Category Archives for "Organisations"

Capacity for Website Development

Last Wednesday I wrote about how organisations can lack capacity in four dimensions. Low capacity in one dimension might be offset by high capacity in the others but equally low capacity in one might inhibit an otherwise healthy organisation.

Today I shall review the four dimensions and show how organisational capacity can enhance or break a website.

Finance

With money you can pay someone to look after your site. However, plenty of money does not guarantee a good website. That depends on the other three dimensions.

If you can afford to pay someone to do the work it is worth asking whether this is the best use of resources. It will depend upon the purpose of the website. So, if it is primarily about sharing well-defined information, one person may be able to maintain it. However, if you want social interaction, for example, a team or whole organisation approach may be better.

Websites are not improved by throwing money at them. They are best when they a planned with care. Don’t do what one of my customers did and run the website by issuing edicts from on high to a sole worker. A good website is best designed through open conversations based on accurate information about the organisation.

Lack of finance is not necessarily a problem. If you cannot afford professional help, then you will sacrifice quality or it will take longer. A simple site with a blog facility might be all you need to start. A few people on a casual basis may be able to figure out what they need to do to progress the site.  When you have money you may have a better appreciation of how to spend it.

Personnel

People are essential to website development and maintenance.   If you are clear about the purpose of your site and know the contributions staff, members and others can offer, it should be possible to match people to specific tasks.

Professional assistance will save you time and well-managed can help you develop an effective site fast.  Small expenditure, if money is tight, on premium services with good support can bring expertise closer to your site at relatively little cost.

Paid staff can with training maintain your website and maybe help develop it.  Volunteers, who may be Trustees or helpers, can develop and maintain a site.

And don’t forget your customers, clients or visitors to the site. There are many ways in which they can contribute, eg through comments, testimonials or as guest bloggers.

Being pro-active finding people who are willing and able to help out is possible where there may be people who are willing to give their time to the cause.

Time

Time is a real constraint, especially for voluntary organisations with no paid staff. Looking after a significant website these days can be equivalent to a full-time job.

I have written about site maintenance and in these posts I show there is more to it than marshalling content.

One solution is to pay someone to look after the site, so volunteers can focus on content, confident their site will rarely crash and someone will rescue it if it does.  Many site designers and consultants offer a low-cost site maintenance service.  You should own the site and pay the host, which means you can change your maintenance service if you are not happy with it.

The key is to develop a routine for work on the site and sticking to it. This might be a few hours a week or daily activity and each person should agree a role and work out how they are going to do it. Everyone should be alert to potential problems and know what to do if they encounter one.  Occasional meetings of all those who work on the site, help you review your routine and bring new ideas and people on board.

Knowledge and Understanding

Whilst knowledge and understanding of how the site works may be important, it is not essential that everyone working on the site has in-depth knowledge.

It is important though that the organisation is in command of knowledge and understanding of the site’s purpose and content. Good content will draw traffic to the site and so help your organisation achieve its goals.  But if you are not clear about purpose, then visitors to the site will not know how to interpret the site or respond to your offer.

Whether your site is simply information about your organisation’s activities or offers a valuable information service, accuracy is important.  If your site advertises events for members, it is still possible to mis-type dates, times and venues.  So, you may find some provision for proof reading is important, even for a simple site.  The good news is mistakes can be quickly changed, although you don’t know how many have seen the inaccurate information.

If you provide information where accuracy is important, eg legal or medical advice, you may need to take further precautions.  Many organisations use a disclaimer that the site is for guidance only and the visitor should take professional advice before committing to a course of action.  Even if you have professionals working on the site who are confident the information provided is accurate, you still cannot be responsible for how a visitor might interpret the information they read.

Websites provide knowledge and depend upon the visitor to provide understanding.  What you can do is provide guidance so the visitor is shown how to use the information they glean from the site.  Some organisations offer one-to-one support, so visitors can make contact and discuss their issue with someone who understands it.  This type of consultancy or coaching can be charged at premium rates although many organisations offer a range of support packages to meet a range of pockets.

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Building Capacity

Most third sector organisations lack capacity in some respect. The same is true of most businesses. Effective organisations know how to supplement their resources when they need to do something for which they lack capacity.

