10 Things To Consider in a CRM

Updated for 2014.

Constituent Relationship Management systems allow you to track a 360 degree view of all your interactions with constituents. What’s more, all the available options—including Salesforce.com, CiviCRM, SugarCRM and Microsoft Dynamics CRM—are relatively inexpensive for nonprofits, or even free. Sounds ideal, right? 

In practice, though, each of these systems tends to be more of a platform you can customize than an out-of-the-box solution. While they’ll typically support different types of constituents in such basic activities as tracking multiple addresses or logging a record of your recent phone conversations, they don’t provide deep functionality in any one area. You may have your work cut out for you if you want a solution that fits your particular needs.

Here are 10 things to think about when choosing a CRM for your organization: 
  1. Is a CRM the best solution for you? Systems that track all of your constituents at once are tempting, and keeping data about everyone in a single place seems like an obvious solution. In practice, though, these systems often need substantial customization to meet real-life needs. This is especially true if your organization supports multiple, complex processes—if, for instance, you need to both track client records for a health clinic and do complicated event-management for major donor fundraising. If your needs are relatively common among nonprofits, your organization might be better off with two or more specialty systems built specifically for the different types of processes you’re trying to support.
  2. What constituents are you trying to support? If you’ve decided to go with a CRM, the first step is to identify all the different types of constituents you’ll be tracking. Make a list, but go beyond the obvious—not just clients, donors and volunteers, but people like alumni, vendors, press, students, partners, parents, patrons, visiting artists or other people you work with. Be as comprehensive as possible.
  3. What processes do you use to support these constituents? For each type of constituent, think about the particular processes you’ll need to serve them. You treat patients, for example, or try to get donors to continue giving, but you’re probably doing more than that, too. Do you provide outreach to patients? How do you thank donors and volunteers? Consider the full lifecycle for each constituent—reaching out to new ones, convincing them to do something or take action, and providing services or follow-up—and identify what you do to support each process.
  4. What customization will you need to support these constituents and processes? With these needs in mind, look at the different CRM packages available to you. How much of what you want to do is out-of-the box? How much will you have to customize, and how complicated is that customization? A consultant is likely to be helpful in this area to help you understand the capabilities of each system and what functions might be outside their reach.
  5. Can you create the reports you want? Each CRM package has different reporting tools, and each its own unique limitations. Think through what types of reports you’re likely to need, and make sure the system you’re considering is able to create them. And because reporting tools also vary considerably in their ease of use, make sure the people who are going to need to create the reports are able to work with the available interface.
  6. How easy is it to integrate with website forms? Although almost all of the common CRM systems are online hosted systems, some are surprisingly difficult to integrate with web forms. If you want people to be able to sign up for your newsletter on the web or pay online for products or events, make sure it’s possible to set up without too much effort.
  7. Can you access the system on-the-go? Most CRM systems are internet-based, which means they’re available anywhere you have a computer. However, it’s increasingly likely that your staff will want to access the system on a tablet or smartphone. Some systems have mobile-specific interfaces geared to support the small screen of many mobile devices, or are otherwise optimized for mobile computing. If this is something you want, make sure the system you choose can support it. 
  8. Can you create the communications you need? Email and print communications are very important to most nonprofits, but the CRM systems tend to have less built-in support than tools like donor management systems, for instance. Think through how you’ll send broadcast emails and what the process will be for creating mail-merged letters from each system, and make sure you’re comfortable with the level of support.
  9. Can your staff use the system? It doesn’t matter how powerful the system is if your staff can’t figure out how to use it. Compare your options for ease of use, looking specifically at the processes that will be done with the most frequency by the widest number of people. It’s always useful to pull some of the people who will actually use the system into your selection process, including demos of the systems, for their input. Pay special attention to those who are not particularly technically savvy.
  10. Who will support the package? Free and open source systems tend to require a different mindset about support than more traditional vendor-supported systems. There probably isn’t a vendor you can call if you have a question—instead, you’ll need to either train a staff member to learn to support it, or hire a consulting firm to provide on-call support. Either way, think through how complicated it’s likely to be to find someone appropriate, both now and in the future.
At first glance, CRMs look appealing. Who wouldn’t want a low-cost means of tracking all their supporters in one place? But the reality is that such systems can prove to be a lot more effort than is immediately apparent. Each of the available options provides different strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you think through the processes that are most important to your organization, and choose the system that will work best to support them and all your other needs.
This article originally ran in the NonProfit Times.


Copyright The Nonprofit Times


Integration to other systems

I'd add that it's important to think of the other systems you use. Good CRM data connects well to your other systems, so you're not entering data twice.

For example, your CRM should be speaking to your financial software, so that all your donor transaction history is visible when you interact with them. A great integration goes both ways, with data entered into the CRM automatically updating your financial software.

