How to build a charity website for free: the best options compared

6 December 2016
Free websites for charities

Building a free website for your charity is easier than ever.

Using a modern website platform to provide a starting template is a great solution for small organisations like charities and nonprofits. There are several systems to choose from and they are all reliable, secure and cheap. In this post, we look at how this approach compares with open source website content management systems like Drupal, Wordpress and Joomla. We then compare some of the top website builders out there.

Note that while these examples are all free to setup they all have small ongoing costs.

Open source vs SaaS

Open source content management systems like Drupal, Wordpress.org and Joomla are all technically free (anyone can download the source code). However, the costs come in the form of the time needed by someone with enough technical know-how to set them up. Open source systems are very flexible, which is great if you have the right support, but they are also complex which means there is a lot to think about, discuss, test and refine. Additionally, open source systems like this normally cost more to maintain because your implementation will probably be customised with its own peculiarities.

So, the other option is a website building application, sometimes called a SaaS platform (which stands for Software as a Service). The whole idea is that they look after all of the software installation, setup and maintenance for you. You get less flexibility but more stability and access to huge economies of scale.

Basically, websites are just like clothes: bespoke tailor-made stuff is great if you have lots of cash or if you really need it, but it’s always way cheaper to get something off the shelf. And then you can try before you buy.

Pros and cons of website building apps

Web apps provide a quick and easy solution that is often the best for small organisations, particularly if your needs are fairly commonplace. But they do have downsides.

Advantages

  • No setup cost - you get a free website!
  • Low monthly fee and sometimes a free option
  • No need to worry about security and updates
  • Quick and easy to set up without technical assistance
  • Requires no specialist HTML knowledge
  • You will always be on the latest version of the software automatically

Disadvantages

  • You give up control and decision-making. You can make suggestions but there is no guarantee the makers of the app will implement your suggestions.
  • Limited customisation. Each app has its own approach but they will all impose more restrictions than you find with an open source system.
  • A lack of charity focus or understanding.
  • You cannot transfer the site to another host should you feel the need (though you can often export your content).

The top website builders compared

A few things to know about the big players offering free website building tools are explored below.

WordPress.com

Wordpress is one of the oldest and most established options. WordPress.com is connected to Wordpress.Org but it’s important to not get confused. Wordpress.org offers a free open source CMS while Wordpress.com has more restrictions and offers the following.

  • Plans starting at $2.99 per month
  • Optimised for SEO
  • Large support base
  • Easy to export site in open source Wordpress format for small fee
  • Clearly focused on blogs, with limited options for other types of content

Squarespace

Squarespace is design led and has an easy to use drag and drop interface. The platform is targeted at creative professionals and small businesses but can certainly be used by nonprofits too.

Because of the design focus, it’s best for sites with a small number of pages. On larger sites it can be easy to lose control of user journeys and sites can become sprawling and difficult to navigate.

It’s a useful system if you want to bring e-commerce functionality onto your site (see our blogs on How to fundraise on your charity website with Shopify and starting an online charity shop) because it has in-built options and offers good payment gateway integration.

  • Subscription starts at $16pm or $12 charged annually
  • 24/7 support and a 1 hour response time
  • Slick template themes targeted at small businesses
  • Unlimited pages and contributors on $26pm subscription
  • Buy G-suite for integrated email accounts (read our review of the Google Apps suite)

GoDaddy

GoDaddy is the largest domain registrar, with 60 million domain names under their management. They also offer web hosting and a website building tool focused on very small businesses. One feature that sets them apart is their backup and restore which allows you to save multiple copies of your site. Less attractive is the fact that although there are 300 themes to choose from, once you pick you cannot change it. E-commerce is also not included unless you choose a specific online store website builder.

  • 1 month free trial
  • Plans from £5.99 to £12.99 per month
  • Save backups of your website
  • 24/7 support
  • Limited mobile responsiveness (disappointing these days!)
  • General lack of flexibility

Wix

Wix is a strong candidate and one of the most popular for small charities. It claims over 90 million users and is always updating its features. A quick look through their features list shows there have updates every month of 2016 so far which is a great sign.

Two big updates in 2016 include ADI, an Artificial Design Intelligence which claims to be able to build your website for you (we haven’t tried it out yet). It also included a mobile app which makes it even easier to update your website on the go. E-commerce is also a solid part of the Wix offering, using the Paypal payment system. One other notable feature, that we get asked about a lot at White Fuse, is restricted pages for members.

  • Plans from £2.50 to £15.50 per month
  • Choose from over 500 pre-designed templates including community and charity templates
  • Drag and drop design elements
  • Free very basic subscription version
  • Mobile responsiveness is good

Weebly

You’ll be getting the idea by now. Weebly is another business-focused platform with drag and drop tools. It seems to fall somewhere between Squarespace (simple design focused) and Wix (loads of features). It seems most appropriate for simple sites without loads of content. There is a good selection of clean and image-focused themes.

  • Plans from £5 to £33 per month
  • E-commerce options
  • Edit website from your mobile using their mobile app
  • Range of third party apps to integrate with other services

Hubble

Hubble is slightly different in that it's built specifically for charities. Whereas the options above market themselves on flexibility (they have no choice because of their broad audience), Hubble is built specifically around the needs of small non-profits. For this reason, it deliberately restricts choice in a number of areas for the sake of ease of management by resource-strapped non-profits. Rather than having to choose from a range of themes, Hubble is based around one very flexible theme that can be easily adapted to capture the brand of each organisation. We should mention that Hubble is built by us so we are not exactly impartial here. We think it's great!

  • Plans cost £45 per month plus any applicable taxes
  • Range of integration options
  • Built specifically for non-profits
  • Very easy to edit content and images 

Conclusion

Choosing the right approach for your organisation’s website is always a tricky decision. Once you’ve committed it’s lots of work to change so we always recommend taking the decision carefully. Even if you get a free website you may also need some external support with the surrounding strategy. If so we can probably help so please get in touch.

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