is Not a Philanthropy

 In Perspectives and Announcements

Surprises at Salesforce’s Annual Conference

I recently attended Salesforce’s annual conference, Dreamforce.  It’s a 180,000-person celebration of all things Salesforce, and it’s one of the ways I stay current on their product roadmap and their partner ecosystem. Perhaps I’ll speak elsewhere to quite a few exciting roadmap announcements by, the division of Salesforce that focuses on the nonprofit and higher education sectors. But my main takeaways this year were not about the roadmap. Instead, my takeaways were about the rising discontent in the Salesforce client and partner communities. I came to the conclusion is not a philanthropy, and want to share my observations here.

Some key members of the Salesforce community are in full revolt. They are fed up with high pressure sales tactics, as well as some moves by Salesforce toward monetization of community-built software.

This story from a former employee provides some of the backdrop for this frustration and details how was going to take a free, open source, community-built volunteer module built on Salesforce and start offering an enhanced version of it to larger nonprofits for a fee. Around the time the article was published, they decided not to do that. But against this backdrop I heard widespread stories from partners and nonprofits of high pressure sales tactics, stories that are reinforced by the experiences of a number of our clients at Build.’s Hard Sell Tactics

Specifically, there were numerous stories of account executives selling nonprofits licenses and software they did not need. Over the past few years I experienced similar attempts at several of my clients who utilize Salesforce, but had no idea it was so widespread. It’s common for (and other vendors) to sell and start charging for all of the licenses a nonprofit will eventually need up front, as opposed to just the small number they need during implementation. I’ve written about this distasteful tactic previously.

But I also heard more than a few stories of:

  • Account executives selling licenses for products the nonprofits do not need – e.g., Service Cloud licenses when a nonprofit is not using and does not plan to use Service Cloud
  • Account executives pressuring the Systems Implementation firm (“SI”) that is helping the nonprofit implement Salesforce to be silent when they disagree with the licenses is trying to sell
  • staff threatening to stop referring business to SI’s who act in what they believe to be their client’s best interests IF that means buying less software from Salesforce

This is a dramatic difference from the experience of Salesforce that I had before the last 3 or 4 years.

Note: Not all account executives behave this way, so I apologize to the Salesforce account executive who “gets it right,” really seeking to understand and meet client needs and not just sell software. You are rare these days and we appreciate you!

Why This Is a Problem

Of course a business will try to make as much money as it can! But presents itself as being philanthropic and oriented toward social impact, and serves a sector that likewise seeks social impact. When profit motives drive sales tactics that lessen social impact, raising costs without raising ROI, the nonprofit organization has to pull that budget away from programs. Customers should know up-front about’s hard sales tactics.

In addition, this high pressure/sales driven selling behavior is in direct opposition to both the purpose and brand of  While I know firsthand there are employees at who disagree with hard sales for licenses the customer does not plan to use, the unfortunate reality is that they do not seem to be the ones shaping the sales culture at

High pressure sales tactics are arguably okay for a business (although there are questions about whether this has served Oracle, for example). But it’s disingenuous for to promote a message centered around philanthropy, and to maintain a .org domain name that implies they’re a nonprofit, while selling millions of dollars in unnecessary software to nonprofits. is certainly not a nonprofit, but they used to have a philanthropic mission at their core. They are now owned by, and my colleagues previously shared concerns about that acquisition and the impact it would have on Salesforce at nonprofits. Unfortunately, it appears has imported a high pressure sales culture from Oracle, that is inappropriate and hypocritical when addressed at their nonprofit customer base.

Unintended Consequences of Misaligned Sales Incentives

It’s clear from consistent public statements (and donations) from Marc Benioff that he wants to be about impact. The 1-1-1 model of philanthropy he has consistently promoted is noteworthy and laudable.

Also, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) adopted by all UN member states in 2015 were prominent at this year’s Dreamforce conference. In the words of their co-CEO Keith Block at this year’s Dreamforce,

“At Salesforce we believe that business is the greatest platform for change, and that’s why we’ve signed up with the UN to focus on supporting 17 Sustainable Development Goals. These are very important to our future. Whether it’s eradicating poverty from the world, or peace strengthening us. We believe in these sustainable goals, as all of you should.”

The problem is how defines impact – in addition to its donations and volunteering, seems to define impact as seats sold. This is an unfortunate framing that is exacerbated by incredibly aggressive growth targets. Ironically, selling seats of unused licenses removes money from nonprofits that could otherwise be used to achieve impact. Unused licenses represent a negative social impact and work against achieving the SDG’s.

