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Managing Constituent Relationships: Four Case Studies

How four organizations have implemented CRM and what their experiences can mean for your organization

By: Anthony Pisapia and Brett Bonfield

July 14, 2008

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

Who enables your organization to do its work? Most nonprofits divide supporters into categories: paid staff, volunteers, clients, donors, vendors, or advocates. However, real people often fall into multiple categories, and keeping track of their activities related to your organization can quickly get complex.

Properly organizing all your constituent data can make important differences in the quality of your interactions. For instance, imagine that Chris went through one of your training programs as a client a couple of years ago. These days, he donates about $25 a year, participates in one or two volunteer events, and opens every one of your e-newsletters. A few weeks back, he attended your open house and mentioned to one of your board members that he feels privileged to be able to work with your organization.

It would be easy for Chris to fall under your radar. None of his activities taken alone would be likely to attract much attention from your staff. But when you look at the full picture, you see something different — a portrait of someone who’s very interested in your cause, and may really enjoy getting more involved if you can figure out the right way to engage him.

These days, Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) is getting a lot of attention as a way to support exactly this type of full picture of your relationship with each constituent, But what exactly is CRM and how can your organization implement it? Does it have to cost an arm and a leg? What changes will your organization need to make to support it?

This article describes how four organizations have implemented CRM and what their experiences can mean for your organization. These organizations shared with us, through a series of interviews, which constituent information is important to them and how they go about capturing it. They explained the effort involved in setting up and supporting their CRM system, and how having a central repository for information affects their ability to serve individuals, collect donations, advocate for their causes, and streamline their operations.

NY-NJ Trail Conference

As an umbrella organization with 100 member clubs, 10,000 individual members, and 1,000 volunteers, NY-NJ Trail Conference (NNTC) has a lot of information to track. CRM helps them focus on the work that’s important to them: maintaining and building trails throughout New York and New Jersey.

NNTC relies on volunteers to do the bulk of their work. Each of their 1,000 volunteers commits to maintaining two to three miles of trails, and sometimes two to three sections. Volunteers report twice a year on trail conditions and also alert NNTC if trails need more urgent action, such as clearing downed tress or clearing brush. In addition, volunteers write hiking guides and publish GPS maps. Coordinating this many volunteers can be challenging — especially as many of them are donors or advocates as well.


Walt Daniels, the Webmaster, AT supervisor, and techie at NNTC, was an early adopter of constituent-tracking software. Many years ago, Daniels moved NNTC from a circa-1982 PC File system that didn’t track much more than contact information to database software called ebase. He has since modified ebase extensively, creating the customized CRM system the organization uses today.


NNTC uses its CRM to track volunteers’ time, when they first start and when they resign, membership information, as well as their complete contact information and any special skills they possess, such as the ability to use a chainsaw or knowledge of GPS. Some volunteers are also donors, so NNTC uses its CRM to track pledges, payments, and other donation information.

Having a unified view makes deploying volunteers and tracking progress easier. “The volunteer is usually the top level of our data,” said Daniels. He never deletes anything from the CRM, so even as volunteers and members come and go, NNTC always knows their past history with the organization.

In recent years, online advocacy has become an important part of NNTC, and Daniels attributes its growth, from 2 to 15 staff members, in part to the Internet and email. Within ebase, NNTC can indicate which volunteers have self-identified as having an interest in advocating for the group. It then exports their information into the online advocacy tool, Capwiz, which has features like sending bulk email and associating advocates with certain actions. However, because Capwiz does not communicate directly with ebase, potentially valuable data is lost.


NNTC is currently using ebase classic and never migrated to the second version. The organization ran into a common problem, Daniels says: “Things changed things so extensively between versions that it didn't pay to convert.”


While ebase was a low-cost solution for NNTC (ebase can be downloaded for free and used on top of Filemaker Pro), the real cost has come in the staff time it has taken to modify the database. Daniels’s deep technical knowledge allowed him to make major changes. The rest of the staff now knows enough to make routine changes as necessary and train each other as new staff members are hired.

Because of his comfort with technology, Daniels did a lot of the CRM implementation himself, though he knows this is not an option for many nonprofits. “Most organizations don't have a high-powered techie to implement a CRM for them, and finding a sophisticated volunteer is not possible for most organizations,” he says. “Without sophisticated knowledge you may have to hire consultants.”

Words of Wisdom

Daniels cautions against getting locked into a product. In NNTC’s case, ebase has not progressed and there is no upgrade path without doing a significant rebuild of the existing data and reports. “Nearly the entire CRM would need to be rewritten to upgrade. That's why the Web is so attractive,” Daniels says, referring to hosted CRM software. “Software as a service removes you from the software-upgrade game.”

