How to choose the best CRM for your nonprofit

Every donor is important for your nonprofit — we don’t have to tell you that. They’re the people that allow you to do the work that you do. But as your organization continues to grow, you may be facing a catch-22: You need more donors to keep the lights on and the world saved, but you also reach a point where you need more donors to give you time and resources to…keep up with your donors.
Constituent relationship management software is a turnkey solution to organize donor communications in a way that keeps the personal touch but doesn’t require massive handholding. The best CRMs allow you to understand where you’re at in terms of your development goals, nurture the relationships you’ve already made, and foster new relationships as they come in.
From the bare-bones minimalist to the Willy Wonka-esque (all the bells and whistles — All. Of. Them.), there’s a wide range of CRM softwares available on the market today. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and for the love of all that is 501c3 please accept it), is to find the one that fits your needs. Here’s our guide to choosing the best CRM for your nonprofit, along with a few of our favorite platforms.
What to consider when you're considering a CRM software. Share on X

Consider the people

And not just the people who are donating money: Your CRM software should be able to manage all of your constituents, including donors, volunteers, beneficiaries, people who attend events, board members, corporate sponsors, celebrity supporters, social influencers, and even your staff. This is the one-stop nucleus of the people that carry out your mission.
A good CRM will also allow you to cross-reference these groups of people to see where there is overlap: Did someone donate after attending an event? Is a recipient of your services now a volunteer? Determine how much biographical information is necessary for your organization to manage and match that to the capabilities offered by the software you’re evaluating.
At this stage of the game, it’s also good to consider the people actually using the software: Will it be used by one department, or shared across a few (perhaps with different goals in mind)? How many constituents are you currently managing, and how many users will be managing those constituents (both of which can affect pricing)?

Consider the process

How does your nonprofit normally receive donations? Is it all handled online? Are you receiving in-kind gifts, matching gifts, or planned giving? Do you run a pledge drive? Offline donations can still be cataloged within your CRM software and managed in the donor’s profile. You’ll want to find an option that allows you to enter this information easily and without any potential for user error if you find yourself processing a number of donations in these categories.
You’ll also want to take a step back and look at the process overall for each software you test. Sign up for a few demos, and if possible bring on the person who will be directly responsible for using the software on a day-to-day basis (if that person isn’t you). Is it a process that is intuitive, that provides feedback for both successful entries and errors, and easy to learn? Is it a software that can accommodate easy onboarding? Will it require a lot of internal or IT resources to customize it for your needs, or is it more off-the-shelf? Now is also a good time to either look at online reviews of the software or speak to others who use it to see what the process is like for them.

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Consider the purpose

You know the “that-way-you-have-it” game? The game where you go for all of the add-ons and features so that way you have it in case of the proverbial rainy day?
Don’t play that game.
Ask yourself what the specific purpose or purposes will be for investing in CRM software — data culture aside. Perhaps it’s to manage and streamline all donations. If you’re an advocacy organization, perhaps it’s to track petition signatures and social media campaigns. Know exactly what you will — and won’t — be putting this investment towards so you can make sure those specific needs are being met without unnecessary upsells.
If you need features that exist separately from the software, you’ll also want to make sure that those can integrate fluidly within your CRM. And if you’re migrating from another CRM platform, do yourself a favor and make sure that your new provider offers data transfer support.

Consider the product

Yes, this means the software, but also consider the real end-products of what your CRM software will offer you. This comes down to reporting on the activities that matter most to meeting your organization’s goals, and the key performance indicators that correlate with those activities.
If you’re using your CRM to send out emails, can it tell you the average and campaign-specific open rate, click-through rate, and bounce rates? Can your donation tracker let you know what time and which days of the week are your busiest? Can you break down your constituency by demographic? Are these offered as features, but not the reports you need to make your organization as effective as it can be? If so, does your prospective CRM offer what you need?

More to consider

In February, the Nonprofit Technology Network published the 2017 guide to low-cost donor management systems, which includes their tiered recommendations for usages like just the basics, price-critical, easy to set up and use, fundraising events, cross-constituent tracking, email and web integration, and more.
At Whole Whale, we’ve seen our share of CRMs and also recommend the following:

  1. Salesforce: Great for having a number of customization options without requiring an MSCS, the Nonprofit Success Pack from Salesforce ticks off a number of boxes and suits a variety of needs. With the Power of Us Program, Salesforce also offers 10 free licenses and further discounts on training and additional products or subscriptions.
  2. Salsa CRM: Our friends at Salsa have combined the centralized database of a CRM with Salsa Engage, a tool for online marketing, fundraising, and advocacy. This allows for a variety of activities to be consolidated into one user-friendly package.
  3. Kindful: Kindful specializes in growing nonprofits offering those in the startup phase to grow fluidly with their integrations aimed at online fundraising, donor tracking, and analyzing interactions.
  4. Infusionsoft: While not geared towards nonprofits, Infusionsoft’s edge towards small businesses make it a fit worth considering, both from the CRM side of the fence as well as automation (your emails = done). Pricing and complexity are both considerations here, but if you’re looking at what the for-profit kids are using, this is a good place to start.
  5. ActiveCampaign: Another out of the nonprofit circle, ActiveCampaign is a lower-cost alternative to Infusionsoft with less of a learning curve. This leaves a bit to be desired in terms of the interface but is great for small- to mid-size organizations.

Plus… A number of our favorite online donation platforms also have CRM integrations. In addition to Salsa, we take a look at Donately, Fundly, MobileCause, and more in our roundup of the best donation platforms for nonprofits.