As an organization grows, sometimes using excel spreadsheets to keep track of donors, volunteers, and other contacts is not enough, and more powerful and complex tools for managing contacts become both necessary and convenient. These types of tools, called Constituent (or Customer) Relationship Management Software or CRMs for short, are web or desktop based tools that allow an organization to fully integrate and manage its list of members, volunteers, donors and mailing lists. Some CRMs also have advocacy and event management functions. When used correctly, a CRM will enable an organization to better target constituents, which can lead to increased attendance at events, donations, or more targeted advocacy, while also reducing the workload of staff and volunteers. Determining whether your organization should transition to a CRM is a deliberate process that requires a great deal of strategic thinking and a careful balancing of costs versus savings.

Morningside at a Social Media SurgeryLibby Bennett, Development Director for Morningside Shelter, gets social media advice at one of our Social Media Surgeries

The Vermont Digital Economy Project recently helped Groundworks Collaborative (formerly Morningside Shelter) navigate this decision making process. Goundworks Collaborative is a Brattleboro based organization founded in 1979 to provide a safe space and ongoing support to families and individuals facing the challenges of maintaining stable housing. Over the past 35 years, Morningside has used various systems, some free and some with a subscription cost, for tracking members and donors.

According to Libby Bennett, Development Director for Morningside Shelter, over time, maintaining and paying for these multiple systems resulted in growing costs and inefficiencies. “With our information spread across several programs that don’t integrate, we end up having to move information from one database to another, sometimes having to enter information one record at a time. With a small-shop development office of one, an integrated CRM will save Morningside valuable staff time, while consolidating the subscription and tech support fees we pay out to maintain multiple systems. A web-based CRM will allow us to access our records from anywhere, which will help keep our data accurate up to date.“

After examining several options, the organization has decided to transition to Salesforce. This switch will allow them to streamline their donation and database systems and reduce their costs from roughly $800 per year next-to-nothing. They will, however, incur a reasonable one-time cost for a consultant to setup and configure their new CRM.

A good CRM is an investment. With any CRM you are likely to either pay a monthly fee and/or a consultant to do the initial setup. That cost needs to be balanced against the savings in terms of staff time, service charges for outdated software, and the recovery of data not backed up on the cloud. Increases in donations and customer satisfaction should also be included in your equation. Increases in staff morale resulting from the automation of mundane tasks (or decreases resulting from frustration during implementation!) and the customer service benefits resulting from the ability to capture a better picture of who your members, volunteers, and donors may be difficult to put a number on, but should nevertheless be considered in your calculation.

Choosing the correct CRM for your organization can make the difference between a successful implementation and a failed attempt. Here are a few other factors to consider.


The purpose of any nonprofit is to serve and/or advocate for their constituents. When choosing a CRM, you should not only consider what system and what features will strategically help your organization save time and money, but also what system will make it easiest for your constituents to interact, stay informed and become increasingly involved in your effort. When choosing a CRM, it’s easy to only focus on the reputation of a brand or the features you want for your organization internally. Failing to also consider the impact on your constituents is a big mistake.


Pay attention to the features the creator of the CRM focuses on when promoting the product. What is your highest priority? Fundraising? Advocacy? Volunteer recruitment? For instance, if the main goal of your organization is to advocate for legislation, you would be wise to consider a CRM, such as SalsaLabs, whose stated goal is to “Change the World.”

An early step for any organization considering a CRM is to list all of your specific needs. One organization considering a CRM, Salvation Farms, summed up their needs as looking for the “best options for Salvation Farms regarding the management of all of our contacts: donors, volunteers, and people who want to stay-informed. This includes a customer relations management system as well as something that can integrate online sign-up forms and MailChimp.” Making this kind of list will help you make an appropriate decision for your organization.


If you use outside systems for accepting donations (like Paypal), managing an email list (like MailChimp), or accounting (like QuickBooks), your new CRM should be able to integrate with each of them. The CRM should also be able to integrate with your website’s content management system, so that, for example,  visitors to your website can seamlessly sign up for a mailing list.

Social media integration and monitoring is the new frontier in CRMs. If your organization is active on social media or would like to use social media to further engage with your constituents, asking any CRM vendor about social media integration is a must.

Remember you are transitioning to a CRM to automate processes. Be sure to map out all the processes and make sure the CRM you choose can handle them before starting the transition.

Cost vs Ease of Use

There are free powerful CRMs available to nonprofits, but some free options may lack installation and customization assistance, stability and ongoing support. Many free, as well as subscription based services, will also require you to hire an outside consultant to get set up, unless your organization has someone internally who is technically proficient.

If you chose a free option, consider an open source system, which will have an existing online community that works on and maintains the software. CiviCRM is one free CRM that has enough organizations use so that finding a consultant to set up and customize it for you, and then finding help when you need it is not a hassle. This CRM also integrates well with most content management systems including WordPress and Drupal.

One paid option is Salesforce, though through the Power of Us Program, the Salesforce Foundation will provide eligible nonprofits with 10 free licenses to the Salesforce platform Enterprise Edition as well as deep discounts on training and apps. Once you are accepted into the program, install the Nonprofit Starter Pack. There will likely be a few other add-ons that you might feel are helpful, which you can find on their AppExchange. To configure and support the system you will likely need outside assistance.

Finally, there are various monthly or annual fee options. These options have the benefit of offering assistance at the get-go and ongoing support. CRMs in this class include Raisers Edge, SugarCRM, Zoho CRM, SproutSocial, NeonCRM, Nimble, and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Each one of these has advantages and disadvantages. Do your research!

When it comes to fees, it’s also very important to read the fine print. Many services base the fee on the number of contacts in the database. Ideally your organization will be growing for years to come. Don’t pick a CRM that will become unaffordable in the near future.

Cloud-based vs Desktop

One benefit of most CRMs is that they are cloud-based. This means that data is stored off-site and is accessible by your staff from any computer. The security of having your database backed up in multiple locations is critical. Using a cloud-based system also allows you to enter contacts and access supporter information from home or the road. Many CRMs also now have smartphone apps to further increase access.

More Information

Selecting a CRM is an involved process. Affinity NFP produced a useful and in depth guide that you may want to review before embarking on the search for a CRM. The guide is from 2010 but the information is still relevant.


Managing and leveraging relationships is important for every organization. Successfully transitioning to a CRM may allow you to turn donors into board members, volunteers into donors, and email subscribers into advocates. On the other hand, failure to do research and allocate enough time and money to the project may result in months of disorganization and great expense. Make sure you do your research and plan ahead.