Ah, remember the days of Rolodex and handwriting and address books and beehive hair and smoking in the office?

Charming as they were, those days are gone.

We now have Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, and electronic everything, and regular hair, and smoking laws.

Customer Management Chaos

Many nonprofits still have six different systems that don’t talk to each other, or no CRM system at all.

Some organizations are still doing things all higgledy-piggledy using Excel spreadsheets, boxes of business cards, a software just to manage donors, another to manage clients, and another for volunteers.

Often none of the systems really interface and different people “own” different systems or lists. These decentralized systems aren’t serving your organization’s best interest. Here’s why:

Relationships Are Complex

Your constituents don’t necessarily fit into neat little categories. And they don’t usually just interact with one person in your organization.        

For example, clients can be so grateful for the services they received in a time of need, they want to become a volunteer. Volunteers become board members or donors. Vendors become sponsors, and partners become donors.

Or maybe your board director’s wife and children volunteer, he donates, and their company sponsors your events. Their household is key to your organization – and you need to capture that.

Relationships are fluid, ever-evolving, and everyone matters. An integrated system that can accommodate the flow of supporters between different groups, tracking their evolution, noting what type of campaign converts a volunteer or advocate to a donor, is vital to being strategic with your messaging and fundraising efforts.

It’s also a crucial component of understanding your relationships and how to engage your supporter community. 

Staff Members Aren’t Permanent

Here’s another fix: What happens when staff leave and take contacts or relationships with them? How do you know where to pick up that relationship?

Don’t leave your history to gather dust in a few key persons’ brains. Memory is fallible and staff members are not bound to you for eternity – you don’t want to lose relationships when someone leaves your org or forgets the details .

Benefits of an Integrated CRM System

Aside from an Olympian view of your relational history that comes with an integrated database, a good CRM system also allows you to:

  • Avoid irksome duplication of contacts and communications
  • Gain easy access for emailing and phone calls
  • Provide comprehensive lists of participants when planning for big events
  • Track evolutionary trends over time in the life of a volunteer cum donor, etc.
  • Access the history of each constituent, who’ve they interacted with and what was said
  • Build organizational relationships with your supporters
  • Enable automatic processing of various tasks, saving staff time
  • Compile robust and comprehensive reports

CRM System Options

So what are we talking about exactly? How do you get a CRM system of your very own? There are a whole slew of different CRM system options out there. Some specialize in one field or another – for example advocacy, fundraising, membership, etc. Out-of-the-box CRM systems all have different costs.

There are a few CRM systems that we often recommend because they are comprehensive, scalable, reliable AND… free (!) for nonprofits. Our two favorites are Salesforce (we love their donation program) and CiviCRM (open source, no annual licensing fees).

Increasingly, nonprofits are turning to integrated solutions such as Salesforce, which can be customized to meet nearly any nonprofit need. The Salesforce Foundation grants donations to 501(c)(3) nonprofits worth $15,000 plus per year. Salesforce is powerful, adaptable, scalable, and free. While you have to pay to customize the software, once it’s completed you’ll have little to no maintenance or ongoing fees.


CiviCRM is an open source software backed by a huge community of developers. It’s an excellent choice for member organizations or organizations that manage a lot of events that require registration. Once again, there are no annual licensing fees, but you will have to invest in the custom setup. From there on, it’s just hosting and upgrades as needed.

Annual Costs

While the cost of moving to an integrated CRM system may seem prohibitive ($10K – $40K for initial setup, depending on the complexity of the configuration and volume of data to clean and migrate); in the long-run you will recover your investment many times over.

If you’re still trying to corral information from various data bases, just think about all the time it takes to put together a donor report – or a mailing list for your annual campaign. Think about the time spent tallying beneficiaries or compiling the core data for your annual report, OR managing your annual fundraiser.

And don’t forget the missed-opportunity cost of letting a potential donor slip through the cracks.

All of these things can be achieved in a few clicks if you have the right integrated system. Your mass emailings are easier. Your reporting is a cinch. Annual events are easy to manage thanks to online payments and the fact that you can print your guest list and name tags right from the system. And you don’t even need to worry about sending receipts or reminders – the system does that for you.

So once you tally what you’re spending in both staff time and annual license fees, you’ll see that investing in just one system can save you significant time and money – time and money that could be better spent reaching more beneficiaries.

The good news is with donated and open-source platforms like Salesforce and CiviCRM, you can make the transition to an integrated system with grace and ease.