A 9-Step Strategy for Selecting a CRM Platform for your Nonprofit

 In Change Management, CRM (Constituent Relationship Management), Software Selections

The relationship that you have with your constituents is one of the most important assets your nonprofit has. It is part of your brand. It is why people support you. It is how you build community.

If this is true for your organization, then CRM (constituent relationship management) and the data associated with CRM, is critical to serve and deepen those relationships.

More than ever, nonprofits need to focus on how to capture the breadth of information about those relationships. Organizations are looking to CRM platforms, like Salesforce and Microsoft, to meet that need. Our 9 step strategy will help you make well-informed choices, engage key stakeholders, and set the stage for success.

What is a CRM Platform?

Unlike many legacy CRM applications that focus narrowly on a specific type of constituent relationship – donors for example – a CRM platform has much broader capabilities. CRM platforms offer the flexibility to manage many different types of relationships and activities while tracking any associated data. From program delivery recipients to high touch relationships, CRM platforms are uniquely capable compared to legacy, narrowly constructed, non-scalable CRM applications.

Key benefits to implementing a CRM platform:

  • The CRM platform can include aspects of managing and tracking expanded parts of constituent relationships – including service delivery.
  • The platforms allow for the creation of custom objects and provide no code/low code visual workflow development tools that allow for automation of business processes which greatly expands the usability of applications built on them.
  • There is a greater ecosystem of applications, ranging from financial systems and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to digital engagement tools available to connect with a CRM platform without any custom development.
  • There are large communities of vendors, implementation partners, and talent that are familiar with a platform so that the customer has many more options to choose from, and it is easier to hire staff who are already trained on the system.

The Current Landscape of CRM Platforms

When nonprofits think of CRM platforms Salesforce immediately comes to mind because they were first to market. However, while Salesforce has experienced significant growth among nonprofits, companies like Microsoft, NeonCRM, and NetSuite have also focused more attention and investment in nonprofit CRM platforms, with varying degrees of success.

Competitors are differentiated by how far their vision of the platform extends – what functionality is embedded in the platform as opposed to what they offer through integration. It’s important that your organization understands these differences because there are a host of considerations when managing integrations, in addition to managing a CRM platform.

Our market research and analysis has shown that another important point of differentiation between platforms is the size of their ecosystem – the number of implementation firms, third-party solution providers, and nonprofit organizations using that platform.

A 9 Step Strategy to Select a CRM Platform

1.     Define what a CRM platform means for your organization

It’s important that you define a list of attributes that are most important to your organization.  Temper expectations, internally, around how far CRM will extend initially. Walk before you run. Don’t over-engineer. Don’t get swept up in what peer organizations may be doing or, even worse, seduced by the very convincing marketing of CRM platform vendors that anything is possible and that it is easy. 

Next, translate the opportunities and excitement of a CRM platform into something both concrete and actionable. The steps below will ensure your organization makes the right platform choices and you can strengthen how CRM and constituent data serves your organization.  

What is most important is that you have defined what CRM encapsulates for your organization, not the definition of a vendor or even a peer organization. Create a CRM roadmap that seeks to define the boundaries of CRM for your organization with a great deal of specificity.  

2.     Make sure you’ve done your research

From vendor conferences, marketing, and demonstrations, make key investments in educating leadership, staff, and information technology experts. Create opportunities for staff to understand the breadth of opportunities that exist. More importantly, create opportunities for discussions about the needed investments ahead of implementation, as a necessary prelude to the selection process. As I discussed with Watt Hamlett in this webinar, plan for those investments. If you are struggling, bring in consulting firms like Build to help educate your project team as to the overall pros and cons of each platform.

Your research should be substantially beyond pointing to what other organizations have selected as their CRM platform or the vision painted by a CRM platform vendor. As we discuss below, they are your nonprofit’s requirements, not the requirements of a peer organization.

3.     Engage your organization’s leadership early

The Build Information Strategy identifies the importance of leadership to any technology project. Implementing a CRM platform like Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics should not be viewed as a singular project, but rather a series of projects and investments.

An organization’s leadership should understand a key difference between implementing software and implementing a platform: it is not a single investment of time and expense. Rather, there will be significant investment at the outset and in perpetuity. The technology roadmap will help leadership align on this path. Strong leaders understand their role in being champions for the work ahead while maintaining a realistic sense of the costs and level of effort that will be required.

4.     Make key decisions about your overall data strategy

If expanding the data available for engagement and reporting is a key driver for investing in a CRM platform, be sure that your decisions are informed by the extent of the data being captured. Many organizations have made significant investments in “more data.” Later, the organization found that the data was hard to access, difficult to report on, or expensive to store in their CRM platform.

Indisputably, high-quality data is essential. A strategy for where that data should reside needs to be clear. Make sure that you understand the considerations of managing data in your CRM. There may be other more scalable, agile, and cost-effective ways to capture, store, and analyze data.

5.     Create a technology roadmap

A CRM platform is a significant technology investment and may be the largest one ever made by your organization.  Therefore, it is important to understand the broader technology roadmap that often touches systems from digital engagement to ERP (enterprise resource planning). If your marketing team has been considering a change in the toolset it uses to engage with constituents, for example, that’s an important consideration as you plan for a CRM platform.

We’ve created roadmaps that have started with a CRM platform selection and implementation that will impact future technology selections.  Understanding the breadth and complexity of your current technology ecosystem helps ensure a CRM platform is part of a broader ecosystem.

6.     Create a CRM platform roadmap

After you’ve created a technology roadmap, create more detail around the CRM platform itself. Understand what stakeholders will be impacted, and how significantly they will be impacted. Marrying that with strategic priorities, figure out how to sequence and prioritize CRM platform investments. Fully implementing a CRM platform won’t happen overnight, and it may never be fully “done.” Create a CRM roadmap that sequences adoption and strikes the right balance between quick wins and long-term opportunities.

CRM platforms tend to be some of the longest-term investments a nonprofit will make and there is an art to creating momentum that keeps leadership and staff engaged.

7.     Plan for a revised approach to staffing

To fully leverage a CRM platform, you’ll need to think about the staffing related to supporting the CRM ecosystem, data architecture, application, and data analytics and reporting. Some of these roles can be filled by external vendors rather than staff, but you’ll need business analyst and application management expertise on staff to ensure that the CRM is implemented correctly and the platform is well-integrated and properly maintained.

Budget for staffing. Even if they take the form of placeholder expenses at this point, it’s safe to assume that staffing a CRM platform will involve additional staff or upskilling existing staff within your organization.

8.     Engage IT leadership

Unlike CRM applications that IT may have had a limited role in supporting, a CRM platform can integrate to key business and productivity applications across your entire organization. Functions previously relegated to the confines of IT, like Microsoft Active Directory or Google Cloud, take on new importance.

The most effective champions for a CRM platform will be business leaders outside of IT. However, IT is an important strategic partner critical to a selection.

9.     Perform a selection that engages a cross-functional group

Software selection processes help surface the essential, important, and nice-to-have features and if done correctly, align the CRM strategy to the broader organizational strategy. CRM platforms do have an extra layer of complexity since you are selecting a platform first, then finding a partner to help with the implementation. Make sure you don’t reverse that order and select an implementation partner, then a platform.

This is a 9 step strategy to help nonprofits select and use a CRM platform as a key underpinning of their relationship management strategies. It ensures that they can use a CRM platform to act on information and data in new ways. When done well, a CRM platform strategy empowers organizational strategy.

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