Helping Voluntary Groups Plan Websites

Helping Voluntary Groups Plan Websites

By Jason King

You may be a circuit rider, ICT consultant or website designer, working within a voluntary organisation, a freelancer or volunteer. Whatever your role, here are some ways you could help a voluntary organisation to plan and develop their website.

Many voluntary organisations won’t fully comprehend what’s involved in commissioning, owning and developing a website and without technical advice they might make the wrong decisions and miss out on much that the Internet has to offer them. That’s why, if you have both web development and voluntary sector experience, you can help them get a really effective online presence. So what skills and knowledge will you need?

  • A commitment to good practice and an appreciation of the importance of accessibility;
  • experience of how other voluntary organisations have benefited from web technologies;
  • enthusiasm tempered with a practical outlook;
  • the ability to simplify and explain technical issues;
  • HTML coding skills are necessary only if you design the website yourself.

Working with a voluntary organisation

It helps if a single point of contact in the organisation takes responsibility for the project, attends meetings and makes decisions. They don’t have to understand html but they need to know how their own organisation functions, so the more senior the better. Early on, agree with this person what your respective roles will be, for how long you will help, and whether you expect payment or not. Document your work and send short reports after meetings so no-one forgets what was agreed.

You should aim to help the organisation become self-sufficient rather than make them reliant on a web designer or on yourself. Keep solutions simple and whatever you do, ask yourself could someone else take over the work from you once your involvement has ended?

You can’t be expected to have all the answers, so what do you do when you yourself need advice? NTEN’s Nonprofit Web Masters email group, the Charity Webmasters Forum at Yahoo and the ICT Hub Forum are excellent places to discuss voluntary sector web design and the Frappr UKRiders group is a good place to find other nonprofit techies and projects near you.

Planning a new website

The earlier your involvement, the more you can influence the development of the website. As background reading, suggest they look at Islington Voluntary Action Council’s Guide to Developing a Website.

If the organisation hasn’t defined the site’s purpose and functionality, help them do so, perhaps using Techsoup’s new website development worksheet. Once defined, discuss how much staff time, money and effort will be required.

It's difficult to estimate the time to get a website up and running. Deadlines can slip for many reasons so as a rule of thumb take the charity's anticipated timescale and suggest they double it. The more interactive a website, the longer its gestation period: discussion forums and chat facilities take more careful planning than static sites. If the organisation mainly wants to publish news and events, perhaps you could suggest that a blog would be quicker to set up and cheaper than a website.

The organisation should produce a written brief, about one or two sides of A4. The brief defines their needs and expectations, can be agreed by trustees, instructs the web designer and should form part of any contract. The brief should outline the technical standards, functionality, content and style and timescale for the work. Because most charities don't have the technical expertise to communicate their needs to a web designer, you could help them write this document.

Recommend that charities purchase domains and hosting themselves, not the web designer - see further articles in the Hosting and Domain Names section of the knowledgebase for more information. Steer them away from small hosting companies and free hosting and ensure they register the domain in the charity's name. Encourage them to keep ftp and domain control panel correspondence and passwords in a paper folder. Take time to teach the organisation to use their domain control panel to set up email mailboxes and analyse their visitor statistics.

Improving an existing website

Whether the charity wants you to help expand a well-designed site, or to redevelop a messy, non-compliant site, you could start by giving their website a healthcheck. A healthcheck helps to make sure all aspects of the website are discussed and helps to identify areas of need.

A quick healthcheck might take an hour. Assess the website’s accessibility, quality of design, effectiveness and search engine positioning. Then write a one page report giving a few practical recommendations.

A full healthcheck would take several hours and require a visit or phone interview. You could ask how they edit the site, help organise their paperwork, discuss funding possibilities and make more detailed recommendations. LASA and Kingston Superhighways project have produced a website healthcheck form  you could use:

Website healthcheck Word Version (104 Kb)

Website healthcheck PDF Version ( 73 Kb - requires Adobe Reader if you don’t have already have this, download it from Adobe)

Your recommendations might prompt a website makeover, a staff training course, a funding bid, or a rethink of their website promotion strategy.

Standards and good practice

The voluntary sector generally accepts it should abide by good practice so tell the organisation about the well-established standards for web design.

All html and css on websites should be coded to World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards, for which there is an online compliance checking tool. The organisation should insist their web designer aim for 100% compliance.

Web accessibility for people with a disability is enshrined in law - see the knowledgebase section on accessible websites for more information. Read AbilityNet's informative publication for the ICT Hub How to Commission and Design Accessible Websites (1.69 Mb PDF document. Requires Adobe Reader if you don't already have already have this, download it from Adobe). And give a copy of the publication to the organisation.

Who will design the website?

If the organisation has the funds you could help them choose and interview a web designer. Start with the ICT Hub Suppliers Directory. Design companies should be able to produce a portfolio so give their previous clients a call and find out how happy they were.

You could help the organisation find a skilled volunteer using the it4communities website but bear in mind that a volunteer is unlikely to commit to a large project or a long timescale and it may be difficult to interest someone in a small, local website. You could help assess their skills and monitor the work.

What about you? Could you design a set of website templates for the organisation, whether pro bono, for a cheque or as part of a funded project? Are you the best person for the job?

Whoever is chosen should be able to design a standards-compliant site, within the agreed timescale, to the agreed brief, and be personable enough to deal with. Don’t be tempted to sacrifice quality for a free or cheap service: if the charity needs to find more money to do the job properly, could you help them put together a funding bid, for example to Awards for All?

Content editing

It’s not a web designer’s job to write site content. The organisation’s staff may not realise how easy it is to edit a website themselves, so you could arrange a brief demonstration. Although the method(s) you recommend will depend on what you’ve used before, don’t recommend technologies solely because they are your speciality.

Adobe Contribute software directly edits the site’s html. Contribute is inexpensive, has a simple, intuitive interface and takes about an hour to teach. There are video tutorials on the Adobe website.

If a staff member already knows Adobe Dreamweaver they could use it to edit the site but other staff would need to undertake a lengthy training course to learn to use it. Front Page is already on many computers as part of Microsoft Office but has a reputation for creating unwieldy, unnecessary code. NVUis alternative free, open source web design software.

The website could feature a content management system (CMS) whereby a database interacts with the pages on the website and the editor uses an online control panel to enter site content. Installation is not necessarily that simple but most CMS have a community of other users who can give advice if you’re stuck. It’s also possible to buy hosting that comes with one-click installation of a CMS which makes the task much easier.

Whatever content editing method you and the organisation decide on, be prepared to put on a short training session. Train several staff and volunteers so that they can support one another but keep the group small and ask each attendee to bring along some content they want to put live; use the session to both deliver practical training and to build the actual website.

Website ownership workshops

If you work with multiple organisations, you could put on a workshop about website ownership. A workshop could cover topics such as: domains and hosting, working with a designer, content editing alternatives, accessibility, and getting your website noticed. A discussion format, with between six to twelve attendees, some of whom have websites, some of whom don’t, works well because then they can share experiences and learn from one another. There are free training materials you could use on the author’s website.

Website promotion and evaluating progress

Website promotion often gets forgotten. Teach the organisation simple strategies for getting high placement on search engines, tell them about free advertising services such as Google Grants and help them interpret their visitor statistics.

These visitor statistics are good evidence for the effectiveness of your intervention but quantity isn’t everything. A month or so after you finish working with an organisation, either run through the website healthcheck with them again to see which areas have improvemed and which need further work, or send them a standard monitoring form so they can give you feedback.

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