Hispanics in Philanthropy

Hispanics in Philanthropy’s (HIP) goal is to strengthen Latino communities across the Americas. With 600 grant-making members and offices in New York, San Francisco, and Miami, as well as programs in Argentina, Mexico, and throughout Latin America, HIP needs to track thousands of individual contacts. When HIP was looking for a way to manage the data needs of its growing organization, CRM was the logical solution.

“CRM made the most sense because it can adapt to many uses,” says HIP’s Membership & Individual Donor Coordinator, Ana Maria Vallarino. Starting in 2000, HIP expanded on its mission, transforming itself from a membership organization for grantmakers into a multi-purpose organization focused on re-granting money, connecting donors with organizations, and providing talent and contacts to the Latino philanthropy community.

CRM has allowed HIP to expand the services it offers, track staff members’ and other constituents’ interactions with donors and organizations, and provide a focused view of the impact the organization is having in the multiple communities it serves. It also allows them to match large national funders with local funders in several regions, track grants, host a talent bank of Latino professionals for possible board seats and employment opportunities, and provide networking opportunities between constituents that might not otherwise have met.


HIP decided on Microsoft CRM 3.0 after assigning one staff member to conduct extensive research on available products. (Note that Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0 is available at a low administrative fee to qualifying organizations through TechSoup Canada.) Microsoft CRM is not a hosted product, but it was important to the organization that its staff members have the ability to access their data from any Internet-enabled computer. To accomplish this, HIP hired outside IT consultants to set up servers that enable remote access with a secure username and password. HIP also brought in a consultant to set up the CRM and customize it to their use.


Some staff members see HIP’s CRM as neither user-friendly nor intuitive, but Vallarino uses the CRM extensively and says it's pretty easy for her. “Training on how to use the CRM has been very important,” she says. “There are those who use it and those who don’t. Training closes the gap and encourages staff to use it.”

The CRM’s structure is fairly fixed, and all changes to its interface or functionality need to be approved by Vallarino — a common practice found in several of the organizations we interviewed for this article. The company that originally customized the CRM for them is available for additional changes, and Vallarino feels it did a good job of hiding features that are not relevant to HIP.

One of the advantages that HIP found in Microsoft CRM was its integration with Microsoft’s SharePoint services (a feature of Windows Server, available to qualifying organizations through TechSoup Stock). SharePoint is a product that enables online collaboration, such as document-sharing and calendaring. HIP has four different areas within its SharePoint site: one each for funders, grantees, nonprofits, and members. All of these parties have access to their particular area via a secure login, enabling them to look up information such as member lists, jobs, and organization information.

The CRM publishes HIP’s information in SharePoint, reducing the need for double data entry. HIP also uses the SharePoint site to allow organizations to apply for grants online, and the information they enter is automatically fed to their CRM.


One of the main problems with HIP’s current implementation is that it can be slow and cumbersome to navigate, a frequent issue when organizations host CRM software on their own servers. In addition, Microsoft CRM was developed primarily as a sales tool, so some of the words used to label fields are confusing. “It’s not directly keyed to what we do or how we look at information,” says Vallarino. “This adds to the learning curve.”


After the initial setup, there are some ongoing expenses for customization. Training for staff is also an ongoing expense. There’s no monthly fee for the product, but they need to spend a bit of time maintaining their own servers.

Words of Wisdom

“Really take a hard look at what you want CRM for,” says Vallarino. “There will be things you can't do in it, so you have to figure out what's important to your staff and your organization.”

For example, HIP uses Microsoft CRM for bulk email and newsletters. It’s easy to sort members, funders, grantees, and other constituents, and the CRM tracks the messages that people receive in their contact record. Unfortunately, the utility for composing email is very basic, and does not allow graphics or HTML. This is a frustration for staff members, since they would like to have a bright, interactive newsletter with pictures.

In complex and growing organizations, data needs and uses can grow exponentially and often in ways you cannot initially foresee. As programs are added, a CRM system can provide a central way to organize information and a sophisticated way to manipulate it.

Washington Toxics Coalition

Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC) is an advocacy, education, and research nonprofit that encourages government to pass new laws to get toxic chemicals out of products and researches levels of chemicals in people and products. Among other initiatives, WTC provides resources, information, and opportunities for people to advocate for the reduction of toxic chemicals.

CRM made sense for a number of reasons, says Jim Dawson, Field Coordinator at WTC. “If your organization wants to have a good record of the people who support you and how they support you, you have to have it all in one place. Also, if you want an organizational memory you have to have a CRM.”