However small community and voluntary organisations can struggle with lack of capacity. I’m going to review capacity in four dimensions, two in this post. Of course, increased capacity in one dimension is unlikely to make an organisation viable. So, the reason why many organisations fail when their grant money runs out is because they have not built capacity.

Competence

An organisation can fail to build capacity because it lacks competence and that can be good news. Maybe they can do something about it. One problem many organisations encounter is their culture blocks their growth in capacity. For example, insisting decisions must go through Trustees who meet once every three months is easy to diagnose and fantastically difficult to change.

Market

Lack of capacity might also be in their market. Their clients have real needs and no capacity to meet them from their own resources. An organisation that aims to help these groups is dependent on external sources of income and so will be slow to build capacity. Indeed many groups know they will never build financial capacity, eg work with older people is unlikely to result in a viable organisation through trade in the local economy.

However, an effective organisation whilst unable to build financial capacity locally may be able to build other dimensions of capacity. And this may help them build financial capacity externally.

The point is many groups are unaware they struggle with capacity. They may find they have some early success but don’t use it as an opportunity to build capacity and so collapse when their money runs out.

Next Wednesday I’ll look at capacity building in finance, personnel, time and knowledge and understanding.

Third Sector Organisations in the Marketplace

Funding is a major issue for Third Sector organisations unless they have sufficient reserves to keep themselves going, increasingly problematic where there are low interest rates.

The main sources are either donations or grants. Dependency on donations puts an organisation into a particular market and I have discussed how to build a website for donations in some detail.

Grants have many advantages but also significant disadvantages. They are a significant industry in their own right, and with the recession many groups are finding it increasingly difficult to get access to continuing funding.

So, another approach is to trade and this can present problems for third sector organisations. There are three main issues found  in many third sector organisations. Successful organisations work out how to transcend these problems.

“We’re Not a Business!”

I’ve heard this several times in recent months. It may be a UK mindset because in other countries businesses and community organisations are natural allies. Many of the techniques used to generate and implement ideas, were developed by church, community and industry; sharing, developing and sharing again many familiar techniques such as brainstorming.

If you don’t think you’re a business then you don’t act like a business. So, for example, a group opposed to business may think it is competing with businesses and so, bizarrely, third sector organisations can be unnecessarily aggressive in the marketplace. This might be expressed as moral superiority but the result is they are not trusted by business people who generally work by building relationships.

Of course, there are businesses out there that haven’t understood how relationship building is at the centre of any successful business. The community group that encounters such businesses will have its prejudices reinforced. But the rule is to build alliances wherever you can.

But it is not only that third sector organisations don’t think like businesses, they seem to be less driven than businesses. Members are not personally dependent upon making sales to pay their bills. Paid staff, whose income is from grants are resigned to moving on when the money runs out. Most volunteers have their own sources of income.

An organisation whose members have no personal financial incentive is not going to work in the marketplace. This is why the retail co-operatives were so successful; everyone could see how the co-op would be of direct financial benefit to their household.

“We’re Ethical and They’re Not!”

Yes, some businesses are not ethical and they make the news headlines. Whether they are individuals who con people or massive corporations, salting away the country’s finance in offshore accounts, we definitely hear about them.

But many businesses are ethical. For a start many people who set up businesses are driven by ethics. They may find they have to compromise their ideals but at least they’re trying. Others perhaps start out with a more pragmatic approach and then learn from experience that an ethical stance is pragmatic.

The problem in the third sector is the idea that we’re ethically superior because we’re volunteers. The cause may be ethical but the means used to support the cause are not always squeaky clean.

Occupying the moral high ground is not a good place to start. If you want to take part in the marketplace, you have to make deals and any business will want to know what’s in it for them. Successful business people get dozens of requests for help. They will be interested where there is mutual benefit. They will never do anything that does not benefit their business and especially they will not enter alliances with people who might inadvertently draw them into ill-repute.

So, a poorly run small community organisation will not get support from business because businesses will not see them as a viable concern.

“We’re the Community!”

Oh dear! I want to know who I’m talking to. You might be an organisation but I do deals with people not organisations. I know how seductive and stupid organisations can be. I’m not going to make a deal with a genuine person who might be replaced by a charlatan at the next AGM.

