I still remember when I first found out about the World-Wide Web and HTML-based web browsers. I had know about the Internet, text-based email, ftp, and Usenet, but this was a new thing, still highly experimental. By that time, the Lord had already directed me to start work on the World English Bible for free electronic distribution. Electronic bulletin boards were popular among a few people, and a 2400 baud dial-up modem was considered fast. Flash forward in time to the present, and Internet web site addresses adorn the packaging of much of the food in your kitchen, the backs of trucks, and TV commercials. Students do research using Google and other search engines, Wikipedia, and the on-line databases of libraries with their favorite web browsers. Paper library card catalogs are being phased out. Large numbers of people, especially young people, exchange information about themselves on social networking sites like facebook and myspace. Large numbers of people like to write web logs or blogs (like this one). Some of them are even worth reading. 🙂 All major public relations efforts in the technologically developed world include an Internet web site presence. Domain names become valuable property, like trademarks, and sometimes sell for surprisingly large amounts of money.
Why should a nonprofit organization or a missionary have a web site? After all, the work of the Great Commission and missionary work have gone on long before the Internet. And before radio. And before jet aircraft. And before Gutenburg’s printing press.
Here are my favorite reasons for a nonprofit organization to have a web site:
- To provide contact information for people you want to hear from (partners, potential partners, potential members, clients, etc.). Often people search the web before even thinking of a phone book– and those are so limited in reach, anyway. If you don’t do anything else, a simple web page with contact information and a clue as to who you are and why you exist would meet the minimum expectations of many people.
- To further the mission of the organization by direct ministry. For example, if an organization exists to publish and promote the Holy Bible, the text of the Holy Scriptures can be published on line for reading and downloading. Information to help hurting people with their problems can be posted on line. Churches can post sermon recordings on line.
- To solicit donations. Fund-raising is not evil. Rather, it is a necessary part of keeping the organization running and fulfilling its mission. Donations are voluntary contributions by like-minded people and groups to further the cause of the mission.
- To recruit more volunteers, members, or (in some cases) employees.
- To communicate with partners and others. Communication runs both ways. The communication may be news, prayer requests, praise reports, answers to questions, etc. Outbound communication is fairly obvious. Inbound communication can be handled with web forms (usually more spam-resistant than regular email), email, email discussion lists, web-based forums, comments on blogs, etc.
- To communicate with members or employees things of a personal nature (such as financial statements or mailing lists) or things of interest only within the organization (such as policies, forms, etc.). This sort of thing should obviously be placed in a password-protected secure area instead of a public area.
- To sell things related to the mission of the organization, such as books and audio recordings, if applicable.
- To promote your organization and cause. Public relations is important both in terms of being able to perform your main mission and to gain funding for that work. The image cast must be truthful and reliable, as well as being positive. (This, of course, implies that your organization must also be good.)
My favorite reasons to not have a web site are:
- Your organization is secret. You don’t want any unauthorized people to know you exist.
- Your organization can’t properly manage even a simple web site, nor can it find a trustworthy and knowledgeable person to do so, and wants to save itself from very public embarrassment.
A good web site:
- Is up-to-date. Information marked current is really current. Archives of old or superceded information is clearly marked as such.
- Is accurate, truthful, and reliable. Not everything need be made public, but what is should reflect reality.
- Is efficient and loads quickly. Just because you have an extraordinarily fast broadband connection doesn’t mean that everyone else does. Even people with broadband connections tend to have short attention spans, and expect snappy performance. Some people are still on dial-up connections, and some people have even worse or more expensive connections in developing nations.
- Is compatible with the top browsers on multiple operating systems. Currently, this means reasonably current versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer, Firefox (and other Mozilla derivatives), Opera, Netscape, and Safari. Web pages should not do anything that tie visitors to one operating system (like using Microsoft Active-X controls).
- Is safe. Private and financial information is kept safe using careful design and proper use of encryption. Site infrastructure is kept reasonably well updated and secure against hacker attacks.
- Is accessible. Consider visually impaired people using smaller pixel size screens or audio screen readers. A design that looks great at 1280 x 1024 pixels may be unusable at 640 x 480 pixels. Tag pictures with meaningful alternate text. Make sure the site is navigable if graphics are not visible. If the target audience speaks more than one language, translations of the site are available.
- Has appropriate content. Things are made public that should be made public, and things are not made public that should not be made public. The content of the site accomplishes the purpose of the site.
- Is culturally sensitive. Web sites are international in reach and subject to being read by people of many cultures, religions, races, and nations. It may be impossible to avoid offending absolutely everyone, but try to minimize the offense.
- Is attractive and easy to read. Pay attention to graphic design. Great graphic design is no substitute for good content, but it can sure help enhance that content or at least make reading it more pleasant.
- Is intuitive to navigate and consistent in operation. Just say “no” to novel user interface ideas unless you have very compelling reasons not to. There are many ways to create consistent navigational structures, technically. Some are much easier to maintain than others, especially as the number of pages in a web site grows. With large sites, including a search engine may be a good idea. Avoid menus that are too long. (Nest or cascade menus, if necessary, to keep them manageable.)
- Has stable URLs. People can link to pages within your site and expect the links not to break right away. Search engines can send people directly to the page of most relevance to their search. Among other things, this means not arbitrarily changing page names or directory structures. Sometimes it means leaving a trail from the old to the new with a redirect, alias, or other technique. Useful content doesn’t disappear before its usefulness expires.
- Uses pictures to tell a story, but not to hold large amounts of text. Pictures should be big enough and clear enough to do their job, but not so big as to slow down page loading. If someone might want to see a larger version of a smaller picture, it is normal to make it available by linking the smaller picture to a larger version, or to provide links to multiple sizes.
- Is functional. The links, buttons, and other controls all work, and do what you would expect. If you feel compelled to make dead or stub links, either do so for very little time (like less than a day), or (better yet) go study web design some more until that feeling goes away.
- Is maintained and under construction, but doesn’t have a lot of “under construction” signs and excuses up. We expect web sites to change content, sometimes daily, but the really good sites that change the most never give you an “under construction” page. Either the page is there, and there are links to it, or it is not public, and there are no public links to it. It is clear who has authority and responsibility for site maintenance, and they do their jobs. It is actually unusual for one person to have all of the skills necessary to manage all aspects of web site design and maintenance single-handedly. Therefore, those working on the site must work together to combine their strengths.
- Is corrected promptly when things change or errors are found. Out-of date information is promptly removed.
- Displays journalistic excellence. Accuracy, spelling, and grammar count.
- Properly represents the organization. The views and opinions expressed in the web site accurately reflect the organization as a whole and its leadership. It is an advocate for the organization that emphasizes the strengths of the organization, the work and qualifications of its members, and the merits of its mission, without losing sight of humility.
- Doesn’t annoy people without just cause. Use flashing text, animated video, pop-ups, etc., sparingly, if at all.
- Keeps content primary and presentation technology secondary.
- Has an easy-to-remember and easy-to-type URL. The domain name is properly registered and kept safe from inadvertent lapse in registration. In some cases, it is worth registering more than one domain name for the same site. In other cases, it is fine just to use a new directory or subdomain on an existing domain (like eBible.org/Johnson or AdaptIt.ebt.cx).
So, how can you improve your web site, today? How can I improve mine?