WildEarth Guardians is a nonprofit protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild rivers, wild places, and environmental health of the American West. When Dave Levine joined Guardians as their first Communications Director, one of his first concerns was the organization’s website.
The website needed to introduce Guardians to new constituents and make it easy for people to educate themselves on issues, take civic action, or donate. But the current site was disorganized, hard to use, and looked outdated. Dave realized the site needed a complete overhaul.
Merge Studio stepped in with the collaborative approach we’re now known for. We began by helping Dave and his team understand the work at hand and set a realistic timeline. What unfolded was a massive organizational effort, as Merge took over 5,000 pages of valuable Guardians’ content and brought them to life with fresh, bold design.
Next, Merge created a custom integration between WordPress and Blackbaud, which the Guardians team relies on daily for email, advocacy, and fundraising. After careful quality assurance and testing on the site, Merge empowered Dave’s team by training them to make edits and build pages on their own.
What’s resulted is a years-long partnership—and a beautiful and functional website that’s withstood the test of time.
Read on for the full story and details about our collaboration with Wild Earth Guardians.
To make a website redesign happen, Dave needed to overcome three major challenges.
- Timeline & team expectations. Dave was under pressure from the organization to complete the work as quickly and efficiently as possible. “The desire on our end was to ‘get it all done yesterday,’” he said. He needed to make sure his team understood all the work involved to do this the right way.
- Content inventory. Dave needed a solid place to begin. That involved an inventory of thousands of pages of valuable content on the current site: “When there hasn’t been someone in charge of the framework, there’s no one who knows what you have.”
- Customization. Guardians’ staff use Blackbaud Luminate, a cloud-based fundraising and advocacy platform, in their day-to-day operations. He needed to make sure the website could integrate seamlessly with the platform.
“I knew I was starting a huge project, but I didn’t know how big it was,” Dave said, looking back.
When Dave described the daunting task to a colleague at another organization, she referred him to Merge. Shortly after, we began our work together, and a years-long partnership developed.
When we discovered that the Guardians’ site contained over 5,000 pages, it became clear that this rebuild would take time. Dave was under internal pressure about the timeline, so we helped him find common ground and manage his team’s expectations.
“Merge did a great job helping empower me to share to the rest of the team why a project like this takes time,” Dave said, reflecting on the early steps of the process. “It was a tough crowd, and they want to see action and change—that’s why they’re in activism.”
We came up with creative solutions to excite the organization while the foundational work was underway.
With fresh content and engaging design, we built micro-sites that Guardians could use right away with social and digital marketing campaigns. This effort allowed us to forge a strong working relationship and establish the visual style of the new site early on during the project.
“It was a massive reorganization effort,” Dave said. “There had been 20 people making all their own content in different places. We couldn’t get a site map, and it wasn’t organized in the menu.”
Merge outlined and structured the content into a new architecture through wireframes. We used this tool to figure out what information should stay and how it should be organized so users could easily find what they needed.
“Michelle and her team aim to work with people, so they understand the work being done, to be a partner as well as advisor. Then, when you need to make a decision, you have the ability to make it.”
For the site’s visual design, Dave worked collaboratively with Stacey Schultz, Merge co-founder and graphic designer.
“For the brand feel, I was aiming for something that was powerful, thoughtful, bold, and strong, but organized, with everything in its place,” Dave said. “Big, chunky typography. Unafraid to use really close-up images. Unafraid of white space. The colors are there to support those feelings.”
“Our ultimate goal was to build a framework and design that would last, and that the Guardians’ team could use with ease”, says Michelle Dodd, Co-Founder and CEO of Merge. “You can’t do that overnight.”
Stacey took a solutions-oriented approach to design. While the micro-sites had set the stage for the look and feel, applying the design to hundreds of pages took forethought.
We knew Guardians needed both structure and flexibility. We adopted a modular design system that could be understood and used by Guardians’ staff following a design guide. The custom WordPress theme was coded to build the design system into the modular page builder, with saved layouts and sections ready to use in building out pages.
Custom Blackbaud integration
Meanwhile, Michelle and the development team confronted the third major challenge of this project: integrating the Blackbaud platform with WordPress. Blackbaud holds the keys for Guardians’ email communications, advocacy, and fundraising programs. Making sure the marketing and Blackbaud sites worked together seamlessly was crucial to this project.
Guardians leaned on the Merge team’s expert technical knowledge to make it happen.
“Blackbaud didn’t have a working API, so we had to figure it out ourselves,” Michelle explains. “We ended up creating seamless handoff between the marketing site and Blackbaud pages, so the user felt at home on either platform.”
“Because Blackbaud has little documentation and does not easily integrate with other software or platforms, it required a lot of problem solving and creativity and willingness to keep going,” Dave said. “Merge conducted extensive quality assurance testing on the integration of the donation and advocacy forms, treating the Blackbaud site as part of our work package.” This helped ensure a seamless user experience.
Empowering the Guardians’ team
The framework and theme were developed, tested, and ready to go. Next, Merge utilized a project management framework for Dave and his team. We trained them to use the site and build pages.
Dave remembers this stage of the collaboration with enthusiasm: “There was a huge willingness on Michelle and Merge’s part to even go there. They were literally managing people on my team to do work. Everyone was working together to get stuff done.”
“For the number of pages we built collaboratively, it went really well. It speaks to Dave’s great relationship with his team,” said Michelle.
“We utilize the client’s resources as much as possible to work collaboratively. This saves time and money on many fronts, and we can provide more value with our expertise.”
“The new website has been working great for us,” Dave says. Guardians’ staff can build and customize new pages on the fly, and the ability to create pages for campaigns within a single workday has been empowering for the organization.”
Merge jumps in to help when Guardians needs to add new functionality, such as a recent effort for hiring and job applications. We add functionality, provide support, and train staff as needed.
With the website, we’ve made it easy for new folks to get involved and stay engaged long-term. The updated design gives users the right amount of context to engage their curiosity, then offers easy ways to dig deeper into the content and eventually take action at different levels.
Search performance is up, page views are up, and the main goal of increasing newsletter subscribers is up.
“It’s about more than just the partnership for a build. It’s about the partnership for running, operating, and growing a functional website, not just one that looks great.”
This collaboration is exactly the kind of work Merge Studio set out to do—good work for good organizations.
“Helping WildEarth Guardians accomplish their goals with a beautiful, highly functional website was so fulfilling. We believe in the work they’re doing and are invested in their success,” said Michelle.
Carolyn Kerchof, Michelle Dodd, and Luda Polyakova contributed to this case study.