Open Source website options

Our latest Open Charity meetup was held at Space4 in Finsbury Park, a co-working and events space run by design and development co-operative, Outlandish. We looked at three alternative open source website options for charities: Drupal, Wordpress and Joomla.


Drupal - Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity


When Laurie started at GOSH five years ago they had a whole mix of Wordpress, .NET, and the main Charity and Hospital sites on Easysite. He came in to create a secure, stable and scalable option that would be one single CMS for the charity. It has two general purposes; to provide transactional services for the charity and content for the hospital from conveying information about the research they were funding, to practical tips like how to get to the hospital.


They initially produced a couple of very thick (non-agile!) documents with a massive list of specs and requirements as well as hosting and training. They then drew up a scorecard, looking at ongoing costs, availability of resources, availability of training and functionality to whittle down from 100 CMSs to a shortlist of nine. The final decision came down to a choice between Drupal and Sitecore. Sitecore was a large commercial organisation which looked attractive to the Board of Trustees - the Board didn’t really understand open source but Laurie’s team knew it came with a host of advantages like flexibility and being able to keep on top of security. So they brought in Acquia, a cloud hosting company for Drupal, who persuaded the Board to take their first big step into open source. This was a big decision as it would bring all the charity’s microsites onto the one platform.


Having decided on which platform to use, they needed to figure out how to implement it. They didn’t have any in-house capabilities so they chose an agency based in Manchester that advised an agile content migration over nine months. Laurie’s team took the specs, put them into backlogs and pruned them until it was workable. They ended up on time and on budget, but with slightly different scope to the original plan.


The migration brought over 10,000 pages on the hospital site and 100+ forms on the charity site signed off and brought under the one site. Easysite didn’t make this easy as it has an impenetrable database.


Once they moved over to business as usual operations, Laurie spent the next couple of years building out a team that could develop and deliver things in an agile way on an ongoing basis.


Drupal aims to be heavily extensible with its support for over 50,000 modules, which offers a lot of choice but even knowing which module to pick can be quite a challenge. There are also many different ways to achieve the same goals. Laurie advised to have a Drupal professional to help guide you through it. There’s a big market of Drupal developers and agencies as well as hosting, and referenced the very active community which are there to help you out if you ever post on a messageboard. There are a lot of integrations, hosting options and out-the-box ecommerce options that make it relatively easy to grow a site once you’ve started building it.


The disadvantages include competition for in demand resources, which makes it expensive as an effort. This means it might be a better option for larger charities, and indeed most of the charities using Drupal are larger ones, or those who use dedicated agencies. There’s also quite a bit of work needed transitioning from Drupal 7 to Drupal 8 as this is more of a migration to a whole new architecture than an upgrade of software. Performance-wise it’s quite hungry, and you do need proper training to use it effectively - general PHP developers won’t quite cut it, they need to work with it the Drupal way rather than approach it as a general purpose PHP development stack, so that Drupal specific knowledge is essential to success.


Important decision decisions include whether to create a new theme to present the site or work off a base theme that has been tested, as well as adopt a single Drupal per site or a single Drupal for all sites (multi-site management). GOSH opted to use modules on a multi-site platform, which enabled them to create one thing that would be replicated across other sites. Occasionally this led to several modules that did the same thing. They built their own Admin because the Drupal admin was quite outdated and basic.


The Drupal community have a reputation for creating for developers and aren’t as keen to make out-the-box solutions and so the platform tends to be slightly harder to learn and use.


WordPress - Refugee Action


Refugee Action is 37 years old and is a national but relatively small charity, relatively early on in their digital journey. The charity is working to reduce poverty and homelessness for refugees and asylum seekers and provides access to justice for these marginalised groups. The charity doesn’t have the resource to bring in huge teams of designers, developers and user researchers so need to do everything they can to minimise the cost and make the most of existing assets.


While the charity has grown and shrunk over the years with the ebb and flow of commissioning contracts, it has more recently turned its focus towards supporting and enabling frontline organisations to deliver direct services, taking the role of an infrastructure body. Their new Good Practice and Partnerships Team, managed by Caro Albuerne, is solely dedicated to building the capacity of other organisations to give immigration advice.


The first project they wanted to launch was making more advice available to those other capacity-building organisations. They decided the most effective way to do this at scale was through a digital platform. This would also help reduce their dependence on government funding by using digital for fundraising and campaigns.


The team, with Caro at its helm, started out with very little ‘digital’ knowledge or skills. They set out to speak to tech for good partners to see if a professional digital designer could build what they needed, but after the first meeting they left frustrated that the consultant wasn’t going to just create the long list of features they’d asked for. Instead, she gave them a copy of the agile manifesto and a couple of podcasts to listen to. The team slowly realised they needed to think about the digital product in a very different way.


Refugee Action was subsequently awarded some funding from Esmee Fairbairn and came onto the CAST Fuse accelerator to develop the new product through an agile, user-led process.


