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Through an arrangement with , PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

How to Choose a CMS for Your Nonprofit

How to Choose a CMS for Your Nonprofit

The content management system (CMS) is the core of your website. And because your copy and images are stored in and served out of any such system, there's a lot to consider before settling on one.

Here's a list of things to consider before deciding on a CMS for your nonprofit.

Things to Consider


Small organizations may need to get consensus on a new CMS from just a few people, but if you're a midsize or large nonprofit you'll probably need to get lots of stakeholders on board. These may include the IT department, the communications team, your development team, policy analysts, and senior executives. Identify just one or two people from each team that has a stake in your site. Too many stakeholders can keep a project trapped in limbo.

If you already have a website, ask the following:

  • What are the most felicitous and most frustrating parts of our site (both for the back-end and front-end user)?
  • What have we heard from people who have visited the site? 
  • If we could add three features to the site, what would they be?

If you are developing an entirely new site, ask yourself the following:

  • What do we want the site to do?
  • Who are the audiences for the site?
  • How many resources are we able to devote to maintaining it once it's live?

Be sure to prioritize your stakeholders' requirements and expectations as you collect them. The most popular request may not be the most important, and you'll want to devote your time and energy to the features that matter most.

Type of Platform

You have two big options when choosing a CMS: hosted and SaaS.

Hosted. A hosted CMS is one you download and install on a server, either on-site or off. Hosted CMSes include WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla! Hosted CMSes typically offer greater flexibility and control but may also require serious technical chops to install, set up, and maintain. They can be open source or proprietary and typically don't require a subscription.

SaaS. SaaS stands for "software as a service," which means that the system is integrated with the server that hosts the system and content, all of which are maintained by a third party. Examples of SaaS CMSes include Squarespace, Wix, and HubSpot. These systems simplify the process of launching a site by bundling installation, updates, and maintenance into a single solution. And they typically require a subscription fee.

Open Source vs. Proprietary

The question of whether to use an open-source or proprietary CMS is the topic of neverending debate in the software development community. Hosted CMS options can be open source or proprietary.

  • Open source is usually free and is developed by a community. It includes limited support and may require more tech skills to implement.
  • Proprietary usually requires a paid license and is developed by a single company. It often includes dedicated support and may mean less troubleshooting and setup.


This is third on the list, but of course it may be the most important factor in your decision. Open-source CMSes may be tempting because of the lack of a price tag, but it's important to factor in the time and money involved in setup, hosting, and potential maintenance of the system. If you have dedicated tech staff, a hosted, open-source CMS will likely be the cheaper solution than if you don't.


There is no shortage of advanced features in the top CMSes, but nonprofits don't have the same needs as for-profit companies, government agencies, or other enterprises that rely on their websites. This is where the requirements from stakeholders you gathered will come in handy, and hopefully you'll be able to satisfy most of them with whatever CMS you decide on.

The Top 10 CMS Features to Look For 

Ease of Installation and Use. If your staff members' technical skills are limited or are only applicable to a specific technology, picking a CMS that requires less maintenance or has a gentler learning curve will save you time and money over the long run. A SaaS solution may be just the solution you're looking for.

Security. You'll need to keep your data and your constituents' data secure. Some things to look for here are whether the CMS has built-in features like two-factor authentication and how often the system and its components are updated. Things to look for are an active open-source community that helps support the product or a hosted solution that stays ahead of threats as they emerge.

Integrations. Your site doesn't exist in a vacuum. Chances are good that it's set up to accept online donations, track how users interact with the site, and/or display social media content. If so, it needs to interact with other systems. Take stock of your technology stack (the ecosystem of systems used by your organization) and make sure your top CMS choices are compatible with your key systems.

Responsiveness. Your organization may be very responsive to the needs of your constituents, but your site needs to be responsive to their devices of choice. Each year, a growing number of Web users are visiting sites on their phones and tablets instead of laptops and desktops. A site that's difficult to use on a mobile device is much less likely to generate a donation or a volunteer than one that is easy to browse and interact with on a mobile device.

Templates. Hosted CMSes, both open source and proprietary, and SaaS solutions tend to offer pre-made site designs and page templates. Of course, some of the better-looking or feature-rich templates may cost more, but in most cases it will be faster to modify a pre-made template than to create one from scratch. Modern templates also are likely to be mobile-friendly, which will save you a lot of time when it comes to testing them across multiple devices.

SEO. Optimizing your site so it can be found by search engines is as much about the quality of the content as it is about the site's behind-the-scenes configuration. Better CMSes will have built-in features or additional components that take the guesswork out of optimizing your pages and the content on those pages.

Versioning. If multiple users are changing content on your site, you'll want to have the ability to revert back to an earlier version in the event of an error or mistake. This is called versioning, which means that each time a page is changed, the CMS stores the older version. Version 13 of a page all wrong? Revert back to version 12.

Multilingual Support. For organizations that work in diverse communities, multilingual support is crucial. If you're only communicating with your audience in one language, you're probably not serving the entire community. Most major CMSes make it easy to create pages in multiple languages and display them based on a user's preference. Most CMSes even allow you to tailor the text in menus, buttons, and so on in multiple languages.

Asset Management. Your pages aren't just text; they also include images, PDFs, and other types of assets. After your site has been live for a while, it's important to be able to find older assets quickly and easily. Make sure the CMS you look for has the ability to search across all asset classes internally.

Search Capabilities. Many users don't bother with menus, carousels, or other modern page elements — they go straight for the search box. There are a lot of options here in terms of how content on your site is searched, what is returned, and how those results are displayed.

Most Popular CMSes for Nonprofits

 nonprofits run their websites on WordPress. And it's not just nonprofits;  of all sites that use a CMS use WordPress. That's because it's open source, flexible, and free and offers more than 40,000 plug-ins and 2,000 site styles. Drupal is the next most popular CMS among nonprofits, with about 9 percent of nonprofit websites using it.

Future Needs

Once you've decided on a CMS and your site is live, you're done, right? Not exactly. Hosted systems will need to be upgraded as new features are introduced, and of course things will "break" from time to time. Take the time to research how the CMS has developed over time and make sure you're confident it will evolve to meet your organization's needs over time.

Of course, one size doesn't fit all, so you'll want to be thorough when you gather your requirements. Options like , , and  are popular both with nonprofits and individuals, while services like , , and  can streamline your ability to design, create, and operate a site.

Wes Holing is senior web content developer at . This work is published under a .