Six Steps to Finding the Right Web Site Development Firm for Your Nonprofit

Choosing the right Web site development firm can be a difficult decision – especially in today’s changing world, where there are many firms promising to meet or exceed your nonprofit’s goals through Web site design and programming.

Take these six steps to identify the firm that will be the right long-term partner for your organization:

Create a site development RFP

The more detail you provide up front on scope (content, functionality, look and feel), the more accurate the site development proposals will be. And you need a sense of these specs to begin your search for the right developer.

Establish baseline criteria for web site development firm selection

Firms you consider should:

  • Develop in open source environment – open source offers more flexibility at a lower cost (the software is free but needs to be customized) than propriety platforms
  • Have three or more years in business as a firm, or working together (for partner organization teams) on Web site development
  • Use a Content Management System (templates that you plug content into) to build its sites, rather than flat files
  • Listen well so they “get it,” before investing resources down the wrong path
  • Be client-centric
  • Be value priced (e.g. provide significant value for their fees)
  • Not serve clients whose mission or work conflicts with that of your organization.

Know the 5 categories of web development firms

  1. Web developers (technologists), with a strong understanding of strategic communications
  2. Web developers with a technology slant, little understanding of communications context in which sites will be used; implementers not strategists NOTE: There are sub-sets of categories 1 & 2, e.g. firms that are open source leaders.
  3. Full-service strategic communications firms that offer Web site development as one of many services (always more expensive and frequently less skilled tech wise)
  4. Graphic design firms that also develop Web sites (or do so with a partner technology firm)
  5. Technology firms that plan and implement organizational IT strategies, including Web sites

In most cases, unless a client organization is already working with a full-service communications agency, I recommend developer type #1. These firms are focused on developing public sites, extranets and intranets, and understand the communications context in which the site will live.

As a result, they offer the greatest depth and range of experience in the field and are up-to-date on the latest innovations in terms of programming, software, user interface design and functionality.

Research your web development firm options

Don’t just go with the firm that “everyone is using.” Those may indeed be the folks you end up working with, but don’t forget due diligence. Remember that you want your organization’s relationship with its Web development firm to be a long-term one; the medium requires successive iterations and it’s easiest and most cost-efficient to continue working with the firms that builds the next iteration of your site, if at all possible.

So ask around for recommended firms that fit the criteria above, are Web developers with a good understanding of strategic communications, and develop sites comparable to yours in scope and budget.

Contact colleagues within your organization and communications colleagues at peer organizations. Contact the site editors at nonprofit sites you have identified as strong models for your organization’s next site. I’ve found that nonprofits are eager to share contacts of firms who have provided good service and a stellar product. They’re paying it forward.

Once you have your list of the top five or ten, take a look at these firms’ Web sites. A strong caveat though – I find many firms don’t update their sites with best recent work on a timely basis. It’s a classic story of the shoemaker’s children. So don’t cross a firm off your list until you take the next step.

Interview your top picks

A two-part interview – first email followed by a phone call to firms that seem to be a good fit – is the quickest way to narrow down your list.

Here’s what you want to ask in your initial email:

  • We’re looking for a site development firm that meets these criteria (see above).
  • If there’s a strong match, we’ll want to talk more.

Here’s what you want to discuss in your follow-up call:

  • Very briefly outline your site’s development timeframe, scope and budget
  • Ask about:
    • Average budget range of site development projects (You’re seeking a firm that works in the same budget range – if it’s higher, they may not give your organization enough attention; if it’s lower, they may not bring the desired experience to your project)
    • Expertise in integrating other online tools (social media, email, databases)
    • Client mix – you want the development firm to show some interest and experience in working with nonprofit organizations or foundations
    • Related sites (in scope or topic) developed in the last couple of years (You’ll want to review these sites to assess if the firm has dealt with similar challenges to those faced by your organization)
    • What differentiates the firm from the many others out there
    • Do they have a defined process that will ensure that your project will be completed on time and on budget
    • Services offered.

Distribute your RFP and select the right web site development firm

Once you have these answers listed above, and review the sites mentioned by each firm, you’ll have a good sense of the firms you’ll want to bid on your RFP.

Send it out to no more than three firms (writing these proposals is a huge endeavor; analyzing them is too). You’ve already done the front work to ensure that the proposals submitted will be serious contenders. If you must, send it out to four firms.

While the firms are crafting their proposal, recruit a proposal review team (if you don’t have a site advisory committee in place). Firm selection is a major decision; and you want respected colleagues to weigh in.

When you receive the proposals, make sure you ask about any content you don’t understand. Remember though, you want your site development firm to be able to communicate in plain English. Too much “tech-ese” may indicate that it’ll be difficult for you and your non-techy colleagues to communicate effectively with the Web development folks.

Begin by evaluating each proposal individually. Evaluate not just what’s included in each proposal, but the proposal tone and comprehensiveness. Weigh in on each firm’s potential as a long-term partner.

Once that’s complete, compare the proposals. How do they fare in terms of presentation? How do their processes appear in terms of project management? Do they present scalability and/or upgrade paths for your project, that go beyond the needs of the goals outlined for the next site?

Before you make a decision, arrange an in-person meeting (if possible) with the finalist firm. Personal connection is a pre-requisite for a healthy working relationship.

If an in-person meeting isn’t possible, schedule a conference call (with your Web advisory team), ideally with Web cams in place on both sides.

Once you finalize your decision, contact the firms that you won’t be working with, thanking each for its proposal and sharing the reasons (in general terms) why your organization has selected the winning firm. Lastly, contact the Web development firm you’ll be hiring, and let them know the good news.

Six simple steps taken; hundreds of calamities avoided. You’re off and running towards a powerful new Web site.