In Search of CRM Part 1: Understanding Constituents and Processes

Constituent Relationship Management can help to provide an important 360° view of your constituents. However, an effective technology solution requires a detailed understanding of your constituents and processes. Paul Hagen explains, in Part One of a two part series exploring the issues behind CRM.

Many nonprofits struggle with constituent data in many different locations. A single individual may donate money, then buy an item online, then attend a seminar, while three different staff members track the person in their own spreadsheets or contact managers, unaware of the other organizational interactions. Constituent relationship management (CRM) software can help. In fact, the term “CRM” was coined to refer to methods that support an organization’s full range of constituents and constituent processes.

Here’s a definition of CRM:

CRM is the set of processes and supporting technologies used to acquire, retain, and enhance the relationships with all different constituent groups who interact with an organization.

But marketing-speak in the software marketplace has confused the issue. Vendors use the term "CRM" loosely to describe a wide variety of databases, even ones that focus only on a limited set of supporters such as donors.

A Google search on the terms “nonprofit CRM” yields a number of well-known nonprofit vendors on the first page. While each helps to manage specific kinds of relationships with certain types of constituents, not one covers all the different possible groups alluded to in this CRM definition. One manages online interactions, but can’t handle the day-to-day contact that an organization may have with constituents over the phone or in person, such as the cultivation of event sponsors or suppliers for a food program. Another falls short of helping staff manage clients who receive long-term services or the complex set of relationships for a major event.

The truth is that it is nearly impossible for a single vendor to create software capable of handling the widely diverse needs and processes of over 1.8 million nonprofits. Take an organization like Goodwill, for instance. Goodwill works with many different constituent groups who: 1) donate material goods, 2) donate money, 3) buy items in an online store; 4) buy in an offline retail store, 5) receive training and services, 6) receive job placements, 7) become advocates within businesses for job placements, and 8) who become advocates for donation drives. These represent just a few of the diverse groups for which it collects different data and has different cultivation processes.

What’s more, CRM is not just a piece of software - it’s an organizational strategy that defines the processes and methods you use to interact with your constituents. In order to ensure effective Constituent Relationship Management for your nonprofit, you’ll need to understand your own constituents and processes. This will not only improve your ability to find the best software, but will likely improve your daily constituent-centric operations as well.

How do you go about this? It’s a three step process:

  1. Identify your constituent groups
  2. Outline your processes
  3. Understand your process mix

Let’s go through those one by one.


1) Identify Your Constituent Groups

You likely have more types of constituents than you realize. A recent survey of staff members at a mid-sized nonprofit identified over 25 spreadsheets, contact managers, slips of paper and custom databases to store information about interactions with different constituent groups. About half of these repositories and interactions were unknown to both management and the IT department.

  • Alumni: staff, program participants, clients
  • Corporate supporters: sponsors, partners, advocates, cash or material donors, customers
  • Recruits: staff, program participants, clients
  • Retail customers: merchandise online, merchandise in-person, facilities rentals, services, products
  • Channel partners: nonprofits with constituents who could use your programs or services, government agencies that provide referrals to your programs
  • Suppliers and vendors: supplies, services, IT, events
  • Clients: program beneficiaries, service beneficiaries
  • Staff: current staff, alumni, board members, advisors


2) Outline Your Processes

Next, write down the processes that your staff uses to interact with each group. Are the interactions one-time (e.g. a sent note with no follow-up) or multi-stage (e.g. follow-ups, status check-ins, in-person meetings or events to build interest)? What kind of data are your staff collecting about constituents for this cultivation? What interactions are core to your operations, and which are more peripheral? Answering these questions will help define the kinds of capabilities that will be required of CRM software.

Reviewing these interactions and cultivation processes takes some time. However, the exercise invariably yields “constituent-centric” process improvements that don’t require technology investment. One nonprofit management team found that it was taking more than six weeks to send receipts to donors. Another realized that they weren’t asking their program alumni working in corporations to support their other services.

Look for opportunities to enhance how your staff interacts with supporters to create value to the organization (e.g. dollars, volunteer hours, program usage, cross-promotion or cross-sell opportunities). Keep an eye out for underserved supporters, recipients of one service who might benefit from another, or new prospects who might provide more value to your nonprofit.

It’s often helpful to think through your processes by breaking them into the components that the corporate world uses: Marketing (outreach), Sales (action), and Service. While at first glance the words may not seem to correspond to nonprofit operations, further inspection shows the striking similarity. Each constituent grouping has some kind of “Marketing”, “Sales”, and “Service” cycle, though efforts for each step will vary greatly and sometimes blend.


Marketing, in the form of outreach or communications, builds general awareness and interest. Most nonprofits engage in some kind of outreach efforts such as direct mail, email newsletters, ad buying or other marketing methods. These techniques may be geared towards creating greater awareness of programs and services among your clients, raising money, building advocacy efforts, and growing general organizational support.


Simple Marketing Process Longer, Complex Marketing Process

1. Compile list of every supporter you       can find

2. Send annual letter

1. Target group of potential supporters
2. Place ads in target venues
3. Send direct mail piece
4. Follow-up calls to supporters
5. Send follow-up email
6. Track outcome



The complexity of the sales process often correlates with the size of the commitment. A free 1-hour seminar or a $25 donation would have a very short sales cycle and probably only one step (the ask), while a 10-week program or a $1000 donation would require more time and a more complex process.