You might be a member of a community organisation and your officers might be drawn from the neighbourhood. Self-help is respectable but any business will want to see evidence that as a group you can manage your affairs.

If it’s not clear who is in charge and will be in charge over during the collaboration, then you will need to work harder to show you can honour the agreement. If it is a named person then the personal integrity of that person is important, just like the business owner’s integrity on the other side of the deal.

The reason the world does not owe the community self-help group a living is because the group has to prove itself. Declaring that I (or we) am (or are) going to do something is not the same as doing it!

It is much easier to do deals with real people who have a track record and are no more likely to melt down than a small business. There are alternatives, where leadership is more diffuse but also reliable, see for example Citizens’ Organising, but they still have to prove they can deliver.

Being the community is not an advantage. It is a circumstance thrust upon a group of people because they have no other choice. The social entrepreneur will show what they can make of such circumstances.

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Paid Staff in Third Sector Organisations

Given the problems Third Sector organisations have making decisions, you might think appointing staff to do the work would make things easier. Perhaps the more successful voluntary sector organisations have worked out how to do it. Small community and voluntary groups can find staff a liability.

Apart from the legal responsibilities, there are two major reasons why staff do not always help the organisation develop.

Whose Vision is it?

First, people with a vision set up the organisation. They employ someone they didn’t know before (or maybe someone they think they know) and give them responsibility for running the organisation. The Trustees with the vision meet occasionally whilst one or more paid people are active every day.

For organisations providing a well-defined service to a definite client group, this may not be too much of a problem. However, in a developmental role there is significant danger of mission creep.

Staff can become adept at manipulation. They tell the Trustees what the clients want and the clients what the (unaccountable) Trustees insist upon.  Accountability to the Trustees becomes a fiction it’s in everyone’s interests to maintain.

Usually the upshot is stagnation because it is in the interests of the staff to continue with their established routines. The ring leader is not necessarily the manager; administrators are often able to control the organisation. Trustees become bogged down in endless reviews whilst staff ring-fence established practices. If the manager is highly skilled in a specialist area, they can be very happy to leave the running of the organisation to their administrator.

Trustees who are very part-time cannot look in-depth and are fearful of causing trouble by insisting upon change.

Third Sector Funding

The second reason is in the nature of third sector funding. Much of it is grant aided and so it is often scarce. This means the staff know their days are numbered.

Staff know they can’t raise the funds needed to keep going and so they give in. What’s the point in planning a future for an organisation that will soon run out of money?

Without a business mindset, they resist the changes which might bring in income because they involve risk. The problem though is not so much the risk as a perception that they are not in business. “I am here to use my specialist skills and not to run a business” is the underlying argument in many organisations.

Many good ideas fail because no-one is able to make the decisions needed for the organisation to thrive. I’m not saying it is always impossible. I know of several organisations that could have survived but they were unable to make the decisions they needed to make to survive.

Internet marketing may be a real possibility for some organisations. They have something many would value but don’t know how to sell it and they are unwilling to make the changes they need to sell it. It seems hard to see how by focusing on something lower on the list of priorities, you can generate the income you need to fund the higher, less profitable, priorities.

Whilst businesses can make similar mistakes, they are clearer about the need to generate income and usually have a simpler decision-making structure. But third sector organisations are not businesses and this is another way in which they struggle in the marketplace. I’ll go into this next Wednesday.

Third Sector Organisations: Unable to Take Responsibility

In this exploration of the differences between third sector organisations and businesses I have considered the tendency of third sector organisations to become bureaucratic and legalistic. These in turn lead to a tendency for no-one to take responsibility for decision-making.

There are two main reasons for this, one is the general ethos of third sector organisations and the other is to do with their staffing arrangements and I’ll look in-depth at staffing next time.

In general a small voluntary group will have a committee, Trustees’ meeting or board of directors.  Their ethos is one of shared responsibility and the committee is the vehicle through which its members act together.  So, small groups have to make collective decisions and so tend to build lack of trust in any one person into their structures.

A small business will have one or very few active decision makers.  Larger businesses and voluntary sector organisations may encounter similar problems and will develop strategies over time to mitigate them.

It is easy to say it is better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. Generally this can be good advice. When you’re dealing with bureaucracy if you make a proposal a likely response is a proliferation of decision-making steps.  The temptation to act and sort out the bureaucracy afterwards is attractive.  But is it advisable?

