Choosing a Content Management System for Your Nonprofit

How to choose a CMS

Can your supporters and constituents navigate your website and find the information they need? Can your staff members easily create or update its content? Do mobile users have the same experience when they visit as people using computers? A good Content Management System (CMS) may be the solution to all your organization’s website problems, but with so many options on the market, selecting the best one for your needs and budget can be daunting.

Narrowing down the field is important—the decision ultimately will come down to how you and your organization want to interact with your website. (If you’re not sure what a Content Management System (CMS) can do, start by watching this short video.)

The following questions can help you determine what you need from a CMS:

Do I want to do manage it myself?

If all you need is a simple, straightforward website to promote your nonprofit and help constituents find you, it can be cost-effective to create a website on your own without hiring a consultant. Several Content Management Systems make it easy to set up basic websites without a lot of technical skills. Look for one that provides a good selection of pre-packaged templates and graphical themes, either from the vendor or, in the case of an open source system, from the community.

How much do I want to pay for it?

Price shouldn’t be your only deciding factor in any software decision, but setting a range can help narrow down options. Tools range from open source solutions that are free to acquire to fully-featured enterprise-level solutions that can cost tens of thousands of dollars to implement. In between are lighter-weight options that cost $100 to $200 a year. Remember that the tool is only a part of the overall cost. If you already have a website, you’ll need to hire someone to transition your existing design, template, and content—it might be easier to just design a new site from scratch. There will also be costs for implementing and setting up the system you choose. Some tools may have a selection of pre-built themes and templates you can use, and some enterprise solutions may be set up for you by the vendor, but with other tools—like some open source options—what you save in licensing costs, you pay for in implementation.

Are my website visitors using mobile devices?

Computer screens come in all shapes and sizes these days, and more people than ever are browsing from smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Websites can no longer be “one size fits all.” If a significant portion of your audience is likely to be looking at your site from mobile devices, consider either creating a second, mobile version of your website (compare to, for example) optimized for smartphones, or designing your site from the ground up with mobile in mind. For the latter, you might use responsive design principles that allow your website to recognize and adapt to the size of the user’s screen. Some tools can handle this through the existing templates or themes you can choose from, while others expect you (or your designer) to implement this functionality yourself.

Who and where is my audience?

If your audience is international, or multilingual, consider how they will view your site’s navigation and content. Some tools make it easy to create and manage multilingual versions of content, and some can alter the navigation to accommodate even non-Latin or right-to-left alphabets like Chinese, Arabic, or Hebrew.

Who will actually be updating the site?

While a CMS makes editing a website far more accessible to non-technical users than a pure HTML approach, some will be easier to use than others. You should also think about who should be making changes to the live site. If you have a lot of volunteers or non-staff contributors writing or creating content for your website, consider a CMS with strong permissions functionality that lets you grant certain individuals or groups access to edit or create certain types of content, but not others. If you require a multiple-step review process (supervisor must review, but the Executive Director or Editor-in-Chief has the final say, for example), you’ll want a system that can handle complex or flexible workflows.

What do I want to integrate with my website?

No CMS will be able to provide everything. If you want to add functionality, look for the solution that offers you the ability to extend the system. Open source tools let users access the underlying source code to extend system functionality, or even build entirely new functionality—provided you have the technical skills. Many systems let you download additional features or tools as modules built by the community or the vendor. If you want your website to integrate tightly with your CMS—to provide custom experiences for high-value donors or other people, for example—your options will be limited to only a few, enterprise-level solutions intended to bundle with their respective databases.

There are many good systems on the market, and in general, you’ll find a lot of overlap in what the available CMS options can provide, and most offer a lot of flexibility. Keep in mind that if you’re planning on working with a consultant to set up your system, it often makes more sense to choose the consultant and then implement the system they specialize in.
When considering systems, don’t get sucked in by unnecessary bells and whistles or complex features—instead, choose the system that meets your needs, falls within your price range, and allows for expansion if your needs change in the future. Your website is critical to your organization, and updating it shouldn’t be a chore.

Interested in learning more about specific Content Management Systems or reading detailed reviews and comparisons of the 11 CMS tools most commonly used by nonprofits? Download our free Consumers Guide to Low-Cost Content Management Systems at


The Connected Cause is a place for experts in the nonprofit online space to share perspective, offer guidance and promote best practices for using today’s technology effectively. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive source of collaborative thought leadership for the nonprofit industry.


  1. Susan Kenna Wright

    Totally agree that it is important to consider the integrations between CMS and CRM and other systems.

  2. Bryan Giese

    For more detailed information, be sure to check out CMS Platforms; A Guide for Nonprofits here on The Connected Cause.

  3. The biggest problem I’ve seen is the lack of a grand strategy for getting all tools (website, CMS, other web tools not provided by the CMS, and CRM) to work together to create a seamless experience for supporters. I see a lot of organizations whose email sign-up forms and donation forms have a completely different look and feel from the rest of their site because they’re provided by third parties. What can organizations do to improve on that seamless experience for their supporters so that going from the website to a donation form doesn’t feel like you’re going to a different site?

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