What nonprofits get wrong about their website
Most nonprofits view their websites in the wrong light.
No, your org's website isn't just a billboard you can put up and suddenly reach the masses.
No, it isn't a brochure you can vaguely direct people toward to learn about your programs.
No, it isn't a catalog to house the thousands of photos your org has accumulated over the years.
A nonprofit's website, first and foremost, is a tool for building deeper relationships.
Presenting your org's information is important, yes. But the purpose of your website isn’t to be a megaphone broadcasting one-way information.
To truly be effective, your nonprofit website needs to do 3 key things, and do them well:
- Speak to your visitors in messaging that feels relevant to their hopes, needs, and expectations.
- Lay out an intentional journey for visitors to draw them deeper into your org's narrative and clearly explain how you fit into their lives.
- Invite your visitors to become a part of your mission by taking action.
That's it. That's the recipe for an effective nonprofit website.
Why these 3 items in particular? Let’s take a look.
Must-have #1: Strong messaging
Your messaging, in many ways, represents the core of your website. (And if your website represents the core of your organization, you can see why it’s so important!)
Messaging includes what you say and how you say it. It’s how visitors come to understand your mission and the value you provide.
When your messaging is too disorganized, dense, or confusing, you lose credibility with your community. Your visitors will internally feel that your org isn't speaking to them and will look elsewhere for that sense of belonging.
But messaging that connects, on the other hand, feels like a conversation. It's answering questions for your community before they even think to ask. Even though your visitor is just reading text on a page and can't speak back, it still feels like you're listening, you care, and you understand their needs.
Good messaging always keeps sight of the person on the other side of the screen.
So what exactly should a nonprofit website with good messaging contain? Here’s a starting point:
- Language that reflects how your audiences actually speak
- Scannable headlines that are descriptive and clear
- Program descriptions written from a layman's perspective (not a grant writer's)
- Words that are laser-focused on the audience, not the nonprofit
- A tone of voice that matches your intended brand: friendly, caring, serious, etc.
Must-have #2: Clear visitor journeys
Your org's website visitor journey is a natural extension of your messaging. It's the order in which you present information to visitors.
Simply put, your visitor journey takes people from "I don't know much about your mission" to "This is clearly a problem, this org is doing something about it, and I want to help." And, most importantly, it's about providing value FIRST—before going straight for a significant ask.
Most nonprofit websites throw out a bunch of information that doesn't necessarily add up to a greater whole. Think about it like this: when you just string together a slider of your latest events, your mission statement (copied straight from a grant application), a couple dozen partner logos, and your staff list, it feels disjointed. It doesn't help your visitors understand the entirety of your work and their place in it.
Nonprofit websites that have a strong visitor journey, in contrast, lay out an easy-to-follow path for visitors. It's making sure you present Chapter 1 before Chapter 2 of your nonprofit's book (and not skipping any chapters entirely!).
Having a visitor journey means building on the previous sections of your site to tell your story and draw your visitors deeper into your org's work.
The tricky part, of course, is that you have several different types of visitors, and not everyone will follow the same path. So what’s a nonprofit to do here? Start by asking yourself these questions:
- Where possible, have we allowed visitors to self-identify and choose where to go? (e.g. "for donors" or "I'm a student”)
- On the homepage, have we provided clickable cards, links, or buttons for each primary audience?
- Are the primary audiences represented in our navigation menu?
- Are there footer links directing key audiences to the most helpful resources?
- Have we repeated our core messaging points across key pages, knowing that no one reads a website from top to bottom?
- Have we provided enough links between pages to help visitors navigate around your site?
Must-have #3: A compelling next step
Finally, a nonprofit website won’t be effective unless there's some sort of next step. You didn't bring people to your site just to help them waste time on a Tuesday afternoon, right?
Nonprofit websites are all about generating inspiration that leads to motion, momentum, and people taking real-life action.
Websites without a clear next step lack clarity. It makes visitors think, "Okay, there's this problem in our community. And…?” They’re left feeling frustrated that there's nothing they can do or confused about how you actually fit into their lives.
By providing your visitors with clear call-to-actions and a firm next step, you're inviting them to become the changemakers they want to be. You're helping them transform from a passive observer, stuck on the sidelines, to having a voice for your cause.
But without that prompt urging them to action, your visitors never receive the encouragement they need to join your cause. They simply don’t know what to do.
Next steps can (and almost always should) vary based on the page and its intended audience. Some good next steps to include on your nonprofit site might be:
- A newsletter signup
- A volunteer application
- A donation form or checkout
- A program signup
- A scheduling link
- A contact form
Nonprofit websites should build relationships
In the end, your words, your journey, and your next step all add up to the experience your visitors have on your org's website.
And that's what effective nonprofit websites do — they offer visitors an experience that draws them in and starts to build a mutual relationship.
Nonprofit websites with a strong experience don't feel like marketing pieces.
Instead, they feel authentic, approachable, and trustworthy.
When someone comes to your org's website, what kind of experience do they have?
Does your messaging speak to them directly, or someone else?
Do you lay out a journey for them to learn more about your story and work?
And when they get to the end of that journey, do they know what action to take next?
It's easy to create a nonprofit website that makes announcements, shows some images, and advertises some events. But a website like that is really just existing.
It’s an entirely different thing to connect with someone — to provide an experience that helps them feel heard, access needed resources, and join something bigger than themselves.
If your organization's website is weak in any of the above areas, think about what you could adjust to better connect with your visitors. Even minor tweaks in your messaging, visitor journey, or calls-to-action can significantly impact how your visitors interact with your site.
Nonprofit websites offer a world of possibilities in terms of recruiting people for your cause.
But the only way you can take advantage of those possibilities is by presenting your story in such a way that resonates with your community and gets them taking action.