Why we changed the way we build charity websites


For years we operated like every other website agency serving the charity sector. We would listen to our clients, understand their needs and use open source technology like Drupal or Wordpress to craft a website to fit those requirements.

Yes, we challenged opinions when appropriate.

Yes, we brought our expertise and experience to the client’s problems.

But we went with the fundamental assumption that all of our clients’ needs were different and needed a customised solution from the ground up every time we began a new project.

Analysis of our past website projects

EvaluatingWhen we started analysing our past website projects the conclusions surprised us.

Although project by project we had introduced lots of minor variations and tried lots of different things (often in response to client requests), many aspects of the different projects were addressing the same problems time and time again.

While we had spent a lot of time working closely with clients to understand them, answer their questions and take into account their opinions, the solutions were often very similar.

Recurring issues we’ve spotted while building charity websites

WheelIn addition to this there were a number of other recurring issues that we began to notice:

  • It was difficult to avoid designing for the client rather than the website’s end user. 

  • The typical agency-client relationship relies on the skills of both parties and an unequal level of digital literacy between agency and client can lead to important principles being neglected in favour of lists of functionality.

  • We reinvent too much. New ideas are inspiring and stimulating, but there are also lots of common challenges faced by many organisations online that are not addressed by starting from scratch with every project.

  • While the corporate world has embraced first agile and then lean startup approaches to development, the charity sector is still typified by a one-hit project mentality which is exacerbated by the funding environment in which charities operate. Even when charities are willing to build something simple, test it, and then develop further, funders often do not allow this.


Starting to challenge assumptions

We then thought through the different assumptions that underpin the way we work and held them up to scrutiny in light of our previous findings. 

Do all charities really need a different layout for commonly used features?

Does all the time spent sharing opinions from the agency and charity on layout and design changes have a clear positive impact on the end result?

Assuming a solid brand identity exists, does the design process need a high level of client input?

Value innovation in charity website development

Asking these questions led us to believe that there is an opportunity to radically reshape the way smaller charities buy websites.

We realised that by aligning the financial investment with the areas of highest impact, we could dramatically reduce the investment needed without reducing the overall impact.

Our approach, as indicated in the chart below, was to look at the areas that take up time in a typical web project for a small charity and map this against the impact on end result. Our impact assessment is inevitably slightly subjective but is based on 7 years of working closely with charities.

Once we had mapped time consuming areas against impact we then imagined what a different approach looked like that invested time and money in proportion to impact.

We used this as the underlying model for a very different way of building charity websites.


Part custom, part DIY

Through identifying the key areas of impact and prioritising costs accordingly, we have been able to create a new modular system, that enables us to create new projects more quickly, robustly and cheaply than ever before.

We have combined the cumulative knowledge from previous projects with features such as our best blogging system and resource centre, and integrated them tightly together on a robust framework that sits on top of Drupal.  

Each of these features has been created through an extensive testing and feedback process and we know that they are great solutions to the typical challenges faced by small charities. Because we spread the cost of development of these features across multiple projects, there is a cost saving too.

As well as these aspects that are fixed, or ‘out-of-the-box’, there are customisable aspects for each charity we work with. The primary customisable feature is the design, which we craft for each charity dependent on their brand guidelines and a design brief.

Our goal is not to mechanise everything, but instead to shift the focus of client attention away from technical interface decisions and towards focusing on the creation and management of high quality content.

Future challenges

Charities rightly see their website as a crucial tool and it can seem risky to redirect resources away from layout and design tweaks towards training and content strategy. However in a cost-conscious landscape, focusing on the areas that have greater impact and saving money in the process can only be a positive thing.

We believe that this is a great opportunity for small charities to spend less on the wrong things and more on the right things, thus enhancing their impact on the many great causes they serve.

We also believe that as charities simplify their approach to websites and focus more on content and training, they will find it much easier to adopt agile and lean startup thinking that has so shaped the world of start up business.

The goal of tracking return on investment across charity marketing and communications is still often elusive but this transition will make it easier by allowing simpler sharing of metrics between charities. If the competition is not other charities but commercial brands, this can only be a good thing for the sector.

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16 June 2015
Andy Pearson