How Building a Website Can Transform an Organization

Chorus America set out to build a new website and it ended up reshaping our organization. Here's what we learned along the way.

Technology is an unforgiving taskmaster. For 10 years Chorus America maintained essentially the same website. Like many nonprofits, it came down to finding the resources, and when the recession hit, that challenge got even harder. Each year "new website" would appear as a line item in the draft budget, and as the reality of belt-tightening settled in, it became the expendable item—the save-it-for-a-rainy-day project that the staff and board continued to dream about.

And dream we did—and plot and scheme and beat our chests and whine and, yes, even cajole a little. But websites cost money—a lot of money, especially if you are also building a new database to give it the power and level of customization that we wanted. So while the website project got axed from the budget for several years running, and understandably so, the dreams and desire kept growing. And then one day the mandate forward became clear. Which leads us to our first lesson:

#1 Sustainable Change Begins at the Top

At a Chorus America board meeting several years ago, one committee after another independently came to the same conclusion: a new website was a top priority for Chorus America to carry out its mission and to meet its potential. But it wasn’t enough for the board to conclude that unanimously—we still required resources well beyond the annual budget for a typical year. That is when the “put your money where your mouth is” part caught fire.

When a finance committee member suggested that the board authorize pulling a significant amount from a special opportunities fund as a matching grant and then offered a seed grant to get things started, she challenged her board colleagues to find a way to fund this mandate. That turned the impossible into a plan that began to take shape—in ambitious but incremental, doable steps. A year later, thanks to many key gifts from the board and the leadership of the development committee chair, they had raised the needed funds—over and above their regular ongoing contributions—and gave the staff the go-ahead to begin the process.

#2 Translate Your Dreams into a Plan

Before you get distracted by bells and whistles, define your objectives so that you know what success will look like. You’ve got this big sum of money and a long wish list—now it’s time to clarify how that translates into goals and priorities that a new website can make happen for your organization. Make a rigorous effort to define what you want to achieve with your new website. Are you looking to increase visibility? Share more information? Gain greater recognition? Increase earned and contributed income? Once you have defined your vision it’s time to find a partner to help you realize your dreams.

#3 You Get What You Pay For

Don’t cut corners—find the web developer that can do what you are dreaming about. Yes, you will have to make compromises and concessions as you go—but start with your dream in place and go for the company that can deliver it. Get excited together about the possibilities. Develop an RFP (request for proposal) and shop it out to vendors. You’ll be amazed at the variety of responses you get—from technical treatises to feel-good essays.

In evaluating the proposals, ask yourselves: Did they address our stated objectives? Did they give us enough information to assess their capability to deliver? Is the budget within our means and the timeline realistic? These can help you whittle down the list to your finalists, which you will want to meet personally for a presentation.

That is when you are better able to assess the “fit” for your organization, asking yourselves questions such as: Do we trust their assessment of themselves? Can we work well with them over an extended period of time? Do they understand who we are and what we want? Are they excited about our success and capable of delivering the final product? Have their recent clients given them a good recommendation and do we like what they did for these clients?

In Chorus America’s case, we went with Sametz Blackstone Associates (not the company with the lowest bid). It was a unanimous decision. We knew they “got it” and would deliver—and they did.

#4 Let the Professionals Do What You Are Paying Them To Do

What a load off our minds to realize that we had access to competent professionals. Every day and in every stage of the process. We didn’t have to know everything! We know a lot about choruses and choral professionals and choral music, but we didn’t also have to be experts in building websites. That said, you know your organization better than they do, so learn as much as you can about the specific solutions they propose (content management system and e-commerce package for example) and how these features will work.

Our firm guided us through an amazing process of discovery to refine our objectives and translate them into a comprehensive plan with achievable goals. It helped us identify strategic, design, and technology goals and opportunities so we would make smart choices. There are many choices you can make with your website—this helped us key in on the ones that were most important for us. The process included industry research, an audit of current content, defining user personas, reviewing current web analytics and SEO, brand recommendations and a content strategy, recommendations on most important web features and functions, technology platforms and protocols, and a social media strategy.

