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Avoiding a Tangled Web: How to Work with a Web Site Contractor

Is your organization blessed with resources, including a Webmaster, graphic designer, marketing director, and legal counsel? Do you have complete control of your domain name and Web servers? Do you update your site often? If so, then your organization probably merged quickly and easily onto the Internet and this article is not for you, but thanks for stopping by!
This article is intended for the nonprofit organization with no Web site or a Web site that needs remedial help. It won't delve into the joys of HTML, because you can learn basic Webmaster skills at sites such as Dave's Site. The following list is designed to help busy nonprofit managers coordinate the efforts of a professional Web developer and remain friends with that developer after the job is done!

Ten Steps to Publishing an Effective Nonprofit Web Site

  1. Define your audience and develop content tailored for them. It's best to do this before you contact a Web developer, or you'll waste your time and theirs. Gather up all of the information you have about your organization and review it for accuracy and Web worthiness. Plan on condensing printed pieces and simplifying the language as much as possible. Remember, Web users want quick information that they can scan easily. Decide on features you may need such as extra e-mail accounts, a bulletin board, on-line forms, a searchable database, e-commerce, video or audio, etc. Nonprofits that serve handicapped populations will have special design concerns and should consult the World Wide Web Consortium's guidelines for accessibility.

  2. Decide on a visual style for your Web site. If you have a logo for your organization, many Web site designers will use that concept as a starting point for your site's design. They'll also want to see your nonprofit's printed brochures, annual reports, and stationery, which will help them understand your organization's visual identity. If you don't have a logo or an established visual style for your organization's communications, it's wise to consult a graphic designer before you venture into a Web development project.

  3. Select a Web developer and sign a contract. A contract is crucial, even if you're working with a volunteer developer. Success stories abound from nonprofits whose Web sites were created by MSDN Online volunteer developers. But what if you lose contact with your volunteer developer and he or she hasn't given you the passwords required to access your site's files? You won't be able to update your site! What if you need to renew the registration of your domain name in two years but your missing developer is listed as the legal contact person? You might not receive important notices from the domain name registrar, and someone else could purchase your lapsed domain name. A contract can protect your nonprofit organization by spelling out the terms of your agreement, such as:

    • Who will provide the Web development service and at what cost, if any.
    • The date the work will be completed, and what allowances will be made if it is not completed by that date.
    • Copyright ownership.
    • Your right to know all user names and passwords necessary to maintain your domain name registration and to access files on the Web servers.
    • Who is responsible for registering your domain name and paying related fees.
    • Who is responsible for securing Web hosting service and paying related fees.
    • Who is responsible for registering the site with Internet search engines.
    • When and how any original materials used to create site content will be returned to you.
    • How much, if any, follow-up maintenance work the contractor will provide.

    The time spent writing this contract, preferably in consultation with an attorney, could help you avoid many headaches later. A separate Statement of Work will further enhance communications between you and the contractor by outlining the specific tasks to be accomplished.

  4. Find a Web host. The choice of a Web host will depend on your budget and the amount of services that you require. If your Web site is mission-critical, you may choose to pay more for a Web host that offers nightly backups of your files and has a good emergency plan in case of a power outage or other disaster. You'll find a wide range of Web host companies at and your Web developer will be a key resource in this decision. Be sure to ask if the host offers free or discounted hosting for nonprofits. Remember, a Web host is not the same thing as your Internet Service Provider (ISP), although your ISP may offer free Web pages with your account. The ISP connects your computer to the Internet; a Web host rents you file space on one of its servers. The drawback to using free Web page space provided by your ISP is that you can't use your own domain name. Your site will be stored in a subfolder on the ISP's site, creating a cumbersome URL that is often hard for Web users to remember.

