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Managing Relationships at Your Organization

May 16, 2011

By: Tierney Smith

This article is Part 4 in our series on Technology Planning for nonprofits. In Part 3, we discussed how to spend more time on what matters by improving your organization’s collaboration and productivity.

No matter how small or big your nonprofit, relationships are critical to your success. After all, where you you be without the financial support of donors and funders, or the time and energy of volunteers? And what about the organizations and people you work with to achieve your mission? Or the people (or animals!) you’re actually trying to help? If trying to keep track of all the information related to each of these relationships feels overwhelming, you’re not alone - most people aren’t very good at remembering these kind of details. This is where technology can help, because keeping track of a lot of information is something computers happen to be very good at. Technology that does this is called a constituent relationship management (CRM) system (where a “constituent” is a donor, volunteer, client, etc. - whoever you have a relationship with).

In short, having a good CRM system will mean less time spent tracking relationships and more time spent actually developing the relationships. It’s possible to lose a lot of time to data entry and similar tasks, as evidenced by the fact that one nonprofit was able to reduce the time for client intake by 70% (the equivalent of saving 2 full-time employees) with their new system.

This article will cover:

Benefits of using technology to manage relationships

While every organization is different, there are some common outcomes to look for from CRM. These include:

Multiple people can access your data. If your information is stored in your head, on a piece of paper, in your Outlook contacts or in a spreadsheet on your computer then you are the only one who can access it. What happens when a coworker needs to access the same information? What happens when you leave the organization?

Your data is current. The information in your system will stay current if it is entered automatically, it is easy to enter or there’s a strong incentive to keep it updated. If automating data entry is not possible, consider who does data entry and how it fits with the rest of their work. For example, is data entered when the information is first obtained (such as during a client intake interview) or is it written down to be manually transferred later? If your staff work offsite, do they have to come back to the office to enter data or can they do it remotely?

Your data empowers you to make decisions. The real power of data is what you can do with it once you’ve collected it, and this is dependent on your ability to analyse and report on your data. Are your decisions based on your organization’s metrics and the trends you are seeing, or on guesswork? What about your grant applications and reports to funders?

Your data gives you the big picture. Integrating different types of data allows you to make connections between different relationships. Are any of your donors also volunteers, or members? Have your clients become volunteers? Do your volunteers work for companies that are corporate sponsors, or could be? Your organization might have some dedicated supporters that are engaged with your organization in multiple ways, but if they don’t donate enough to show up on your radar you might not know they exist.

Where to get started?

Relationship management systems will be used every day by many staff in your organization, so bringing in a new system isn’t a project you want to rush. Taking the time to understand the real needs of your organization (in terms of people, process and technology) is key to ensuring that your implementation is a success. Start by assessing where you are right now - where do you currently store information about relationships? What does and doesn’t work well about your current processes? In most cases it’s worth the effort to get a good consultant to help you through this process if you don’t have the expertise in-house.
In their article In Search of CRM Part 1: Understanding Constituents and Processes, Idealware breaks this down into three steps:

      1. Identify your constituent groups

In addition to donors and volunteers you may track other groups such as clients, retail customers (if you sell products), program alumni, vendors, etc.

      2. Outline your processes

For each constituent, map out the interactions you have with them. This can take some time to do, however, as Idealware points out you may discover ways to improve your processes without even having to make a technology investment. The article gives examples of both simple and involved outreach, donation and service processes.

      3. Understand your process mix

Prioritize the constituents and processes you have identified. This will guide you when it comes to choosing a system, since no system will really be able to do everything (though they may claim to be able to). You want to focus on the areas that will yield high value for your organization.

To illustrate this process in more detail, walk through Idealware’s step-by-step decision making workbook, Do You Need a New Donor Management System?. While it is specifically geared towards donor management systems, the process it walks you through can be applied more broadly to CRM.

What options are available?

Idealware’s follow up article outlines some of the main CRM options and their specialties:


Common CRM focuses with example vendors

For more information on some of the popular systems, see A Few Good Tools: Low-Cost Constituent Databases. You may also want to look into tools that are more popular in Canada such as Sumac.

With any tool there are many features to consider. To make sure your bases are covered, use a feature checklist when evaluating possible systems. One good resource is the CRM Evaluation Criteria Worksheet developed and made available by AlterSpark Consulting.