#5 Prepare To Work Your Tail Off

Don’t be lulled into complacency by their fluidity and competence because, before you know it, they’ll be giving you an assignment. Our first assignment was to inventory our current content and tag every piece (identifying types of content, topic categories) and put it into a spreadsheet. It was all hands on deck—everybody pitched in. Luckily we were excited by the prospect of an interactive new website so we persevered and documented, tagged, and otherwise rummaged through several hundred pieces of content. On a tight deadline, too. We’d been waiting years for this website—we were motivated! It also turned out to be the perfect opportunity to house-clean our content—updating, re-editing for web, and weeding out the hopelessly out-of-date.

No web development company, no matter how competent, will know your content like you do. Which leads to lesson #6.

#6 Own Your Content

Whether you are a tiny chorus presenting three concerts a year or a multi-national association like Chorus America with a boatload of content—take responsibility for everything you post on your website. The world wide web is a big place and we are all striving for an audience, whether local or global. But good content is good content and people know the difference.

Develop a strategy that factors in the audience you want to reach, the resources you have, and the goals you want to attain. Figure out what content you can do well within your means, and then create it. Establish some guidelines for the kind of content that meets your needs and find contributors who can help you develop it in an authentic, responsible way. Then keep refreshing it—no one can afford to stay static in a fast-moving web world any more. Sweat the details and get it right the first time. Your audience can be unforgiving in forming immediate impressions about your organization because of bad content.

#7 Make the Hard Choices

They matter in website-land. Choose the features that are best for your organization and customize them to work for you. That doesn’t mean blow the budget by grabbing every bell and whistle available that dazzles you on first encounter. Evaluate every feature and function using the filter of your original objectives—if it doesn’t get you closer to meeting your goals, rank it behind those that do. Yes, it might be nice to have a user dialogue feature, but don’t put it in front of a robust, user-friendly e-commerce function if increasing earned revenue is one of your biggest goals and you have to choose between the two to stay within budget.

In the real world of making ends meet, we all have to make choices about how best to achieve our goals within our means. Apply that thinking to making choices about your website. You can’t have it all, but you can have a whole lot more than you had and leverage it endlessly—if you choose wisely. You can also choose to phase in new features over time to make it more manageable financially.

#8 It Will Take Longer than You Think

In fact, forever. This is the universal lesson of every technology project known to mankind. Factor that in. You still must set ambitious deadlines and strive to meet them, adjusting as you go. And remember, this is not a printed brochure that is done when it rolls off the presses. It is a dynamic, living, breathing entity and you will be fixing, adjusting, tweaking, editing, reformulating, responding, updating, reprogramming, posting, etc. from now on.

#9 Plan for a New Normal

You will not be going back to doing business the way you were before you began the process. Chorus America started out building a website and ended up transforming our organization—but it only became clear that we were doing that halfway into it. Integrating a powerful new tool like an interactive, content-rich website into our mix meant we had to change the way we work—from shifting staff responsibilities to developing new procedures to training ourselves to use and leverage the new tools.

Some call it "feeding the beast" (as in dealing with its ever-insatiable appetite for time, resources, and more content). I prefer to think of it as making the most of our investment. This is among the biggest investments Chorus America has ever made and we want it to transform not just our organization, but how we connect with the 21st-century choral community. Our “normal” is new every day.

#10 Learn How To Measure Success

Whether you are reporting to the board or merely revising content, you need to look at the numbers on a regular basis. A good website enables you to read the vital signs of your performance. For example, within one month of launching our website, we had more than 8,000 unique visitors who made more than 67,000 page views. This tells us we are reaching a much larger population than our membership and people are accessing lots of different content.

We've also seen a wave of new memberships, indicating that people are sharing our site and nonmembers are finding resources they want. Other stats we monitor include top-viewed articles so we know weekly what content has traction, helping us shape future content. Over time these numbers will guide us in integrating social media and other communications more effectively to leverage new content. We will continue to hone our skills to make the most of having these powerful new tools, helping us reach beyond our membership to truly connect with the 21st-century choral community.

It is by measuring success that you can begin planning your next dream. Show your board, your funders, your public officials, and even your audience that your organization’s investment isn’t just window dressing—it’s a true two-way channel of communication that has the ability to transform how and how well you serve your community.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Spring 2012.