The History of Association Website Ownership

After 20 years of working with nonprofits, we’ve seen a shift in ownership with association websites. In the early 2000s, most organizations would say their association website was owned by the IT department. And at that time in the Internet’s maturity, that made sense. Member data was stored in a database or a client-server application – systems which were implemented and hosted on-site; they lived on a computer in an organization’s server room. Clearly, the technology team had the reins.

However, as time passed and we got into the 2010s, the marketing and communication teams – realizing they were responsible for driving most of the site’s strategy – starting to share ownership with the IT department. IT did the “tech stuff” for the site – hosting along with integration with the AMS, for example – while marcomm oversaw design and content. This model held strong until simpler models of site management arose, mostly the affordability of content management systems (CMS) like WordPress. The tech savviness of the marcomm teams also improved and soon IT’s role in the website began to become much more clear but also much more diminished. It’s not to say their contributions were not important, but that IT was no longer responsible for the marketing side of association website management.

Association Website Ownership Today

The online marketing sophistication of association marcomm staff is now quite high. They are not only experts in content strategy, taxonomy and design, but they are also knowledgeable in search engine optimization and other digital marketing techniques.

Couple that with the current model of agency-hosted websites and SaaS (software-as-a-service) AMS, LMS and publication applications and you can see how IT’s previously dominant role is now changed.

It’s not to say the IT department is not an important resource for your association website. It surely is, but it’s more specialized. And within the associations we work with, that is something that IT is generally thankful for.

Man looking at association website

The Future of Association Website Ownership

Over time it became clear that websites were less of a technical entity for nonprofits and more of a marketing initiative. So, it was natural that ownership transferred accordingly. Moving forward it’s hard to see marcomm not owning the majority of the strategy, content and design elements of the site. But the prevalence of IT’s role in your website may be up for grabs. Yes, we’re all comfortable with the Cloud now, but who knows where the next technology – whether it’s AI, machine learning or virtual reality – will take an association’s online presence. It could mean that the technical team in your IT department is back on the front lines of your association website at some point.

But Who Governs the Website?

Now that we’re straight on ownership, it begs the question: is ownership the same as governance? Depending on the size of your association, the owners of your website can be many or few, but when it comes to governance, you’ll need to get specific. Governance is really just another way of saying who updates the website and what rules do they use to determine where and how content gets published?

Governance of the site should be driven through a documented set of guidelines – your web agency can help you assemble these if needed. The guidelines should include audience profiles, content goals, SEO objectives, metadata suggestions, and WCAG accessibility standards.

In Closing

Your association should choose the website owners that make the most sense for your organization, but you’ve likely seen a change from your website being a technical outpost to a marketing destination with the ownership moving accordingly.  And that’s a good thing. But don’t assume ownership will be divvied up the same forever. Keep an eye on trends and make sure your departments are working together on your website and the question of who owns your website will always be easy to answer.


Written by

Fred Simmons

As a Partner and the Director of User Experience at Gulo, Fred enjoys making website interactions more natural and improving UX design. Outside of work, Fred enjoys golf, BBQ, craft beer, movies where the bad guy wins, comma-separated lists, and talking about himself in the third person.