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Down & dirty: you don't need a degree to remake your site.

You can admit it if you're embarrassed by your website. It's critical for every organization to have a solid, professional-looking, reasonably up-to-date website. Just like your physical address or a good brochure, a professional website 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 website, 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 website, but a reliable way to update it. Not every organization requires a complex site or sophisticated software to manage it. A simple 10- or 20-pager is sometimes 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? Nonprofit technologists with extensive experience with small websites were asked which solutions they would recommend. The experts offered a number of tools that have worked for them--including simple sitebuilding tools, WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) software, nonprofit integrated tools, and robust content management systems (CMS).

RELYING ON A TRUSTED PERSON

Many organizations rely on a trusted staff member, consultant, or volunteer to build and update their websites. This method can work in a pinch if you only need to update your site a couple times a year and you don't expect your organization to grow or your website to change substantially.

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 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?

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 website 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.

SIMPLE SITEBUILDING TOOLS

Let's say you need to put up a simple website quickly and you don't have any technical expertise, graphic-design skills, or experience with websites. Simple sitebuilding 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, typically little more than you would pay to host a website.

Sites built with a simple sitebuilder 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.

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:

Wix (www.wix.com)

Wix provides a polished and user-friendly interface for creating smaller, simple sites. The vendor provides a wide range of pre-made templates, which offer a good degree of flexibility and customization and allow you to create a version of your site optimized for mobile devices.

Organizations with a larger web presence or multiple content editors might not find Wix the right fit for their needs. The tool cannot handle multiple user accounts with different roles or permissions. All your content editors must share a single login credential.

Additional features or tools are available as free or paid add-ons from the vendor-curated App Market. Wix can be used under a free account, but there is a fee for your own domain, additional storage, and an ad-free site.

Weebly (www.weebly.com)

Designed with less tech-savvy users in mind, Weebly provides a polished, user-friendly interface for creating smaller, simple sites. Users are presented with a wide range of flexible and customizable pre-made templates, all of which will automatically create a mobile-optimized version of your site.

While non-technical users can easily customize the structure and look-and-feel of a site, Weebly does not currently provide add-ons or apps to extend system functionality. Weebly can be used under a free account, but there is a fee for your own domain and premium support.

WordPress.com (www. wordpress.com)

WordPress.com, by Automattic, is best known as a blogging platform, but for a small organization seeking to create a simple site, it provides many of the same features as its cousin, the open source WordPress.org.

Its user-friendly interface puts site setup within reach of even non-technical staff members, and the vendor provides more than 200 prepackaged graphic themes, most of which are free. Pricing is based off of a "freemium" model.

While you can get started with a free account, you'll need to pay for upgrades and additional features, such as removing ads, adding your own custom domain, or the ability to add custom cascading style sheets (CSS).

Squarespace (www.squarespace.com)

A step beyond blogging tools, Squarespace allows non-technical organizations to quickly and easily create or manage smaller websites. Designed with artists and designers in mind, Squarespace handles multimedia like photos and videos quite well, and strong responsive design makes creating a mobile-friendly site effortless.

Templates provided by the vendor offer a large amount of flexibility and customization, as well as drag-and-drop/WYSIWYG layout editors. But, you can't create your own custom templates without using the developer platform.

TOOLS FROM YOUR WEB HOST

If a simple sitebuilder sounds promising for your organization, and you've already set up a relationship with a company to host your website, check to see if that Web host offers sitebuilding tools similar to those described above. Many hosts offer simple sitebuilding tools for free, although they vary widely in quality.

ONLINE INTEGRATED SYSTEMS

For many nonprofits, features such as online donations, event registration, and email newsletters are as important as the website itself. That might be all you really need for a website, at least for the time being. If this is the case for your organization, you could consider an online integrated system.

Online integrated systems allow nonprofits to manage a number of different aspects of their constituent information and web presence all together in one hosted, online package. These tools --such as NeonCRM (www.z2systems.com), or Salsa (www.salsalabs.com) --offer nonprofit-specific functionality, such as online donations and event registration, and help you to not only manage your website but also your entire list of constituents. While the feature set is considerably broader, you are still limited to what the tools offer.

WYSIWYG HTML EDITING TOOLS

If you just need to be able to edit and update an existing website built on static HTML pages, you could consider a WYSIWYG HTML editor.

Tools like Adobe Dreamweaver (www.adobe.com) or Contribute (www.adobe.com/products/contribute.html) allow non-technical users to directly access the underlying code of the website and easily make updates to text and images, without knowledge of HTML. While one of these HTML editors will work fine for an existing static HTML site, it's not advisable for an organization to build a new site using one of these tools.

