Select a content management system

If your organization is a small charitable, it might need a website but not have the resources to hire consultants to give advice on which content management system (CMS) to use. However, choosing the right CMS is a very important step, one that will determine what can and can not be done in the website.

In small organizations, usually this decision is left to the “web person”, but many times this person only knows the system that the organization already uses. This page is about my experience as a user of many content management systems. It’s goal is to provide basic advice on how to choose and present some popular and free options.

If your non-profit has the necessary resources, the whole process of gathering feature requests, profile users, establish goals, selecting a CMS, select who is going to implement it, should be left to specialists. If your non-profit does not have the resources to hire them, it shouldn’t just choose any CMS, or just choose the CMS the “web person” already knows – it should just follow a simpler process.

New site or migration?

Migration of large sites can be very complex, specially if the site to migrate has more than a hundred pages. Sometimes it’s possible to use migration scripts, but that does not adapt the website to a new design. Even when scripts are developed specifically for a migration, manual changes will have to be made afterwards. This article is adequate to small migrations and new websites. Migration of large websites require a team of specialists and a plan.

1st – Create a list of requirements for features

Make a list of requirements and refine them by asking opinions to stakeholders. The list of requirements should be managed by a webbie, but it’s a good idea to open it and ask for ideas to other organizations or to other webbies.

After collecting ideas for requirements, the list should be divided in three sections:

  1. Features that are mandatory – Keep this section as small as possible and with common features only
  2. Features that would be great to have – Features that would be very useful and that would be used very often
  3. Features that would be nice to have – Useful, but most likely will not be used often

2nd – Consider candidate CMS’es

To evaluate a CMS, it’s very important to see live demonstrations, where a salesman performs a series of common tasks. It’s also important to see a portfolio of sites built with that CMS and finally compare the list of features.

View demos, portfolios and features of at least two options that comply with the mandatory requirements of your list and that have many great to have features.

Other criteria to consider:

After comparing the feature list with your list of specification requirements, look at the following criteria:

How used is it worldwide?

A widely used content management system is a long term investment. They tend to be better supported, better documented, be more secure and have frequent security updates, be more compatible with different servers and it’s easy to find people that knows how to work with them.

Is it open source, closed source or hosted?

Open Source

With an open source CMS anyone can download the code for free, and install it on a server. This CMS’es can be used for any purpose, commercial or non-commercial. Your organization will have the freedom to modify the program to fit it’s needs (or hire someone to do it), to distribute it by their employees, other organizations or businesses, or to use it in as many sites as needed.

If your organization wants professional support, it should hire a professional company. Every solid CMS has a forum where you can ask questions, and there are many blogs that post tutorials on how to implement features or solve problems, but without a good support there are no guarantees.

Open Source CMS’es are very popular and many web professionals know how to use them. It’s quite easy to find candidates for a vacancy that know how to use the most known CMS’es.

Unlike hosted solutions you have to make your own upgrades. Upgrades are mandatory, as they fix security flaws.

Closed source

With close source CMS’es, your organization pays for a license to use it for an agreed period of time. In many cases a license is valid for one domain only, or one site only. Unlike with open source cms’s, the organization can’t give copies to other persons, or to adapt the code.

Like open source options and unlike hosted solutions you have to make your own upgrades. Upgrades are mandatory, as they fix security flaws.

Hosted solutions

Hosted solutions are easier to use, as you don’t have to install the software, or search for a suitable server. Typical examples of hosted software are Facebook, or Blogger.

With hosted software you get no possibilities of going out the standard package. You also stay more locked to the services and to the company that produces the software. If the company closes tomorrow or change it’s terms of service, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Most hosted CMS’es are paid, but some are partially free, like for example and Blogger.

How robust?

A robust system is one that has less bugs, and usually stays online for longer. Downtime and bugs can be very annoying, can hurt the user experience in the website and can be very expensive for the organization. Make sure the solution is as robust as possible.

My favourite Content Management Systems:

All my favourite CMS’es are Open Source. The freedom, price and advantages of open source systems are unbeatable.

  • WordPress – To create blogs and websites. Widely supported, it is very easy to use and there are thousands of plugins that extend its functionality. It can be also used as a hosted solution in
  • Drupal – To create websites where users can login. Drupal can also be extended with hundreds of plugins. Combined with Civic CRM, becomes one of the most powerful content management systems. Not as easy to use as WordPress.
  • Moodle – To build an e-learning platform. Very well documented, it has hundreds of features and it’s translated to dozens of languages.
  • Mediawiki – This is the same software that runs Wikipedia If your NGO, wants to have internal and external people cooperating openly, this is a great choice.
  • Dokuwiki – Very simple wiki software, great to build an Intranet or have a group collaborating on a book.
  • – It’s a twitter-like cms. Useful for sharing small updates and links between members of groups or to the outside or the organization.
  • PhpBB – To build a debate forum. Forums were very popular a few years ago. Nowadays most on-line conversations happen in Social Networks. If a forum is in tune with your on-line strategy, PhpBB is very configurable and the interface is well known by users.

Whatever system you choose, make sure you compare it with this list before you decide. Don’t forget that plugins may provide important and complex features. For example Civic CRM is a plugin for Drupal that provides an integrated CRM designed for non-profit organizations, and Budypress transforms WordPress in a social network.

About Osvaldo

Digital activist, online producer and webmaster.
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