I suggested a radical change to a voluntary sector organisation facing a desperate shortage of cash. They needed to research this new direction’s feasibility. Their marketing and development committees are separate and apparently unable to communicate. If marketing is aware of demand, their development committee won’t necessarily be interested because they’re already developing stuff.  The development committee is interested in what they’re doing and not in selling it.  Their products are good but follow their members’ interests and not the demand from their market.

Furthermore it is not clear whether these subcommittees can make decisions themselves or whether they need to go to the Trustees, who meet about once a quarter.

Meetings of all these groups are occasional and so it is difficult to get any traction or make progress. I’ve forgotten what we were talking about between meetings because they are so far apart. Most people are volunteers and don’t have the time to pay full attention to the matters in hand.

In this case it is not practical to act and ask forgiveness. My ideas are in the long grass and not because anyone opposes them. The organisation is not able to accommodate them. It is in desperate need of finance and yet unable to take the decisions necessary for its survival.

There is another reason asking forgiveness is not always a good idea. If someone in control is threatened they can act to close down discussion.  Where several very part-time people are involved in decision-making, one person can have a great deal of power.

The principle, you would think, is simple but many organisations don’t know how to handle an offer. An offer requires a response; a yes or a no. I time limit my offers for my sanity. Generally a long silence means “no”. Even a silence accompanied by assurances they’re thinking about it means no. Personal attacks and accusations you’re trying to make money out of them also mean no. No will suffice. You don’t need to give a reason, just say no!

A small business may have similar constraints. But there is one big difference. An offer is ultimately about how much they want it and whether they can afford it. Also time is their most precious commodity and even if they don’t care about mine, they care about their own.

You would think third sector organisations would be better off if they employ staff to carry forward the work of the organisation and enable the Trustees to take a more strategic view. But staff can make matters worse. I’ll explain why next time.

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Third Sector Organisations: Legalistic Practices

Last Wednesday I started to explore the differences between small businesses and third sector organisations. The main difference is small businesses can be more responsive to their customers because they do not need the bureaucracy to manage accountability for grants or contracts.  Perhaps the most common drag on third sector organisations is legalistic practices.

The bureaucratic nature of third sector organisations is partly down to their need to be accountable to funding bodies. But the problem goes deeper than that. The organisations that advise third sector organisations pass on the bureaucratic model. This means they saddle small organisations with structures they may not need.

A self-employed person can work for many years at their own risk. If their business fails they risk bankruptcy but many of them carry on successfully for many years without incorporation.

Third sector organisations do not normally belong to one person and so they need some sort of agreement about how a group of neighbours or people with a common interest will work together. So, they draw up a constitution and for many such organisations an unincorporated association is all they need.

Incorporation and Charitable Status

But under certain circumstances, such as employing staff, they must apply for registration as a charity. Then they must opt for incorporation to protect their Trustees. Soon, they find they must send in annual returns or else they will be liable for fines. I’ve seen several social enterprises, which would have worked as self-employed businesses, bogged down in these structures.

Incorporation and charitable status may be essential to receive substantial funding and then accountability to their funding bodies is added to the bureaucratic burden. Many self-employed people avoid the bureaucracy that ties small community organisations, just to get on with what they thought would be a simple piece of work.

The result is many organisations become over legalistic. Some of this can accounted for simply because they have registered as a charity and as a company.  It becomes a part of the mindset.  Someone told me the other day, a tiny voluntary organisation should have had a whistle-blowing policy.  The Trustees knew what they needed to do; a policy would not decide whether they do it.  This legalism is fueled by fear of what the authorities might do if certain activities are not carried forward in a prescribed way.  But the authorities are not interested in the minor issues most organisations encounter.  It is the Trustees’ responsibility if something goes wrong and most issues are easily resolved.

Trustees and Directors

Most small businesses get on with the job and do not have to pass every decision through Trustees or directors. Larger companies need them.  So why do we think community groups need them?  Many groups struggle to find people to sit on committees and then find they comprise people who mostly have a limited understanding of either the legal constraints or of the work of the organisation.

