CRM For Nonprofits, It’s a Strategy Not a Software


I spend a lot of time thinking about CRM.  It’s kind of an obsession.  It wasn’t always this way.  But then again, until fairly recently, it really wasn’t worth thinking about because it really wasn’t possible for or available to the nonprofit sector.

But today, it’s the buzz in the nonprofit sector. Idealware recently posted an article about 10 Things to Consider in a CRM. In late March, NTEN offered an online session about implementing CRM to advance your mission.  And a whole host of software vendors – including Blackbaud, Convio (now Blackbaud), and – are promoting their CRM products for nonprofits.

So what is this “CRM”?  You tech-heads out there probably have an idea.  And, if you’ve been in the commercial sector, you’ve been pitched CRM for years.

If you’ll allow me a little latitude, I’ll take a swing at a working definition for us nonprofit folk.  (Note: I consider this definition collaborative!  It comes out of conversations with many nonprofit clients and colleagues and will only get better as others contribute.)

Let’s start with a basic definition from the commercial sector, where CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management.  In common parlance, it’s come to refer to a single software system that supports three areas:

  • marketing
  • sales
  • customer service/support

But according to Ye Olde Wikipedia, it starts with a strategy and includes business processes, not just software. The goal of this strategy is “to find, attract, and win new clients, nurture and retain those the company already has, entice former clients back into the fold, and reduce the costs of marketing and client service”.  With a bit of simple copy/pasting we could begin to translate this to the nonprofit sector as follows:

The goal of a nonprofit’s CRM strategy is to find, attract, and win new [constituents], nurture and retain those the [organization] already has, entice former [constituents] back into the fold, and reduce the costs (and/or increase the efficiency and efficacy) of [communications] and providing service to their [constituents].

There… that’s a pretty good start.  Nonprofit CRM starts with a strategy.  It will enlist technology and business practices in the service of that strategy, but the starting point is a focus on the constituent — how can we best serve them?

This is an exciting point!  This is how every nonprofit starts — with the vision, aspiration and drive to best serve its constituents.  In fact, although the notion of CRM was started in the commercial sector, I think it’s even more applicable in the nonprofit sector.  The goal of commercial CRM is to increase profits by selling more products and reducing costs.  The goal for nonprofits is to increase the reach and impact of their missions, positively impacting more people more deeply.

And who are the constituents of a nonprofit?  There are many….  And I’ll cover that in my next posting!

What do you think?


The Connected Cause is a place for experts in the nonprofit online space to share perspective, offer guidance and promote best practices for using today’s technology effectively. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive source of collaborative thought leadership for the nonprofit industry.


  1. Technically non-profits would not think of investing in a CRM system. The main reason being the cost. However, you have highlighted some valid points as to how it can benefit them. A CRM system can help them streamline their functions & improve efficiency which would have a deeper impact on their reach and help them improve their bottom line. Great post! Thank you.

  2. Many of the nonprofit organizations I’ve worked with are staffed by their strongest supporters! The very people that work in these organizations do so for the myriad reasons that we all love this market – not the least of which is… BECAUSE THEY DO MATTERS! My point then, is that “CRM” must also engage the organization’s staff (and by extension volunteers) as one of the most valuable assets – in both the strategy and the tool (Hans & Claire – I believe this supports your ideas of app ecosystems and adoption posted above). Too often, we see the tool and/or the strategy as outwardly facing… I’d suggest we start from within.

  3. Hans Carter

    Another point – unfortunately for many organizations, CRM often ends up looking like data entry “overhead” for lack of simple processes/tools and staff understanding of how the collection and aggregation of reliable constituent data in a system can benefit the mission, particularly in larger, distributed non-profits.

    A well articulated CRM strategy can get everyone on board with doing those “extra” steps that will improve the usefulness of your CRM system and ultimately benefit a non-profit’s sustainability. Many an implementation fails to realize their hoped for value because the “what’s in it for us” is never made clear to the people involved in working with the system daily and those that manage them.

    Adoption is a huge challenge for any system, and CRM is usually characterized by “optional behavior”. A good strategy will address that issue head-on.

  4. I’ve always loved the Lewis Carroll quote (and I may be paraphrasing): If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. So, yes, it makes total sense!

  5. Claire, great comment. I particularly concur with your observation about the importance of strategy. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ve got a much lower chance of getting there. (If that even makes sense…) And about silos – we’re hoping / advocating that Social doesn’t become another one, like email was for so many years (and still is for many folks). It’s too much for organizations to juggle, and there are too many opportunities and benefits missed by keeping all that data separate. Thanks for writing!

  6. Love the blog… great idea!

    IMHO CRM is both a strategy and a system (aka software). The latter is one tool that helps to make the CRM strategy “so” (as the Star Trek captain would say!). A tool won’t really do much for you if you don’t know what you want to build or how to use the tool. And that’s the problem with use of CRM software in nonprofits today. Many have a 747 that they use to motor down to the corner grocery. They’re not taking advantage of all that it can do (or they’ve got a system that’s too big for their needs).

    The other challenge is integrating CRM software with all the other CRM tools at our disposal. One can argue (and I will!) that social media is also part of CRM strategy. And direct mail. And special events. It’s all part of how we relate to and engage with our constituents. It’s a multi-channel world out there, and our strategy needs to embrace more than one tool.

    That’s all for now… this is a huge topic. 😉


  1. St. Jude’s “Constituent” Relationship Management | St. Jude: Spotlight on Marketing Success - […] relating this business practice to a non-profit. However, Heller Consulting non-profit resource, The Connected Cause, bridges this gap in…
  2. Why you should use a CRM for your nonprofit « PICnet Blog - […] of it in terms of strategy, as The Connected Cause explains. What CRM software does in general is find…
  3. Coming Soon: Insights from Nonprofits on CRM | The Connected Cause - [...] have been all a-buzz about Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) lately. As I mentioned in a recent post, Idealware posted…
  4. Coming Soon: Insights from Nonprofits on CRM | The Connected Cause - [...] have been all a-buzz about Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) lately. As I mentioned in a recent post, Idealware posted…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *