By Matt Schwartz, Founder & Executive Director of Constructive.
Have you ever seen a nonprofit website that you know doesn’t represent an organization as it truly is? That doesn’t tell an organization’s story effectively or fails to clarify its impact. That makes it too challenging to understand nonprofits’ roles in their ecosystem and what unique value their programs and services offer. That makes it too hard to find and use the resources and support a nonprofit has to offer its audiences. Or that visually miss the mark with poor design and inauthentic stock imagery?
I think we’ve all experienced this situation once or twice. Suppose you work for a nonprofit with an ineffective website. In that case, you may have also experienced being too embarrassed to send people to it so they can learn more about your organization. We all know there’s an actual cost when a website fails to represent a nonprofit well. After all, it’s one of the most critical strategic assets a nonprofit has in representing itself to the world.
We ask websites to help drive our mission by projecting our nonprofit’s brand, being the hub of digital communications, and acting as a primary channel for audience engagement. Given a website’s importance, it must be closely aligned with another crucial strategic asset—a brand strategy. Effective brand strategy is foundational to how nonprofits understand themselves, their audiences, and how they progress together in advancing a mission. It’s the cornerstone of articulating mission, vision, values, and more through strategic positioning and messaging. Get these two things right and get them “talking” with each other—and a nonprofit has about 80% of what it needs to support its organizational strategy and strategic communications.
The truth is brand strategy is the essential foundation for all design and communications. And because websites do so much to support a nonprofit’s mission strategy—all on their own, with hundreds or thousands of people visiting daily—the value of an effective brand strategy shines. Think about what we ask our nonprofit websites to do once they’re live. They’re essential to strategic communications. A website is often the first place a person goes when they learn about a nonprofit. It’s a nonprofit’s ultimate brand ambassador—a representation of mission, vision, and values ready to welcome audiences 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s a digital platform for articulating the “who, what, when, where, why, how, and with whom” of a nonprofit’s impact strategy—a powerful window into an organization’s world and the ecosystem in which it exists. And after introductions are made, it remains the hub of digital communications, where a nonprofit’s marketing channels and external media continuously direct people.
For some nonprofits—particularly research institutes, think tanks, and nonprofits that deliver service online—a website is much more than just a platform for brand communications. It’s also a primary channel for doing the work—whether this means knowledge mobilization to address climate change, providing resources and professional development for teachers, or increasing access to vital mental health care services. Websites for associations and member-based nonprofits are invaluable to building and connecting communities. For advocacy nonprofits, websites are integral to driving support for campaigns. And, of course, their website is a vital fundraising channel for organizations that fund programs through individual donations.
That’s a lot of heavy lifting!
And it doesn’t stop here. A nonprofit’s website is about more than these essential external-facing roles. It’s also integral to operations—a tool that staff often rely on to do their daily work. Modern nonprofit brand strategy theory emphasizes leveraging brand strategy to increase capacity. The same holds for websites because the staff is regular users of the content management system that a website is built on—and that CMS is often connected to multiple external technology platforms like grants management software, CRMs, and fundraising systems that are integral to operations. Just like the quality of the experiences that a website creates for external audiences says a lot about its brand, so does the quality of the website’s software and how well it empowers staff to connect with the work. Doing this well requires understanding how the job gets done and how it impacts the mission.
What makes brand strategy valuable to create a website that expresses what a nonprofit stands for and engages people inside and outside the organization? It’s all about context. Or better said, design (in the most full sense of the word) is all about context. Anything that’s designed (to say, everything that is not part of the natural environment) is designed for a specific use, for one particular person or group of people, to be used in a precise place or way, and for a specific purpose. You need to understand the context to successfully design for all those situational needs. That’s how designers create experiences that are useful, valuable, and resonant.
The most effective design often takes a human-centered approach to meet the needs of people. So, to design websites that do all of the essential things that nonprofits need them to do, the more deeply we understand a nonprofit, its audiences, and the context in which these two things interact, the more effectively we’ll navigate the countless content, design, and technology choices that go into creating a website. And the better we’ll be at uniting work done by strategists, copywriters, designers, and web developers into a cohesive online experience aligned with a nonprofit’s purpose and the positive perceptions people have of the brand.
The brand strategy process is the place where all of this valuable context is defined. And the design is the tool that turns the many ideas in a brand strategy into something tangible that can be experienced. As someone who has been a designer and a brand strategist throughout my career, I’ve felt the power of this connection first-hand. It’s also why I believe that integrating brand strategy principles and practices into the website design process—and having the same strategist involved throughout the project—is so helpful. It creates a connective thread from brand thinking to the designed experiences a website creates so that people can engage with a nonprofit’s brand. And when teams have a deep understanding and appreciation for what a nonprofit’s brand truly stands for and the value the organization creates, they are better at making those ideas tangible.
User experience design (UX)—the process of defining how people will interact with a designed solution and what will happen when they do—is the foundation of website design. It’s impossible to design a great website without great UX design, which is why you’ll hear so much emphasis on doing it well in a website design project. But here’s the thing: nobody visits a website looking for a great user experience. They visit for the opportunities a website creates for them to interact with a brand. People may not think they are visiting a website for a brand experience, but that’s what’s happening.
So, while UX design is vital to website design, I think it’s helpful to reframe it to go further than some of its limiting measures of success (e.g., “user-friendliness,” “content findability”). We’ve got bigger fish to fry! When our goals are much loftier than “online conversions” or “page views”—when we’re working to address serious social and environmental issues, we need to connect on a deeper level. And that’s where the more significant and profound underlying dynamics of what matters in the societal/nonprofit/audience relationship lie. We’re not just designing to be transactional. We’re prepared to resonate with people’s values and motivation and to inspire them to take action.
For social change organizations, this means creating experiences with the specific goals of educating audiences, deepening their engagement with the issues, and, ultimately, helping people from different backgrounds and with other skills and resources to contribute to solving a serious problem. And when the change we seek will take a long time to achieve or will happen in a place far away from where we may physically be, sustaining engagement for the long term can be a challenge. We need to keep people connected to the brand. And a nonprofit’s website is both the most visible manifestation of the brand and one of the best vehicles for delivering value that keeps them connected to it.
So, if your organization is looking to redesign its website and has never taken the time to develop a brand strategy, now would be a good time to do so. Yes, it will require time, money, and patience. But it is an investment well worth making—and one that will pay you back many times over. What’s more, not only will your team be energized by the process, you’ll be amazed by how much easier decision-making about things like website structure, navigation, content strategy, and design is when it’s clear to all what the actual value of your organization is to its audiences.
However, it’s not always possible to undertake a significant brand strategy process—and that’s OK! That’s because it’s very likely to integrate elements of the brand strategy process into the research, strategy, and design phases of a website redesign. While your nonprofit won’t gain the organization-wide benefits that flow from defining an effective brand strategy, integrating brand strategy thinking and exercises into a redesign will ensure that your website is more effective at communicating and connecting people to your nonprofit value.
Whichever approach you take, before you jump into the website redesign, be sure to pull your key stakeholders together and engage them in the kind of thoughtful strategic exploration that should inform every branding process. Doing so will enable you to build your website—and the brand experience—around the deeper, underlying values that do so much to energize audiences to believe in your brand and support your mission. And if you’d like to learn more about how Constructive can help you with the brand strategy and digital design practice we’ve refined across our 22 years, we hope you’ll get in touch!
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