Maybe you’ve heard the old saying “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Well, when it comes to non-profit websites, many of which are built around that magic word—“free”—truer words have never been uttered.
The allure is of course obvious. Most non-profits struggle financially at various points in their existence, and the thought of getting something gratis is hard to resist. This is especially true for newer organizations that have not yet reached a comfortable monetary flow and need to hustle to attract donors and volunteers. And in our tech-driven world, the website is the alpha and omega of media outreach.
So why is biting at the lure of free website building and/or hosting a bad idea for non-profits? Consider these reasons, which ring true not just for non-profits but for anyone—from individuals to businesses—kicking around the idea.
Loss of Control
This is perhaps the greatest pitfall of the free website world: once up and running, too often the user has little or no control over what the free website hosting company does. For instance, they can modify your website with banner or pop-up ads. In essence, that’s why they offer the free packages to begin with: that’s how they make money. And this loss of control may not stop at only ads—there are instances where, through crafty wording in the fine print, a free website builder can actually take ownership of your domain address. This can create havoc for a non-profit if they have to change said address after they’ve already built a social media strategy and begun its implementation.
Lack of Security
There are laws in place dictating that free website builders and hosts are duty-bound to have safeguards in place to keep your site secure. Many even use the promise of ironclad security front and center for their own advertising campaigns. But as industry insiders will tell you, there is little actual foundation behind such promises. They are incredibly lax at creating regular backups for your site’s content or checking your system for security breaches. Therefore, your non-profit’s site is at serious risk for hackers and malware attacks. And this should be particularly terrifying for those NPOs that accept online donations, as supporter’s financial information could be at grave risk along with an organization’s reputation.
If you utilize a free website builder or host, prepare for everything to slower at least some of the time. Page loading, video rendering, donation platforms … all of these and more can result from the company trying to cram too many sites onto one server or giving preferential treatment to some users over others. Also, should something go wrong with your NPO’s site, it’s likely it will take some time for the company to address the problem and fix it, as it isn’t in their financial interest to do so. All of these issues regarding speed can spell doom for any non-profit organization as potential donors and supporters may become frustrated and turn their attentions elsewhere.
Once convinced that using the services of a “free” website building and hosting companies is a risk not worth taking, an NPO should start seeking out a quality web designer, preferably one who also offers hosting on their own secure server (however, beware of one that uses a proprietary content management system platform, see the January 7, 2015 blog entry on this site). There are lots of designers available who may partner with non-profits for pro bono work or who simply offer discounted services. Get references, do the legwork and take all things offered as “free” with a grain of salt.