A great example of this is Method:Donor, which integrates to QuickBooks. You can check it out here: https://www.method.me/nonprofit-crm/

#9 is more important than you know

Don't take #9 for granted.

If you don't know how to use the system, or if it's just too hard to understand and use on a daily basis, then it does nothing for you. Worse, it actually loses you time and money, instead of giving both of those.

When you're a non-profit, that's a non-option. It's all about making the most out of every dollar and, if you're going to invest in CRM (which you should), you need to be sure that it will be usable and that your team will take advantage of it.

Brad Hodson
<a href="http://www.jobnimbus.com">JobNimbus</a>

Big isn't always better !

 CRM is a journey and your smooth or bumpy ride is determined not by vendor brand or technology alone, but by technology, vendor/partnership, implementation and user adoption.

Fail in any of these and you likely fail to reach your aimed destination.

From independent market stats a range of reports show around 50% of CRM projets fail, more than bad !  Many because customers have chosen on brand being a safe indication and expecting a good outcome simply from the selection.

If you look at independent reports such as Gleanster, G2 crowd and Serchen you will find good countenance on non big brand names that are more affordable, easier to implement and in fact more often deliver a far better outcome that the big brand CRM names.

Ian Moyse




CRM- system is a great way to improve your business management and even enhance revenue. It's also more than just useful in case if you have a web shop running on Magento. You can use a special extension (http://www.mageplace.com/bridges/magento-to-sugarcrm-bridge.html) that connects these 2 systems and  allows synchronizing shop users and purchases with customers, cases and opportunities in CRM system. This is one of the most effective solutions in Magento e-Commerce.

thankQ for CRM, Fundraising, Alumni, ...

We're a UK supplier with 15 years of experience of developing and implementing our own proprietary CRM, Fundraising and Alumni software for not for profits in the UK and Europe. We're now also in the middle of our first US implementation for Scripps College, Claremont, CA. If you'd like to read about the journey so far on this project take a look at http://www.thankq.co.uk/stories/stateside, and if you'd like to read more about what thankQ could offer your not for profit then there's plenty of information to be found on  http://www.thankq.co.uk/product, and of course we'd also be really happy to talk to you (info@thankq.co.uk).

Hints needed for choosing a CRM

Thanks for the article. Where can one go to see reviews and specs of various CRM software choices for small non-profits?



If your organization decides to go with CiviCRM (OpenSource CRM designed from the ground up for nonprofits), we can help you with the deployment. We offer very affordable service and integration for CiviCRM projets for small and medium nonprofits.
CiviCRM has been built to work with Paypal and the three most popular OpenSource CMS, Drupal, Joomla and WordPress.We, Cividesk, have developped the integration with Constant Contact and GoogleApps.

Our solution is delivered as a service - we provide you with access codes to your Internet applications and take care of all the rest. You will not need any technical staff, just a web browser and an Internet connection. A low monthly subscription provides you with a complete solution, personalized for your organization and fully maintained over time.

Available off the shelf - consider VC Connect

Consider VC Connect, a product speficially designed for third sector organisations, by a third sector organisation.  Unlike Civi and Salesforce it is an off the shelf system, rather than a platform and it also seamlessly links with MS Office products, eg Word and Excel, so your staff don't need to change how they work.  They can continue to use the products they are familiar with, implementing a new CRM is a challenging enough project, without the added worry of getting to know new applications for extracting, reporting on your data.

VC Connect can also be purchased pre-poulated with common data for you to review (based on our wealth of experience of working in the sector), or provided empty with advice on how to populate.  It is probably one of the only web based database products, specifcally designed for the sector and can how also seamlessly link with your website, for online event bookings, Paypal facilities and much more.

Page appearance

Why is the typesize of this article so small? 


 Please consider trying CitizenCRM. While not as customizable as these recommendations, it is also much less expensive. No implementation costs. No training necessary because it is simple, intuitive and easy to use. It's designed especially for the 95% of nonprofits that are small to mid-sized.Citizen comes already integrated with email blast gateways like constant contact and mail chimp, payment processors such as PayPal, event management software like Brown Paper Tickets, and of course, social media like Facebook and Twitter.

A few additions

I would add a few more questions to the list:

  • Do you have executive support for this project? Specifically, is your management (ED, board, senior leadership) bought into moving to a CRM even if there is a dollar and time cost associated with such a move?
  • Do you have extensive training time set aside for staff post-rollout so people can effectively learn to use the new system and integrate it with their daily workflow?
  • Who will be managing the CRM implementation at your organization? Does this person have extensive knowledge of the organizational systems and programs? Will they be leaving in 6 months?
  • What is the communication plan for transitioning staff to this new system?

Note that very few of the above questions are related to technology...