Approaches to CRM Systems

From a technical perspective, there are three main approaches to CRM. With all of these options, consider your budget, staff time and IT staff (or lack thereof). Also keep in mind the long term - will your system be able to grow with you?

      1. One centralized application

All relationships are tracked in one system. On the plus side, all the data will be integrated by default because you only have one system. However, as illustrated in the diagram above, no one system will be good at everything. By prioritizing your needs you can pick the system that is the best match for your organization. You can also customize the system so it fits with your processes. In general, this option is better for small-medium organizations.

      2. Direct integration between different systems

If you already use specialized systems such as a donor management system, a case management system, a volunteer management system, etc., you may want to consider integrating the data between the different systems. For example, if one of your donors is also a volunteer then updating that person’s address in your donor database should automatically update your volunteer management system. Unless your systems come from the same vendor who also provides this integration, this probably isn’t a simple exercise and you will definitely need help from your IT staff or external consultants. This option is most appropriate for medium to large organizations who have a need for more robust, specialized tools and have the resources to carry out and maintain this integration.

      3. Data Warehousing

This option lets you keep your specialized systems while also integrating all the data in a central location (your warehouse), which will allow for sophisticated reporting and analysis. You can learn more about this option in Data Warehousing for Nonprofits. Given the significant resources (in terms of IT skills, time and cost) required to create and maintain a data warehouse, this option is most suitable for large nonprofits.

Advice from nonprofits

At a recent Toronto Net Tuesday, nonprofits shared their successes and challenges with CRM (the full video is available on our YouTube channel). Here is some of there advice:

  • Ask yourself “What do I hate doing?” and find out how to do that with your CRM.
CRM systems often have way more features than you are aware of, and it can be overwhelming to think of learning them all. Focus on your least favourite tasks (for example counting volunteer hours) and figure out how to set up your system to do it for you.

  • Be careful what consultant you hire - a good consultant can be incredibly helpful, a bad consultant can really set you back
Choosing a consultant can be intimidating, so if possible get advice from nonprofits who have done similar work or from board members, volunteers or friends who know more about technology. As well, make sure your consultant is good at explaining what they are doing in plain English and that they will take the time to train you and your staff so you won’t be dependent on them once the project is done.

  • Getting your CRM set up with all your different processes will likely take much longer than you think, especially if you need customization.
Prioritize the functionality you want and then map out when you might realistically be able to get it done. One organization that wanted a significant amount of customization had to change their expectations and revise their schedule from one month to two years! Part of the reason for this is any technology change will be accompanied by changes from a people and process perspective as well.

  • Free usually isn’t free
You will likely need staff, volunteer and/or consultant time to set up the system and adapt it to your organization’s needs. Also consider what the costs would be of getting help if there is a problem with your system, or making further changes in the future.

  • Learn the system!

Don’t assume that you can instantly adopt it in your organization without training. This might seem boring and technical, but think of it as an opportunity to get excited about all the things your system can do for you.

  • Everyone has to be on board to make it work

If your staff don’t use the system then your data won’t stay accurate and relevant, and will therefore be useless. Find a balance of training, motivation and processes to make sure this happens.

In Part 5 of Technology Planning for nonprofits we will look at the importance of telling your story and how technology can help you.

Thanks to AlterSpark Consulting for making their CRM Evaluation Criteria Worksheet available to help organizations leverage technology for social good.



Salesforce CRM

Eliza Olson I can't agree more about it taking twice as long as expected to set up a new CRM. We are in our 2nd year working with JDQ Systems. The first and most difficult part was decided which CRM to use. after a lot of thought we went with Salesforce. We are in the final stages of setting it up. Right now any advice about what/which information should be entered about potentionl and current donors would be extremely appreciated. I noticed somewhere that it is important to record "Both names on a cheque" even though only one person receives the tax receipt. Any other ideas? For you information about JDQ Systems. They are a company that takes on one to two organizations each year to help them organization and streamline their inhouse processes. We were the first to choose Salesforce. What JDQ and we learned in the first year of reviewing CRMs and choosing Salesforce has benefitted other organizations. They don't have to go through the long process we did. We did it for them.