All About CRMs

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Think of your nonprofit’s fundraising CRM (Customer Relationship Management software) as both “container” and “tool.” While you can use it to simply record donations and produce reports, it can also be used more comprehensively to identify and analyze new sources of funding, cultivate and deepen relationships, grow and communicate with your audiences, manage events and programs, evaluate participation and other service outcomes, and set fundraising goals. Your CRM can be a strategic partner for more than simply fundraising.

To demystify the CRM selection and implementation process, Plan A Advisors partnered with Jeffrey Leib Consulting for this “how to.”

Assess Your Needs

What does your nonprofit need from a CRM? Beyond basic database management and fundraising functions, your CRM can do a whole lot for you. Features differ between products, so you will want to select one best suited to your nonprofit’s needs. If you rely heavily on marketing, you’ll want to look to products that have invested in building email tools or have an integration with an industry-standard third-party product, such as Constant Contact or Mailchimp. If your nonprofit has scheduled programs like classes or tours, be sure to look for software that can manage registrations and isn’t limited to fundraising events. If you rely heavily on direct mail, look for a CRM offering in-depth reporting that includes solicitation tracking, responses, and goals (and, if possible, expenses to give gross/net insights). If there’s a capital campaign on the horizon, seek a product that helps you move prospects through the cultivation cycle using moves management features and with accessible storage for donor analytics and wealth data.

What’ll it cost? CRMs have up-front costs for initial software licenses, software customization and configuration, ongoing licensing and maintenance fees, and the personnel to keep it running effectively and productively. Keep in mind that most systems calibrate their fees to the number of records in your system, rather than the number of users. As your record count grows over time, so too will your fees. You can expect to pay between $49 – $500/month for up to 5,000 records, depending on the sophistication of the CRM. Know that terms and prices, in most cases, are negotiable so don’t be afraid to ask your preferred vendor for a concession – especially towards the end of a quarter when they’re working to meet sales quotas. You can also ask to spread high first-year costs over the life of an initial three-to-five-year contract. Note: Your CRM vendor collects fees for credit card transactions they process; don’t forget to calculate these projected costs in your totals; anywhere from 1.5-3.5%.

Select a Product

Compare products. Catalog the features you think you need. Create a worksheet for side-by-side comparison of the CRM software you are considering. (Here’s a sample.) Use Capterra to compare features and read user reviews of popular CRM choices. Reach out to other nonprofits that use the software you are considering, including both references a vendor submits, and others you may be aware of through your network of colleagues. In some cases, particular products are designed for specific fields such as education, healthcare and legal services, and therefore include unique features (e.g., enhanced security for HIPAA compliance or weekly registration options for day camps). Catalog desired features that are “musts” vs. “nice to have” and let your salesperson work up a quote. Compare the experience that the user can expect with one product versus another. Each vendor can also demonstrate the way their CRM produces reports using criteria you’ve set to meet your needs. (Make your request complex to see how the vendor responds.) Compare the kind of support that’s offered – which can be a big differentiator. And never take “yes” for an answer; always have vendors demonstrate functionality rather than make promises.

Select your vendor. Choosing your next CRM is high stakes. Your up-front investment can be significant; there are ongoing costs for licensing, maintenance, and staffing; and your contract represents a long-term liability on your balance sheet. Ask for a free trial before making your pick. Whichever CRM you choose, your solution should be adaptable to future needs as your nonprofit’s CRM use increases and your operations become more sophisticated.

Commonly used CRM products for nonprofits today include Raiser’s Edge, Neon, Bloomerang, Little Green Light, Network for Good, SalesForce, Salsa and CIVI CRM, among many others.

Can’t We All Get Along?

Integrations. You’ll want your CRM to “talk to” other software used by your nonprofit. Smaller vendors tend to invest in integrations with industry standard third-party software such as QuickBooks, Eventbrite, Mailchimp, and Constant Contact. Smaller companies also tend to be compatible with ecosystems like Zapier, that allow for integration between your CRM and many widely used third-party solutions. Some bigger players tend to promote “walled garden” products by facilitating integrations with their own companion solutions. While this ensures tight end-to-end control of your data, and a single vendor point-of-contact, the products they offer can be expensive, require specialized knowledge, and may even be inferior to popular third-party solutions already on the market. The bigger playser do, however, offer APIs for custom integrations (“Application Programming Interface”: a digital key that allows two applications to communicate with one another to access data).

