At Cantilever we love working with non-profits, because it is energizing to be a part of making the world a better place through our work. We sometimes get approached by non-profit clients who are not getting good results from an outdated old website, and are ready to start over, but don’t know how to approach the process. If you are in that kind of situation, this is our guidance for how you can navigate towards a successful outcome.
Create a Working Group & Grant Them Control
No matter how great your process, if things are controlled collectively it will be really hard to get to good outcomes. Cantilever recommends that your organization appoint a working group of at most five people who are the ones who make decisions about the website, including which vendor to choose, etc. The working group should interact with the rest of the org to agree on specific purposes for the website and a clear definition of success. Once that is agreed, the org should hold the working group accountable for those outcomes but should not interfere with the tactical decisions they make.
It’s very important to have alignment about how donors, board members and leadership see the website project. It‘s very common for a project to get derailed by a well-meaning board member who makes a request late in the process, or by an influential donor’s feedback. It is critical to define early on how responsive the working group must be to the concerns of these factions, and how much they will have the ability to say “no.” If they don’t have the ability to say “no” then it’s important to align on exactly what the requirements of each of those groups are so that the working group does not waste time exploring other options. If there is an influence that is really strong and whose approval is an absolute must, I would recommend just putting a representative of that faction in the working group. For example if the website needs the blessing of a specific donor above all, the non-profit can ask someone from their team to participate in the working group, or an internal person who works frequently with them and can represent their interests.
Defining the purpose
Your website should have a clear reason for existing and specific outcomes that you count on it to generate. The value of the potential outcomes should guide your budget for money and internal resources you are willing to dedicate to it. A website should be an investment with positive return on investment, not a cost.
At the outset, when the working group meets with stakeholders the natural focus will be on features and not on outcomes. This makes sense since people will have cool ideas for the site that come from things they have seen and admired. There’s nothing wrong with keeping a document of this kind of inspiration. However, I would encourage you to dig deeper towards the core purpose that people are hoping to accomplish through such features. For example, someone may say "it would be amazing to have an interactive map with all of our partners," and indeed that would be cool. But what will it do? Attract more partners? Raise attention for existing ones? Establish your credibility? How can you measure that? What level of result would be considered a success?
To define those core outcomes I recommend using the form of a "user story", ex. "The public should be able to see and understand the org’s global impact so that they can get motivated to participate in making the world a better place" or "Organizational partners should be able to post updates directly to the site so they can reach a broader global audience than they could on their own." These should be connected to a measurable result, such as "small-dollar gift volume increases by at least 20% per year."
There could be dozens of really good, impactful user stories/results you can come up with. I would recommend collecting them all in a single location and then triaging/categorizing to sift out what the top three are. You may want to combine some so that you can end up with a top three that is really incredible. The threshold should be that if you accomplish the top three and nothing else, the site will be worth it.
Assembling your content
The process will go smoother if you can identify all the existing resources and content you already have. You can categorize this into stuff that is acceptable as-is, stuff that needs some work, and stuff you need to throw out. Much of this will be on the current site but there is often a lot of content that has never made it to the site, such as stuff from annual reports, grassroots partners, social media, YouTube, etc. Put together a document that lists out everything you have, and you can share this with your eventual vendor.
Finding an Agency
A good agency should be both a strategic and tactical partner. You should not hire a firm that is waiting to take orders from you, because you are not web experts. You want people who have been through it all and can take that experience into your project so you avoid common mistakes.
The traditional RFP process involves you writing up your requirements and then receiving full “bids” and “pitches” from agencies that want the work. The pitch will include some kind of vision for what the firm would do on the site, information about them, pricing, timeline, etc.
This process can work but it is risky. The problem is that it incentivizes the agency to promise the most results for the least money, in order to win your business. That sounds good, but most agencies can’t deliver on the big promises they would make. The people making the proposal will often be sales executives who are incentivized by you signing the contract rather than the ultimate success of the project. Those folks may know the technology somewhat well but never as well as the actual people doing the work. This means they will naturally push things in an optimistic direction to make the project sound better and cheaper than it actually will be. Agencies doing RFPs can only invest limited time in each proposal so the plan that they propose will not be specific or bespoke to you and your needs. They will have to default to an approach that they can predict, rather than the exact approach that may be right for you.
The traditional RFP process puts the burden on the client to say what they want on their site, when they don’t actually have the experience to say what that is. A common example is that many RFPs include a choice of content management system (CMS). Clients feel that this is one clear request they can put in the RFP because they know a specific CMS and feel OK with it, and it’s one less variable that gets in the way of people delivering quotes. But clients may only have tried 2-3 CMS systems, while agencies have tried 10+ such systems and know the different nuances of why one would be better for certain situations. So by narrowing the RFP the client accidentally shuts themselves out from a superior solution.