Once you get into the legalistic mindset, there are always excellent reasons for not doing things. Ask a solicitor whether you can do something and they’ll tell you why it isn’t a good idea. This is the wrong question. The right question is how do I do the new thing? I’ve made the decision and I don’t want to know it’s too risky, I want to know how to do it without unnecessary risk.

Third Sector Organisations: Outputs and Outcomes

Last Wednesday I offered five reasons why so many websites lack purpose. Whilst these can apply to any organisation, I’ve found the third sector is particularly prone to purposeless websites. The reasons why so many sites fail lie in the nature of the organisation that puts them there.  If the organisation is not clear about its own purpose or the purpose of its website then it is inevitable the site will not have a clear purpose.

Business and Third Sector Organisations

Businesses seek profit and so they have to get their websites right; they must get to know their customers and potential customers and so offer a site they will respond to positively. Their existence may depend upon them getting their website right and keeping that way.

Third sector organisations can be businesses but many of them are not. They are often dependent upon grants and this means they need to satisfy their funding bodies and not their clients. The relationship with funding bodies is rarely a partnership. Usually funding bodies are interested solely in whether their money is spent for the reasons it was given. They are not so interested in how effective the work is, even allowing for all the talk about outputs and outcomes.

Outputs and Outcomes

Outputs are brilliant to the bureaucratic mind. They are measurable. So you offer a grant to an organisation and in return you might ask, for example, that the organisation sees 100 clients. The organisation needs to provide evidence they have seen 100 clients. Usually there are several outputs, so if the organisation helps people find work there may be further outputs detailing numbers who do training courses, find work, set up their own business, etc.

The problem with outcomes is they are far less visible. Let’s say you have a single output, which is that one person found work through the organisation that received the grant. The outcome would be the difference it makes to the client’s life and their family. Here things can get messy. How do you measure the extent to which they enjoy their new job? What if they enjoy it but are on low pay and have to travel 2 hours each way to get to work? What if they hate the job but the money really benefits their family?

I don’t want to get bogged down about how to measure outcomes; it is possible to record them. It requires qualitative methods and these are generally less well-known and more demanding than quantitative methods.

A business offering a service similar to a third sector organisation has to focus on outcomes if they are going to understand their customers and offer them a valued service. The third sector organisation has to understand their funding body and their requirements. They may be fully aware the statistics they gather for their funding body are effectively meaningless but they have no option but to collect and process them.

Their focus is on where their income is coming from and it is not coming from their clients. This means they have to become bureaucratic and not responsive to their clients’ needs. Any innovation has to be justified to the funding body at some stage. Sometimes the hassle is too great.  Why bother changing things to meet the needs of clients if the funding body is already happy with your performance.

The Role of Business and the Third Sector

One final point: I am not making the political point that the private sector is more efficient than the statutory sector. These political ideologies seek to justify privatisation of public services and they have proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Most private sector organisations on government contracts are large corporations who generate their own bureaucracy and their accountability to the government generates its own bureaucracy.

The strengths of small businesses lie in their closeness to their clients and their ability to respond directly to their clients’ needs. Once consumed by bureaucracy they lose their advantages and deserve to lose their business.  It leaves open to question the best way to fund services for clients who cannot pay for them.  The least wasteful approach for mainstream services has to be through public services.  This leaves small businesses and third sector organisations to fill the gaps in provision.

Five Reasons Why So Many Sites Lack Purpose

Perhaps I’ve covered this several times but it is worth returning to the question, why do so many organisations struggle with the purpose of their website?  Why do their sites lack purpose?

The purpose of the organisation and the purpose of their website are different but closely related. I would expect the website to support the organisation’s wider purpose in some way.

Your website should be designed to meet some purpose of your organisation. If it doesn’t what is it for? The chances are you are being short-changed in some way. This can happen where you ask someone to design your site who provides technical assistance but has no interest in its purpose. Disaster looms when web design pools your ignorance with the designer’s.

So, here are some key things that can go wrong:

1.  You do not Know Your Organisation’s Purpose

When the client does not know their organisation’s purpose, it is a problem for the conscientious website designer or consultant. Where the purpose is not clear there are two possibilities; the organisation may be  unaware of its need for a purpose or else they don’t know how to express it (we’ll know when we see it).

The consultant has to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis, where on the one hand they let the client down by designing a site that becomes a burden to them because it cannot possibly meet their unarticulated needs or else they risk alienating their client by intervening in a sensitive area.

