Selecting a Nonprofit CRM System? Start with the Strategy!

7 Things to Think About Before You Implement a Fundraising System

Constituent Relationship Management, or CRM, has changed dramatically in the last decade. As recently as the year 2000, especially for small nonprofits, the central database usually lived on one computer in the office. If you needed a list of all your donors in the last 30 days, you had to schedule time when that computer was free to run it. Once you got that list, you were lucky if your database had a report that helped you print mailing labels. Analytics? Your best bet at understanding your data was having a staffer with pivot table skills.

These days, we access our databases through a browser, we can send thousands of targeted and personalized emails with a few clicks of a mouse, and we can run sophisticated reports with amazing visualizations without opening Excel. CRM is powerful and feature-rich, allowing even small organizations to do things enterprise organizations struggled with a short time ago.

For some nonprofit leaders, this abundance of possibility is a welcome opportunity to push their organizations in new directions. For others, this overwhelming preponderance of possibility is just plain confusing. Regardless of outlook, the outcome is often the same, a database that simply does not do what you want it to , the way you want it to. That’s because for both kinds of leaders, there is a problem, a problem I call “feature tunnel vision.”

Feature tunnel vision, which I consider to be a heinous mistake, is the process of selecting a database based on its feature set. Didn’t that sound heinous? No? Well, let’s reconsider, via metaphor.

Let’s say that you are in the market for a house. You most certainly have a list of features you are looking for – number of bedrooms and bathrooms, types of appliances, yard size. But if you shopped for a house based solely on its features, you would most likely be sorely disappointed. Sure, you might get the number of bedrooms you wanted, but they might also be really small. Choosing a CRM solely for its features almost certainly leads to a poor fit.

It doesn’t take long to realize the shortcomings of this strategy, which is why we’ve taken it to the next level. I call this “process obsession.” In process obsession, we clearly document exactly how we process a donation check, and look for the database that best aligns with that defined process. To extend our metaphor, process obsession would be like choosing a house based solely on how easy it is to get to work. Sure, your commute may be short, but how are the schools?

Certainly, CRM is a set of features and processes. But CRM is also much more than that. I particularly like Heller Consulting’s definition from their report, “Insights Into CRM for Nonprofits:” (source:

“From our perspective, nonprofit CRM begins with a strategy. 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.”

 The message is clear. Selecting a new CRM has to be driven by your strategy – how you do the work of meeting your mission.

How is choosing a CRM based on strategy different than choosing CRM based on features? It means taking a step back and starting with HOW you need to accomplish your work. Is your fundraising strategy rooted in direct appeals or friend-raising? How online donations are handled will be very different in each case. Are you focused on influencing decision-makers or building a grass-roots movement? The types of email features you’ll need won’t be similar.

Starting with strategy also helps you prioritize. Just like that house purchase, you almost never find a CRM that can do everything on your wish list. Nonprofits can often get stuck at this stage, when the fundraising team insists that the reporting features they want are way more important than the data entry ease that the program staff are lobbying for. If the organization’s strategy is centered on a fast, friendly customer experience, it makes prioritizing that data entry screen a lot easier.

What I find most compelling about this approach – CRM as extension of strategy – is that it empowers nonprofit leaders to drive CRM selection. Nonprofit leaders are the stewards of strategy in their organizations, which means they are perfectly positioned to contribute to the CRM discussion, regardless of their tech expertise. Most nonprofit leaders would be hard pressed to understand the comparative advantages of a SOAP vs. a REST API, but every nonprofit leader can ask “How does that feature support our community strategy?” And every nonprofit leader will know if the answer is a good one.

It’s unlikely that the next decade brings fewer changes to the world of CRM than the last, but if nonprofit leaders begin to see their connection to CRM through strategy, it won’t matter. We won’t simply have better databases to choose from, we’ll have the power to choose the RIGHT one.

Holly Ross

About Holly Ross

Holly has been at NTEN since 2003, working with community members to identify the technology trends that will reshape the nonprofit sector. From ubiquitous access to technology leadership to social media, Holly brings the wisdom of the NTEN crowd to the nonprofit sector. Holly has been recognized as one of the Nonprofit Times Power and Influence Top 50 three times, in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Holly is also editor of "Managing Technology to Meet Your Mission: A Strategic Guide for Nonprofit Leaders" and has written a chapter in "Nonprofit Management 101: A Complete and Practical Guide for Leaders and Professionals," both available from Jossey-Bass. Holly came to nonprofit technology after working for social change at CALPIRG and during her college days at UC Berkeley. In between meetings and emailing, Holly tries to raise her daughter and occasionally pays attention to her fabulous husband.

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