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Learn basics for creating a web presence, vital for anyone in community development, nonprofit organizations, or similar work.


  • What is a website?

  • Why should you consider creating a website for your organization?

  • When is a good time to create a website?

  • How do you create and use a website?

Every year, more and more people worldwide use the Internet as their primary source of information. Because of its speed and simplicity, those who use the Internet regularly often turn to it before other forms of media to gather information, learn about events, or become knowledgeable about a community issue. Because of this, creating a website for your organization or initiative can greatly improve your ability to communicate with the public. This section discusses when and why to set up a website, how to create a website, and how to ensure that your website will be as effective and easy to use as possible.

What is a website?

A website is any collection of one or more web pages -- single files that can be displayed on the web. For example, the Community Tool Box is a website, but the document you're viewing right now is one of the many web pages available at this website. Some web pages are very short, with only a few lines of text, while others are very long.

Almost every major corporation, nonprofit organization, and educational institution uses the web to distribute information, and private citizens have jumped on board with personal sites showing off anything from family photo albums to joke lists to celebrity fan sites. Most local and regional organizations and initiatives have websites, and these vary widely in terms of how elaborate they are, how nicely they are designed, and how much information they contain.

Why should you consider creating a website for your organization?

There are many great reasons to consider creating a website. Here are a few, and you may find that you can think up even more on your own:

  • Having a website lends your agency or organization a certain amount of legitimacy and credibility. Websites are now so nearly universal that it has become generally expected for any legitimate agency or organization to have one.
  • In developed countries, younger people -- those who've grown up with computers or used them in schools -- turn to the web for almost everything. They read newspapers, college catalogues, and even books online, and use the web for almost all their information-gathering (as well as shopping, travel, and even dating.) Any organization without a website simply doesn't exist for many of them.
  • You can put an enormous amount of information up on a website -- far more than can fit into a single brochure or public service announcement. You can include your website address in your brochures, advertisements, or other promotional materials to encourage people to visit it and find out more information.
  • Whatever information you put up on your website is immediately available to anyone who wants it --24 hours a day, 7 days a week --no waiting for a fax or an envelope in the mail.
  • Your website can be part of an overall media campaign and it can help establish what sort of image or perception you want people to have of your initiative or organization.
  • The web is a good way to reach people who have difficulty getting information through more traditional means, such as people who are unable to get out of their homes due to disability, lack of transportation, or illness. It is also a good way to reach people who may be ashamed or embarrassed to pick up a brochure in public or visit your office.
  • The web still has some novelty appeal, so some people who might not otherwise look into finding out about your organization may do so if you have a website.
  • If you have a website, it can be found easily whenever people search the web for groups or services like your own. This can be helpful to people who live in your area but have never heard of you, or for people who are planning to move to or visit your town.
  • Any correction, addition, or revision you make to your website will be immediately available to those who access it. While a misprinted phone number or some other piece of information on some printed material, such as a brochure or flyer, can be a potential disaster, mistakes on your website can be immediately corrected.
  • Websites can be used to spur your members, volunteers, supporters, and sympathizers on to action, if necessary.
  • A website is an effective way to get information out very quickly, which is great when information is changing rapidly. For example, if you are involved in a local political campaign in which things are happening often that require quick responses, or you just want to keep people up-to-the-minute on what's happening with your fundraising drive, you can post this information on your website.
  • Having a website with email links for contacting people in your organization provides an easy, instantaneous way for people to contact you.

When is a good time to create a website?

Any time is a great time to create a website. While it is never too late for your organization or initiative to put up a site, the sooner the better! If you create a website at the beginning of your work, it can help you establish your public image and some level of credibility with the public early on. Adding a website at any point in your organization's development can do -- or at least enhance -- these things as well.

That said, it's important to get a website up as quickly as possible. Especially in North America, many people researching organizations or looking for services don't look anywhere but on the web. If you have no web presence, they won't find you.

How do you create and use a website?

Decide who will actually create the site, whether that's you, a member or volunteer of your agency or organization, or some outside party.

If you know enough about HTML or CSS to do it yourself, or to at least make changes to a page that somebody else has set up for you, this will give you a greater level of control and accessibility when it comes to making quick adjustments and additions to the site. If you decide to have an individual do the site, make sure it's someone who has an adequate know-how of HTML; you might ask him to show you other websites he's designed. Also, make sure it's someone who is able to commit to keeping the site up-to-date. You may wish to add website responsibilities to the job description of one of your staff members, or create an official volunteer position for it. You may also opt to have your web hosting service handle design responsibilities as well; if this is the case, be sure to ask about that when you're shopping around later on.