As a result of this experience, Caro understood she needed to introduce a culture of digital design into her staff teams, whereas before she was expecting an external consultant to go away and make something perfect, without an understanding of Refugee Action’s clients or their needs. The team have been slowly upskilling by spending time with digital experts so they can be more involved throughout the design and development process. They’re now moving beyond using digital in just comms and fundraising and towards using it in service delivery - something large charities have been doing for some time, but for many smaller ones this is still quite a big shift.


The charity had used Wordpress since 2016 having been recommended they transition to it by their digital consultants, from an original bespoke system which had become unwieldy. For a charity of their size and financial capabilities, Wordpress was the most feasible option, as they only need to employ a consultant one and a half days a week to keep it running. So they built the new information site for capacity-building organisations on top of their existing system, using a series of Wordpress e-learning modules. The site currently has around 500 users and is testing well.


For Caro’s tiny digital team, it made sense to keep using Wordpress rather than having many different microsites on several different CMSs. They are, however, prototyping on other platforms such as Tilda to quickly test things, but will eventually migrate everything to Wordpress. Each time they migrate something Caro has to factor in the cost, but so far this has been manageable.


The team are consolidating their learning and embedding digital learning across the organisation and its strategy so that staff have enough skills to manage future development. Caro says this is vital for the charity, especially because infrastructure organisations are less popular than they once were and if they don’t make something scalable and accessible to the frontline partners that need their help, they’ll cease to exist.


Joomla - Softforge


Phil started his talk with a shocking revelation - Joomla didn’t actually start life as a CMS, it’s actually a framework. But because the CMS was so successful, it became known exclusively for that.


Phil is a developer at Softforge and runs the Joomla London meetup. In his job, he wants to help build something in an agile and fast way so his clients can easily add their own content to their sites. The number of extensions for Joomla has dropped in recent years as they core organisation has been stricter about which ones to allow or disallow.

Also the Joomla core code has been constantly reduced and streamlined to avoid bloat, maintain a consistent environment for all code to talk to each other the same way and stay highly efficient in resources and approaches.


Joomla offers variable access controls, and many languages out-of-the-box, as it was designed as a multilingual system. You can insert different languages very easily.


The organisation has built many charity sites, such as the NHS Diabetes site. These can be scaled massively and updated rapidly, which makes it easy for Phil and his colleagues to work on multiple sites at the same time.


The Joomla community are requesting and building new features all the time. There are lots of user groups who meet regularly and are happy to help you out. There is a lot of information on to help people as well and it’s very intuitive. A lot of charities come along to these. UCL, for example, called in the Joomla user group to help them when they had been struggling with their Drupal site, as Joomla is more usable than that with a less steep learning curve. The templates and modules can be very easily customised.


Phil advises to pick a system where all your logic is in the core, and if you’re using a template, that’s just for the look and feel, while the functionality isn’t disrupted if you change the template. Keeping everything clean and separated helps with updates. This is important as the Joomla developers keep it running on the latest base technologies like PHP 7.0 and gain more benefits from its foundations. As for Drupal, it’s not enough to be a PHP developers - a good knowledge of Joomla and how it works is essential.


Phil’s final piece of advice is that if you’re going to build anything, build it quickly and release it to users quickly so you can see what the users actually want to use. Big projects suffer from having grand designs that turn out to be useless.



Link to Slides is here: 


Additional discussion points


1. Security


Charities shouldn’t worry about open source being less secure because this is quite simply a myth - in fact open source is a lot more secure because people can easily see and fix the code out in the open. Loads of closed source systems have vulnerabilities that you can find on the dark web, and no community looking for and flagging flaws. The Cabinet Office issued instructions to government agencies to look at using open source solutions over closed source, because it’s cheaper and more secure. A lot of each of these CMSs have add-ons that you can use to bolster your security as well, e.g. Akeeba Backup and Akeeba Admin Tools (Wordpress & Joomla) - just remember to keep your back-ups stored on a different hosting server - and Wordfence (for Wordpress).


2. Moving CMS platform - any regrets?


Marc from Open Charity asked about any second thoughts of their platform and how painful it would be for any of the speakers to move to a different platform. Caro from Refugee Action said it would be a hugely slow and painful process, which would need a process of retraining staff and sign-off from the Board. But maybe once the charity has integrated Agile across their organisation, things could be different. Plus they’re very happy with Wordpress - the whole team can now use it and understand how it works.


Phil from SoftForge said some of his clients have migrated in less than a week, but whatever system you use, it’s easier to migrate if you store your things in the core rather than in a third-party template. He advised that you may actually need to convert if the CMS you’re using changes its direction, and this is easier still in Joomla because there’s a common framework for everything.


Laurie’s one regret was letting their agency customise the output as much as they did, because they ended up stripping a lot of it away. They have a lot of technical debt built up, and this can often be a big issue for charities.