I had the pleasure of being invited to guest post on FrogLoop, an exceptional nonprofit marketing blog by Care2. It just so happened I was working on this monster of a post, which they were kind enough to share in two guest posts – Building a Nonprofit Website on a Shoestring, Part 1: Benefits of Google Sites and Part 2: Downsides of Google Sites and Helpful Resources.
For the sake of brevity, some of the more detailed and techy-oriented details had to be summarized, but I present the original post with all of its minutia to you here in case anyone wants to replicate this process (the steps for actually connecting your Google Site to your domain may be particularly helpful if you go down this path with your organization.)
I hope this helps and look forward to your thoughts!
Building a $10/year website, or the history of http://www.gbyd.org
When starting your nonprofit, advocacy group, or other civic organizations, there may not be a budget to pay for website development – or even hosting services. That was the case when we started thinking about what to do for the volunteer-run Greater Boston Young Democrats (GBYD), a regional chapter of the Young Democrats of Massachusetts, which operates a 501c4 as well as a PAC.
But, even without a budget or a lot of time, there are options for putting together a quality web presence. While getting GBYD off the ground, we wanted to put our time and limited resources to programming that serves our members and we created this site with an investment of only $10 to register our domain for the year and a few hours of my time working in Google Sites.
The following is the process we went through, but please remember every organization has different needs from a website and resource for making it happen, so make sure you plan your site accordingly.
You have a few non-hosted options to consider, but for me they really boiled down to “do I want to blog or a website that integrates numerous features?” The conclusion was: we need a few key features that other platforms couldn’t easily provide, such as
- Contact sign-up form: Any grassroots organization needs to provide their website visitors with an easy way to get involved in the organization. Whether you’ want to connect with donors, activists, volunteers, or anyone else, an email sign-up form is the first step. This was easily created using Google Forms and Spreadsheets – check out Wild Apricot Blog on using Google for easy data collection.
- Integrating a public Google Calendar that makes our info widely discoverable through Google and embeddable on our site. If you’ve never created a Google Calendar before, check out Google’s tutorial for nonprofits. On the topic of calendars, if you’re creating Facebook events anyways, it’s very easy to export them (see “How do I export my events to another calendar”) and then import them to your Google Calendar.
- Embedding public documents like our charter: As we drafted the charter for our organization, we used Scribd to share and invite feedback (which we appreciated having highlighted on the Youth Vote Blog). The viral nature of Scribd enables us to reach people we otherwise never would have, and we wanted to embed the document on our site. While Google Sites blocks Scribd’s code, they do allow for embedding Google Documents and Presentations, enabling us to share the document publicly AND to share, edit, and automatically update the Charter document through Board members’ Google Documents and on our website at the same time.
Considering Other Options
Platforms like WordPress.com (ex: the site you’re reading now) and Blogger can be useful free platforms for organizations that have the capacity to keep quality new posts coming, but alas we do not at this point. But, besides primarily being blogging platforms, there were shortcomings with each service that helped tip the scales toward Google Sites. Wordpess.com unfortunately blocks most embed codes from 3rd parties (e.g. Scribd, Google Calendar, forms), although if you use WordPress.org‘s platform on a hosted site, you are free to embed 3rd party Java and other code (plus install any of their 6,000+ plug-ins). I was pleased that Blogger does allow 3rd party code, but unfortunately is not setup to have multiple pages (if you know how to make subpages on Blogger, please leave a comment!).
If you’re less concerned with add-ons and versatility and more concerned with writing and sharing content, starting conversations, and being easily discoverable through search engines, these are both good options to consider.
Other Benefits of Google Sites
In addition to core features I was looking for above, there are a few value-adds that anyone looking at building a site with Google should know about..
- Integration – While Google Sites does block many of the same things that WordPress does, they do allow you to add any of the more than 193,000 gadgets to their sites
- Beyond the website – In addition to creating your site with Google, you can use Google Apps to host your emails for that domain as well (and 501c3’s get access to a host of other free applications). Thanks to this feature you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and combining that with our Google Site, we now have a nice branded http://mail.gbyd.org page for Board members to use to access their email.
- Multiple users – Google makes it easy to share documents, calendars, and even access to updating your website with multiple users. This enables you to maintain the privacy of your account and creates accountability by knowing who is updating what.
- Quasi-blogging capabilities – While this isn’t anything we have wanted to get involved with yet, you can use the Announcement Page template to post updates like a blog and the Recent Posts Gadget to display them on your main page, or anywhere else. To complete the workaround, you can use feed43.com to generate an RSS feed to create a feed, add it to FeedBurner, and then promote it on your site to start syndicating your posts.
- So you want to get paid? I would strongly caution anyone, especially nonprofits, against putting advertising on your site; however, Google Sites, as well as Blogger allow for it. WordPress.com does not.