It may be tempting to just let somebody you know make up a web page for you on his or her own site, but we caution against that for several reasons. First, when your web pages get set up under someone else's control, you will have limited or no control over how they are made and what information they contain. That person may be a truly bad web designer, or have such limited knowledge of the technical language used that he or she can't do everything you want done with the site. You may not be able to get that person to make changes or corrections as promptly as necessary. And finally, you may not be able to get that person to take your web pages down at some point in the future.

Example: Putting Your Web Pages Up on Someone Else's Site

A good example of why you might not want to have someone put your pages up on his or her own site is the experience of one local agency here in Lawrence, Kansas.

The organization agreed to let a university student make a web page for it on his personal site for one of his class projects. It seemed like a good idea at the time -- the agency wouldn't have to expend any effort or expense, and the student would do all the work himself. Unfortunately, after the semester was over, the student abandoned work on the page but never removed it from his site.

While the agency eventually went on to set up its own new site, the student's old page stayed up, with the information on it becoming more and more outdated over time. When people did web searches that should have helped them find the agency's official site, they often ended up finding the outdated site instead. This problem continued for another three years until the student graduated and his entire website was removed from its server.

So you see, it's very important to select a good site administrator if you're going to entrust the job to someone else. For smaller organizations or initiatives that are just starting out or are very local in scale, however, you may just want to do the work on your site yourself.

There are a number of ways that you can put information on a website without having to know HTML/CSS. Many ISPs (Internet Service Providers) give customers a fair amount of free web space to construct websites, and program them so they look like word processors. You type in what you want, and it appears in your website. Software that does essentially the same thing also exists. Within a short time -- perhaps by the time you read this section -- it is likely that setting up a website will be as easy and universally accessible as composing a document in MS Word.

Decide roughly how much you can afford to spend.

The cost of setting up a website varies wildly, depending on what web hosting service you use and how elaborate you want the site to be. You probably won't be able to come up with an exact budget at this point, but you should at least have a rough idea before you start looking at web hosting services. Commercial web hosting services can cost anywhere from $5 to $100 per month, and they often charge a one-time setup fee of $10 to $40 when you first build your site. You may very well be able to find a free service, but keep in mind that these are often limited in terms of how much you can do with your site. Remember -- you don't have to know an exact amount, but having at least an approximate budget will be helpful to you in the next step.

Select a web hosting service.

Unless your organization is part of a university or some other institution that already has web servers available for your use, you will need to find a web service provider. Service providers are businesses that have servers and allow individuals and organizations to set up web pages on those servers. Some charge a fee, and others allow you to set up a website for free in exchange for allowing them to put an advertisement on the pages.

Search for "web hosting" on any major web search engine and you will find hundreds of entries. You may find it easiest to deal with a web hosting service in your own town because you can meet with them face-to-face when necessary, but you might be able to find an affordable service elsewhere. There are also several sites that have directories of web hosting services.

While it may be tempting to use a free web page hosting service, you should at least consider some of the commercial services. Most free web page services are limited in the amount of information you can put up, some of them are extremely limited in design possibilities, and you usually can't get your own domain name (more on these later on). Furthermore, the market for web hosting is very competitive, so you're likely to be able to find affordable rates.

The key thing to remember in searching for a web hosting service is shop around! There are many, many companies out there that provide web hosting services, and you should talk to several before you make a decision. The customer service representatives at these places should be able to ask you questions that can help you get a better idea of what options might be best for you.

It's also a good idea to look at the homepages of other organizations and agencies in your area and then talk to those folks to find out what services they use, how they feel about their web hosting service, and how much it costs them.

Decide whether you want to register a domain name.

A domain name is a unique name that identifies a particular website. Look at the URL for this page. You'll see at the beginning. This is our domain name.

A domain name points always to one specific server, although that server can host several domain names. Domain names always have 2 or more parts, separated by dots. On the Internet, domain names typically end with a suffix denoting the type of site: commercial sites generally end with .com, military sites end with .mil, government sites end with .gov, and nonprofit organizations end, and educational ones use .edu. Since the Community Tool Box is at the University of Kansas, we have an .edu suffix.

The fee for registering a new domain name runs from $10 to $30 per year, but the cost is often included in the monthly service charge from your web hosting service.

Decide what information you want to include on your website.

Your website can be fairly minimal, if you don't want to expend a whole lot of time and energy, but there are almost no limits to what you can put up on your site if you want to.

