EVERY FUNDER LIKES TO KNOW that their money is well spent. With a good plan in place, the return on the funder's investment can be much more easily measured. This can help in fostering a good long-term relationship with your funders, making it easier for you to win future grants from them.
1. THE FIRST THING you should do is clearly define the objectives of your Web-based initiative. During this planning phase you should repeatedly ask yourself, "Why are we doing this?", "What do we expect to gain?", and "When do we expect to see results?" Your "Statement of Purpose" can be referred to by all the stakeholders.
Describing how each audience segment can help you reach your objectives can be very instructive. You should also identify any constraints that may arise due to disabilities, bandwidth connections, etc., so that they can be factored into the system's design early on.
2. ONCE THE OBJECTIVES of your system have been identified and its audience clearly defined, it is often wise to step back and identify some tangible metrics to help you determine whether or not you will have met your objectives. If you are planning a web site redevelopment project and one of your objectives is to set up an online donations system, how much money will you have to take in via this system in order to make it worthwhile? How long are you willing to invest in this system until you reach this target? Having benchmarks like these in place and the metrics to measure them before actually building the system can help you more accurately determine what would be an appropriate investment and when to pull the plug, if necessary.
As a non-profit, your success cannot always be evaluated in monetary terms. For example, in the same web site development project above, let's say that a second objective is to increase awareness of a specific program. While this can be difficult to evaluate in the offline world, on the Web you can look at how many people have visited the program-related pages on your web site. A strong increase in these empirical figures would point towards success. A stagnation or decrease would suggest the initiative had little effect.
Most web servers are configured to record a wealth of data on the usage of your web site which is then stored in specialized log files. Data from these files can be easily mined to generate valuable statistics on your Web site's usage (for example, how many people visit your site, what pages they look at, how long they stay, where they came from-just to name a few). Statistics like these can be used to generate metrics to help measure the success of your Internet initiatives over time.
3. ONCE YOU HAVE clearly determined your objectives, audience, and metrics of success, it is time to develop your product specifications. You should define the system features, user roles, business requirements, and infrastructure. A well thought out site map can be an ideal way to define system specifications. For higher-end projects, a written System Requirements Document can be instrumental in providing a clear roadmap for everyone working on the project. If your system is using a database, you should map the database schema in this phase and perhaps create an Application Component Model (depending on the complexity of the applications you intend to build). In making your key infrastructure decisions, you should look at which type of database and programming language(s) to use, decide upon a hosting arrangement, and identify any 3rd party services that may need to be integrated.
4. ONCE YOUR PRODUCT specifications are complete, you can hand them off to the system developers and focus on creating a content plan. Every Web-based system contains content, whether text, images, documents, database records, or multimedia. In many cases you will likely be using a combination of legacy content along with newly created material. It is important to clearly determine up-front: (a) where the content will come from, (b) who will generate it and organize it, (c) who will review it and edit it, and (d) who will be in charge of making sure this all happens. To ensure your project goes smoothly your content plan should get underway as soon as reasonably possible.
5. THE FINAL STEP in planning a successful Web-based initiative addresses the issues of managing and maintaining the system. Relying on an outside party to maintain the system is an obvious solution, but one that can end up being expensive and time consuming. You may also want to consider looking at a content-management, database-management, or web site-management system as a tool you can use to manage the system day-to-day. Non-technically trained staff can manage different areas of the system or web site without having to possess the technical expertise of a webmaster or developer.
Adhering to this five-step planning process can provide highly practical insight into building, implementing, and maintaining your Web-based system. Of course, having such a plan can also greatly facilitate the funding process since you will know to a high degree of certainty how much of what resources you will need. You will also be able to show your funders that you know what you are doing, and can and will be held accountable in an objective manner for their investment in your project.
Benjamin Baumann is the President of Isovera, Inc. an innovative consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. that works exclusively with nonprofit organizations. Offering a comprehensive array of services including Web related strategic planning, web site development, graphic design, database development, systems integration, hosting, website marketing, and technology grant writing, Isovera enables leading non-profits to apply internet technology in productive ways to enhance their mission, operations, capacity, and results. For more information, visit isovera.com.