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A Few Good CRM Tools

Is a constituent relationship management system a good fit for your nonprofit or charity?

A Few Good CRM Tools
Elizabeth Pope - June 24, 2013
Is a CRM system a good fit for your organization? Take a look at some of the determining factors as well as recommendations about specific tools available.

This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to

Your organization maintains relationships with a number of people in a number of different groups, some discrete, some overlapping, and being able to track and manage information about those relationships is critical to your success.

For example, maybe you have a devoted volunteer who has given faithfully to your annual campaign for years, participates in the walkathon, and got his company to match donations his coworkers make to your organization. Ideally, you have relationships with dozens of people like him, or more. In the not-so-distant past, we relied on a combination of paper files, institutional knowledge, and notes in various constituent databases to track all those details about them in a way that's accessible and actionable. But technology can provide a more holistic view of constituents — to see the different ways in which they're involved, and make sure they're being shepherded to even greater levels of commitment.

While some databases are designed to provide a detailed look into only one constituent group, like your donors or your volunteers, a constituent relationship management (CRM) system is meant to provide a high-level look at all of your different constituents. They're often marketed as "all-in-one" database solutions.

Is a CRM a good fit for your nonprofit or charity? Let's take a closer look at some of the determining factors before diving into recommendations about specific tools available to you.

Do I Need a CRM System?

Think of constituent relationship management like fishing: You can use a shallow net and catch a lot of fish, or a deep net to catch those big guys lurking at the bottom. In other words, if you need to track a little bit of information about many different kinds of things, a CRM might be a good fit, but if you need to track a whole bunch of very detailed information about just one aspect of your work, you may want a database devoted solely to that part.

For a real-world example, consider a homeless shelter that needs to manage open beds, check-ins at curfew, and confidential referrals to rehab clinics. A case management system could manage that aspect of the work, but a CRM might be a compelling approach to manage donors, volunteers, and event attendees. It's fine to maintain separate systems alongside a CRM, as long as the data in each system is clean and up-to-date and it's relatively easy to import and export data between them.

CRMs are, by design, very flexible, but they require a fair amount of customization in order to meet your specific needs. That customizability is their strength and weakness. Since most systems come out of the box without much specific infrastructure built in, the transition process will require lots of staff oversight to design and tailor features for your organization. However, once the process is over, you'll have a system that fits your needs without the cost or aggravation of building an entire custom database from scratch. And because custom fields and modules are relatively straightforward to add, a good CRM will be able to accommodate new processes implemented by your organization without too many growing pains.

Unless you're very comfortable with technology, you'll probably have to hire a consultant to set up your system during the initial customization process, and to be available as needed for ongoing technical support. By modifying out-of-the-box platforms, however, you'll be able to track constituents in a number of different groups — not just donors, members, and volunteers — and see the different ways that they interact with your organization. You'll also be able to track your organization's communications with its constituents if you use the database to send emails and record other interactions such as meetings and phone calls.

An experienced consultant can even build in features that go beyond basic constituent tracking, such as member dues renewal and sophisticated event workflows. The cost of implementing these adjustments to fit your company's processes will often be offset by a lower ongoing cost — some of the platforms we'll cover don't cost anything to acquire. Another asset of CRM systems is their ability to integrate with an organization's website, social media presence, and broadcast email.

Comparing the Tools

"CRM" has become something of a buzzword in the nonprofit technology sector, and is often appended to specialized databases that don't really fit the definition of a true constituent relationship management system. This is not to say that these software systems couldn't help you manage your relationships with your constituents, just that they don't meet the strictest definition of the tool. Below, we look at the four systems that do meet the definition: flexible, customizable, all-in-one systems able to integrate with your online communication strategy as well as your fundraising, case management, event management, and other activities.

Free to Acquire, but Not to Maintain


CiviCRM is an open-source, web-based CRM system offered for download at no charge. However, you'll almost certainly need a consulting firm to configure the software to your nonprofit's specific needs. Luckily, CiviCRM consultants are becoming easier to find, and there's an active community of nonprofit users who help develop and beta-test new developments. It's quite strong in helping you keep track of your constituents, households, and donations, and offers helpful event management and broadcast email functionality as well.

CiviCRM does have a few drawbacks — if your organization requires a CRM with sophisticated accounting and billing features, you may want to choose another system, as CiviCRM will require a lot of additional work. The user interface isn't always the most intuitive, either, although many improvements have been made in the past few years.

