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DNS & Hosting: What Every Nonprofit Pro Needs to Know

Your website can have the best design in the world but if people can’t find it or if your hosting is insufficient, your website (and more importantly, your supporters) will suffer. Spikes in traffic can crash servers, shady activities like using pirated software can get your site flagged. These issues can also impact email deliverability, so it’s important to know basic information about hosting, and how to keep your site safe.

Terminology

Before we jump in to why finding the right hosting setup is important, it’s worth defining a few important terms – DNS record, domain, IP address, and hosting itself.

DNS stands for Domain Name System and you can think of it like a phone book entry for your website. When you type a URL into a browser, DNS “looks up” the domain name (for example, www.fireflypartners.com) and retrieves an IP address, a series of numbers that tells the internet how to contact you – just like your unique phone number.

Your IP address “lives” at the host you choose. It’s the home for your IP address and the IP addresses of lots of other organizations and businesses. Usually, you rent storage space from a hosting service to hold your website files, and when your DNS is set up to correctly connect your domain and your IP address, your host pushes website content to appear in your browser.

Here’s the cheat sheet:

Phone Book listing includes: DNS Record requires: Example:
Name
who you’re looking for
Your Domain / URL www.myorg.com
Phone Number
how to directly contact them
Your IP Address 123.456.78.90
Address
location they live, maybe with others
Your Host BlueHost, DigitalOcean,
WPEngine, etc.

Types of Hosting

When you’re launching a new website, upgrading your website, or making changes to your hosting service, make sure you know how to access these accounts and records, which are specific to your organization.

Hosting comes in a variety of options, but there are five common types of hosting most nonprofits can consider. It’s worth understanding what they are so you can make the right decision about your organization’s website.

  1. Shared hosting is the simplest and cheapest. You and a bunch of other people share the same server and you just have a little piece of it. Shared hosting is inexpensive and easy to set up, but resources can get stretched thin, which can cause the server to overload and crash. Shared hosting sites usually have a user-friendly admin portal, where you can access error logs and see how much of your resources you’re using. If you’re hitting bandwidth limits you may need to upgrade.
  2. VPS stands for Virtual Private Server. It is like shared hosting, but with fewer sites, and the server usually has larger resources to handle everyone’s content and website traffic. If your organization needs room to grow your website, VPS can be a great solution.
  3. With a dedicated server you are the only site on the server. It is powerful (and expensive). But if your organization runs multiple sites and provides online services for clients, supporters, and constituents or you have sites with steady traffic that need fast download capabilities, a dedicated server may be the right option. An important note: dedicated servers usually need an IT or systems admin to keep everything updated and running smoothly.
  4. Cloud hosting is a newer type of flexible hosting. If your business has sudden spikes or hot times and slower times, cloud hosting allows you to tap into only the resources you need. On most cloud hosting plans, you rent server space and you get charged for the bandwidth you incur. If you get lots of traffic to your website, cloud hosting can be expensive. But the upside is your site can’t crash because it’s in the cloud and not on just one computer or server.
  5. WordPress-specific hosting is basically a shared hosting account with an upgraded server. It usually comes with a “managed” WordPress installation, including auto backups and automatic updating. You’re not going to have a dedicated manager, but the hosting team will handle the simple tasks to make sure you have the updates and tech support you need.

Speed and security can be greatly impacted by your choice of host. If you pay a little extra for VPS or cloud, you immediately get a faster website. Usually shared hosting will offer upgrades without leaving the shared environment that increase speed as well. Whatever you choose, make sure that your host stays up-to-date with the newest technologies.

Managing Your Site

If you’re not super technical, it may be easy to get lost in all this information. There are plenty of things your hosting company can do for you, but here are a few final thoughts to keep in mind.

  • Security can vary a lot, even in terms of how you log in to access your hosting account. It’s a good sign if your host requires a more secure password or two-factor authentication. Make sure your hosting company is offering the latest software because people are always looking to exploit vulnerabilities. And don’t overlook SSL, secure sockets layer, which is the license you purchase to get a secure HTTPS at the front of your web address. A lot of hosting providers are offering SSL for free, so don’t be afraid to ask.
  • If you log in to your domain provider (such as GoDaddy), you’ll notice there are a lot of records associated with your site (A record, CNAME record, NS records, and MX record are the most common and important). Make sure you know how to log in and access them . You don’t want to be scrambling for passwords if there’s an urgent situation that needs to be investigated.
  • Pay your bill and make sure you’re renewing hosting and domain, which are two separate things. A website needs both to remain active. Also make sure that you are renewing your SSL—some browsers won’t even load pages if they’re not secure. This is especially important if you have forms or are collecting sensitive information.

The goal for a nonprofit professional doesn’t need to be complete and total understanding and management of your hosting information. But understanding how everything connects, and what helps or hurts your site’s speed and performance will allow you to respond to issues and make informed decisions about upgrades.

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