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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Some top tips for a tip top website

This opinion piece is over 10 years old

Regardless of size or purpose, all charities must overcome the most common online roadblocks, says Heather Burns, website designer and consultant at Idea15 Web Design, a third sector specialist agency.

Heather Burns
Heather Burns

I’VE been working with charities, non-profits, and third sector organisations for 16 years, and designing and developing web sites for 17.

In that time, for the charity sector, the internet has created a level playing field which allows the tiniest community group to make a global impact through hard work and sheer ingenuity. Web design began its journey with hand-coding HTML on text-only dialup terminals and has flown at lightspeed to a world of dynamic content management systems, intensive real-time analytics, and the expectation of 24/7 social interaction.

Nobody expects small charities and third sector organisations to become experts at web design, web development and social media but it is reasonable to expect small charities to understand the fundamentals of good professional website stewardship and maintenance.

Over the years, three common themes have emerged as the main roadblocks to good website stewardship regardless of a charities’ size, funding structure, or mission.

The first roadblock is responsibility. Small charities are often inclined to treat web maintenance as a monthly or even a quarterly task associated with board reports, for example. Service users and the public expect otherwise. At the very least, charities must review analytics, comments, and social media interaction daily, post new content weekly, and review their site against their organisational strategy monthly. Charities must also check the contact mechanisms on the website several times a day. Nothing is more heartbreaking to me, as a website designer, than finding out the contact forms and email addresses I set up simply go unchecked for weeks at a time.

The second roadblock is money. Because many of today’s content management systems are open-source and free, there is a presumption among smaller charities that web services, in turn, should be provided either free of charge or at the proverbial cost of a cappuccino. But a willingness to pay for web services is the difference between a kitchen table charity and a serious contender.

Tellingly, I contacted a small charity to inform them that their website was broken and unusable. Their terse reply to me was “I suppose you’re expecting us to pay you to fix it?” I took my approach no further, as their response showed a lack of respect for their own organisation. My instinct was correct: not long after that, for many reasons, the charity’s sole funder withdrew their financial support.

The final roadblock is culture. The Scottish tradition of partnership working has led many charities to revoke ownership of their own web presence, casting it instead as the collective property of multiple stakeholders. I have encountered charities who, in the name of partnership, were not allowed to access or update their own websites. I have also had the surreal experience of having a project cancelled because an unnamed employee in one of the client’s partner organisations objected that the website would not fit into their web strategy.

Partnership working is not, and was never meant to be, about allowing external organisations to dictate internal communication strategies. Charities must not be afraid to rock the partnership boat and reclaim ownership of their web presence, on their own rules, and on their own time.

The biggest website problems are often the simplest to overcome. Throughout this year I will be sharing a free tip every week to help small charities get to grips with good web stewardship. Charities can sign up to receive these tips at