Although it's likely a better option than one of the simple sitebuilding tools above, a site built on static HTML pages is inherently less scalable than a site built with a content management system (CMS). 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.

CONTENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS

If you're looking to build a website to grow with you and become feature-rich over time, there's little argument that using a content management system 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 more complex to setup, but are also vastly more powerful.

A site built with a tool like Wix or Weebly will likely be small and fairly generic looking if you stick to the templates available, but a fully-featured 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.

Generally speaking, open source means that a system's source code is freely available for everyone to acquire, see and change. That's not true of proprietary systems (such as Microsoft Word, for example). A proprietary system is created, distributed and maintained by a business. Open source software typically is supported by a community of developers and users.

These distinctions are not as hard and fast as they might seem. Some systems are available under both an open source model and sold as a package by a vendor. Others are not open source but are virtually free to acquire and have a huge community of developers and users.

When comparing a system's openness and the strength of the support community, it's not enough to simply ask "is it open source or not?" You'll want to focus on which tool best meets your organization's needs, what support is available, and, if you're working with a consultant, with which system they are familiar.

WordPress (www.wordpress.org)

WordPress.org is a great choice for fairly small websites, a few hundred pages or less, that are simply arranged. It's one of the easiest systems to install and understand, and is easy to maintain and update, putting site setup within reach of anyone with a sense of technical adventure.

There are many predefined graphic themes available. Adapting them to your particular needs can range from trivial--if the theme allows you to select your own color and add your own logo, for instance--to a relatively straightforward process for someone familiar with HTML and CSS. Updating and editing images and text is also quite straightforward, and multiple add-on modules are available. However, it might not scale as intuitively as more complex systems to support larger or complex websites. A large number of add-on modules are available through the community to add additional functionality to your site--including functionality that other systems have out-of-the-box.

ExpressionEngine (ellislab.com/expressionengine)

Somewhere between a blogging platform and CMS for simple sites and more powerful enterprise-level solutions, ExpressionEngine is a flexible system well-suited to technical users. A large number of free or paid add-on modules, both created by the vendor and the community, provide additional functionality in most areas.

The system is not optimized for non-technical users, however, and requires a learning curve to set up a site, and significant technical knowledge of both HTML and the proprietary coding language to create templates and use more advanced features. While ExpressionEngine does allow for a good variety of unusual and custom content types, the system is not as strong as many others when it comes to out-of-the-box workflow.

Joomla (www.joomla.org)

If you want a solution that is relatively easy to implement but +still effective for much larger sites down the road, Joomla might be a great choice. Joomla focuses on usability, and anyone who's technically adventurous can get a substantial site up without the need for any specific skills.

Each piece of content is typically associated with a single page. This makes the system more straightforward to understand, but can be cumbersome to update and limits very advanced structures (such as structuring the site around a multifaceted taxonomy). Add-on modules support a wide variety of functionalities, from directories to shopping carts to community features, providing a solid base for many different kinds of sites.

For more complex sites, organizations willing to hire a consultant should also consider the open source Drupal (www.drupal.org/) or Plone (www.plone.org/), which require more technical implementation up-front, but in turn offer more advanced features and functionality.

THE CMS YOUR 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, since one of the biggest factors in choosing a CMS is the learning curve. There are many systems 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, chances are that there won't be a lot of people to help you with questions or in expanding the site. However, if your website is built on a reasonably well-known CMS, there's likely to be a whole community of users who can help provide support or website 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 might not realize that building on, say, a .NET or Python platform might 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 and updating navigation. Some of the open-source CMSs in particular are geared toward 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 nobody technically adventurous to help you out, then you'll be limited to simple sitebuilder or hosted integrated tools. If you have someone adventurous and technically oriented but without specific expertise, a less complex CMS such as WordPress or Joomla could 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 a WYSIWYG HTML editor is an inexpensive option that allows even technophobes to make updates, though it's not a platform that will easily grow with your organizations through the years. Joomla, WordPress, or another standard CMS might also be a great choice for a scalable website 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 website that will show the world the importance of your cause, the credibility of your organization, and all the great things that you're doing.

Laura Quinn is with Idealware in Portland, Maine. Also contributing to this piece were Steve Backman, Database Designs Associates; Heather Gardner-Madras, gardner-madras I strategic creative; Eric Leland of Leland Design; Michelle Murrain, Metacentric Technology Advising; and, Kirill Sokolov of St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.
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Title Annotation:ON THE WEB
Author:Quinn, Laura
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2015
Words:2603
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