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Fundraising CRMs

Executive Takeaways

Policy and strategy go first. What do you want your gift officers to do? What are your auditors going to be requesting?¬† The way your building your system has immense influence over how work will get done and even the types of work that will get done. Ask for internal or external advice, but think through these issues first. Although…

Don’t over-design. Assume you’ll have to make changes and don’t try to get it perfect (at great cost) until you’re actually using it. That means you’ll need to…

Plan for change, then double the ongoing maintenance budget. You’re always going to be needing to make tweaks, new strategies will require new reports, things change. Make sure you’ll be able to make them or your operations will grind to a halt. As you deal with larger organizations, change management becomes more of an issue.

Self-service. Make sure your users (development officers, reporting positions, admins) can pull all the data they need on their own.

Document everything inside the database. I’ve never worked in an established organization that hadn’t created thousands of reports AND actually explained what these reports did and how to use them. Assume that the people using the CRM will change every 18 months. The documentation needs to be right there in the database, not in some shared folder that everybody forgets about.

Everything else, you can figure out as you go. ūüôā

Pre-CRM Thought Experiment

We’ve all bought into the concept that a CRM is indispensable and this is probably a good thing. But, I’d like you to imagine fundraising’s pre-CRM days.

There were rooms full of files, lots of cards, and scores of librarians or administrative positions to manage the input/output of data.

Then all that went away and we started looking at a screen that holds supposedly equivalent information.

What has improved since we started using CRMs? What is worse now?

Here are some possible answers:

  1. We save money on administrative staff. Maybe. I don’t have specific data from the pre-CRM days but wouldn’t be 100% sure about this since we have had to hire entire IT departments to manage the systems.
  2. We gain visibility into the actions of frontline fundraisers. This requires that they file contact reports and record their activity, which is not a given in every organization. This has, for the most part, worked out well.  We are now able to manage larger fundraising organizations than ever before.
  3. Facilitates reporting to auditors, to the board, etc. Psychologically, people trust “what the database says.” There is a level of built-in trust in separating the data from the humans who enter it.¬†

    Q: “Have you done anything in the last 3 months?”¬†

    A: “Yes! This report showed that we’ve had 354 substantive actions with as many current and future donors, presented proposals to 170, of which 82 have been accepted raising a total of¬†$1,435,234.”
  4. We have the database enforce our policies.

    i.e. Gift officers must make 250 meaningful contacts per year. All contact reports must have a next step with a date attached to it. 

    Even defining “meaningful contact” is a way for you to prioritize specific types of interaction with donors. Hopefully, because you believe that these are conducive to better fundraising results. For example, events don’t count, short emails don’t count but longer, substantive ones might.

    In other words, you use a CRM to be more consistent.
  5. It is also a tool to help distribute information. Managers and sometimes entire teams want to see who is talking to who and what transpired in these conversations.
  6. On the other hand, because access can be restricted granularly, it can be a way to keep certain information confidential from the rest of the organization.
  7. CRMs allow big data analysis in ways that manual systems didn’t.

    And yet, the great conundrum of our times is that the promises of big data remain so elusive. I have worked with Blackbaud products (Raiser’s Edge, Nxt), Ellucian Advance, Abila, Tessitura, homemade and have yet to encounter a system that allowed you to perform a keyword search of contact reports, much less was using the data in donor profiles to do any sort of tagging.
  8. Allows many users to simultaneously make changes. (vs. a spreadsheet.)

    This is a big benefit but also holds some hidden traps. If you allow lots of people to change the info in the database, you’re going to need a way to enforce data policies (is it Mr., Mr, or mr?) and include lots of context and explanations to make it dumb-proof.
  9. This means you need input validation, data sanitization, and lots of contextual documentation. I have yet to see this done extraordinarily well.

Couldn’t We Just Use a Spreadsheet?

If you work in a large organization, you’ll probably be laughing this email into your trash folder right now.

Nevertheless, for the vast majority of nonprofits this is a legitimate question. I feel the answer isn’t so obvious.

The problem with CRMs is that, unless you’ve given thought to all 8 of the points above and have good answers to them, rushing into a CRM can cause you much pain down the line.

Oftentimes, small or startup nonprofits do not have the expertise to set the systems up in ways that can grow with them. CRM vendors are not of much help here. Their understanding of fundraising operations and strategy is limited and their incentives don’t exactly align with yours.

In my view the answer is yes. A spreadsheet that is thoughtfully set up, allows you to record contact notes separately, and has some minimal reporting can take you a long way until you are finding it hard to operate with it. I.e. if you have more than one gift officers, or multiple people are making edits to the spreadsheet at the same time, or several thousand donor records.

I’ve been playing around with this Basic-Best-Practice-CRM¬†idea in Google Sheets. Send me a note if you’d like a copy.

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