- Contributions – It would be irresponsible of me to tell you that you post ads, but not to, without providing a much more appropriate alternative – online giving! Google Sites, Blogger, and WordPress all allow you to have a contribution button (it really only involves html to display and image and link to a Paypal, Google Checkout, or another payment processing site). WordPress lays the process for setting this up pretty well. Be sure to check out Online Giving – Updating Your Method and Message – Part 1 for more ideas on effective online fundraising content.
Downsides of Google Sites
The most significant shortcoming of Google Sites is their inability to map to a naked domain (ex: http://gbyd.org); users who try to visit our site without including “www.” will get an error. While I actually worked for a professional nonprofit organization whose hosted website had the same shortcoming, this is absolutely the most unprofessional and disappointing feature of Google sites. What’s really incredible about this is Blogger, which is also owned by Google, does allow you to map to a naked domain. WordPress.com will as well, but they want to charge you for it.
Other shortcomings aren’t as significant but can be frustrating
- No built-in RSS feed – Unlike the two blogging platforms I’ve been using for comparison, Google Sites does not have the ability to blog and generate a RSS feed so people can subscribe to your content. I mentioned this earlier, but if you plan to generate content on a regular basis and want to easily syndicate it, Google Sites probably isn’t the best fit.
- No comments – If you do take advantage of the quasi-blogging capabilities of Google Sites, beware you’ll still miss out on possibly the most useful part of a blog: dialog. Only contributors to the site can write something to it.
- Limited customization – while you have a number of themes to choose from and can make tweaks to the layout, fonts, and colors, there still isn’t a lot that can be done in terms of customization. For me the most frustrating piece is not being able to edit the header. We still need a banner-sized logo to put there, but in the meantime, it’d be nice to add text, links, and other content in that area.
- Inability to configure the title of the site – when you visit http://www.gbyd.org you’ll see the site title listed as “Home (Greater Boston Young Democrats)” (and in Chrome you’ll see some weird boxes in there too…) which certainly isn’t the way I would prefer the pages be displayed, but I’m yet to find anywhere to customize it (helpful advice via comments would be appreciated :))
- Blocking iframes and java script codes – While Google boasts many… many gadgets you can add to your site, it is frustrating that like WordPress.com, Google Sites does not allow the embedding of code from many 3rd parties
Putting Planning into Action
After considering our needs and researching our options, the first step was to purchase our domain name (we probably should have done this first… even if we weren’t planning to build a site). We purchased ours from Dreamhost for $9.99/year. Their prices were a bit cheaper than godaddy.com (another commonly used domain registration service), I heard more positive feedback about their hosting in case we wanted to stay with them for that, and their customer service has been responsive. That said, go shop around!
Next came the process of actually working in Google Sites to develop content and add features. I can’t stress enough that every organization’s needs are different, so think about what types of pages and sidebar widgets will add value to your visitors, but here’s some resources on the links you’ll see at www.gbyd.org:
- Find Us on Facebook badge
- AddThis share button
- Credo Register to Vote widget
- (and see above for a link to instructions on creating contact forms, embedded calendars, and Paypal buttons)
Now the techy part: making the Google Site (http://sites.google.com/site/bostonyoungdemocrats/) connect with the domain (www.gbyd.org). Thankfully, between some helpful Google documentation and a great tip from Dreamhost support, I was able to make it happen…
- When logged into your Google Site, go to More Actions –> Manage, and then select Web Address under Settings. Once there, you’ll have the option to enter your desired web address (don’t forget “The web address must be a valid subdomain, like http://www.example.com or mysite.mydomain.com” lest you make Google remind you). Easy, right?
- Then you need to figure out how to tell the interwebs to point your address to your Google site, which is done by changing CNAME records. For hosted sites, this is no problem, you have easy access to a full control panel and can create pages with code that will redirect and do all sorts of great things (you can even use host-specific instructions here). When you only own the domain, your options are a bit more limited.
- Anyone out there like me who only has a domain needs to learn about EveryDNS.net (thanks to Dreamhost support for letting me know about the site). This wonderful service allows you to create the settings that your domain registrar won’t (unless you also pay to host a site).
- To enable EveryDNS.net to you need to tell your domain registrar to let EveryDNS take care of your domains settings by updating your nameservers, per EveryDNS’s instructions: To have your domain resolve correctly, please use ns1.everydns.net, ns2.everydns.net, ns3.everydns.net, and ns4.everydns.net as your domain’s nameservers in your registrar’s whois database. In Dreamhosts’s Control Panel I went to Domains –> Registrations –> Modify WhoIs info and swapped the old info out with Everydns.net’s.