Basic information you should have on your website:

  • Your group's mission and purpose. These should appear fairly prominently on the main front page of your site, although you may wish to have an additional page with this information in more detail. Good examples of how organizations have displayed their mission statements can be found at the site of Gilda's Club of Detroit and Covenant House of New Orleans. You may decide to go into further detail with this and list your organization's goals and objectives.
  • Contact information. This should be fairly thorough; be sure to include ALL information (address, phone number, fax number, email addresses, etc.). The main contact information should be easy to find on or from the main page of your site, and then you may wish to have an additional contact page for individual staff members, departments, or programs. Good examples of how to display your contact information can be found at the site of the Kid's Council in North Dakota. Note: You should really have some way for people to contact you by e-mail on your website. Your web hosting service can probably set you up with some e-mail addresses for your organization, so be sure to ask about that.
  • Information on your services or programs, including information on qualification requirements and how to apply or find out more. A good example of this sort of page can be found at the site of San Francisco Suicide Prevention.
  • "How you can help." Be sure to have information on how interested parties can volunteer or make donations. You might have an online volunteer application form, or an address to which people can send donations.
  • News/Calendar/Upcoming Events. Your site should be periodically updated with news about what's going on with your organization. Do you have an important fundraiser coming up? Make information about it available on your website! Do you sponsor regular meetings of support or discussion groups? Have information about those available on your website. An example of how to show your upcoming events can be seen at the site of the American Lung Association of Hawaii or the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, North Carolina.
  • Resources and links for further information. It's not a bad idea to send people who visit your site to other sites on the web where they can find out more about things related to your organization's purpose. For example, if you are a local teen pregnancy prevention coalition, you could provide links to informational sites like the Alan Guttmacher Institute's teen pregnancy information page, to larger regional or national organizations like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, or to online resource sites like the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention.
  • Information on and links to your organization's sponsors, partners, and friends, like at the sites of the Peace Learning Center of Indianapolis and the Center for Rural Development in Somerset, Kentucky. This is a nice way to show appreciation to funders and other supporters that help your organization, and it shows that you have nothing to hide about where your funding comes from.

Other considerations for your site:

  • A site map can be very helpful to visitors if your site is fairly large or extensive. A site map is a single page that lists everything that can be found at your site so that the user doesn't have to look through page after page to find the information she wants. A good example of a site map can be found at the site for the Philadelphia Geriatric Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • A note as to when the site was last updated, or a "What's New?" page like that at the site of the Community Resource Group in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
  • A Frequently Asked Questions page or section (also known as an FAQ). This is a page where you can post the answers to those questions that people ask most often about your organization, activities, or services. Having an FAQ for people to read can protect you from having to answer many of those same questions over and over again. Organizations like Locks of Love in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and the Hospitality Program in Boston, Massachusetts have useful FAQs that can serve as examples.
  • A listing of your staff members, board members, or volunteers, like the Pensacola, Florida chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
  • A guestbook or feedback section so that people can let you know what they think of your site. You can use a contact form like the Chicago Asthma Consortium uses, or you can simply have clickable email links like the American Red Cross St. Louis Bi-State Chapter uses.
  • Important statistics about your membership or services, such as the Junior League of Salt Lake City's statistics page.
  • A resource library section, with lots of informational materials related to your organization's focus or cause, such as the one at the site of the Platte River Endangered Species Partnership in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
  • Your organization's history. This includes how your group started, important landmarks in your past, what sort of obstacles and accomplishments have happened along the way, and the general state of things now. This can be in the form of a narrative, like that of Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, Kansas, or it can be in the form of a timeline.
  • An online gallery. This could include photos (like the ones at the site for Kidd's Kids in Dallas/Fort Worth, artwork, or personal experiences (like those at the site of the Joy Junction Homeless Shelter in Albuquerque, New Mexico. For example, if your group works to prevent domestic violence, you could have a space on your site where survivors of domestic violence could anonymously share their stories. If your organization recently held a talent show as a fundraiser, you could have photos of the event. If you work with children, you could have artwork by children your group has served. An online gallery can serve to inspire as well as to draw people who might not otherwise have visited your site.
  • A listing of job opportunities and openings with your project, like that at the site of the Heifer International in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • Action alerts with information on how people who visit your website can take action on an issue related to your organization. You can see some action alert pages at the sites of the Forest Conservation Archives and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
  • A web counter. Web counters are small graphic counters, much like the odometer on a car, that tally up how many times a particular page or site has been "hit" or viewed. Having some idea of how often your page is visited, or what sections of your site get the most hits, can give you insight into how useful and accessible your site is to others. If having a web counter on your site interests you, ask your web hosting service about getting one.

