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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.


Donor Visit Checklist

You won’t find anything innovative in this donor visit checklist.

That’s why I love it and why it works so well. It is a simple collection of best practices that even the most experienced development officers forget from time to time when meeting with donors.

If you adapt it to how your organization works and apply it consistently, it can help you and your organization reach great heights.

Do you know the story of how legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden began the first practice of every preseason with a lesson in how to put on socks? This is the equivalent for front-line fundraisers!


Fundraising Email Checklist

This is a companion to the Fundraising Appeal Checklist.

Email has more technical parts, so using both will be beneficial. Feel free to edit!


Online Giving Form Checklist

This online giving form checklist is a tool to make sure you’re not leaving money on the table through a lack of functionality.

Would you have a phone line without an answering machine? We often forget about all the ways a giving form can help or hinder our fundraising results.

This list covers all the items I’ve been able to identify that will impact your bottom line.

Online Giving Form Security

These are basic requirements that you need to be able to securely process payments online:

  • Communication to and from the online form has to be encrypted with the https protocol. You can tell this is happen because the web address will start with “https://” instead of “http://”
  • The form has to be PCI Compliant. This is a standard enforced by credit card issuers and impacts all the places where credit card information is entered, processed, and stored.

Communications Capabilities

The online gift experience requires not only a gift form but the ability to generate emails and maybe even actual letters. All these communications reflect on your organization and impact the likelihood of a repeat gift:

  • Is the gift acknowledgement or thank you email fully customizable? Some systems will have hard-coded language that says “invoice” or “receipt.” Find a better system.
  • Will the system be able to generate reminders for pledges or recurring gifts? If someone is making an annual recurring credit card donation, a reminder beforehand will help you reduce attrition.
  • When credit cards expire, can the system handle asking donors for an updated number without human intervention?
  • Finally, for people that make multiple gifts online over a year (one-off or recurring), can the system easily provide data to send a tax-year gift summary?

Online Donation Tracking

You owe it to your donors to be as efficient and effective as possible in your online fundraising efforts. To do so, you must track the results of your fundraising efforts. Online giving forms provide ways to do it effortlessly:

  • Can you pass on data into the gift form through URL parameters? This could be an appeal code (a string of numbers and letters that will help you know what exact link the donor clicked on to fill out the form), or other useful data like campaign, user ID, etc.

Donation Form Payment Methods

In the US, credit card use is prevalent. In other countries, other systems that interface directly with your bank account are in use. Whatever the case, your form has to be able to handle all the ways that donors want to give to you:

  • The donation form must be able to allow recurring gifts.
  • If you choose to, you should be able to set recurring gifts as the default option.

Donation Form Conversion Optimization

As a fundraising operation, the form needs to make it easy for you to make on-the-fly changes and have flexibility for multiple uses while implementing conversion optimization best practices:

  • You should be able to change all the pieces of the form without IT support.
  • If you need different gift form setups for different campaigns, there should be a way to clone giving forms.
  • Support for multi-page forms is a usability best practice to deal with forms where you need to collect more info.
  • Of course, it needs to display well on all types of mobile devices.
  • A prevalent issue is “gift form abandonment” where people start to enter a gift but stop because they have a question or are interrupted. Your form should make it possible to collect their email toward the top of the form and give you this data to follow up with them. Even better if the system can detect these cases and send a nice email: “We noticed you may have had trouble with our giving form and wanted to offer to help.”
  • We know that an ask will be more effective if we present specific amounts we are asking for. On the other hand, not everybody needs the same ask amounts. The form should have a system to set these amounts variable depending on the user, link, or other factors.
  • Some large organizations have lots of projects or designations you can give to. You shouldn’t expect the donor to know them all, or even to have to choose among an enormous list of accounts. The form should allow you to “pre-designate” their gift according to the email they received or where they’re coming from on your website.
  • Finally, the giving page should not be the only place where you are able to display giving forms on your website. You need functionality to display a giving form (or the first step of your giving form) in your website header, in a popup, as a slide-in, and maybe even in an email!

Fundraising Appeal Checklist

Fundraising appeal checklists like this one have helped us consistently achieve strong results.

I collected all the best practices I’ve tested to create the one below.

Aren’t checklists infantilizing?

On the contrary, they are critical for consistently high performance in complex environments.

From Atul Gawande’s “Checklist Manifesto:”

Substantial parts of what software designers, financial managers, firefighters, police officers, lawyers, and most certainly clinicians do are now too complex for them to carry out reliably from memory alone.

The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.

I’ve received lots of questions since sharing the Fundraising Appeal Checklist. Here are some of the most frequent:

Q: How do I use the Fundraising Appeal Checklist?

A: There are two types of checklists. The first is like a list of instructions (think of McDonald’s), specific steps that you need to follow. The second is like a reminder of important areas (think of an emergency room). This is the second type. 

Workflow-wise, you can require every appeal to be accompanied by a checklist before publication, or you can review as a group to make sure every appeal is the best it can be. Not every box has to be checked, but at least you should have thought about it.

Q: What do you mean by Gamification in fundraising?

A: Anything you’re asking the donor to do that is not making a gift. Ideas I’ve seen include 3-question surveys, notecards for the donor to send a message to a professor, nurse, or service recipient, or checklists with a mark for every year donated and the current one blank. In non-fundraising direct mail, I’ve seen games with stickers and crossword-like quizzes.

Q: Should/can we edit it?

A: Yes, please! Use this as a starting point. In fact, surgical teams have seen surprising safety and performance increases when they develop their own. Every development shop will need something different.


Digital Philanthropy – Summer Learning Series

If you are in the DMV area, come join Louis Diez on August 14, 2019 at 9am for breakfast and an overview of digital fundraising.

Nonprofit Montgomery
6010 Executive Blvd., Suite 200
Rockville, MD  20852

Case Study

Top 10 Private University Graduate School

Graduate School Sees Alumni Participation Growth to 34% with Giving Events Strategy

Case Study

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Day of Giving

Day of Giving and Website Effectiveness Assessment Increased Online Gifts by 343%


Fundraisers: Up Your Email Game

A White Paper on Email use in Nonprofit Development and Advancement

10/23/2022 update: We added two additional sections on email deliverability and email automation. We also included information about our Donor Welcome Series service.

Email is an inexpensive and powerful communication tool but it must be used well.

In this 16-page white paper, I lay out a comprehensive guide to every aspect of email that I have found to impact fundraising results.

As a bonus, you’ll find an example of a Giving Day email sequence and schedule I have used effectively in different organizations. Feel free to copy!


Future of Fundraising

This whitepaper is about how annual giving needs to change to stay relevant.

Essentially, it says that you need to leverage technology to communicate and provide meaning to people in a more human way, not less.

I was somewhat inspired by jidoka or automation with a human touch.

Download: Toward A New Annual Giving Paradigm