As you are probably aware, there are a whole slew of different Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) system options out there.

Specialized CRM Systems

Many CRMs for nonprofits specialize in one area or another – for example advocacy, fundraising, membership, or volunteer management. Because of this many organizations end up using multiple CRM systems. They may use one to manage donors, another for volunteers, and sometimes a third for client management – and then a separate email marketing system!

These out-of-the-box CRM systems all have different costs, but by the time you’re using three or four different systems and importing/exporting data back and forth and then de-duplicating records, you’d be better off with one comprehensive and integrated system.

Comprehensive CRM Systems

Most specialized CRM systems are closed, so you have to fit your operations into their framework and making tweaks is a hard thing to do.

We find that most organizations have a much better experience with a CRM system that is flexible enough that it can be customized to meet their needs. This means you can create custom fields, generate custom reports, and set up workflow rules that match your operating procedures.

For that and many other reasons, our two favorite CRM systems for nonprofits 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+ per year. Salesforce is powerful, adaptable, scalable, and free for 10 users or less. Additional licenses are available at a steep discount.

While you will have to pay to customize the software, once it’s completed you’ll have little to no maintenance or ongoing fees. Unless your organization has more than 10 users, at which point you’ll need to pay additional license fees.


CiviCRM is an open source software backed by a huge community of developers. It’s an excellent choice for member organizations, organizations that manage a lot of events requiring online registration, or orgs seeking an integrated online donation page and donor management system. Once again, there are no annual licensing fees, but you will have to invest in the custom setup. From there on, you’ll just need to cover annual hosting and upgrades as needed.

Annual Costs

While the cost of moving to an integrated CRM system may seem prohibitive ($15K – $50K for initial setup, depending on the complexity of the configuration and volume of data to clean and migrate); in the long-run you will likely 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 send out an email blast, put together a donor report, or compile a mailing list for your annual campaign. Think about the time spent tallying beneficiaries or producing 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, custom data collection, 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.