This section provides some practical advice for VOPEs which are about to develop a new website. It links to various toolkits and examples.
In many instances, a VOPE’s website is its flagship product. It is usually a good idea to start off with a page that meets your basic needs and then add additional modules to the site as your VOPE matures and gains additional resources.
You can register and pay for your VOPE’s domain (a once-off fee and usually annual or bi-annual payment renewal) and website hosting (usually monthly or annual fee) yourself, or include it in your web developer’s contract. Most VOPEs choose an .org domain as it is associated with non-profit organizations.
You can either take the open source or proprietary route in terms of web development. Keep in mind that proprietary solutions are more expensive but support and skillsets are more readily available, while open source solutions at the outset are more cost-effective. Make sure that the relevant support and skillset for your choice is available in your local market.
Keep in mind that, just like a database, a website has a “front and backend”. The backend constitutes the administrative tools, membership database, archived content, etc. that is linked to the front (user end) of the website. Both these aspects should ideally be included in the website’s Terms of Reference for contractual and change control purposes. Technical specifications, maintenance requirements, content creation and content management should be specified as clearly as possible.
Most VOPE website design caters for sections of the VOPE itself (Board, policies, membership – becoming a member and some sort of membership directory, reports, and minutes), training and job opportunities, newsletter and listserv signups, information for donor or volunteers, resources, events and news. The inclusion of good search functionality will enhance the user-friendliness of your website considerably. Other forms of social media (e.g. links to Twitter and Facebook) are usually also embedded in the website. If resources allow, consider embedding a full membership management module (automatic membership expiration notifications, links to membership payments, voting eligibility, etc.) and an online Board voting module into your website, creating an electronic audit trail for these important VOPE management functions.
The procurement and Terms of Reference for any web development should be in line with the VOPE’s procurement policy. Consider whether you want to embed mobile or other technology into the website’s development, and remember to include browser/operating system compatibility testing in the Terms of Reference.
There are multiple tools available to assist in managing website content. Generating and keeping website content current are usually the most labour intensive part of managing a website. Crowdsourcing/communities of practice contributions/collaborations/peer review functions from fellow online members can add great value to a website, but as with a listserv, it can potentially require time and effort to moderate responses if open to the general public. There are drawbacks to closing sections of a website off to members only – the content in these sections is often not detectable by search engines, which in turn generates less traffic to your site. The counter argument is that members-only sections of a website (particularly job and training opportunities) might encourage a higher membership subscription.
Managing content created by third parties, whether VOPE members or not, requires documented rules and guidelines in the form of a website policy. Care should be taken to review content for appropriateness, copyright infringement, etc.
Link exchanges/business directories are the most common way of diverting additional traffic to your site. Many VOPEs/other organizations will agree to post a link/information to and about your website on theirs and vice versa. Another user-friendly method to generate traffic is search engine optimization. For well-resourced VOPEs, most major search engines have a pay per click option where your website search ranking is increased in exchange for – often not so cheap – rates. The more relevant content and keywords your website contains, the higher your search engine ranking will be, so the pay per click is not really necessary for non-commercial ventures. Website Analytics will assist you in tracking your users (demographics), which pages are most popular, how often they visit and many other useful titbits without infringing on your visitors’ privacy.