Should My Nonprofit Buy or Build on Salesforce?

 In Constituent Relationship Management (CRM), CRM Organizational Change

Salesforce claims over 40,000 nonprofit customers. If you are one of those, then you may be familiar with how Salesforce can be used for a wide variety of purposes.

Because of the great access Salesforce provides to its underlying data model and the tools it provides that make it easy to extend that model, nonprofits have used Salesforce for just about any purpose that comes to mind.

Is customizing or “extending” Salesforce a good thing?

Sometimes, it’s best to extend Salesforce to meet business requirements, but sometimes it’s not. A question that nonprofits with Salesforce should be asking is whether they should meet new or additional business requirements by building custom functionality on Salesforce or by acquiring a pre-built application.

In my experience, nonprofit leaders and even Salesforce specialists do not always know pre-built applications are available. I spoke with one nonprofit that was paying over $20,000 (USD) per year to maintain functionality in Salesforce that could have been better met by a third-party, Salesforce-integrated application with a price tag that would have been less than $10,000 per year.

I believe pre-built applications are not explored as much as they should be because of the staffing situation that typically accompanies ownership of Salesforce. Owning Salesforce often means either hiring for a new position (typically “Salesforce Administrator”) or having a Salesforce systems integration firm (“SI”) on retainer. With these resources in place and funds committed to them, the path of least resistance leads toward incremental discovery of new business requirements, and then extending Salesforce to meet those requirements. For better or for worse, custom functionality gets built on Salesforce.

How can you evaluate what is best for your organization?

First, you need senior technical leadership with the breadth of experience to perform this evaluation. Ideally, this is a staff person who is not exclusively a Salesforce specialist, or a consultant that does not earn money from reselling or recommending Salesforce. Build Consulting plays that vendor-agnostic role for our clients when an internal resource isn’t available to perform the role.

There are certainly some Salesforce systems integrators (SIs) I trust to provide a relatively unbiased opinion, but there are many more I would not. Salesforce SIs get referrals from Salesforce based upon their ability to promote Salesforce licenses, so there is a built-in conflict of interest for those who rely upon Salesforce for their clients.

This is to say that software vendors and sales/implementation/integration partners are rarely objective, because their business interest lies in representing a given solution.

Specific “buy vs. build” considerations

Your senior technical advisor should be looking at several considerations that inform the buy versus build-on Salesforce question:

  1. Is the data related to your nonprofit’s constituents (i.e., donors, activists, volunteers, clients, etc.)? If so, is there value in having it combined with other constituent data?
  2. If there is value in combining it with other constituent data, is Salesforce the best repository for that data? If the data is needed in real time by front-line staff, it may be. But there are at least a couple of other options that warrant consideration.
    1. Data warehouses or middleware with data warehousing capabilities (e.g., Frakture, which is built specifically for nonprofits) can serve as the single repository for that data.
    2. Business intelligence tools such as Tableau or Microsoft PowerBI can pull together data from disparate sources for comprehensive analysis and dashboards.
  3. If Salesforce is the best repository for that data then there are several options for meeting that need, including:
    1. Custom-build on Salesforce
    2. Acquire a pre-built application
      1. Built by Salesforce to run on or integrate with its core application
      2. Built by a third party to run on the Salesforce platform
      3. Built by a third party as an app that is not built on Salesforce but integrates with it.
  4. The cost of Salesforce data storage is also a consideration. Salesforce has a data limit depending in part upon the number of licenses that you purchase. One limit is for data stored in fields, and the other is a limit for file attachments. Exceed either limit, and you will pay annual fees for blocks of additional storage. It’s not uncommon for Build’s clients to reach those limits, at which point some choose to periodically archive data (which involves a cost of staff time), while others choose to pay for extra data storage. This should be one factor in the cost-benefit analysis of whether Salesforce is the best repository for that data.

The “custom-build on Salesforce” option

Custom-building on Salesforce is the path of least resistance and is what often happens in absence of senior technical guidance. Sometimes, it’s the right approach, but trouble arises when the organization lacks the Salesforce expertise to do so in a way that is sustainable long-term. This can happen with an inexperienced Salesforce admin, bad advice from a Salesforce system integrator, insufficient requirements discovery, or poor execution.

The true consequence of these challenges becomes evident when the application does not effectively meet requirements, or when that Salesforce Admin moves on to another job and the organization pays a substantial amount for someone else to discover how it was built (and sometimes to undo the poor choices of their predecessor). Additionally, the cost to do the custom build is a factor, whether that is the direct cost of your Salesforce consultant or the indirect cost of your in-house Salesforce Admin’s time.

The “pre-built to work on or with Salesforce” option

If there is a pre-built application that meets most of the requirements, then that is often preferable to a custom build. While the annual direct cost of this approach is often higher, this approach typically provides more robust functionality, a better user experience, and avoids complex unique configurations that do not age well as your Salesforce support resource(s) change over time.

If you are looking at pre-built applications, Salesforce is providing more and more of these products itself—including digital constituent engagement, volunteer management, grant management, donor or client communities, and more. Additional products are available from other vendors and are listed on the Salesforce AppExchange if they have met the requirements for being listed there. However, there are many more vendors that do not list themselves on the AppExchange but which have robust integrations with Salesforce.

These third-party vendors, including those on AppExchange and otherwise, warrant a look even when Salesforce has an application for your needs.

So, Should My Nonprofit Buy or Build on Salesforce? Inform Yourself to Make a Good Decision

In summary, while custom-building on Salesforce may be the easy thing to do, that doesn’t mean it’s the smart thing to do. Take into account the considerations above when making that decision, and if you need senior technical guidance to help with that decision then please reach out to us here at Build Consulting for a free initial consultation.

Postscript

A couple of notes:

  1. I no longer distinguish between Salesforce.org and Salesforce. Salesforce.org, despite its name, is a for-profit division of Salesforce corporation with aggressive revenue and profitability targets (just like most nonprofit software vendors).
  2. When I refer to Salesforce, the software I am referring to is Sales Cloud with or without the Nonprofit Success Pack (“NPSP”). Salesforce has many more applications, some of which are built on Sales Cloud and some of which are not.
  3. Salesforce is not the only comprehensive constituent relationship management (“CRM”) system for nonprofits. I focus on it here because it’s the most commonly used platform, but the points I make in this article also apply equally to other nonprofit CRM’s such as Microsoft Dynamics 365 or Blackbaud CRM.

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.

For more thoughts on changes at Salesforce.org, read my article here.

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 explore challenges and opportunities with Salesforce.

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