Scenario Testing. “Open platform” or “walled garden” solution? Decide what’s best for your nonprofit by testing various scenarios to compare, feature by feature, integrated single-vendor software with CRMs that easily integrate compatible third-party software. Think about your nonprofit’s capacity to manage multiple systems (software oversight, separate contracts, separate support, etc.). For third-party integrations, understand up front how data feeds back into your CRM. Test “use-case scenarios” to see how a product can meet a specific need such as reports demonstrating year-over-year fundraising metrics, queries on cumulative giving using a variety of parameters or filters, organizing moves in the CRM as well as in Outlook, or the ability to reforecast modified goals without losing an original forecast. Accept concessions; no single product can do everything you want and need it to.

Spend Money to Make Money

Budget appropriately. Plan to spend annually on software licensing and maintenance, figuring expected incremental increases in vendor pricing and fee increases specific to your nonprofit based on a growing record count as you add constituents. Budget, too, for the cost of hiring staff with experience, and attendant costs for ongoing training, requisite conference attendance and professional development with an eye towards retaining and empowering staff; a revolving door interrupts database continuity. You’ll also want to budget for consulting hours from your vendor or from your own technology consultant; inevitably, you’ll need them.

Staff up! Proper database administration is now, properly, a full-time job – at least for nonprofits with multiple, integrated systems such as event management, marketing, financial and other dedicated software. Even in smaller nonprofits with a sizable database, administration is no longer something to parcel off to someone with multiple other responsibilities. Grant your database administrator the authority to make decisions to maintain healthy systems as well as advise as needs grow and change. Don’t under-resource this position just because the administrator isn’t a front-line fundraiser; they are indirectly but unquestionably generating revenue.

Find ways to save. Explore how your new CRM might function as an organization-wide solution for a variety of purposes – especially if your nonprofit uses other public interface software like ticketing, membership, surveying or enrollment. Invite departments beyond development to benefit from access to centralized data. Then, eliminate software that is redundant and that fragments interaction between departments, or your nonprofit’s interaction with your various audiences.

Get Ready to Import

Implementation. New systems can be stressful and time-consuming. There is no easy do-over when things don’t go right. Implementation typically takes about 12 weeks and vendors often push aggressively to maintain deadlines. The key is involving the right people without overwhelming staff as you approach your “go live” date. Avoid implementing during event season (e.g., your gala), audit season, or campaign season when you can’t afford a day of down-time and you need your colleagues’ attention. Figure six months of acclimation and troubleshooting software issues, too, once you go live.

Consider engaging a CRM consultant. If staff is running current systems while implementation is underway, consider a consultant to shoulder the burden. A consultant can serve both as your project manager and your representative with the vendor, driving implementation on your nonprofit’s behalf, engaging relevant staff only as needed so they can keep doing their jobs, and interacting with the vendor as a single (and knowledgeable) point of contact and advocate for your nonprofit.

Prepare your data. Clean it up before you import it! Preparation for data migration is a great time to edit text files and make data consistent across all your records: proper case, consistent abbreviations, and cleaned-up coding. It’s infinitely more difficult post-migration. (Revenue codes, in particular, may need rethinking so they’re more useful both for fundraising metrics and accounting needs.) Reach out to other departments to incorporate their lists. Run a National Change of Address (NCOA) report before importing your data. Consider editing your import file with “appends” such as demographic data, wealth indicators and address changes in a text file rather than in the software after you go live.

Now You Are Live!

Getting support. Your CRM vendor will include staff training in your initial package. Decide if a live instructor is a priority; some vendors offer only pre-recorded training sessions. You’ll have access, as well, to your vendor’s “knowledgebase” offering ready answers to common questions and solutions to common problems. Vendor support is typically provided through consultation by phone (ask about wait times), by chat (usually cheaper) or by email (cheapest!) – but email takes more time for back-and-forth to get an issue resolved. Your vendor will sell packages of support hours; and you should buy more than you think you need. Periodically, vendors offer bulk hours “on sale;” just be sure to ask if hours have an expiration date.

Make a manual. CRM vendors provide instructions for operating their software, but only in general terms. Create a database manual that documents processes and procedures to operate the software for your nonprofit and have staff contribute to it, like a wiki, over time. Soon you’ll have your own knowledgebase to call on – especially important for consistency and continuity as personnel changes in any nonprofit are inevitable.