One might be tempted to fault the account executives who are doing the selling, and they do bear some responsibility, but the responsibility rests primarily with leadership and with the sales culture and incentive system they’ve created. Salesforce’s initial reason for being was to create software that supports the sales process, so selling is part of the company’s DNA. And when account executives are paid on sales commissions, with those who sell the most getting promoted, naturally account executives will gravitate toward selling as much software as a client will buy and not enough toward selling software that actually gets used.

Losing Trust in

Salesforce’s 2019 Social Impact Report has the headline “Did we earn their trust?” Quoting their co-CEO, “It is the fundamental question every leader of every organization should be asking themselves about all their stakeholders. We live in extraordinary times where trust is our most valuable asset.”’s actions in the past couple of years – primarily the selling behavior – are losing the trust of nonprofits and partners who experience it. I’m astonished at the extent to which this was evident on the sidelines of Dreamforce this year. Almost every single partner with whom I spoke indicated that the sales culture and tactics are a big problem.

While Salesforce may see continuing increases in market share in the near term, this behavior will undoubtedly catch up to them in future years. I suspect they’ll be selling into increasing headwinds from clients who are becoming increasingly hostile to their brand and tactics.

Unless they change course.

Tips for Nonprofits Buying from Salesforce

I sincerely hope does change course. They provide a product which has dominated the nonprofit market because of its utility and that alone has helped many nonprofits achieve their mission goals. can be proud of that service, and could build on that spirit going forward. I doubt that will happen without a culture change, though, which almost certainly requires a leadership change.

I recommend a few steps for nonprofits that use or buy from in the meantime:

  • First and foremost, realize that is not a philanthropy. Think of Salesforce as a high-pressure version of any other company selling software to nonprofits – Blackbaud, Community Brands, EveryAction, and more. Double-check with knowledgeable sources before taking an account executive at their word.
  • Trust your Salesforce implementation partner (i.e., your SI) for licensing recommendations more than those of your account executive. If there is a difference in opinion, remember which is the vendor and which is the partner.
  • Buy the licenses you need only when you need them. Most implementations take months. Buy a few licenses for implementation, and then buy the remainder just prior to when the system is rolled out to other staff. This will save you hundreds if not thousands in the course of year 1.
  • Know what you’re buying. You do not need a combined Sales Cloud + Service Cloud license when all you’re using is Sales Cloud. Sales Cloud seats should only cost $36/seat/month.
  • Do the math on add-ons. You probably don’t need the $72/seat/month Unlimited licenses, but do the math on the various add-ons you need (sandboxes, etc.) that may work in your favor. If you have a good implementation partner (SI) and/or good internal Salesforce admin staff, that also reduces the likelihood that Unlimited licenses would be a good value for your organization.
  • A month-end or quarter-end incentive will almost certainly be available again in the future. An account executives who is not willing to work with you to extend such an incentive is using inappropriate pressure to meet their goals, not yours.

Also, you have some alternatives that are worth considering. In addition to these, we reviewed many mid-sized CRM options with more details here.

  • All-in-one solutions (e.g., Neon) are especially attractive if you are a smaller organization that cannot afford the increasing direct costs and substantial hidden/indirect costs of a do-it-yourself solution like Salesforce
  • Alternative CRM platforms – one making a big play in the nonprofit sector is Microsoft Dynamics CRM
  • Best-of-breed software from companies like Blackbaud, EveryAction, Community Brands, Sage, and more can meet many needs and are becoming increasingly open (a positive aspect to Salesforce’s legacy in the sector)

Salesforce has had a positive overall impact on the sector and remains a great solution for many, depending on the use case. Let’s hope that’s behaviors of the last few years are rectified and that they get back to being a force for positive change in the nonprofit sector.

For More Information 

See our webinar “Selecting Nonprofit Software: Technology Comes Last” to learn more about the nonprofit leadership and change management that make a new software selection such as an organization-wide choice like Salesforce successful. Be sure to contact us if you have any questions about this article! We want your projects to be successful and look forward to helping you think through issues.

Need More Expertise?

Are you looking for an assessment and roadmap to ensure your organization is considering your business needs to software investments with long-term strategic value? Or perhaps you’re ready to have a conversation about a software selection process? Learn more about our Nonprofit Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) solutions here. Whatever your nonprofit technology consulting needs, Build is here to help.

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Picture of Conference Session