Simple Sales Process

(small donations, merchandise purchase, advocacy action, low-cost memberships)

Longer, Complex Sales Process

(major donations, grants, high-cost memberships, large sponsorship sales, registration for lengthy programs)

1. Identify prospect or lead
2. Recieve commitment (donation,

     action, membership, registration,      purchase)

1. Identify prospect or lead
2. Introductory call or meeting to qualify      prospect
3. Follow-up calls or meetings to build      value proposition
4. Present proposal or ask
5. Negotiate
6. Recieve commitment (contract,      donation, action, membership,      registration, enrollment)



“Service” refers to the delivery of programs and support to constituents. The most important part of what most nonprofits do with constituents – the delivery of programs and services – is virtually always left out of CRM discussions. Many nonprofits use isolated applications to track communications, program and service delivery, attendance, follow-ups and outcomes.

Nonprofits that do not consider program delivery information as an integrated part of CRM efforts risk:

  1. Underserving clients. Nonprofits with lots of programs, each with its own data repository but no organizational-wide view, lacks the ability to knowledgeably serve its constituents. For example, a job placement counselor would benefit from knowing if a constituent has been referred by a different staff member to a drug treatment program. Similarly, the organization lacks the ability to know how to target new programs (cross-sell) to existing constituents (e.g. a person who has come a few times to brown-bag lunch meetings, but has never attended an annual event).
  2. Failing to understand the full benefit an individual is receiving. Nonprofits with constituent program data scattered have a difficult time seeing the full benefit that an individual receives from the organization. Certain public radio station’s fundraising efforts would be more powerful if its appeal size were based on the amount that an individual used the website.
  3. Missing out on important word-of-mouth evangelists. Happy program participants can be some of the best program evangelists and representatives for outreach to other constituent groups (e.g. funders, other potential participants, partners).
  4. Wasting time and resources. Without the tie between outreach and program outcomes, organizations have to guess which sources typically yield great participants and which only bring headaches. It’s important to maximize your relationships with those sources that bring solid prospects…and figure out how to help those who are sending you bad prospects, or cut the ties.

While every organization will vary, a service process may look like the following:

Simple Service Process

(information requests, simple questions, tax receipts for donors)

Longer, Mid-Level Service Process (scheduled reports to funders, on-going care for clients in a program)

1. Recieve request (call, email question,      web site request)
2. Respond

1. Initiate contact (Request, incident, call,      email question, check-in)
2. Gather more information (call-back,      email)
3. Schedule meeting/call/appointment
4. Alert manager if necessary
5. Deliver service, program, information
6. Track outcomes over time


In working through your constituent groups, think about the processes that you wouldn’t usually consider. Human services organizations don’t always plan how to tie their outreach efforts into program delivery and how successful program delivery can in turn help influence outreach and participation in their programs. Similarly, advocacy organizations spend lots of time doing outreach, but often spend less time thinking about the service aspect of their work to retain and keep supporters happy.

Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to exhaustively review every process. Rather, use the exercise to identify the important recurring types of interaction processes your software will need to support.


3) Understand Your Process Mix

Your final step is to prioritize your constituent groups and processes to get an idea of your mix. A youth development organization with “service” heavy processes – incident reporting, service plans, personal goals, outcomes – but that relies primarily on client referrals will need strong service tracking capabilities with less rigorous “marketing” functionality. A membership-based organization, alternatively, will need tools with strong marketing and sales functionality.







Advocates for a Public Advocacy Organization



Broad outreach efforts to public



Mostly simple sales processes focusing on donations, calls to action, get out the vote



Respond to questions; provide information about the impact of their actions


Members in a Trade Association



Some outreach to support membership and event sales



Complex sales including higher cost memberships. Simple sales of events and merchandise



Respond to inquiries


Clients of a Service Organization

(homeless, legal rights)



Some outreach, but relatively limited.





Complex case management, outcomes management


Defining what CRM Means For You

Understanding your processes and constituents is an on-going process. The more you think about these issues, the more sophisticated you will become at tweaking your processes to improve the experience of your constituents…and bring more value to your organization.

As you unravel and improve your processes you’ll also be able to look with confidence for technology tools to support your CRM effort. But that’s another article - we’ll cover the strategies and considerations for CRM software selection in in Part Two of this article, coming in June.


Paul Hagen is the founding partner of Hagen 20/20 ( a consultancy that helps social enterprises and nonprofit organizations scale through the effective use of technology. He provides business and technology planning, change management, process re-engineering, and project management services for clients. Previously, Paul was a senior analyst at Forrester Research where he led research efforts on technologies such as customer relationship management (CRM), knowledge management, personalization, search and intelligent agents, online education, collaboration tools, and interface design. Paul's career started in the nonprofit and education sector (U.S. Peace Corps, Teach For America, Edison Schools), and he's held advisory board positions for the National Strategy for Nonprofit Technology (now N-TEN), Youth Technology Entrepreneurs, and Purple Sun. Paul holds a M.Ed. from Harvard and a B.A. from Stanford.

Steven Backman of Database Design Associates, Peter Campbell of TechCafeteria, and Laura Quinn also contributed to this article.