If you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you’ve been on one side or the other of this conversation. It’s pleasant at first. You run into an old friend and catch up. Soon, one of you who’s on the board of a great local nonprofit, learns that the other makes websites for a living. Then comes the ask. The nonprofit needs a new website. Is there a chance that the website builder might do one for free? It’s for a good cause!
I’ve been on the receiving end of this conversation many times, and have built free sites as a result. After all, it’s hard to say no to a good cause that only needs a simple site. But, I think that it’s time to reconsider whether that’s the best way to handle this situation.
The Perfect Volunteer
If your organization has a large committed corps of volunteers, you may find a volunteer that has the time, expertise, and commitment to build a website. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, the old adage still applies: there’s no such thing as a free
While you may not pay money for a site made by a volunteer, you almost certainly pay with at least a few of the following:
- poor planning,
- inflexibility (read: the website launch is delayed…three times),
- missing features,
- no long-term support.
This list reveals what I see as the holy trinity of requirements for a volunteer-built website: time, expertise, and commitment.
- Time: Your volunteer must have the time to plan a website, build it, fix any lingering problems, train someone to maintain it, and be around to solve future maintenance issues.
- Expertise: Some people see volunteering as a way to build their skills. ((In fact, some nonprofits pitch this as a reason to build their website for free. When I read ads like that, I am always disappointed to think that the nonprofit expects their new website to not be professional and well-built.)) “I’ve-done-this-one-time-before” volunteers can cause more problems than they solve.
- Commitment: I’ve worked on free websites for causes that I am passionate about, but when push comes to shove, my volunteering commitments are easily pushed to the back burner. This arises from having a profession that’s also a hobby. In cases like this, burnout—despite strong interest from the volunteer—may be just around the corner.
At least in my personal experience, I have found a solution to this problem: pay-what-you-can payments supplemented by alternate forms of compensation.
That’s a two-part solution so let’s break it down.
First, there’s the pay-what-you-can piece. This is exactly what it sounds like. A client tells me how much they can afford to pay, and then I work with them to give them a full-featured website for the heavily discounted amount. I may ask that the client drop a few time-consuming features, but only if that feature is non-essential or replaced with something near equivalent. In extreme cases, payments are only a couple hundred dollars (which depending on the project might be too little), but in others, it ends up being half or two-thirds of what I would normally charge.
Second, I work with clients to find forms of extra compensation other than money. This includes everything from a shortening of the project timeline to giving me a recommendation on LinkedIn or featuring me in a blog post. They might even be able to barter a members’ skills or give me free tickets to an event. It’s ok to get creative, just remember the goal, acknowledge and compensate the person giving you a discount on your website.
And, after all that, I still get the satisfaction of supporting a worthy organization!
Why I Think This is Better
In the end, some flexibility and creativity lets you compensate the person building your website. It’s important to recognize the effort of someone who is producing a high-quality website for your organization. For the website builder, this payment leads to increased investment in the project, and, even lets them justify working on the project during work hours (when the best work gets done!).
Pay in Full if you Can
Having said all of this, I still think nonprofit organizations should pay in full whenever possible. Nonprofits should invest in strong communication and outreach, and websites play a key role in that work. If you can budget for a full website, do it. ((This may require thinking ahead and getting a quote in one fiscal year and budgeting it for the next.))
One of the reasons I want to work with nonprofits, is that I strongly believe that small- and medium-sized nonprofits deserve strong websites that build a meaningful internet presence. However, I still need to make a living. Otherwise, I’ll be a no-profit web designer instead of a nonprofit web designer.