Dawson emphasized the need to get information out of peoples’ head and into a database. “When people leave you lose so much info,” says Dawson. “CRM is ultimately a huge help for the organization. You’re losing value if you don't track this stuff.”


WTC has been using a CRM for a number of years. They recently migrated from ebase to Salesforce. It was a strategic decision for them to go to a Web-based product. “We have five people who work from home,” Dawson says, “so an online solution was critical.”

An online solution also made sense from a data-backup perspective. “Server reliability was a problem on ebase,” says Dawson. “Backups were a big problem. We lost tons of information during a crash before we moved to Salesforce.” Selecting an on-line solution removes the burden of data backup from the organization.


WTC receives the bulk of its support from individual members. They also have a big auction once a year. The Development program tracks all donations and solicitations within the CRM, with each clearly marked. Donations are summarized in each donor’s contact record as “campaigns” and “opportunities.”

The CRM’s integration into WTC’s Web site allows would-be donors, volunteers, and advocates to take action, and then records each action these Web site visitors take, such as signing up for the newsletter, subscribing to action alerts, and joining the organization as members. Although they used ebase in the same way, they had to do a lot of the data entry by hand.

Not everything is better in Salesforce. WTC likes to create very specific solicitations to donors based on their interactions with the organization, and it is difficult to print a spreadsheet with a full history of giving. Ebase did this better by storing all donation data in one place. WTC’s Consultant, ONE/Northwest, created a custom view of some interactions but not of others.

One unique application that WTC has developed for its CRM is the ability to identify leaders and emerging leaders among its constituents. WTC uses its CRM to track activists and look at what leadership activities they are taking. By tracking actions like writing letters to editors, responding to calls for action, and making phone calls to senators, staff members can assign a leadership level to each person in their database. Activities are weighted on a leadership scale from one to five, and by totaling the actions at each level the most active constituents can be identified. WTC’s Salesforce implementation also tracks information like first and last date of actions taken. This allows staff members to search for certain types of constituents and track their leadership building progress over time.


WTC is not yet using all of Salesforce’s features. While it’s fairly well integrated into their operations, there is a learning curve.

“The risk in investing in CRM is that it is not necessarily easier to use than your old system,” Dawson says. “In many ways, it is more difficult because it demands so much more information.” In Dawson’s opinion, this makes organizational culture even more important. “Some of our most valuable contacts aren't in our CRM because folks are too busy to record what they do and who they interact with. Leadership must be brought in and push people to do it. If you’re not going to commit to fully tracking things you should scale your database to what is realistic. If you're not using it, don't build it.”

The short-term challenge is in helping staff members learn the database. While job descriptions have not changed, fewer people are needed for data entry. As WTC integrates its systems and people learn to record information directly in Salesforce, entry time should go down.


Salesforce itself is free for WTC to use because of Salesforce’s donation program (which provides up to 10 licenses for 501(c)3 nonprofits). However, it cost $10,000 for their consulting firm, ONE/Northwest, to migrate WTC’s data and build custom features. “We couldn't have done it without them,” says Dawson. The project took about four months to go live. For an organization with about a million dollar annual budget, the CRM modification “wasn't chump change,” says Dawson. But, while significant, WTC found it reasonable and worthwhile.

Figuring out the best system practices for their organization took a good bit of time, and ONE/Northwest included training costs in its budget. WTC’s database administrator sat through all the training so she would be able to train others. Training was conducted on an as needed basis: staff trainings focused on the modules staff members needed in order to do their jobs.

Words of Wisdom

In retrospect, Dawson imagines that it would have been better if they spent more staff time on planning for the CRM. They had two-hour meetings once a week while ONE/Northwest was implementing Salesforce, followed by an intense two weeks of training.

In addition, WTC implemented its CRM during a staff transition in a key role which, in Dawson’s opinion, was a mistake. “It would have been better to wait until the new person came on and understood what was needed so that they could drive the process.”

Easter Seals

Easter Seals has developed into an enduring nonprofit brand with a rich history. In the public’s mind, Easter Seals is one entity, but it is actually a federation of 80 legally separate 501(c)3 affiliates and headquarters that are unified through a membership agreement. Providing that unified brand experience to constituents is exactly what Shirley Sexton, AVP of Interactive Marketing at Easter Seals, focuses on in moving the organization toward the goal of a comprehensive CRM strategy and system.

Easter Seals realized they needed a CRM when it compared its operations to those of peer organizations. “We saw that we weren't raising as much money online,” says Sexton. The organization decided to change that, achieving its goal of connecting every Easter Seals Web site (over 130 of them) to one central CRM system. This means there is only one data record no matter where a person interacts with the organization on the Web. As they moved from a fragmented Web presence to a unified one, Easter Seals went from raising nearly nothing online to well over $1,000,000 a year.