As you can see from the above lists, there's almost no limit to what sort of information you can put on your website. You can always add things that aren't on these two lists as well -- feel free to be creative!

If you're not sure what to include, don't be too concerned. The great thing about having a website is that you can always make changes and additions, so go ahead and put up the information you're sure about, and you can add other things later. If things don't seem to work out well, you can always remove them later on as well.

Work with your web hosting company and your webmaster to build the actual site.

Depending on how extensive you want your site to be, this can end up being the longest part of the process. The extent to which you will need to be heavily involved with this part of the project can vary as well; you may choose to work closely with your webmaster, looking at the web pages frequently as they're being constructed, or you may simply check in with your webmaster from time to time to ask how things are progressing.

It is at this point in the process that you will decide how complicated your site 's graphics will be. While a really snazzy, graphics-intensive site may be eye-catching, you should take care to make sure that the site is still easy to navigate, and you should definitely consider accessibility issues for people with disabilities. People with certain disabilities have to use special equipment to access the World Wide Web, and too many graphics can sometimes cause your site to be unreadable to these folks, but there is a lot of information available on how you can have a nifty-looking site and still be accessible to everyone. Links to several websites that discuss accessibility issues and give pointers on how to make your site more accessible appear in the Tools at the end of this section.

Get feedback from others and make any necessary changes.

Once your site is up and running, have some objective people look at the site and give you their feedback on what works and what doesn't. It will be especially helpful if you get feedback from the type of people that you hope to have visit your site -- potential donors or volunteers, potential participants or members, media representatives, etc.

Here are some questions you should take into consideration when looking for feedback on your site:

  • Does your site load into the web browser quickly and easily? This is especially important where many people have only dial-up access. Graphics, videos and sound files can make your site attractive and exciting, but they can take too long to load on a slow connection -- sometimes 20 or 30 minutes -- and they may freeze the connection entirely. That's not a good way to build good will.
  • Is information arranged in a logical, easy-to-find manner?
  • Is the site attractive and easy to read?
  • Does the information on the site make sense?

Publicize your site address.

  • You can do this by sending email messages announcing your site to relevant email lists and posting about it on Usenet and other discussion boards.
  • Submit your site for inclusion on the major web search engine sites and directories. A list of the URL's for several major search sites is included in the Tools section.
  • Let any local "community guide" websites that cover your geographic area know about the site and ask that they include a link to it on their own pages, if possible.
  • Let other groups and professionals in your area know about your site.
  • Find out which agencies or organizations publish community or social service directories and request that your website be included in the next one.
  • Include your site's URL in your regular media campaigns - posters and flyers, press releases, public service announcements, paid advertisements, your organization's next print newsletter.
  • Consider using meta tags in your HTML code. Meta tags allow you to provide keywords and descriptions on individual pages within your site that allow certain search engines to easily index your page, along with a description of the site that you yourself get to write. Not all search engines support meta tags, but several of the major ones do. This can greatly increase traffic to your site by pulling people in to look at a specific page and then having them go on to check out the rest of the site.
  • Consider purchasing ad banners on some of the major search sites. On Yahoo!, for example, when you do a search on a given topic, the results page that comes up will almost always have an ad banner for a related page at the top. It's sort of along the same lines as those coupons that they print out for you at the grocery store that are for products similar to what you've just purchased -- they check to see what you're interested in first, and then present you with a form of advertising for that item or service.

In Summary

Everyone is on the web these days, and having a web presence is vital for those of us in community development, nonprofit organizations, and other similar work. While this section is only an overview, we hope that the many web links contained within it and the information we've presented will help you get your organization its own home on the World Wide Web.

Chris Hampton

Online Resources

European Laboratory for Particle Physics (1998). A CERN invention you are familiar with: The world wide web.

Hurst, Mark. (1997). HTML basics in two minutes.

Hurst, Mark. (1997). What's a webmaster (and why is this important)? (1998). Take action!: Ways for you to take action online.

An Introduction to Web Hosting. A comprehensive guide that covers the basics of the internet, websites, and creating your own website.

Johnson, K.E. (1998). If you build it, make them come. Presented at Hot Tips on Web Home Pages - Marketing to Reach New Clients. TECHSHOW 98, sponsored by the Law Practice Management Section of the American Bar Association, March 27, 1998.

Nua Internet Surveys. (1997). How many online?: U.S. and Canada

Nua Internet Surveys. (1997). How many online?

HTML and CSS Tutorials. A website for beginners that gives concise, step-by-step instructions on building web pages.

Krause, A., Stein, M. and Clark, J. (1998). The virtual activist: A training course.