jetpack-iconI was just on the phone with a developer and we were lamenting “who could’ve guessed five years ago how great WordPress would be for nonprofit websites now?” It’s reliable, flexible and yet easy to learn and use —  even for folks who don’t think of themselves as very web-sophisticated.

Even with its simple interface and low-cost maintenance, many grassroots groups still benefit from having an experienced developer (especially one who has already worked with nonprofits) work with your group to set up your WordPress site. But they can’t always give you what you don’t know you to ask for.

So, if you’re a grassroots nonprofit just moving to WordPress for your self-hosted website (or want to get a little more out of your current WordPress site), ask them for these features. In some cases, just saying the word will be enough. But, I’ll also tell you what these terms mean and why they matter:

1- A responsive layout

Now that you know folks are visiting your site using mobile devices and tablets (which you know because you’re looking at your website analytics), you need a theme that will automatically detect the visitor’s device and change the presentation of your site for a smaller screen. That’s called a “responsive” layout. Don’t bother having your developer build you a responsive theme from scratch. There are plenty of stable, supported themes out there with this feature built-in.

You can search the WordPress directory for responsive themes. The selection of them gets even wider if you add in some of the commercial theme shops. I’ve decided that I like Woo Themes, and they offer a good selection of responsive themes.

2- Jetpack

Jetpack is a set of features that used to only be available to WordPress.com users, but now you can have Jetpack features on a self-hosted WordPress site. In addition to the attractive image tools, they’ve got good social media integration (more on that next), simple contact forms, and an option to make your theme mobile friendly (as in “responsive layout”). Jetpack has too many features to list, actually, so just go take a look at the plugin page. Because it’s created and maintained by Automattic (the company that operates WordPress.com , WordPress.org and a host of other services) it is well-maintained and will probably keep getting new features added.

3- Strong social media integration

Whether or not you do it with Jetpack, you’ll need strong social media integration. That means three separate things:

  • It’s easy for you to promote your content to your social media networks. You can tweet or post content to Facebook at the moment you publish something.
  • It’s easy for visitors to share individual pages— let’s say by Liking or Tweeting. That means a button, popup or some other simple means that appears on all your posts.
  • Your social media presence is visible and interactive on your website. For Twitter, that will mean your Twitter feed is visible, as well as your Twitter handle and a follow option. For Facebook, it means a “Like” button for your Facebook page (and that creepy box that shows pictures of whoever has already liked your Facebook page, which is actually set up via your Facebook page.)

There are so many plugin options for social media integration — besides Jetpack, I also like Social and Digg Digg. Ask your developer for their preferences.

4- Strong photo galleries

Part of the draw of your Facebook page is the photo albums. Don’t make folks go there to see your pictures! Your site can and should host your own image galleries.

Ask your developer for good photo display options like NextGen gallery, or one of the plugins that grabs photos directly from photo sharing sites like Flickr, SmugMug or Instagram — if you are already using them. Or… (drumroll, please….) use the gallery options in Jetpack.

5- Google Analytics

Make sure that you have Google Analytics installed and you know how to access it. But, instead of just inserting it into your theme, use a plugin like Google Analyticator that will give you more options. For example, you can have some of your Google Analytics appear on your WordPress dashboard. Or set your analytics to not count you or other logged in users (your staff, for example). Statistically, it won’t throw you off very much, but it’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. Although in a low volume site (let’s say, under 3,000 unique visits a month) frequent staff visits can throw off some metrics.

6- Broken link checker

Nobody likes broken links, and they hurt your credibility. But who has time to follow all your links and make sure they’re still pointing to live content? This plugin: Broken Link Checker! Super popular, super useful.

7- Akismet

Spam comments are an annoying waste of time. The Akismet service is worth paying for to deal with them for you. It is a great and responsive system and is well worth the price. And yes, it fits in nicely with Jetpack.

8- Good email distribution

There are two parts to this: A) people need to be able to sign up for your email and B) you need an easy way to send them email.

Signup boxes: You’ll want an email signup box visible to users. This is often easy to integrate into your sidebar and/or footer. Or you can use a popup (unpleasant, but sometimes effective.)

Sending email: This will take more planning. At the very least, you can set up Feedburner (or, of course, Jetpack) to send RSS-powered email updates. You post something, then subscribers will get an email within 24 hours. But those tools are not super flexible, so you won’t want to keep it that way forever.

You’ll get the most flexibility using a full-featured mass email service like Mailchimp. Their RSS-powered email campaigns are more flexible than using Feedburner.

Just remember that without both email subscription and distribution set up, you can update the site, but your key audience won’t know for months/years. That is not good.

9- A tool for search engine optimization (SEO)

SEO will help your site place higher on search engine results pages, helping your traffic increase and also ensuring that people find you because you’ve actually got what they’re looking for. There are some SEO plugins like Yoast, although I like a simple Google XML sitemap myself.

10- Simple yet complete backups

Hopefully you’ll never need to restore your site from a backup, but you must have backups. I use X-Cloner, but there are plenty of good backup options out there. Just make sure that you’re getting the website files and your WordPress database. Not sure what I mean? That’s okay, your developer will know.

Plan a realistic budget to get the features you want

Many of these plugins are free, although some ask for donations, and some ask for a contribution to access “premium” support. I suggest that you budget $200-$400 for payments to the plugin and theme developers who are giving you such great tools to make your website easy-to-use and more effective. It’s still a bargain.

And of course, you’ll have to pay your own developer to install and configure these plugins, but most of these go pretty fast. Although things can go wrong. I’ve used all the plugins listed, but I can’t guarantee that they’ll work seamlessly for you — I’ve certainly had to deal with conflicts or plugins that just don’t install correctly. Which is why I still recommend that you go with an experienced developer. To put it another way:

If you don’t know how to restore your website from a backup, don’t mess with it too much.

One thing about WordPress — it’s a vibrant community, so plugins come and go, and the core installation gets more powerful (and yet more easy-to-use) all the time. So, don’t be surprised to see corrections/updates to this post down the road as plugins and WordPress change!

Other advice:

Beaconfire (from Feb, 2011): WordPress Plugins for Nonprofits

Make Use Of: The Best WordPress Plugins (This may be too much of a good thing — this page has 65 plugins as of March, 2013, most of which you won’t need, but there’s some great ones in there.)