To create a CRM this robust, Easter Seals had to bring together several different products. The online portion is based on Convio, an integrated package that provides Web site content management functionality such as a constituent database, online donation capability, and mass emailing.

Direct mail information is kept in a sophisticated donor tracking package called Target Team Approach, with which Easter Seals tracks over 6 million names. Target Team Approach talks to Convio through a custom data synchronizations program that Easter Seals had built to its specifications.

Each affiliate still has its own databases, for now, to track information that has not yet been implemented in Convio or Team Target Approach. For instance, large donors are still tracked independently, along with certain other fundraising activities. However, there are plans in the works to coordinate all of this activity through a single CRM.


In an organization as large and diverse as Easter Seals, there are many “buckets” of information that need to be tracked. Easter Seals identified its buckets as direct mail, online donors, event registrants, advocacy, volunteers, and major donors ($1,000+). Instead of integrating each of these buckets of information into a CRM all at once, Easter Seals did it in stages. Direct mail was centralized first, followed by online donors. The organization is now focusing on events, volunteers, and major donors.

Even though the main integration is still to come, every fundraising activity that has moved to CRM has shown a gain and the overall growth rate in fundraising has been remarkable, convincing Sexton that Easter Seals should do everything collectively. “CRM is really powerful for the brand,” says Sexton. “It’s easier to break through the clutter of other organizations” when solicitations are clear, appropriate, and personal.


Easter Seals already has a clear idea of the types of information it would like to track in the future in order to maximize its fundraising opportunities: donation data, event data, and several other interactions, such as advocacy. They would also like to make sure they have a clear record of their clients and the families of their clients because these are the people who understand Easter Seals’ impact firsthand. Ex-staff members are also an important audience because they are among the most passionate about the organization’s mission. This is among the hardest information to centralize, but they know they must do it.

Sexton says that moving toward a unified Easter Seals experience has already been a huge cultural change for the organization, one that has been particularly hard on staff members who were used to the old ways of doing things. Many staff members had to take on new responsibilities and let go of others. However, the change enabled Easter Seals to offer its affiliates a compelling value propositions: says Sexton, Easter Seals could say, “We're going to take care of your database needs.” This was important because many affiliates were struggling with their own data. And it could make a still stronger argument: “We're going to help you collect more money.”

A unified CRM has also required a level of trust in what had previously been siloed parts of the organization. They are now not only sharing data and outcomes between affiliates and headquarters, but also between departments. “You need to motivate an event manager to care about whether a constituent that comes to their event stays with the organization,” says Sexton. “Traditionally they don't care because all they are responsible for is how much money they raise from the event.” For Easter Seals this means revisiting things such as performance plans and compensation and tying them to longer term, bigger picture goals.


Sexton doesn’t know the cost of Easter Seals’ CRM implementation, but she estimates it as a million-dollar project or more. She does know they underestimated an important cost: the staff time required to implement the CRM. In retrospect, Sexton realizes that this oversight slowed them down.

Words of Wisdom

Sexton says that if they had to do it over she would have hired a technology company that specializes in data integration. “The database providers today don't have data integration as a core competency. They can customize products but they can’t tell you the best ways to manage your data, and what fields are important.” This forced Easter Seals to act as its own data integrator. “It's been very challenging and difficult,” says Sexton.

Wrapping Up

When most people think CRM they think about a specific database company or product, such as Salesforce, Convio, or Blackbaud. In reality CRM is, first and foremost, a strategy. It involves a vision of having easy access to relevant information about everyone your organization affects.

A successful CRM implementation is the result of good decisions about the information that is most important to your organization. Common themes that emerged in our case studies include the value of hiring a consultant, addressing the needs of dispersed and mobile staff members, and connecting multiple offices through a common platform.

The information you collect may be different from that gathered by the organizations in these examples, perhaps dramatically different. But think for a moment about your volunteers, your donors, and those you serve. Think about the power that having information about their interaction with your organization could give to your organization. That information is your organization’s alone. It is as unique as the people who provide it. It can inform your decisions, help you create new programs, and tap you into unseen sources of income.

CRM provides an organization with a lens through which to look at its constituents. Doing so sets it apart, in its constituents’ minds, from other nonprofits. Ultimately, CRM, by providing your organization with a complete view of one person or one company, gives you the opportunity to interact with constituents more personally. As is the case with these four groups, the real value will be seen in your organization’s bottom line.