  5. Secure a domain name. You want a Web address that's easy to remember—ideally, the name of your organization. But if someone else has already registered the name you want, you may need to be creative. You can choose one of several registrars by keyword-searching the Internet for "domain name." is the oldest registrar and has an easy system for finding and registering a name. Competition is fierce, though, so you may find a better price by shopping around. Also note that you can use one or many domains by redirecting traffic to your main site; your developer can advise you on this practice. For example, GuideStar's main domain is, but we also own, which directs users to as a convenience. In addition, we use for our local area network (LAN). There's a lot to think about when purchasing your domain name(s)!

  6. Review the work done by your Web developer. Insist that your developer allow you to review and test the site before he or she moves it to a public location. Have key members of your organization look at the site and test every page and every link. Thorough testing is essential, because Web users have high expectations and low tolerance for incomplete or broken sites. It's ideal to have a focus group of outside users test your new site as well.

  7. Link to GuideStar and add a Donate Now button to your site. We appreciate your link to GuideStar! Linking to GuideStar tells your audience that you participate with us and support nonprofit accountability. As a GuideStar participant you can also accept on-line donations from your Web site. By the way, the information in your GuideStar Report is a great place to start gathering content for your site. (What? You're not a GuideStar participant? Please keep reading, then learn how to .) Don't forget other useful links, such as to your parent organization or to reference material about the cause that your organization supports. It's much easier to link to a reliable source that updates its content frequently than it is to duplicate that information on your Web site.

  8. Publish your Web site and let your audience know about it. Many Web users will find your site with the help of search engines, but you'll need to do more. Put your URL on all printed materials, including your stationery and business cards. E-mail your constituents with a link to the site, and add the URL to your e-mail signature as well. Most of the Internet search engines will find your site eventually, but you can get listed sooner if you use their online submission forms. If resources allow, ask your Web developer to take care of registering your site with the major search engines. If you plan to register the site yourself, then is a great place to learn how to do it.

  9. Solicit user feedback. A surprising number of Web sites overlook this step. The simplest way to obtain feedback is to put an e-mail address, postal address, and telephone number on your Web site. A "Contact Us" form is especially helpful to both submitters and responders. More active methods to solicit feedback include user surveys and focus groups. There are some surprisingly affordable Web-based survey tools on the market, which we discussed in our article "How Good Is Your Web Site". GuideStar surveys its Web users quarterly, and the information we've received has greatly influenced changes to our site as well as our product development. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, either—Jacob Nielsen at has excellent information on designing Web sites and gathering data to ensure maximum usability.

  10. Repeat Step 3 if user feedback calls for changes. We plan as carefully as we can, but we don't always anticipate every user's needs. This is why it's essential to have a plan for maintaining and updating your Web site.
Thanks for reading! As always, we welcome your comments and suggestions about this article or the GuideStar Web site. Drop us a line at Good luck with your Web site development.

Tech Lingo

  • Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML)—the basic computer language used by Webmasters to write Web pages.

  • Webmaster, Web designer, Web developer—these terms, used interchangeably in this article, have nuances in the profession. Traditionally, a Webmaster handles the HTML and other code that produce Web pages, whereas a Web designer handles graphics and layout. A Web developer usually has advanced programming skills.

  • Internet Service Provider (ISP)—an ISP connects your computer to the Internet. Some examples are MSN, Earthlink, and AOL. Some ISPs also offer Web hosting services, but in order to use your own domain name, you will need a separate Web hosting account, even if you choose your existing ISP to provide hosting service.

  • Server—A computer that runs Web server software. The software serves the files that form Web pages to Web users. When you click a link on a Web page, your computer sends a request to the computer where the information file is stored and the Web server answers that request.

  • Uniform Resource Locator (URL)—a Web address, which begins with "http://" to specify the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, followed by the Internet server location (e.g. the domain name), and a file path and name.

  • Domain name—the identifier that locates an organization on the Internet. For example, the domain name "" matches "" with a numerical computer address and a particular host server named "www." The extension ".org" reflects the purpose of the organization (in this case, "nonprofit organization.")


The preceding is a guest post by Lauren Brown, Director of the GuideStar Web Site.
Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice