I generally recommend WordPress to organizations for a fast-to-deploy and easy-to-manage website — anyone can install WordPress software on an organization’s web host (not sure what I mean? Here’s a post to explain web hosting) and be creating a website in minutes.

WordPress logo

But for some very grassroots organizations with limited tech capacity, maintaining their own version of WordPress is a challenge. That’s where it’s useful to understand the difference between WordPress as “self-hosted” software and WordPress.com.

In both cases, your site is using WordPress software to run, but in each case, it’s deployed differently. You can acquire WordPress software to install on your own web host (you are the “self” referred to by “self-hosted”). Then you are able to configure WordPress however you wish.

WordPress.com is a “hosted” version where you login to the website and manage a hosted site. What are the differences in the website your nonprofit organization winds up with? Let’s consider the differences:

Self-hosted WordPress WordPress.com ($99 per year)
You pay for your own host (as little as $100 per year) and install WordPress on it yourself. You also buy your domain name and configure it. You use their hosting plan and WordPress is already installed there. You can use your own domain.
The widest array of theme options (to customize the appearance of your site). Many paid theme options for under $100 (additional). Only minor theme customizations are practical.
You keep your installation secure via plugins and good administrative practices like updating your plugins, themes and core files. They maintain security for your website, including offering secure pages for logging in. Updates are automatically installed as soon as they are available.
You install any plugin or functionality you want. (For example, WPML for full-featured content translation.) No plugins are allowed, but the environment is getting more robust all the time. (Example: they explain how to set up a multilingual site on WordPress.com here.)
You manage site speed, SEO, social media promotion and other core administrative functions.  All advanced features are managed for you. This means less work but also less customizability.
You can install multiple versions of WordPress with unique domain names on a single hosting plan for multiple websites. Your account supports one domain. For additional domains, you need additional accounts.
Generally, you can have an unlimited number of email addresses and storage @yourdomainname.org. You can host email at your website host or use Google for Nonprofits to host your domain-based email. You have to host your domain-based email accounts somewhere else (generally, there’s a cost for this unless you are using a Google for Nonprofits account.) If you only have a few addresses, WordPress.com will allow up to five email forwards on a paid account and you can use free email hosting somewhere else.

Why is it worth it to give up customizations and features so that someone else manages your security?

The widespread popularity of WordPress means that improvements happen faster than ever. On the bright side, that means:

  • New features are frequently being added to the core of WordPress
  • The user interface (where you login to control your website) is getting better all the time
  • There are plenty of reputable developers to choose from
  • Great looking, mobile-ready themes are more affordable than ever

But on the bleak side, the popularity of WordPress means that hackers are aggressively going after old installations — it’s imperative to keep your self-hosted WordPress site up-to-date and stay vigilant to make sure it doesn’t get hacked. If you can’t keep your installation up to date, chances are good that at some point you will have functionality problems or get hacked.

Why don’t I recommend the completely free version of WordPress.com?

I think that even the smallest organizations can benefit from using their own domain name, a feature that’s only possible when you pay the entry-level fee for WordPress.com. Plus, free WordPress.com sites are supported by advertising, and do you really want ads appearing on your nonprofit site? The entry level pricing is quite reasonable for how much they offer. You can see the WordPress.com plan comparison chart here.

Conclusion

So, if the thought of maintaining your own hosting account is a bit much for your organization at this stage, and your website needs are straightforward, WordPress.com can be a great solution until you’re ready to take your website to a higher level of customization and management.