Website Options for Nonprofits — Part 1: Big Picture

A Home Button

If your orga­ni­za­tion has a web pres­ence of some kind, which it prob­a­bly does, there’s a good chance you’re not com­plete­ly hap­py with some­thing about it. Maybe it’s too expen­sive. Maybe it’s too hard to update.

Maybe it’s just plain ugly.

If your orga­ni­za­tion doesn’t have a web pres­ence, there’s a good chance that makes you uncom­fort­able. It might also make peo­ple who con­sid­er sup­port­ing you uncom­fort­able.

Many options

The good news is that the last few years have giv­en us an explo­sion of options for cre­at­ing a web pres­ence.

The bad news is that explo­sions are uncom­fort­able. It’s hard to know what the options are and why you might choose them.

This three-part arti­cle will help.

  • Part One cov­ers fun­da­men­tal con­cepts and con­sid­ers tra­di­tion­al web­site host­ing options.
  • Part Two cov­ers options for cre­at­ing web pages using a tra­di­tion­al web edit­ing pro­gram.
  • Part Three cov­ers cov­er tools that let you build a web­site using just your web brows­er.
Who this arti­cle is for.
  • Peo­ple who don’t have a web pres­ence but want one.
  • Peo­ple who have a web pres­ence and want to con­sid­er oth­er options.
  • Peo­ple who want to under­stand their website’s set­up a lit­tle bet­ter.
What to expect.
  • A quick expla­na­tion of what a web page is.
  • A dis­cus­sion of places where your web­site can live.
  • A dis­cus­sion of how you can cre­ate the pages for the site.
  • At least one link to a real­ly ugly web­site.

What is a web page, really?

Glad you asked. This is a web page:

Web page source code

Web page source code

A web page is actu­al­ly one or more files that describe in cryp­tic text how the page should look. When you tell your brows­er to vis­it a page here’s what hap­pens:

  1. Your brows­er fig­ures out which com­put­er on the Inter­net has that page.
  2. Your brows­er asks that com­put­er for the page.
  3. The com­put­er trans­mits one or more files to your brows­er.
  4. Your brows­er mag­i­cal­ly trans­forms the files into some­thing much more appeal­ing than a cryp­tic text doc­u­ment:
A beautiful nonprofit website

A beau­ti­ful non­prof­it web­site

Though some­times it turns into some­thing that man­ages to be less appeal­ing than a cryp­tic text doc­u­ment:

A less beautiful website

A less beau­ti­ful web­site

This leads us to…

Two really important questions for website owners

Whether you’re cre­at­ing or main­tain­ing a web­site, there are fun­da­men­tal­ly two things you need to know.

  • Which com­put­er will the pages live on?
  • How will we cre­ate and edit the cryp­tic text doc­u­ments that define the pages?

The rest of this three-part arti­cle will explore those ques­tions. The answer will depend on which of three options you use:

  1. Host your own site
  2. Use a web host­ing com­pa­ny
  3. Host your site with­in anoth­er site

Option 1: Host your own site

Question 1: which computer will the pages live on?

It is absolute­ly pos­si­ble to plunk your web pages right on your desk­top com­put­er, or on anoth­er com­put­er your orga­ni­za­tion owns, open that com­put­er up to the Inter­net, and let peo­ple vis­it your web­site right there on your own com­put­er.

And if you do that, here’s what will like­ly hap­pen soon­er or lat­er:

A very sad woman

The price of self-host­ing

Image cred­it: Valerie Reneé

Because by host­ing your own web­site you are (whether you mean to or not) tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for that computer’s secu­ri­ty.

The perils of self-hosting

Your com­put­er will be avail­able to any nut-job on the Inter­net who finds it and decide to try hack­ing into it.

Self-host­ing requires either a skilled IT depart­ment or a high tol­er­ance for risk.

At that point you’d bet­ter hope you were expert enough to set up secu­ri­ty cor­rect­ly, dili­gent enough to keep your com­put­er and its web serv­er soft­ware updat­ed with all the lat­est secu­ri­ty patch­es, and watch­ful enough to notice when some­one breaks in. If you screw that up, there’s a risk that peo­ple will hack into not only your web serv­er, but every oth­er com­put­er con­nect­ed to your web serv­er.

Self-host­ing isn’t always wrong. But it requires either a skilled IT depart­ment or a high tol­er­ance for risk.

