How to set up a members-only portion of a website?
June 8, 2010 7:54 AM   Subscribe

How do you go about setting up a members-only portion of a nonprofit organization's website? Advice, books, and software needed.

I am a part of a nonprofit organization with about 200 members, and I am trying to rethink our members-only portion of the website. Frankly, our members only area is a disaster that no one uses. We paid a programmer to design it a few years ago, but I think that there must be a better way to do this. We may need to start over, and I am seeking advice on how to do this correctly.

Currently our organization partners with a publisher to manage our member list, and we get a list of members from them once per month in an excel spreadsheet. We then transfer this information to a database ourselves, slowly and painfully. Thus it may take over 30 days for a new member to be able to access the site, when they expect instant access. Because it is the only unique identifier we have for people, we are using 10 digit randomly generated numbers as usernames, followed by randomly generated passwords. Unsurprisingly, no one can remember their login information and hence no one is using the members-only area.

How would you go about setting up a members only area of a website that people will actually use? We basically want to have discussion boards, a member directory, and documents available in this area.

Is there software available to run this sort of thing in an easy to use way? Our staff can work with native HTML and CSS and use Dreamweaver, but actually programming is beyond our skill set. Are there good books or websites about this task to help us? What advice do you have in general?

Thanks in advance!
posted by mortaddams to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you have the ability to get it up and running, vBulletin is a great powerful forum and community software solution. It's totally configurable for your needs (entirely passworded, public but passworded for members, etc) and you can do a lot with it.
posted by msbutah at 8:18 AM on June 8, 2010

I do this for a dog club of around 500 members using ExpressionEngine. We use it to host documents and forms, post "newslettery" articles, meeting minutes, and its most frequently used area is the online directory.

You can define access levels to templates or to parts of templates so that the site is any mix of public and private you want.

The treasurer keeps me updated with a list of actual members and the system emails/texts me whenever someone registers for access to the member site. I just look up their name and click a link to approve or deny access. Either action triggers an appropriate notification email to the registrant.

Each year I sit down with a list of lapsed/resigned/deceased members and purge the access list (I actually just set their member category to one defined as lapsed, in case they rejoin, or are reanimated from the dead). EE has a rudimentary forum system of its own.
posted by cairnish at 8:23 AM on June 8, 2010

Drupal is very good at this sort of thing, but getting it fine-tuned so that permissions and interaction are just-so can be a bit of a rabbit hole, because there are so many different ways to skin various cats. If you do decide to look into Drupal, though, the Organic Groups module might fit the bill.
posted by usonian at 9:09 AM on June 8, 2010

I am in the process of revamping my library association's website, and we are migrating to a Wordpress-based site. We've outsourced the actual programming to people who know what they're doing, but it will have a members-only section once the site is running, so I know Wordpress is capable of handling that.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 9:31 AM on June 8, 2010

A friend just started a service called The Client Space. This might suit your needs.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:38 AM on June 8, 2010

Best answer: Yes, there is a lot of software that can do the things you want, however, I'm going to take several steps back before moving forward to the technical details. Why you feel you need these resources on your site. Before working for myself, I worked at a small DC nonprofit (I now build websites and social networks for nonprofits). From my experience where the majority of our programs were web-based, I can tell you that just building a better member-only area with discussion boards, a few other resources won’t get people to use your site.

Is your membership a close-knit community, or are they spread out over a large geographic area? How many of them actually know each other? How technically literate are they? People need a very good reason to remember and use another username and password and use your site when they could talk to each other on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Why do members join your organization? If it is for networking, then providing social resources will definitely be more likely to succeed. If it is more to express support for a certain cause, it might still work if you do it properly (eg Obama’s entire campaign). However, if it is mainly to get your weekly/monthly/quarterly publication, your going to have a hard time getting them to do much more than reading your journal. Again, no matter what, people need a very compelling reason to use the site. (Maybe you have a very compelling reason, I don’t know.)

Right now, you’re right to say you probably need to start over. A 30 day turnaround for getting access to your site is unacceptable (in fact, a large percentage of your members have probably forgotten what it was about by the time they receive the email). What sort of member management tools are you using internally? Why aren’t members being signed up through you with the list sent to the publisher instead of the other way around? What is your timeline for launching the new site? What sort of resources do you have to dedicate to this project? (This one’s a biggy, it affects how much you can do.) Are you a 501(c)(3)? Have you checked out the resources available to nonprofits (such as TechSoup, and free/reduced cost hosting packages offered by different companies)?

I’m going to make a few assumptions so I can make a few more specific suggestions. I’m guessing that your total staff is more than two, but less than ten. What is your current webhost situation? I’m guessing your either on some sort of shared server or a small-ish/local hosting shop. What sort of access do you have to the server? Your budget for the project is likely less than $50,000 probably less than $25,000. This means that you will not be going for a ground-up custom solution (but you knew that already).

Single-function applications such as vBulletin are not going to work well for you. You’ve got to integrate all the functions of the members-only area, you don’t want to have your users log in to each resource separately. While there are ways to integrate membership of different applications, they’re more trouble than their worth, your first major upgrade will likely swallow at least 15% of your initial budget.

Something like ExpressionEngine, Drupal, or Django is probably closer to what you want to be looking at, but don’t settle on your server software just yet. (Personally, I don’t suggest Wordpress for much beyond blogging. I think that even though people have used WP to do this sort of stuff, it’s really trying to use a pocket knife to trim a row of hedges, there are better tools out there). The more important part is finding a good developer (and you’re really going to need one, it’s not worth your staff’s time to learn everything that is needed to build and deploy the new site well).

What you don’t want is a repeat of what happened last time: just hiring a programmer off rentacoder or 99designs and giving him (or her) a list of deliverables. Else, you’ll likely end up in the same place two, three years down the road. But this is the good bit, since it seems like you’re just in the beginning stages, bring in an experienced consultant now. Find someone that can help you figure out the best ways to satisfy your goal of getting more member interaction, maybe it is through discussion forums, but maybe not. The benefit is that you’ll be working with someone that not only knows what sort of server software is available, but you’ll also be working with someone that understands how to shepherd the project from start to finish and deliver a site that you guys can take over with a minimum of hassle.

If you have any questions, feel free to memail me.
posted by thebestsophist at 12:21 PM on June 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

That's great advice, thebestsophist.

I've just signed up as a web designer/developer with a pro-bono consultancy program in my county. Your area may have a similar program through a volunteer coordinator. Try searching for "pro bono consultant [area]" or "skills based volunteer [area]." 501(c)(3)'s submit project proposals and then the volunteer coordinator lets the consultant pick what they want to work on. They may also advertise available consultants and their areas of interest on a mailing list or such.
posted by cowbellemoo at 5:04 PM on June 8, 2010

I am the webmaster for the Knitters Guild of NSW, and we have a members-only site with about 150 people currently registered for it. (There are about 500 members in the Guild.) It's a Joomla site. I use an extension called ccBoard for the discussion forums. I also used an extension called Chrono Forms to create a custom sign-up page where I ask members to provide their membership number and local group. (This is mostly just to weed out the spammers, who never have that information.) It sends me an email when somebody registered, and then I just look them up in the directory to make sure they're valid before creating the account. It's pretty painless, and Joomla is relatively easy to get extensions for (especially if you're willing to pay a bit).
posted by web-goddess at 9:55 PM on June 8, 2010

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