- Now that EveryDNS is set to control domain’s settings, you can create an account and then Add a the domain using the Basic setting. Once the domain has been added, click on it from the list of Primary Domains.
- To create your new CNAME record for Google, you will enter your address as you submitted it to Google Site’s settings in the “Fully Qualified Domain Name” field, change the “Record Type” dropdown to CNAME, and set the “Record Value” field as ghs.google.com.
- Give it 15 minutes, and then try visiting your new address!
For setting up email using Google Apps, check out MakeUseOf.com’s great directions, but note that regardless of where you registered your domain to begin with, EveryDNS.net is where you will go to update your MX records and other settings.
Some final thoughts on Google Sites
At the end of the day, there’s a reason Google describes the feature as “…powerful enough for a company intranet, yet simple enough for a family website.” I have found Google Sites to be a great solution for creating a quality, versatile web presence for our organization, but it is certainly not without its limitations. When I see a comment about how to create multiple pages on Blogger, I very well may make that switch. But for now, the platform definitely offers more functionality than I could find in any other reputable non-hosted web or blog solutions, and is a fantastic temporary solution until we are ready to invest some time and money into a robust website… and we’re always taking donations to make that happen! :)
To look farther down the line, I’ll be very interested to see what Google ends up doing with its two platforms: Blogger and Sites. Each has its benefits, though it seems to me that Google offers users some significant benefits through Blogger: enabling java-based code and mapping to naked domains and some significant disincentives for using the platform as a website, especially the lack of subpages. Here’s hoping we see the day sometime soon when Google will marry the two.
So you want to invest in a hosted solution… and other resources
Good for you – everyone’s needs and resources are different, and if you can invest in a hosted site there are a lot of great options out there. Here are some helpful resources to help you get started..
- opensourceCMS.com was created to give you the opportunity to “try out” some of the best free and open source software systems in the world. Each system listed here provides for a user demo so you can make an informed decision regarding which system best suits your needs without having to go through the tedious process of installing multiple systems only to find they don’t do what you require.
- The CMS Matrix is provided as a community service to everyone interested in looking for a means to manage web site content. Here you can discuss, rate, and compare the various systems available on the market today.
- NTEN Content Management System Satisfaction Report is the result of surveying hundreds of your peers in order to provide you with a wide array of opinions about CMSs, and the characteristics of the vendors providing those products. Once you have identified two or three systems that meet your organization’s needs, this report can help you to make your final decision as to which system is right for your organization. This is free to NTEN members and $25 for non-members. This report is also available on a Plone forum, though I hope you’ll choose to support NTEN’s great work anyway.
- Comparing Open Source Content Management Systems: WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, and Plone These free and open source systems can help nonprofits build and manage websites – but how do they compare? This 60-page independent Idealware report provides both an introduction to the topic and a very detailed comparison of the four systems. Idealware requests a bit of information about their readers, but there’s no cost.
- Why the Non-Profit Tech Blog loves WordPress.org’s hosted solution
- Techsoup’s A Nonprofit’s Guide to Building Simple, Low-Cost Websites offers guidance on how to plan a new website (or redesign an existing one) and how to maintain an online presence using tools that you don’t have to be a web developer to master., and tips for finding volunteers with web expertise who can help you along the way.
- Techsoup’s comprehensive list of web building resources provides you with the tools and resources to build and host a Web site that will highlight your nonprofit organization’s mission.
- 40+ Inspirational Nonprofit Websites to help you think about how you might want your site designed
It is also great to see that foundations and business are recognizing the need and importance of websites for nonprofits, and are supporting that work. If your a nonprofit that needs a new site, consider requesting more information from one of these group..
- Taproot Foundation’s Service Grants Program Through our Service Grants, we are working to provide high-potential nonprofit organizations with the tools and services necessary to maximize the impact of their critical work in the community. We believe that the right capacity-building Service Grant, at the right time, can greatly enhance the ability of an organization to serve its constituents. Visit their grant catalog to see a complete listing of the services we provide.
- CommonImpact connects skilled professionals from global companies to high-potential local nonprofits. Leverage pro bono expertise from the world’s most successful companies to deliver your services more efficiently, generate greater awareness of your organization, and raise money more effectively. Click here to learn more about their services. Here’s a casestudy from one website redesign that CommonImpact made happen.
- Grassroots.org offers free website design services for nonprofits by matching interested organizations with professional website design volunteers. Prior to accepting a volunteer, we conduct a thorough review of their past work experience and abilities to ensure a successful project. Current volunteers working on nonprofit web projects range from talented student designers to professional consulting firms. Check out their Gallery of Volunteer Designed Sites.
Have you had to put your website together on a shoestring? What did you use? Are you happy with it? Do you know of other opportunities for nonprofits to receive free technical assistance?