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What Government Agencies Can Learn from Nonprofits About Creating Amazing Websites

Creating a website for a government agency is often filled with restrictions and meeting rigorous guidelines. Even in the most bureaucratic environments, however, there are some great lessons that government agencies can learn from how some innovative nonprofits are creating websites. At Forum One we work with both government and nonprofits and want to share what we’ve learned from each.

1. Create a highly usable website

The best nonprofits determine the structure of their website by asking their key audiences what information they need, how they need it, and how it should be organized. They then create websites that meet their end-users’ needs. They complete usability tests to see if users can find information and complete specific tasks. Creating a highly functional website is not difficult, but it can be the difference between attracting those who must come to your website and those who come because of the added value it provides them.

2. Use 508 to your advantage!  

Nonprofits don’t have to adhere to 508 – but the best of them create highly accessible websites. Website accessibility isn’t just a check-box, it provides ways to improve your site usability for ALL users. When curb cuts were first considered, it was only to serve the needs of people in wheelchairs.  They soon found that curb cuts are useful for bikers, strollers, delivery people, and even joggers and walkers. Website accessibility is the same way. Consider it up-front and it will benefit all your users through increased usability, legibility and better formatted webpages.

3. Create a beautiful website 

Most government agencies feel like people must come to their site to find info, so they don’t need to make it beautiful. But an ugly, dated website reflects poorly on your organization, your staff and your mission. By creating a beautiful website, you are helping to enhance your reputation, show your professionalism, and help ensure that your key audiences (and Congress!) continue to support you.  

4. It doesn’t have to take a village to build a website

Government websites often cost many times as much as similarly complex nonprofit websites. This is because too often it takes a village to launch a government website. You may have one firm designing the site, another programming it, another procuring and setting up servers and hosting the site, another for security reviews, and so on. But a great web development company can often serve all of those roles. Consider consolidating your vendor team to create your website faster and cheaper than you might otherwise.

5. Know your audience!

Understand them, talk to them, ask their opinions, test the site with them, and build it to meet their needs! Don’t structure the website around your organization, build it based on the way your key audiences think and work.

6. Use open source software 

Too often I’ve seen government agencies use proprietary software to build websites or tools. When they fire their vendor they either can’t keep the software, or can’t find someone else to support it. Don’t put yourself in that position! Most nonprofits (and the innovative government agencies) use open source software such as Drupal so that they can keep the work and quickly replace the vendor if things don’t work out.

7. Use an agile development process 

Nonprofits and cognizant government agencies no longer try to create large websites using fixed-price contracts with long lists of feature deliverables. The new model, which is becoming very common in government, is an agile delivery process. Agile allows the agency to work closely with the web development firm to ensure the most important features are created first, to see finished work early (albeit in pieces) and to guide the process. Agile works best when you trust your web vendor (typically based on their past performance), and have excellent communication with them (often daily, or at least 2 or 3 times a week).

8. Think mobile!  

The best nonprofit and government websites now are as beautiful to look at on smart phones and iPads as they are on laptops and computers. “Responsive design” allows the page to change as the width of the browser changes. Since your agency will get more than 50% of your traffic from mobile devices in the coming years (if you don’t already), having a “responsive” website is critical.

Now if you work for the government and you are already doing all, or most, of these things then congratulations! We applaud you. The most innovative agencies have already started implementing these ideas. Please leave a comment talking about your experience implementing these ideas.  

If you are not there yet with your website, then let us know – we would love to talk to you about some simple steps for making big changes.