The Nonprofit WordPress Experts
August 23, 2021
WordPress is awesome.
One thing that makes WordPress so awesome is the vast community that has grown around the platform. The WordPress community is arguably the largest tech community in the world, consisting of millions of people who have created tens of thousands of WordPress themes and plugins that extend the platform’s functionality and ability to provide excellent web services.
We at Cornershop specialize in custom WordPress development, particularly in designing and building sophisticated themes. This means that we create custom solutions for our clients, rather than taking something prebuilt and fitting your site into that.
However, we also understand the realities of small budgets and fast timelines, and sometimes a completely custom theme just isn’t possible.
In these cases, there are many high-quality, pre-built WordPress themes that provide beautiful design and quality functionality at a much lower cost than creating something nearly from scratch.
Some of our favorite sites started with a pre-built theme that we customized to meet our client’s needs, including Endangered Species Coalition, Food Forward, Florida Conservation Voters, and Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers.
So if pre-built themes are so sophisticated and affordable, why wouldn’t we always use them?
Well, before deciding to use a pre-built theme, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Pre-built themes can vary a lot in price and quality. They range from simple and free to robust premium WordPress themes with full support packages. It’s not possible to outline the pros and cons of every theme out there, but here are some advantages you would generally see when you choose a pre-built theme:
The main reason people typically use pre-built themes is that they’re usually much faster, easier, and cheaper to build. Think of a website as a house: with custom development, you’re starting with a great foundation (WordPress) but need to construct most aspects of the building. A pre-built theme, on the other hand, is more like renting. You can bring your own couch, hang some curtains, and maybe paint, but you’re not choosing where to put walls since someone else already put them in.
Another reason people use these WordPress themes is that a developer usually isn’t needed to get up and running. Many themes come with pre-built layouts that let you simply turn them on and—voila—you have a site!
Most themes give you a variety of options to customize colors, fonts, layouts, social icons, and other variables. This provides a lot of flexibility and control to any site.
Many themes send out periodic updates, giving you more and better features on your site. These updates also keep the theme compatible with the newest version of WordPress, which helps keep your website secure. Unfortunately, there is also a risk that the theme developer will stop supporting and updating a theme, which leads us to…
In WordPress, updates are essential for security. If a developer decides to stop supporting a pre-built theme, it will no longer be updated and optimized for new versions of WordPress. This means that after a while you will be faced with a choice between re-designing the site with another theme, or just not updating WordPress. In addition to this being a security risk, it also means that your plugins, which have been updated, may also become incompatible.
Clean code is important for the performance and functionality of your site, not to mention it affects how search engines look at your site. While sophisticated pre-built themes look great on the surface, many don’t look great under the hood, using badly-written code that can affect performance and stability. Theme developers can get away with this because their audience is non-developers—people who are less likely to know how to spot “bad” code—and sometimes this is just the result of needing to create generic code that will work for hundreds or thousands of unique websites
With a pre-built theme, it’s difficult to truly make it your own. Oftentimes, you’ll wind up wanting to use a feature built for a slightly different purpose than its original purpose, making things not work quite right. For example, your “client stories” might only be buildable in an area called “testimonials,” or staff bios might have to be listed under “Employees” and may not have photos, when something else like “Meet Our Team” with large images might be more appropriate.
Themes vary a lot in their SEO compatibility. Many have some support built-in, but since pre-built themes are “one size fits all,” a given theme probably won’t be built for your specific SEO needs. And many themes out there downright violate standard SEO rules and practices.
As you consider what the best design option is for your organization, it is important to know that custom designs come with pros and cons of their own. For instance, custom designs are often presented along with a hefty price tag, but they usually end up being worth the cost since they come with a lot of advantages.
Starting with a custom design allows developers to build in everything needed to satisfy technical SEO requirements. This can save a huge amount of time and effort correcting things later.
When building custom sites, developers have more control over how they’re building every little detail, from the way a link is included in content, to the structure of a menu, to making sure images are easy to add and edit. All of this control is even more helpful when accessibility is a priority, since your development team has full control over how design, code, and content elements are translated through screen readers and other assistive technologies.
You have put careful attention into building your brand, and a custom design can be built to match it exactly. For example, some pre-built themes only allow for certain sizes of logos in the website header. If your logo isn’t suited to the required size, it can end up looking wrong on the finished website. Starting with a custom design puts you in control of all the design requirements, big or small.
A prebuilt theme includes generic features that are assumed to be useful for every site that uses it. Because of this, there may be specific post types that aren’t relevant to your organization or that are named differently in a pre-built theme.
For example, there might be an Employees Post Type when you refer to your employees as “team members”. With a custom-built theme, these features can be personalized for every aspect of the editing interface to meet your specific needs, and your needs only.
If your organization is poised for growth, a custom WordPress design can be built with this in mind. Also, having a relationship with a developer who already knows your code and your preferences simplifies the process of updating the website when your organization grows unexpectedly fast.
As time goes on, you are bound to run into issues with your website. Having someone who knows the website well will be a huge help in troubleshooting and fixing whatever problems you may have.
Custom development takes a long time to get right. Your design team needs to learn about your organization, your website needs, and what your competitors are doing—and that’s all before they even begin designing or developing your website. This means that if you just need a website fast, custom design is not a good solution for you.
As with any system, including a pre-built theme, updates and changes will be needed occasionally to keep up with changing technology needs on the internet. Often, a pre-built theme will come with automatic updates. A custom WordPress design, however, requires your developer’s attention to perform these updates. Since customizations can vary so much, this is an issue you should discuss with your potential developer before your website is built, so you know what to expect moving forward.
Notice we said “sometimes.” It’s true that a custom design will cost more up-front than a premium WordPress theme. As long as you are happy to use the theme as-is, with no added functionality, this will remain the case. However, if you intend to add any kind of custom functionality to your website, then starting with a custom design may actually end up being a more cost-effective way to go. (So really this is only a disadvantage sometimes!)
The reason for this is that there are two options when adding functionality to a WordPress website: Plugins, and custom additions. Plugins do a great job of adding functionality, but most of the time you will need the premium version, which will add to your costs, and they will still be constrained by your theme. Custom additions or changes to pre-built themes require a developer, who is likely unfamiliar with the theme, to spend time figuring out how to make your dream functionality work within the theme. If there is more than one custom function you want added, this can easily end up costing more than if you had started with custom design.
In short, while it can be appealing and sometimes necessary to take advantage of pre-built WordPress themes, there are tradeoffs. You sacrifice the ability to perfectly tailor every aspect of the site in favor of having a broader set of features and functions—which may or may not work exactly the way you’d prefer.
There is a lot to consider when deciding between a pre-built theme and a custom design. Remember to take a close look at exactly what the needs of your organization are and weigh the pros and cons carefully.
We’d be happy to chat with you about your specific needs and how we can help make your website dreams come true! Contact us today.
With 15 years’ experience, Ira is an expert in nonprofit online communications and online fundraising. His work has resulted in increased funds and resounding supporter engagement for hundreds of organizations. Ira oversees our project management team and works with clients to provide our clients with the best possible final product. He also manages all of our strategic engagements and helps guide nonprofits to determine their long-term strategy goals for online communications.
The Nonprofit WordPress Experts