In May 2004, Larson and her colleagues issued a request for proposals to Web development companies nationwide. They weren't seeking an upgrade, but rather an entirely new site that would be powered by a content-management solution that non-technical staff could easily administer. They also wanted a site that would give end users a more enjoyable, informative, and productive online experience.
Larson says the chapter initially considered five companies but quickly narrowed the field to three. Soon thereafter, the board of directors tapped E Solutions to design, host, and maintain its new site. According to Larson, E Solutions personnel demonstrated the ability to communicate easily and effectively with both non-technical and technically proficient chapter representatives, as well as a willingness to roll out the new site in phases. The power and flexibility of E-CMS, E Solutions' Web content-management tool, was also a factor.
Besides offering secure, multi-level user access to multiple content administrators, E-CMS can be retrofitted to an existing Web site. The tool allows site administrators "with no more than word processing and Internet browsing skills to quickly and easily change content, post news articles, alter the content's size and color, add graphics and hyperlinks, or add and delete pages," says Michael Morizio, president of E Solutions. E-CMS also enables administrators to work on the site at any time from any location through any browser (a feature of particular value to potentially displaced volunteer workers), as well as ecommerce functionality through its E-Authorize module. Under the auspices of the new site, visitors can learn about and register for health and safety training; make one-time contributions; or set up recurring donations. Potential volunteers, meanwhile, can obtain information on the chapter's specific needs and apply online.
Larson and Morizio both describe the three- to four-month development process as a smooth one in which communication was key. "We needed to understand exactly what they wanted from the site, but we also needed to be their trained advisor," Morizio says of the experience. "In some cases, that meant showing why a certain element might not be the best choice and providing them options we felt would be better."
Naturally, there were challenges along the way. "One of the greatest challenges, from our perspective, was that the Manatee County Chapter was an adopter of what was then an early technology," Morizio explains. "While the foresight that required is impressive, it also meant we had to make some tweaks to E-CMS' functionality. It was mostly a matter of rewriting some of the code to fit what they wanted to do in terms of creating and formatting documents," he says. Rather than create a specific design for each individual page of the site, E Solutions developed eight different templates that define the layout for each of the types of content the chapter posts. This means that officials can add new pages without needing to create any new design elements, without HTML or Web development training.
The goal, Larson adds, was to develop a site that would resemble the national organization's site and yet convey the Manatee County Chapter's unique character. The new site, which launched in October 2004, "blends the best of the best," she says, "and gives us the freedom to meet all of our specific needs." All told, Morizio says the development, training, and implementation process cost less than $20,000, though the chapter continues to pay a monthly $50 fee to retain E Solutions' site hosting and support services.
Accurate, easily managed content is mission critical for every organization, but few can honestly claim that it's a matter of life and death. The Red Cross can. Although Larson hasn't had time to track the number of hits the Manatee County Chapter Web site receives on a regular basis, she says the enhancements did have an immediate impact on business operations. Within 24 hours of the site's launch and with absolutely no promotion of the redesign, site visitors began making donations online. The chapter receives roughly six applications a week from potential volunteers who have read about its activities online and are eager to help.
Morizio describes the Red Cross/E Solutions partnership as a win-win for both parties. "They ended up with a Web site that did everything they needed it to do and we ended up with an enhanced E-CMS program," he says. "In addition to having the ability to keep content updated and to accept online gifts, the new site freed staff and volunteers from routine tasks such as general inquiries and registrations so they can focus on more mission-appropriate activities.
"As long as someone on their end can access the Internet," he adds, "they will always be able to keep their site current"—and their energies focused on the people and processes that need them the most.