How the Ford Foundation Modernized Their Web Infrastructure While Furthering Their Mission
The Ford Foundation, a major social justice philanthropy, faced challenges with a web infrastructure that no longer met their needs. Their existing CMS was hard to use, and their content publication processes frequently hit bottlenecks because they were fulfilled by one employee. Editorial decisions were often informed by strained resources, rather than telling the right story to the right person at the right time.
After a comprehensive evaluation, the Ford Foundation selected WordPress VIP to relaunch their website. It enabled them to improve their publishing workflows and build more collaborative, creative processes to support the foundation’s communications. Additionally, due to the foundation’s overall commitment to disability rights and accessibility, improving accessibility was essential not just for their site, but across the broader WordPress community. They created a new video accessibility plugin that helped advance one of their key organizational missions while improving their own communications capabilities.
- Streamlined publishing workflow
- Reduced training time and activated more staff to publish
- Improved accessibility on site
- Created a new video accessibility plugin for WordPress community
The Ford Foundation’s mission is to end inequality in all its forms around the world. To do so, they support the ideas, institutions, and individuals working at the forefront of social change.
However, the Ford Foundation’s own website didn’t effectively serve the evolving needs of its audiences and the organization. “When our old CMS was implemented, we were publishing two to three pieces of content a month, with everything flowing through a single content producer,” said Bedirhan Cinar, Head of Product and Digital Engagement at the Ford Foundation. “Five years later, the workflow was the same, but we were publishing three to four pieces of content a week. Our CMS had grown cumbersome due to years of accumulated cruft. Publishing, even at our relatively small output, was a real challenge.”
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Ford’s CMS also proved a steep learning curve; it usually took around three weeks to train staff to the point that they could publish without needing support. The team bridged the gap occasionally with freelance content producers who were already versed in the system, but this wasn’t an effective way to grow the team or scale their content. “I knew how publishing web content should work,” said Cinar. “This wasn’t it.”
Things finally came to a head in late 2022. The Ford Foundation’s CMS was approaching its end-of-life and would no longer receive security updates. The engineering team estimated that it would take two to three months just to manage the migration to a newer version of that CMS. Given their growing challenges, the Ford Foundation decided to consider other alternatives.
Modernizing their infrastructure
The Ford Foundation’s options had historically been limited. When they selected their previous CMS in 2015, the organization was standardized on .NET where possible and required everything to be hosted on Azure. Luckily, when Ford began its search for a new CMS, they no longer had those hosting requirements.
Ford conducted an extensive assessment of CMSes. “We had a few key goals,” said Cinar. “We wanted to distribute publishing so we no longer were bottlenecked by one person. We also wanted to modernize our infrastructure in a meaningful way. We looked at a lot of options: Drupal, Sitecore, Joomla, WordPress. Ultimately, we chose WordPress VIP because of its ease of use, general familiarity, and the number of agencies available due to its adoption rate.”
“Because we would never have the volume of work to necessitate a full in-house team, we knew we’d need to work with an agency no matter which CMS we chose,” said Cinar. “After evaluating several agencies, we ultimately chose WDG based on their unique experience. Their work has exceeded expectations at nearly every turn.”
Security was also a paramount concern for the Ford Foundation. “While we are a social justice philanthropy supporting nonprofit organizations and advocates on the frontlines, not everyone agrees with all our work,” said Cinar. “We needed to ensure we had top-notch security to protect against potential threats: control of the admin, DDoS protection, etc. Because WordPress VIP has built a strong security infrastructure and proven it with clients that are big targets, it was easy to get our security team on board.”
The new WordPress block editor: A pleasant surprise
As the Ford Foundation undertook their evaluation of WordPress VIP, they quickly realized it was a very different—and better—product than the one they expected. “In my head, I was envisioning 2015 WordPress,” said Cinar, “which was still light years ahead of where we were. I didn’t even know about the Gutenberg block editor until I was well into conversations with agencies. Then I was like, ‘I can make templates. I can drag-and-drop blocks. This is super-easy to make custom content. Amazing.’”
The new block editor also gave the Ford Foundation’s content team a lot more autonomy than other alternatives. “With 2015 WordPress, if you can write an email, you can write a blog post,” said Cinar. “But if you want it to look different, you might have to call your developer. With today’s WordPress, you typically don’t.”
The Ford Foundation produces a broad mix of narrative, multimedia, data, and informational content, some of which is in templated formats. A good deal of storytelling about Ford’s programs and the issues it supports are produced with a richer web experience. One example is Reimagine Recovery, an exploration of how we can imagine a more equitable future across race, ethnicity, income, and geography in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. WordPress’ block editor allowed the Ford Foundation to publish both more content and more complex projects. “In a short time, we went from one person who could fix most issues on our website to nine,” said Cinar. “After a few hours of training, everyone was proficient.”
Improving accessibility at Ford Foundation and beyond
Advancing disability inclusion and accessibility is a core part of the Ford Foundation’s mission. Making sure anyone can access the content on their website is essential. This is especially complicated with video, since it is both a visual and auditory medium. Ford wants to ensure that blind, visually impaired, deaf, and hard-of-hearing audiences are able to consume its video content. Accessible viewing is achieved through adding captions, transcripts, and audio descriptions to all videos.
If you’re unfamiliar, an audio description is a narration of a visual element in a video. For example, the introduction of “Justice by the Numbers” starts with an image of a blinking cursor that types the words “Location: Massachusetts.” The audio description says exactly what happens: “A large blinking cursor on a screen, words appear in digital type: Location: Massachusetts.”
Previously, the Ford Foundation used a player that read a text file for these audio descriptions. The experience wasn’t great: Its volume was often louder than the rest of the video and the voice sounded too mechanical. “We wanted to improve this,” said Cinar. “We decided to create two versions of every video, one audio-described and one without audio descriptions. For the audio-described version, we have a human read the descriptions and then edit those audio descriptions to seamlessly integrate into the video. Both video versions are then made available on our YouTube channel.”
“We don’t want to just improve our site—we want to improve accessibility across the web,” said Cinar. “One of the great things about working at the Ford Foundation is that I can ask, ‘What is the most good I can do at this moment?’”
The video accessibility block plugin not only provides a great experience for switching videos, including remembering previous settings; it also places a scrollable transcript next to the embed player. Far more organizations are resourced to support transcripts than audio-described videos. “Let’s say only 1% of WordPress sites use this plugin,” said Cinar. “Now 400,000 sites have transcripts that didn’t have them a week ago. The point is to give it away. And if someone comes up with a better one, that’s great, because my goal is to improve everyone’s experience.”
Good for the team, good for the world
By moving to WordPress VIP, the Ford Foundation transformed their web experience. They modernized their infrastructure, empowered their team, and gave themselves the flexibility to support the many freelancers, contractors, and agencies essential to their operations. And beyond improving their internal effectiveness, they’re better positioned to pursue their most essential mission.
“WordPress VIP allows my team to get much more creative—and because we are now part of the larger WordPress community, we can meaningfully contribute to it through things like our accessibility plugin,” said Cinar. “That’s the benefit of WordPress: the ability to positively impact the internet as a whole.”