2.  The Organisation Resists Finding its Purpose

If you think organisations are grateful for an offer to help them articulate their purpose, think again! It’s not easy for a designer to get access to information they need when their client does not think it’s any of their business. This may be a problem where the client has a clear purpose but doesn’t see why their designer should be interested in it.

There seems to be two intertwined problems here. First, many people find the process of determining their purpose, with any degree of thoroughness, tedious in the extreme. This is where marketing might come into play. Finding fun approaches to building a picture of an organisation’s purpose should be a possibility.

The other problem is that the client finds it threatening. This is harder to approach and the perception can come from many places. You can negotiate a needs assessment with one person and then find opposition comes from another once the work starts and they work out what it is about. I recently wrote a post about needs assessments and audits that explores why this sort of opposition arises.

3.  The Organisation may be Unclear About their Website’s Purpose

This can take many forms and may manifest as no clear idea other than wanting a website to the sort of site that includes everything including the kitchen sink.

If the organisation is clear about its own purpose, then this is a good place to start. Working through the organisation’s purpose, using a needs assessment, may help them identify the options. Options can then be prioritised and scheduled.

If you can get that far it is a major achievement. Your client will have a viable plan for their online presence. The next two headings are examples of what can go wrong.

4.  The Dash to an Inadequate Purpose or Design

People often come to the table with a clear idea about what they want. They’ve usually seen a someone else’s site and want something similar.

If so, they are not asking for a design. They are seeking technical assistance. That may be OK so long as the designer doesn’t get the blame when things go wrong.

If you take on this technical work, the problem  is mission creep. The real purpose of the site begins to emerge at the snagging stage when the client discovers they did have a purpose and their solution doesn’t meet it.

Taking time at the start to explore with the designer or consultant what their solution will actually do and other possibilities will result in a better site. Getting the client to see the value can be a struggle.

5.  Not Knowing What is Possible

This may be the most common problem and it can be the easiest to tackle. Technology has moved on so quickly that many people have been left behind. They simply don’t know what is possible because they have old models of web design, lack knowledge and perhaps are fearful.

For example, someone’s first video will not be as good as a video produced by a professional firm. The question for the client is, does it need to be? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t.  Whilst it might be possible for the client to produce their own videos there may be many reasons why it is not desirable. The important thing is to help the client make an informed decision.

Once the client has clarity about the purpose of their website it is much easier to make decisions about particular approaches to building and maintaining the site.

Your Website is not an Advert

It is important to know and understand the purpose of your website and to do that you need to understand your organisation’s purpose.  If you assess your organisation’s needs, you may find your website develops in unexpected directions.  In this post, I address the third issue that tends to cause organisations to lose sight of their website’s purpose.

Many people think of their website as an advert because they are not aware of what they can do for their organisation, . They have a website because everyone has one and it offers credibility. They can give people their website address where they can go and find out more about the organisation.

This may be all a small businesses needs. However, it is one option available after considering all the options and must not be your default option.

So, why do organisations fail to consider all the options?  A lot of it is about mindsets.  People have seen and want to copy certain sites, perhaps belonging to organisations similar to theirs.  This perpetuates poor designs across dozens of sites.  Finding a new direction requires investment of a lot of time and can be threatening, particularly if a lot of time and money has been already been invested in a poor design.

There’s No Point in Advertising

If you are in a competitive market, you will need to do more than simply advertise your presence. Even if you mainly drive business through off-line means, eg business cards, flyers, announcements at meetings; your competitors can still do better if they offer more through their sites.

The issue here is traffic and conversions. An organisation in a competitive market that drives the most relevant traffic to their site and then get visitors to respond will do best.

Websites are not like traditional advertising hoardings, where many people walk or drive past and see the advert.  Very few people see most websites unless they take steps to drive people to them.  What they find on arrival will decide whether they maintain contact and return to your site.

Not all sites are designed for new visitors.  Some sites are for members; they correspond with members and add content for the benefit of members.  A local group, for example, might do most of its recruiting through personal contacts and needs a site to aid communication.  They may be a community group whose members need information about their neighbourhood for example.

