Nonprofit CRM – What’s it to ya?






In our just-released study on trends in nonprofit Constituent Relationship Management (CRM), the most challenging of the nine questions we asked nonprofits was undoubtedly, “What is your organization’s definition of CRM?”  It’s a challenging question for a few reasons:

  1. It’s a big topic that can cover a lot of territory
  2. It’s a relatively new topic in the nonprofit sector, and we’re all finding our way in it
  3. It’s specific to each organization. As each organization culls through the possibilities, ideally they’ll land on what’s important to them.

The first reason can lead to sprawling definitions — so large that they don’t actually define CRM at all. The second means there aren’t many guide posts and precedents yet. And finally, because CRM ultimately needs to be specific to an organization to be most useful, each organization must dedicate sufficient effort toward investigating CRM and crafting a unique definition.

So what does this all mean?

First, it means that CRM is still cutting edge in our sector and only being fully engaged with by a small group of organizations that necessarily devote significant resources to ensure success.  Second, each organization and person that engages in nonprofit CRM is, to some extent, blazing their own trail. That said, this blog and our recent paper are an attempt to create a forum in which we can collectively explore the topic — so none of us starts from scratch, and lessons and insights can be shared.

With that spirit guiding us, we asked three top thinkers in the world of nonprofits and technology to weigh in with their definitions of CRM. Take a look at what they have to say:


Tal Frankfurt, Founder/CEO,  Cloud for Good

CRM is much more than a Constituent Relationship Management application; our clients use it to build, cultivate, and manage relationships with donors, volunteers, cases, clients, dogs, trees, and cars. It is an organization-wide strategy designed to help you become more effective and efficient in your effort to achieve your mission. A good CRM will help you centralize internal and external information and create an institutional memory needed for your organization’s growth. Getting started with a CRM is about having a clear plan. Just as you wouldn’t build a house without a blueprint, you don’t want to start a database without a plan. It will help you communicate with everyone, do things in the right order, identify key resources, and keep a clear end date in mind.


Laura Quinn, Executive Director, Idealware

From Idealware’s perspective, CRM is a technology strategy more than a specific system. It’s the pursuit of getting all the information about all the different ways you work with all your constituents into a central place, where it’s easy for your staff to see exactly how each constituent has been involved. Have they donated? Volunteered? Attended a program, or talked to a staff member? If so, what are the details? You could implement this strategy by using a single system, or you could integrate multiple systems together to get to the same vision. And like many strategies, it can be a work in progress for an organization, as there’s often one more constituent or set of information to try to incorporate.


Mark Topping, Director, Solutions and Consulting, NPower NY

To me, CRM is a platform for possibilities. When a foundation or a nonprofit says to me, “we want to do [X] to be more efficient, more effective or more engaged” the answer is usually “Yes, CRM can do that.” Whether the problem is easier access to data, a better understanding of resources and relationships or the ability to change the way work is done and constituents are engaged, CRM has redefined our expectations of limitations and opportunities. It has allowed us and the nonprofits we support to focus less on technology and more on the possibilities for transformation.


What’s your definition? What do you think of what’s been offered here?

Keith Heller

About Keith Heller

Before establishing Heller Consulting in 1996, Keith managed information and operations in the development office of The Exploratorium in San Francisco. Taking his know-how for both technology and nonprofit operations, he has developed services for organizations using nonprofit software, and personally worked with over a hundred organizations, large and small. Keith has a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton College in Minnesota, and frequently speaks at local, regional and national conferences for nonprofit professionals.

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