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What Nonprofits Can Learn from Government

Sure, the government can sometimes be bureaucratic and slow moving, but there are some excellent standards that nonprofits can learn from when building a website. Just in the last year, we’ve had the great pleasure to partner with a number of government agencies, and the products that we’ve seen come out of it are often a great inspiration for foundations and nonprofits.

From creative thinking in the face of strict branding guidelines, to producing beautiful and fully-accessible platforms for all users (i.e., 508 compliance), here are a number of big-bucket actions we’ve seen government agencies successfully keep at the top of their minds when implementing new digitals tools and platforms:

  • Build for your key audiences: before starting your web redesign project, understand who you are trying to reach, what they need from you, and how they want to get that information. Then build your website to meet your users’ needs.
  • Clearly define your  processes: while bureaucracy can slow things down, having clearly-defined processes speeds things up. Government agencies typically have a process for creating and approving content before it goes live. For a nonprofit this may include having several people who regularly write content, and a communications officer who reviews and approves it before going live.
  • Create a content calendar: many government agencies have a content calendar that lays out in advance when new content will go live, who will create it, and what it will include. This can be used for web content, blog posts, and social media posts.
  • Always keep accessibility in mind: the cryptically named “508 Compliance” refers to the law that requires federal websites to be easy to use for those who are disabled (e.g., visually impaired or hearing impaired). But being accessible is a good practice for every website. This means making small changes like providing a brief explanation for images which would be read aloud if the visitor were to use a “screen reader.”
  • Use a web firm that understands you: plenty of firms cater to the government, and really understand how to make a great government website. When a nonprofit hires a web company, they should similarly look for one that caters to nonprofits. Your web company should understand your focus area, mission and the audiences you work with. The end result will be much better than if you go with a firm that focuses on commercial businesses.
  • Security and protecting personal information: security matters on the web, but especially if you are collecting any personal information about your visitors (e.g., for event registration, donations, credit card numbers, etc.). While nonprofits need not follow the strict government standards, you should be sure you have good security controls in place and that the services you use are very secure.
  • Use open source software: the government has slowly learned that it is much less expensive to use open source software than to buy a proprietary package. It lowers licensing fees, and allows you to keep the website even if you fire your website company. The last thing a nonprofit needs is to be stuck with a bad system or in a bad vendor relationship where getting out means losing your whole website.
  • Use analytics: lastly, the government understands that there is data related to their websites that they can use to understand who is using it, how it is being used, how to improve it, and to answer other critical questions. Savvy nonprofits use web statistics and data in the same way.

Overall, the key is to stay focused on your mission, and make sure you get there no matter the bureaucracy or complexities that sometimes come into play. If you want to learn more about any of these topics or have other ideas about the similarities or differences between government and nonprofit websites, feel free to drop me a line.