WordPress Websites for Nonprofits: Should You Use a Theme or a Custom Design?

WordPress has a lot to offer nonprofits. It requires no licensing fees, so it keeps maintenance costs low. WordPress sites are relatively easy to update. You can start with any one of hundreds of inexpensive WordPress theme templates or design your own website from scratch. And, there are tens of thousands of WordPress plug-ins and themes, so a site built on WordPress can grow with you over time.

If you’ve made the choice to use WordPress for your nonprofit’s website, the next question is: Do you start with a WordPress theme or do a full custom design? The truth is that every nonprofit’s needs are unique, so the answer is not the same for everyone. Here are seven things to consider as you make this decision:

  • Budget — Starting with a WordPress theme can be a great solution if your nonprofit has a small budget, especially if you are willing to give up customization needs and rely solely on existing theme styles. But, read on. You may need more customization than you think.
  • Content Relying solely on existing styles in a WordPress theme can work well if your content fits the theme components exactly. However, you may find that the path to explain your nonprofit’s message is more complex than the theme allows, and the theme may be too limited for your needs.
  • Visual Design — WordPress themes are built to convey information for a multitude of companies, and therefore can begin to feel ordinary. If you choose a theme that your site visitor has seen on hundreds of other websites, your site may not appear original or inspiring. If your nonprofit’s goal is to stand out from the crowd and leave a unique impression on site visitors, then you might consider a custom design.
  • Responsiveness A responsive site (a site designed to be optimized for viewing on a broad range of mobile devices) that is custom can take many hours to design, whereas a theme can be responsive-ready. However, even if you start with a theme, any design changes — including changes to menu styles or overall page design for mobile devices — would need to be custom-created and coded for responsiveness. Depending on the amount of theme customization you need, it can often be cleaner and simpler to start from a unique design and code from scratch, using popular plug-ins to achieve your desired functionality.
  • Quality and Flexibility of Themes and Plug-Ins If you plan to use a WordPress theme and/or plug-ins, it’s important to research their quality and flexibility. Have they been tested and found compatible with all browsers and platforms? Do they allow you to use a variety of fonts, colors, and backgrounds? Find out more about themes and plug-ins by reading reviews, which often will help you understand the benefits and drawbacks of using a particular theme or plug-in.
  • New vs Old Themes Newer themes incorporate code that is easier to manipulate, while older themes may not be customized as easily. You don’t necessarily know what you are dealing with in a theme until you buy it and begin building your site. Once you do, you may realize that the theme is challenging to customize because of outdated code and methods.
  • “Super Themes” Teams such as Cathexis Partners have built “super themes” that incorporate popular, desired functionality and responsiveness, and are also highly customizable. This hybrid option can cut down on costs, while offering a solution that feels more unique and content-specific.

So, do you start with a WordPress theme, or create a custom design for your nonprofit’s new WordPress site? The answer is: It depends on your nonprofit’s needs. But, if you keep in mind the considerations in this article, you’ll be well on your way to making the right choice for your nonprofit.

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

by Amber King Love, Designer, Cathexis Partners

Amber Love is an art director for Cathexis Partners, utilizing her 20 years of experience designing engaging solutions for nonprofit organizations worldwide. Also a fine artist, she continuously engages in the pursuit of creativity in all forms.


One comment

  • The content aspect is very important. If you’ve found a theme you like, carefully consider what makes the theme effective. Does it use big, bold images? That won’t do you any good if you don’t have great photography. Does it have great typography that looks great on articles? That won’t help you if you don’t plan to produce a lot of written content.

    Definitely consider beforehand what kind of content (if any) you are likely to create for your website, and be realistic about it.

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