box tool. If you would like your site to have a custom layout, learning to do so in Joomla will likely require more effort than setting up a site that’s designed to be updated with Contribute. However, your efforts will be rewarded with a site that can grow with you for a long time to come.
Better known as a blog tool, WordPress is also sometimes used as a simple CMS for uncomplicated sites — particularly those that feature news, articles, or other content that works in a way similar to a blog. WordPress is not as easy to set up as Joomla (if you’re setting up something other than a blog), so you’ll likely want help from someone with WordPress experience. WordPress is notably less powerful than Joomla in supporting functionality beyond pages, blogs, and news, but this can be an advantage for simple sites: its administration interface is by default very stripped-down and easy to navigate, with no need to contend with a bunch of functionality that you won’t use.
The CMS Your Trusted Web Developer Knows
What if one of your staff members, or a trusted consultant or volunteer, is advocating a CMS that they’ve used before? This might make sense — after all, one of the biggest factors in choosing a CMS is the learning curve. Moreover, there are many systems — for instance, Drupal, EZPublish, ModX, PHPWebSite, ExponentCMS — that would be compatible with a variety of sites. Before going this route, however, take into account the following considerations.
- Is there a community of users for the CMS? If your Web developer has built a CMS herself, chances are that there won’t be a lot of people to help you with questions or in expanding the site. However, if your Web site is built on a reasonably well-known CMS, there’s likely to be a whole community of users who can help provide support or Web site development if the person who built the site is no longer around.
- Can the CMS be hosted on a typical shared-hosting environment? Ask your developer if there’s any special hosting needs for the CMS. Developers who come from a corporate background in particular may not realize that building on, say, a .NET or Python platform may require special hosting considerations.
- Can you understand how to use it? Ask for a demo of how you would edit articles, create events, or other everyday activities, as well as of less-common features such as creating site users, updating navigation, or the like. Some of the open-source CMSs in particular are geared towards more technical users, and can be difficult to use.
If you answered "yes" to all of these questions, then go for it. Using a CMS that’s familiar to the person who’s developing the site can save a lot of time ? and frustration.
Finding the Right Solution
When choosing a content management method, start with the technical expertise that’s available to get you up and running. If there’s no one technically adventurous to help you out, then you’ll be limited to Web-site-in-a-box or hosted integrated tools. If you have someone adventurous and technically oriented but without specific expertise, Joomla may be a good solution.
If, on the other hand, you can find or hire a professional to build the site for you, you have more options. Building a site to be updated through Contribute is an inexpensive option that allows even technophobes to make updates, though it’s not a platform that will easily grow with you through the years. Joomla, WordPress, or another standard CMS your developer recommends might also be a great choice for a scalable Web site that can grow with you.
At the end of the day, what's important is to choose a tool that you’ll actually use. Regardless of what people may say is the “best” tool, if you’re not comfortable with it, then it won’t help you create that up-to-date Web site that will show the world the importance of your cause, the credibility of your organization, and all the great things that you’re doing.
Thanks to TechSoup for its financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:
- Steve Backman, Database Designs Associates, Inc.
- Heather Gardner-Madras, gardner-madras | strategic creative
- Michelle Murrain, MetaCentric Technology Advising
- Eric Leland, Leland Design
- Laura Quinn, Idealware
- Kirill Sokolov, St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary