If you’re just starting out and really have very little or no money at all to spend on getting your charity online – then here’s my pick of the options available. Remember that you don’t need a website at all these days, you could manage just fine with a Facebook and/or Twitter page to begin with. They can actually be much better for engaging your audience with as it’s unlikely your new website would be getting many web visitors anyway. However, it is good to have something more substantial and permanent to redirect your new fans/followers to if they want to get more information or more involved.
Here’s some of the options for getting online for free (or very nearly free). Remember the adage though that ‘if you don’t pay for the product then you are the product’ – meaning that a lot of these sites make money by putting advertising on your site. Their product is you, their customers are the people that pay them for advertising. The same goes for sites like Facebook and Twitter.
I don’t have much experience in using these website building companies, so this isn’t a comprehensive review. I’m assuming that you want something cheap/free that requires no coding skills and doesn’t need you to bother with the hassle of hosting your website yourself.
wix.com is perhaps the best of the free website builder tools out there, and I’ve occasionally used it myself when I’ve had to knock up a micro-site in an hour or so. It’s good for ‘static’ sites that contain basic pages, but doesn’t work well for blogs/latest news type content. They’ve got some free nonprofit templates here that you can use as a starting point. They look nice and work well on mobile phones too. Once you start editing the templates you’ll see that you run into some design and layout limitations, but the drag-n-drop builder is fairly intuitive and works well. There’s a completely free price plan that will put adverts on your pages and won’t let you use your own domain name. To use your own custom url and not have any ads on your site, the cheapest price plan is currently £6.84 a month – which isn’t bad.
Squarespace has been doing a lot to build its profile in the UK recently, though its pricing is still in US$. It’s a step above wix in terms of features, but it’s not quite so easy to get up and running within five minutes. Their cheapest deal is $8 a month (on an annual contract) and for that you get a free domain name. Once you’ve registered your domain name with them, it’s not clear how much they would charge to release it, or renew it if you decided to stop using their website building service though. Many of their templates are beautiful to look at (most use really nice stock photography) but there aren’t any charity specific ones to start from, so you’d need a good eye for design to customise something yourself.
123-reg site builder/1 and 1 /GoDaddy
Most of the web domain name registrar companies offer website building services on the side. You go there to buy a domain, and they’ll also try to sell you some web-hosting and website building services. None of them are very good, or particularly cheap for what you get. They’re really aimed at people who don’t know better and think that you have to build/host your site at the same place where you registered your web domain. Although it’s slightly more inconvenient, I think it’s best to keep them in separate places.
If I were you, this is the option I’d choose. You can set up a site in 5 minutes and if you don’t mind not having your own domain name, it’s completely free and without any adverts placed in it. It’s important to note that there’s two flavours of WordPress – there’s the ‘hosted’ version which is also known as wordpress.com, and there’s the DIY version you download and host yourself – A.K.A. wordpress.org
They don’t do a very good job of explaining the difference (this explanation here is better) but a wordpress.com site is free (and you can pay a bit to use your own domain name), and you don’t have to worry about sorting out your own web hosting or updating the software. It won’t be ideal if you want to process donations yourself on your site, but for the time being you will probably just want to use an external site like JustGiving to collect the donations for you. In that case you just need to paste the code for their button into your site.
At the very cheap end of the spectrum, you’re always going to be in a position of amending an existing website template rather than having the complete freedom to design your own exactly how you like it. So there’s always going to be some limitations, but that’s not really a huge deal if you’re just getting started with getting online. The WordPress templates don’t look as fancy as some of the Wix and Squarespace ones, but they include different content types (i.e. ‘pages’ and ‘posts’) that enable your site to look a lot more dynamic – i.e. the homepage will regularly refresh to show the latest news/blog posts. If you’re just starting out then you should be aiming to create as much content as possible – and a blog is a great vehicle for that. This will definitely help you in your Search Engine Optimisiation (SEO) efforts.
Get stuck in
See http://en.support.wordpress.com/getting-started/ and http://learn.wordpress.com/get-started/ and try out the free version first. If you can use a Word Processor then you shouldn’t have too many problems with this, and as it’s the world’s most popular website building software, if you get stuck you’ll always find plenty answers just a Google search away.
If it looks like it would be a good solution for you then you can upgrade to the $99 a year option as that will let you use your own domain name (e.g. www.mycharityname.org.uk rather than www.mycharityname.wordpress.com) and will let you have more control over the styling and branding.
Future-proofing your choice
Hopefully within a year or so, your charity will have grown and you’ll have generated some good content. By then you should have a bit more income to invest in upgrading your site, and you will see a good Return on Investment in terms of attracting more donors and supporters with a more engaging, better quality website.
One big problem with most of these free website builders is that they don’t make it at all easy to export your content should you decide to leave. That makes moving/upgrading your site a bit of a pain and will, at best, involve a lot of manual copying and pasting. Assuming that your charity will grow and you will want a better website sooner or later, it’s a good idea to save yourself a lot of headaches down the line. That’s one of the reasons I recommend a wordpress.com site – because they will give you all your content in a nice .xml file that is relatively easy to import into a Drupal, Joomla or lots of other types of site. Plus there’s a very easy and well documented process from upgrading from a wordpress.com site to an externally hosted wordpress.org one that has a lot more options and flexibility. (Those are the charity websites that I build.)