Does your nonprofit website suck? (Part 1: The Design)

While many NGOs have sites that are both beautifully designed and clearly communicate the organisation’s mission, there are many more that are just ill conceived.  How do you know if the design of your organisation’s website is just... bad?


For starters, when you're evaluating your website, ask people: your friends, your site users and your staff. Use an anonymous survey to ensure honest feedback. Whenever I’ve encountered incredibly poor design, most of the staff hated it but were just too afraid to speak up.

Let’s look at some of the common reasons nonprofit websites fail. 

The bad designer

A common pitfall is hiring the cheapest web developer you can find. Of course funds are scarce, but remember that you usually get what you pay for! That being said, I’ve seen some very expensive, and bad, NGO websites. Indeed, I’ve made a good living fixing someone else’s design problems.

Before you hire anyone, take a look at their portfolio. The easiest indicator of whether they can design something to suit your organisation is to simply ask yourself, do you like their design style? And after you find a designer whose work you like, show them an NGO website you really like and explain what you like about it.

The meddling client

Another cause of bad design is the “over-involved client”. I don’t mean that clients should not be involved in the design process, only that some clients simply don’t know what they want, but nonetheless keep micromanaging the design pixel by pixel until the page is a complete mess.  At some point you need to trust your designer to build a website.  If you don’t trust the designer, why did you hire him or her?

This comic illustrates the point perfectly: The Oatmeal - How a web design goes straight to hell.

Before you start, establish a clear design brief. Don't expect your designer to keep conjuring up designs until you stumble upon one you're happy with. That is the equivalent of having someone redecorate your house randomly until, 8 coats of paint later, they find a colour and style you like. Your designer's time is valuable. Use it wisely. 

Oh no, not consensus!

Perhaps worse than the “over involved client” is “too many involved clients”. This would be the NGO which holds numerous meetings with staff, management team and the web designer throughout the process. All are encouraged to work directly with the designer to give voice to the needs of their unit.

You’ve heard the saying, ”too many cooks spoil the broth.” It’s true in this context as well.

Real example: one brief that came out of a staff meeting was to have a front page with a large dominant image, a profile of every programme with images and extensive text, a slideshow, and all in a minimalist design style with lots of whitespace that needs to fit on one page with no scrolling. Needless to say, the project did not end well!

It’s best to have a single project manager who liaises with the designer. Hold the big staff meetings at the very beginning, and at the end of the process. Staff must also understand that while their input and feedback are important, the design and editing processes are not necessarily democratic ones.

I have had clients ask for a “wow” factor as their design brief. I still don’t know what that means. Usually the client doesn’t either. And even if we could agree, a “wow-full” homepage can actually detract and distract from your message and purpose. Have you noticed lately that most news sites are looking simpler and cleaner than before? That’s because they have figured out how to organise lots of information so a user can find it in just a few seconds of scanning. 

Remember: The primary purpose of the design in an NGO website is to effectively showcase the content.