With customization, though, it's a system that could help your organization function more smoothly. Some of the out-of-the-box functionality includes CiviCase, a basic case management system; CiviSchool, which is meant to manage educational programs; and a new feature called CiviBox Office, which allows for sophisticated, airline-style seat selection for ticketed events. Beyond these ready-to-go modules, customization of the software could cost anywhere between $2,000 and $50,000, based on the complexity of the organization's needs. A consultant would almost certainly need to manage the customization, and could also manage the migration from your previous system and any technical support that might be needed down the line.


Salesforce is a CRM platform used widely in the for-profit world. The company offers up to 10 user licenses of the Enterprise edition, one of the tiers of the system, free of charge to qualifying organizations. Salesforce also has an implementation called the Nonprofit Starter Pack that's ready-made to fit the needs of nonprofits. The system is cloud-based and doesn't require dedicated hardware or a server. Strong in household management, donation management, and member management, Salesforce is not as strong out of the box in event or case management.

A defining feature of Salesforce is the App Exchange, a bustling online marketplace where developers sell applications designed to sit on top of the platform. There are hundreds of apps for sale, and many have been designed especially for nonprofits. These are usually offered on a monthly subscription basis, and the cost can add up, but it can also add substantial capabilities to the system.

For smaller nonprofits, Salesforce is technically free, but to properly configure and support the system, you'll need the services of someone tech-savvy enough to navigate its substantial technical intricacies and possibilities. For instance, the apps you'd need to assemble a system that meets the requirements for most religious organizations could potentially cost you thousands of dollars per year. Larger nonprofits that need more than 10 user licenses would need to negotiate a contract with the company.

[Editor's note: TechSoup offers a two-hour Salesforce consultation from TechBridge.]

CRMs with Subscription Costs


SugarCRM is an open-source, web-based CRM system designed for for-profit businesses. The system vendors make no bones about their desire to challenge Salesforce for the title of most widely used CRM for enterprise. Consultants for the tool have also begun to court the nonprofit sphere.

SugarCRM is a powerful and user-friendly system but doesn't have a widely available customization for nonprofits like the other tools profiled here, so a consultant would have to build in donation management, event support, and other basic features. Almost all of the out-of-the-box language is geared toward the sales process, although the fields and modules can be modified extensively. Still, many basic features that nonprofits need will require workarounds, and SugarCRM doesn't have the ability to integrate with a nonprofit's website as seamlessly as do other CRM products.

An organization looking to implement SugarCRM would need to work closely with a consultant to tailor the software to the organization, but once the customization process was completed, SugarCRM might be a helpful relationship management tool. Pricing for SugarCRM is based on a tiered system — there's an open-source implementation called the Community Edition, which is free. Most nonprofits would want to start at the higher-level options, which range between $420 and $1,200 per staff user per year. And a consulting company would charge fees around the $10,000 mark to get the system up and running.

Microsoft Dynamics

Microsoft Dynamics CRM is the software giant's answer to an integrated CRM system, and is designed to be an all-in-one database accommodating all of an organization's needs. The Nonprofit Template, developed by Microsoft and available at no charge to sit on top of the CRM, transforms the out-of-the-box sales-centric tool into a nonprofit-centric platform. The system is pretty user-friendly, especially if you're used to Office products, and is able to handle donation management, reporting, member management, direct mail correspondence, and email. Event management and web portal capabilities are available for an extra fee but require additional configuration and more advanced technical knowledge to implement.

[Editor's note: Dynamics CRM has been succeeded by Dynamics 365, which is offered as both a cloud-based and on-premises product. Discounts are available to nonprofits for Dynamics 365 cloud subscriptions directly from Microsoft. Dynamics 365 (On-Premises) licenses are available as donated products through TechSoup to qualified nonprofits and charities. TechSoup also offers NetSuite, an integrated, cloud-based business management software solution.]

Other Options

Other vendors have harnessed the power of CRM and offered managed packages, or products you can subscribe to that are built on CRM platforms but marketed toward specific segments of the marketplace, like cultural organizations. These come with most of the features you'd need already built in, and usually require a monthly or annual subscription.


Whether with volunteers, donors, constituents, lawmakers, or anyone else, your nonprofit relies on its relationships to do the day-to-day work that effects change in the world and meets its mission. Managing those relationships is an ongoing challenge, but finding the right tool makes it easier by eliminating unnecessary obstacles and helping you focus on the personal aspect of these relationships.

A CRM isn't the solution for every organization, and those with specialized needs or highly focused interactions may benefit from a more specific system. It's not uncommon for donors to also be volunteers, or for constituents to donate. By tracking your relationships and making records quickly and easily accessible, a good CRM facilitates your work by letting you map the way people truly interact with your organization — even when those interactions overlap.

Thanks to the following nonprofit technology professionals for their recommendations, advice, and other help:

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