Cantilever does recommend using an RFP, but in a non-traditional way:
- Think of it as you looking for a partner, not a project. You should be evaluating the firms, rather than their visions for your project. The right firm can come up with the right vision but that can be done once you are working together much easier than in advance.
- Focus on the outcomes you want, not the tactics you are considering. Consider that the website could look vastly different than what you have in mind, and still deliver the outcomes you want, or even better. You will want a firm you can trust to guide you to that place.
- Keep it short, and request that firms provide more abstract insights into themselves and how you would work together. Their values and philosophy are important. When they explain this stuff you can assess how much it sounds like BS vs. how much they are really living it out.
- Try to talk to the people you would be working with on a daily basis rather than the leader/account manager.
- Do an in-person interview if you can do so without major CO2 emissions. It makes a huge difference in knowing if you trust someone.
- Be very wary of firms without an in-house coding team. There are a lot of firms which will take website business but they outsource the dev work. If this is the case, you should know exactly who the work is going to, and should assess them as well.
- Try to assess how much the firm will ask of you. It’s very easy to focus on their cost, but one of the major costs of less-experienced firms is that they take a lot more internal time and energy to manage. Try to get a sense of whether the potential firms will be able to execute the vision without constant hand-holding or feedback. Prior customer interviews are a great way to assess this. You can simply ask how many meetings per week were required to deliver their site. If it’s more than 2-3, then the firm was not very efficient with the client’s time.
Once you pick a firm, most agencies (Cantilever included) will want to start with some kind of discovery/diagnostic process. The goal of this phase is to settle on the plan for the web rebuild project specifically. As I mentioned it’s not easy for the firm to know in advance exactly what would make sense for you so now is the time when all of that should get settled. You will want to make time for several long meetings, particularly in person if practical. During this phase it’s critical to lock in the website purpose, but also now to clarify which key methods you will use to accomplish those purposes.
You can take your “feature request“ list from pre-RFP and categorize people’s ideas according to which of the primary purposes are accomplished. Then you can see where you may be heavier or weaker in different areas. The firm can help you determine relative cost for different tactics and can bring their own ideas from their own experience/portfolio.
Websites are malleable and a high-quality site should be built to grow. So the question should not be “How many features can we fit in V1“ but rather “How few features can we get away with in V1?“
Cantilever recommends that at most half of your “Year 1“ budget goes to the initial pre-launch site. We recommend that V1 be targeted simply at outperforming the existing site. The reason we are so aggressive about launch is that as soon as you launch, you start to get data. You can get qualitative and quantitative feedback on how the site is doing. This allows the team to modify their plans for the next phases of the site build. With a good firm there should be very little cost difference in building a feature pre-launch vs. post-launch. So there is really no reason to wait until things are amazing before you launch. Just make it better than the old site.
Make sure that data is central to the entire process. Having defined the site’s purposes, you should have clear metrics to understand if those purposes are being accomplished. It’s likely that after V1, at least one of the purposes will not be met yet. That’s OK! That’s why you saved more than half your money. Now you can deploy more of that money to focus on the purpose that is not being met. That could mean using it on the website itself, or on non-website activity such as social media content.
After V1 is out, you and the agency can settle into a long-term relationship under which you continually monitor your success metrics and react accordingly. Once the site is clearly meeting all the original needs, you can even start to measure and focus on more of the secondary “user stories” you defined previously.
At Cantilever our goal is for our sites to last forever, and I know other high-end firms feel the same. That doesn’t mean they won’t experience major change or even a full design refresh every now and again. It just means that there will never be another point where there is a full cutoff between an “old site” and a “new site”. It will be like your staff – constantly changing and evolving to meet the needs of the organization, but never completely turning over. This means that your team never has to expend as much internal energy and focus on the site as they will in Year 1 of the new relationship, and the website can just grow and grow in importance and influence over time. Only a high quality site can scale this way, which is another reason why sometimes the more expensive vendor options may save you money in the long run, considering both external and internal costs.
We hope that this guidance makes it easier for any non-profit looking for a web design firm. The right firm and the right website are vital in a non-profit accomplishing its mission in the digital age.
If you’d like more direct advice and guidance, or would like to consider Cantilever as a potential partner, please reach out! We’re happy to talk through your challenges and opportunities, with zero obligation.