How to Evaluate WordPress Themes for Your Nonprofit’s Website

Whether you’re already using WordPress, or you’re considering using WordPress, for your nonprofit’s website, it’s important to understand how to evaluate a WordPress theme. The theme defines both the appearance and the functionality of your website, and when you install WordPress a theme is required.

Here are a few tips for how to evaluate WordPress themes for your nonprofit’s website:

  • Make a list of required functionality for your website. WordPress themes are often associated with the look and feel of a website, but themes define more than just a website’s appearance. They also define the website’s functionality. Before you evaluate a theme, make a list of the functionality required for your website so you can ensure the theme you’re considering meets your requirements. For example, if you will be selling anything on your website, you will need to look for a theme that offers a shopping cart option.
  • Look at WordPress official default themes as well as commercial themes. WordPress comes with an official default theme, which is updated periodically with a specific emphasis. For example, a few years ago, an update focused on responsive design. You can determine which themes are default WordPress themes because they are named after the year they were made available (e.g., Twenty Fourteen). Looking at the latest default theme is a good place to start because default themes closely follow the core WordPress software, and do not provide a lot of “extras,” which can make your website unnecessarily complicated to maintain if you don’t need the extras. The default themes also are free.If a WordPress default theme doesn’t meet your needs, move on to look at commercial themes. Commercial themes may be free, or may be offered for a licensing fee. Have your list of required functionality handy, and begin narrowing your list of possible themes to a handful that you think may work for your website.
  • Think about design. After you’ve narrowed your list, it’s important to consider a theme’s design. View a demo or install a test version of the theme to determine what design elements your developer can and cannot change in the theme design (e.g., button color). If you do not have a developer on hand to make changes to the theme style, try to select a theme with a design that is as close as possible to the design you want for your website. For example, you might want to avoid a theme with lots of small design elements that are inconsistent with the look and feel of your organization’s brand and cannot be changed easily.
  • Beware of dependencies. Watch for WordPress themes that come bundled with multiple components to work properly. In some cases, the bundling is great, as you get extra stuff for free. But in other cases, the components may not include support, so there is no one to contact if you need assistance. Bundled components are not necessarily a mark against a theme, just something to be aware of. Be sure to read the reviews and support discussion threads, and watch for any mention of problems with bundled components.
  • Look at how many people are using the theme. Just as you would when evaluating a WordPress Plugin for your nonprofit’s website, look at the number of installations of the theme. The more popular themes may indicate a better theme.
  • Investigate support. In the theme description, look to see if the theme comes with support. If so, look at the theme’s Support tab, which should include discussion threads of posts from people asking for support. Read through these threads to find out how many and what types of support issues have been submitted, and how/if they’ve been resolved.
  • Consider custom development. If you have a very tight budget, or you don’t need a lot of customizations, you can almost certainly save time and money by choosing a pre-developed WordPress theme. But, acquiring a theme is not your only option. The ultimate in control for your website is to work with a developer to create a custom theme. There are several benefits to this option:
    • a custom theme includes only the functionality you need, so content entry and updating can be much easier
    • a custom theme will help ensure your website is unique to your brand and doesn’t end up looking like everyone else’s
    • you can make changes to the theme down the road as your organization evolves
    • custom designs can be affordable, even for smaller organizations and budgets
    • if you will be making a lot of customizations anyway, there may be a point at which you would spend so much time and money on customizations that you might as well start from scratch to get exactly the design and functionality you want and need

For more thoughts on pre-built themes vs custom designs, take a look at WordPress Websites for Nonprofits: Should You Use a Theme or a Custom Design?

One of the exciting things about WordPress is that developers all over the world have developed themes that you can choose for your website. At the same time, you have the option to work with a developer to create your own custom design that meets your organization’s specific needs. It’s well worth taking the time to find the WordPress theme solution that meets your requirements.

If you’re interested in learning more about WordPress, need help deciding if WordPress is the right CMS for your nonprofit, or need help with your WordPress site design, contact Cathexis Partners.


by Jim Jasper, Designer/Developer, Cathexis Partners
Based in Northwestern Connecticut, Jim started designing and developing websites for nonprofits in 1996. He has worked with organizations of all types and sizes using a wide range of technologies.

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