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The Nonprofit’s Guide to Picking the Right WordPress Theme

I built a custom website from scratch, once. I don’t recommend it. For one, it was extremely time-consuming. For two, it wasn’t user-friendly — there was a lot of code to potentially mess up. For three, well, I already mentioned the time-consuming part, right?

If you’re running a nonprofit, you don’t have time to also be your nonprofit’s dedicated web designer and developer. Which is why WordPress themes are a popular solution to a full custom website — WordPress’s powerful software takes care of all the coding for you, and the options-loaded themes give you a structured design to which you can tailor to your organization’s existing branding. Plus, the foolproof content management system means that even the freshest interns can be trusted to edit the content without blowing the whole site up.

But because there are so many themes to choose from — we’re talking literally thousands — it can quickly get overwhelming. That’s why I’m here to walk you through the selection process with some tips I’ve gleaned from working with WordPress over the years.

Wordpress theme


Step 1: Get your content plan in place first. No, really. No, really.

This may seem like one of those “cart-before-the-horse” issues — how am I supposed to build the content if I don’t know how the content is supposed to be built? But trust me on this. You need to have a detailed plan of everything in place first so you know exactly what to look for in a theme.

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So, identify which pages will need to live on the new site and their information hierarchy, and identify any special features or functionality you’ll require. For example, what kind of call-to-actions do you want to feature on the home page or in the top navigation? Do you want a fullscreen slider? Do you want to showcase videos on the site? Will you be selling any goods or accepting donations on the site? Do you have special blog needs? Do you want integration with a social feed or a rotating series of testimonials? Do you want a really sharp-looking way to organize your staff biographies?

It’s unlikely that you’ll find a theme that will hit every single one of your feature targets straight out of the box. But the more you can hit, the easier and faster it will be to get your new website up and running.

Step 2: Know where and how to search.

Like I said, there are a lot of themes out there — and some of them are real duds. You can drastically improve the quality of your search results by focusing only on themes developed by studios.

The benefit to studio-developed themes is that they’re more likely to be up-to-date and compatible with the latest browsers and design trends, plus they’re more likely to have dedicated support teams — a must if you’re trying to get your new website off the ground with a limited budget and staff.

Another major benefit to studios is that they often design and develop themes around their own frameworks. A framework is a structured language of functionality that serves up everything from SEO optimization to speed to security to widgets and layouts and more — all in one package. StudioPress had a good way of explaining their framework, named Genesis, in plain car-related terms:

“It’s probably easiest to think of:

  • WordPress as the engine of your car
  • Genesis as the frame and body
  • StudioPress themes as the paint job”

So StudioPress is one option, but you can also try looking at:

One thing you’ll probably notice right away during your search is that a lot of themes have portfolio and magazine-style layouts — think heavy on photos and grids and light on text. Search for tags and categories like “nonprofit” or “charity” or, failing those, “business” to get layouts results much closer to what your nonprofit needs.

Step 3: Vet themes thoroughly.

Now you’re out there, wading waist-deep in theme demos, trying to find the best fit for your needs. Which is to say:

Don’t get distracted by the pretty.

Developers build demos to make the theme look good, but your end goal is not to showcase the theme. The theme will ultimately be showcasing your nonprofit. So try to envision your content in place of the demo instead. Dig out that handy list of website requirements you made in the first step and comb through the demo, mentally plugging content into place. Will your existing logo and/or tagline work in the spaces provided? Is there a suitable solution offered for rotating testimonials or staff bios? Can the slider go fullscreen, and can you place a video in it? Again, it’s unlikely that all your boxes will get checked, but ideally you’ll find a theme that checks most of them.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind during your search:

Ratings and popularity: a high number of downloads along with a high rating is a pretty good metric for overall theme quality and satisfaction. Then again, the numbers can be skewed: a low number of downloads, for example, could simply mean the theme was just recently released. Let ratings and popularity inform your purchase decision, but don’t let them make or break it.

Updates and support: Are theme updates and support automatically available as part of your purchase? They should be.

Responsiveness: Any theme you choose must have a fluid layout that can adapt to different screen sizes. If you come across one that can’t, keep moving.

SEO: If you’re buying a theme with a framework, search engine optimization typically comes as part of the package — but it’s still a good thing to keep an eye out for. Read the theme description thoroughly and look for mentions of key benefits like lightning fast page load speeds, mobile-friendly, high security, clean minimal coding, and current web HTML and CSS standards.

Speed: I just mentioned speed as part of SEO, but it’s important enough that it needs to be said again. Load speed is imperative to the success of any website. Run the theme demo through a website speed test tool like Pingdom to see how it measures up. If the demo comes back slow, this is a good indication that the coding is not the developer’s best work.

Customizability: Some demos let you change background colors and background images, but while these are fun they don’t necessarily give you a good idea of the scope of available options. Check with the theme developer to see if you can get demo admin access. Looking at the admin panel will give you a much clearer idea of what parts of the design can be modified and what can’t.

Once you’ve vetted your theme, you can download it and get started customizing it to your nonprofit brand.

And if you still have questions or need a website that goes beyond out-of-the-box customization, get in touch!

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