So I’m not even going to answer Ques­tion 2 (how to cre­ate the pages) for self-host­ing. Though if you insist on that route, you’ll cre­ate pages the same way as you would for the next option…

Option 2: Use a web hosting company

Rather than tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for main­tain­ing and secur­ing your own web serv­er, with this option you pay some­one to han­dle the headaches.

Whether that “some­one” is your inter­net ser­vice provider or a sep­a­rate web host, this the most com­mon option for pro­fes­sion­al web­sites.

A typical web host plan table

A typ­i­cal web host plan

What do web hosts provide?

  • All will give you a place where your web­site can live.
  • Near­ly all give you the option of host­ing your email there too, so you can send and receive email at
  • Near­ly all offer phone and/or email sup­port. (Some are even good at it.)
  • Most offer cool extras, whether it’s tools for blog­ging, e-com­merce, pic­ture gal­leries, or a heap of oth­er things.
  • Many offer an easy way to back up and restore your site in case of prob­lems.
  • Many offer “val­ue-added ser­vices”, mean­ing you can pay them extra mon­ey to help you build your site or improve your search engine rank­ing.

99,000 bottles of web host on the wall

There are lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of com­pa­nies that want to host your site. Some are big, some are small. Some are local, some are inter­na­tion­al. But most impor­tant: some are good, some are bad.

How to choose?

Recommendations from people you know

First choice: see if some­one you know is hap­py with their web host. That kind of advice is worth a lot.

Recommendations from someone you don’t necessarily know (aka, me)

Fail­ing that, I can make a few rec­om­men­da­tions based on my own expe­ri­ence and a good bit of research. (None of these groups give me any­thing for men­tion­ing them.)

  • InMo­tion Host­ing. I’ve used them myself and they gen­er­al­ly do well.
  • Host­Ga­tor and ICD­Soft. I haven’t used them myself, but have seen enough pos­i­tive com­ments to believe they’re worth try­ing.
  • DreamHost. This is a com­mon host among non­prof­its because it’s a full-ser­vice web host­ing com­pa­ny that offers free host­ing for non­prof­its. Sound too good to be true? Here’s the catch: based on reviews I’ve seen and com­ments I’ve heard, peo­ple have been get­ting less hap­py with DreamHost over the last 2–3 years. I’ve heard of per­for­mance prob­lems among oth­er things. So one the one hand, an anec­do­tal word of cau­tion. And on the oth­er, free is free.

Recommendations from sites that recommend things

Final­ly, there are also many (many, many) sites out there that promise to tell you which hosts are good. Some pro­vide their own edi­to­ri­als, some gath­er opin­ions from hosts’ cus­tomers, some do both.

The prob­lem is, most of them aren’t at all trans­par­ent about their meth­ods, and most accept adver­tis­ing mon­ey from the web hosts they review. All seem ter­ri­bly sus­cep­ti­ble to manip­u­la­tion by unscrupu­lous web hosts, who can pre­tend to be end users and then vote for them­selves or against com­peti­tors.

Screenshot of the Upper Host website

Upper Host, a web host review site

I’ve tried to extract use­ful infor­ma­tion by doing meta-analy­sis across half a dozen such sites and fil­ter­ing for data quality—for exam­ple, look­ing for sta­tis­ti­cal clues of pos­si­ble manip­u­la­tion. But that’s tedious work and takes hours.

So it can’t hurt to vis­it web host review sites, but view their reports with a jaun­diced eye.

Here are some review sites that I’ve found more use­ful than the oth­ers (maybe, caveat emp­tor, grain of salt, mum­ble-mum­ble, etc.):

Sites with User Reviews

Oth­er Sites

  • Upper Host: bills itself as offer­ing “Non-Prof­it Host­ing Reviews”. They don’t seem to be an actu­al not-for-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion, but they do claim to steer clear of accept­ing mon­ey from the peo­ple they’re review­ing, which is very unusu­al for web host review sites.
  • Bet­ter Busi­ness Bureau: won’t tell you any­thing about the qual­i­ty of their host­ing, but may give you a warn­ing if a host has annoyed the heck out of a lot of cus­tomers

Coming up next…

Part Two of this arti­cle will dis­cuss tools and options for cre­at­ing web pages if you’re using a web host­ing com­pa­ny or (insert the sound of nails on a black­board) host­ing your site on your own serv­er.

Part Three will look at some more recent addi­tions to the web host­ing fold: alter­na­tives that will let you cre­ate a rea­son­able web­site with lit­tle or no tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, and some­times for free.

See you then.

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