But the type of site that simply tells the world some organisation exists is not going to recruit members or attract subscribers.  A lot of time and energy can go into sites that drain resources from the organisation.  How many organisations use their site to effect change and not to simply tell the world they exist?

Not a Load of Old Minutes

Some organisations seem to think there is interest in their old minutes. There isn’t. Neither are visitors interested in mission statements or arcane discussions about the area the organisation covers or such matters.

If you need to share these things with your members use an email list, a members’ area or perhaps a blog post. Definitely keep this stuff well away from the home page.

Your website is not a filing cabinet. It is a communications tool and you need to learn to use it for that purpose. Why do you think your filing cabinet’s content is what visitors want to read?

What we see on such sites is a design failure. Yes, I know its content but content is a part of your design. Whoever designs your site, be it in-house or external really has to understand the purpose of the site. It is never a matter of bunging up a template and hanging a few baubles on it.  Your content needs to be good copy that will draw people to your site.

The Second Visit

The question many organisations need to ask is: why would anyone visit this site for a second time?

If there is no reason then the question becomes: why do you invest time and effort into something that is not designed to attract return visitors? For a few organisations there may be a positive reason but that is not an excuse for poor design.

Brochure sites aim to add credibility to an organisation and perhaps to enable a once and for all response. Even that limited ambition requires design. If someone visits because they’ve got your business card, what do you want them to do?

If you’re selling wedding dresses you may not expect people to pass through your site more than once. But you still have competitors and need to persuade the visitor to decide to run with your organisation.

You need good content including social proof and you need a strong call to action. The potential to improve your site’s performance is there even for this type of one-off business.

Where you do need return visits you will need to do more. To work out what you need to do you must understand your organisation and what it needs to achieve online.

Know Your Purpose

These are three examples showing what happens where organisations do not think through their purpose and default to thinking of their site as an advert. Knowing your purpose is central to good site design and next time I shall explain why.

You Don’t Need Coding or Mark-up

Last Wednesday, I challenged the idea organisations are not the website designers’ job. To make that claim implies you don’t need coding or mark up.  The expert is perhaps redundant.  Whilst this is something many people accept it is still not widely understood.

Two reasons you may still need coding or mark-up

  1. There are occasions where you need coding (because you want your website to do something and there’s no suitable plug-in for it) or mark-up (because you want a special design for your site).  This is when you might need the services of a web developer.  They develop themes, plug-ins and platforms to their clients’ specifications.  You will not need these services unless your site needs a distinctive appearance or you want to do something and cannot find a plug-in or application that does it.
  2. Even with a standard theme you may want to make a few changes and knowledge of html and css may be an advantage.  Whilst you may not know how to do this yourself, it is a small part of the work of a web designer or consultant.

So, most of the time you don’t really need this expertise. Most of the time the issue is understanding your organisation’s needs and not the technical side of web design.

With a robust content management system (CMS) such as WordPress, with thousands of plug-ins, you can do pretty much anything. But like any other walk of life you need to choose to do the right thing and to learn how to do the right thing properly. These days the problem is choosing, from a number of viable options, the one that works for you.

Beware the Rush to a Solution

The temptation is to rush to a solution. Sometimes clients will approach a designer or consultant with a solution before they have described the problem. Often there is more than one solution and the rush to a favoured solution can prove to be a major disadvantage.  You wouldn’t walk into a doctor’s surgery demanding he remove your appendix on the spot.  You expect an interview where you discuss the problem before moving onto considering possible solutions.

A feature that a few years ago was too expensive or too difficult is easy today. For example, videos are relatively easy to make (perhaps easy to do badly but still easy to do). Many people walk around with the means to film live action videos in their pockets and never use it.

They don’t know that for a few hundred pounds they can download software that will enable them to edit a professional  looking video from recordings. Of course there are pitfalls but they exist because the technology has advanced so much.

If you need a professional video you can still find businesses that will help you produce it. But for most purposes you can easily produce something usable.

So, you have many more options at your fingertips at lower costs. This raises many issues but my point is this: these issues did not exist a few years ago and for many the power and potential of working online is unexplored territory. They simply have no idea about what is possible.

To build a website without this awareness is a big mistake. There are still many designers out there who will do you a website and never mention the potential of modern content management systems. These designers are not interested in organisations and design to the abilities of usually one contact person. This is why so many organisations find their websites a liability.