The Pitfalls of Choosing Your Organization’s CRM

Donor records are your organization’s relationship institutional memory. When it comes to data systems, I run across two kinds of situations a lot.

One is the established community institution with the expensive Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool — like Raiser’s Edge — that has never bothered to maintain its donor records, let alone taken advantage of all the rich features they’re paying gobs of money for.

The other is the scrappy younger organization that picked the cheapest CRM they could get. Cost was probably their only consideration. Not much other due diligence went into the decision.

They bought that house without checking out the neighborhood. Once the furniture is moved in, the cable is hooked up, and the flowers are planted, it’s hard when you find out your next door neighbor rehearses his heavy metal band every Friday night until midnight in the garage outside your bedroom window. You make do with workarounds — like earplugs, or sleeping at your mom’s. The prospect of moving is too daunting and costly. Nightmare!

Picking the wrong CRM is just like buying that wrong house. The cost of staff time, migration, a new system, and the inevitable learning curve will keep you locked into the wrong tool and hobble your ability to fund your mission. Sometimes for years and years.

Here are some key things to think about when shopping for a CRM:

  • How many constituents do we engage and how big do we think that pool will grow to be in the next five years?
  • What are our fundraising and stewardship tactics? (membership, direct mail, major giving, events, peer to peer, the works?)
  • What other systems does our CRM need to integrate with? (Quickbooks, Web Site)
  • What kind of dashboarding, reporting, analytics do we need to be nimble at tracking activity, and reporting/analyzing results?
  • What kind of training, and initial and ongoing tech support will we need?
  • What kind of staff time will migration take, and how long is a typical migration process?
  • Is it secure, reliable, and available 24 hours/day?

“What CRM do you use?” People ask this question on nonprofit social media all the time. They often get this response, “We use Salesforce. It’s free!” Many organizations have jumped on that Salesforce bandwagon. And why not! Right?

Salesforce was created during the dot com boom as a project management and CRM tool for corporate sales. In the mid-2000s Oracle began offering it to nonprofits at no charge and continues this mission through the Salesforce Foundation. Just one catch. Salesforce was not designed for nonprofit fundraising. As an open source, totally customizable data management tool, it provides a shell from which organizations are intended to construct or bolt on desired components or, in many cases, tailor components to suit their particular activities — like event registration.

Quite often, nonprofit organizations are surprised and overwhelmed by the demands of this customization process. Around this overwhelm, a thriving Salesforce consultancy industry has mushroomed. Using Salesforce means having to rely and budget on an ongoing basis for a Salesforce consultant who will help you customize Salesforce initially, and on an ongoing basis as your business needs shift. So free, as it turns out, isn’t actually “free.”

One Salesforce migration I was part of as an interim leader took a year to fully complete. Not long after the staff person leading the migration was hired away by the Salesforce consulting firm as one of their consultants! The nonprofit didn’t know what it had signed up for. The staff time, the manual work arounds during “construction,” the struggle to get the various systems talking with one another — super stressful — like living next door to a metal head.

So drive around the neighborhood! Even if a very smart board member from the tech industry insists he knows better than you, even if you read it on social media, take no one’s word as gospel. Your CRM is a strategic investment and a crucial management decision. Do your homework! (Please and thank you.)

There are many outstanding CRM tools on the market designed specifically for nonprofit fundraising and stewardship, including tools that pair seamlessly with a range of online engagement applications. You can have it all, go a la carte, or skip all the bells and whistles and keep it pared down. Your needs drive the choice.

In spite of the ugly big data culture of commerce, Russian spying, manipulation and disrespect for people’s privacy, our sector is people centered. As such, we must view data collection in the context of respect for our constituents. This means fostering these people-centered values throughout the organization around data collection and use. Keep your data clean and up to date, store meaningful and accurate details that inform the way you steward your donor, and look at results in ways that allow you to tailor your approaches without having to spend tons of time combing through excel spreadsheets.

A word about analytics and wealth screening: Until your data is in good shape and deep enough, save your money. Junk in. Junk out. Prioritize getting your data in shape before you spend thousands on wealth screening, and analytics. Start with simple reports that you can pull yourself about recency, consistency, frequency, and levels of giving. This simple analysis will point you to people you are probably neglecting who are jumping up and down screaming “I love your mission.” Don’t wait a year. Start now. Ask these people how they fell in love. This is what good data can make possible. Real, honest to goodness connections that matter and inspire.

When you do decide to move on to your next exciting fundraising position, you will have left behind a strong institutional memory that’s not locked in your head. Your organization will be in the enviable position of building on the foundation you laid. Your mission will be in good hands.


What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.

Copyright November 2017

Hiring a Consultant

Beware the consultant with all the answers. Beware the consultant who agrees with everything you say. Look for someone who helps you explore your assumptions, what you are seeking, and why.

For instance, if you want to raise more money, what will that mean? If you need a strategic plan, what will that plan result in? You may come to the initial conversation having carefully drafted a “Request for Proposal,” eager to post it online, or blast it out to ten consultants. But hold on. Would you use this approach to find a marriage counselor? How about a car mechanic? A realtor? An RFP invites a consultant to sell you.

Of course, you have a strong sense about what you need. You have filters for your search. You know a lot. If you blow this choice, there isn’t another pot of money for a do over. So, yes. There’s a lot riding on it. Precisely because of that, it helps to come to the process with big ears, and an open mind about what your investment in a consultant might mean for your organization.

A consultant is a business investment that yields short and long-term benefits — especially when you aim for those benefits intentionally. For example, any of the following:

  • A sharper story of impact to attract donors and funders;
  • A program strategy that’s easy to track and convey;
  • A strategic lens to analyze how to respond to opportunities;
  • Lower turnover; or
  • More engaged board members.

These upstream benefits solve downstream symptoms.

To do this deeper work, your relationship with your consultant must be more than transactional. You must be allies. This kind of alliance has three basic elements:

  • Connection
  • Mutuality
  • Agreement on the purpose and approach of the work

If there is not a strong connection, stop. If the CEO or Executive Director feels a strong connection with the consultant and the board does not, stop. A relationship with a consultant is fundamentally about trust, which takes time to build. If you don’t start with at least a sense of connection your chances of getting to trust are pretty low.

Connection is easy to spot. Do you feel at ease? Do your ideas flow? Can you be candid? Do you like one another? Does this person listen? No need to overthink. This is a quick yes or no.

Mutuality is not so quick. Mutuality and buy in are linked. If you see your consultant as the savior with all the answers, if she is going to do all the work while you sit back, or if you are interested in tools and tricks, but don’t want to bother your board, or change your approach, you are setting yourself up for disappointment, and setting your consultant up for failure. Save yourself the money and buy a book.

As you work out your agreement, even if you don’t know all you are getting into, as hokey as it may sound, understand you are embarking on a journey together. Along the way, mutuality means supporting one another and working through challenges as a team.

Finally, agreeing on purpose and approach is an essential part of your contracting discussion. This means agreeing on outcomes, milestones, processes. Build this into your written agreement. Surprises are inevitable. By agreeing on your approach from the outset, you can work together to adjust the plan as needed along the way.

So, you’ve hired a consultant! Because your choice is built on a foundation of shared understanding, mutuality, and connection, you created the conditions for success. Even better, you gained a long-term coach and ally. Maybe even a friend.


Andrea John-Smith helps organizations succeed with a purpose and a plan. Her mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we want and deserve. A strategic planning geek, she has guided scores of organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out case studies here.

Copyright June 2017