Protecting Websites and Domain Names for Non-Profits

Many people think that because their website was the most expensive thing they paid for, that it is their most valuable web asset. It isn’t. A website can be reconstructed.

The domain name is actually the most valuable thing you have. For $10 per year, the domain name is the repository of your online reputation, of your online marketing efforts, of repeat traffic, and of your search momentum. And once lost, a domain name can rarely be regained.

There are things that can threaten this, and non-profits seem to be particularly vulnerable. One reason is because of the rapid turnover of leadership – the chance that someone will do something ill considered, ignorant, or unethical, is much higher, because there are more players over time, and most people who come into leadership in a non-profit do not have existing knowledge about protecting a website, and unfortunately, do not want to bother with getting that knowledge.

We’ve experienced several situations where poor decisions on the part of one individual caused long term problems for others and either fatally compromised, or seriously threatened the ownership of a domain name.

In the first instance, a director made a deal with a local web designer to build a site. Knowing little about it, the director did not ensure that any precautions were taken to protect the ownership of the domain name.  The domain name was bought by, and registered in the name of, the website builder.  This oversight was not discovered until a few years later, when the company wished to rebuild the site. The web designer kindly offered it to them – for the extortionate price of $1500. The domain name did not have enough value to warrant a $50 charge, let alone $1500. The non-profit had to start over, but the premium domain name they had once used was gone.

We are currently working with another non-profit. The website was set up several years ago by a previous director. Fortunately the domain name was registered under the corporate name, but the contact was still the director. This is typical, and usually not a problem, though it was this time, because the access information was not tracked properly. We found old documents referring to the ownership of the domain name, but the username, password, and even the access URL for the domain manager had been changed when the company changed to a different billing manager. The phone number in the documents was also out of date. What should have been a simple process, ended up taking weeks, sorting out just where the domain name was, and how to contact them. A Whois search helped, but wasn’t enough to solve the problems.

The last problem we encountered was that the domain name was registered through Enom. I always groan when I hear that, because Enom is a domain name wholesaler. They do not handle direct contact with the customers. They expect their resellers to do so. It can be challenging discovering just who the reseller IS, and sometimes the ability to make changes to the domain name is dependent upon that reseller’s good will. Some will stall or refuse to cooperate when changes are needed.

These kinds of issues are not uncommon with sole proprietors, or even small corporations, but they seem to be more prevalent with non-profits – especially small ones that feel that they don’t have time for proper documentation of website access info, nor the budget to pay for someone else to do it. Silly, because it takes WAY more time to solve problems caused later, and they can be MUCH more costly.

The only real solution to this is to keep good documentation of what was done, with whom, and who has current information. A good webmaster who knows your website inside and out can be an asset, but don’t rely on them completely! A non-profit MUST keep track of the access information themselves, in such a way that if someone disappears, they can still continue to manage their online assets.

A record should be kept of the following information:

1. Domain name access info.

2. Hosting access info, and instructions for accessing stats or backups.

3. Website Admin area access info (if applicable).

4. Any particular policies for use and access.

Without this, an organization is playing Russian Roulette with their website.

If you are a webmaster, it is your obligation to set up a site for your client that does not have these problems built in, and to inform them of the need to document this information. It is your obligation to give them full management to their domain name, and to cooperate if they wish to move it.

If you are a director of a small organization, it is your job to ensure that the website will go forward if you move on to another job.

Failing to do this is not just costly, it is also time consuming and very frustrating to have to deal with. No honorable person will leave that kind of mess behind them for someone else to clean up.

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