Beginner’s guide to CRM systems for charities

Melanie May | 6 January 2021 | News

While the benefits of CRM systems for gaining a 360-degree view of supporters have been much discussed, they can be useful for much more besides just bringing all of your supporter data together into one place.
But if, as a charity, you’re making your first foray into the world of CRM, getting to grips with the nitty-gritty of how these systems work, what they can help you with, and the options available can be daunting.
To help, we answer a few key questions.

What does a CRM system do?

A CRM – meaning a customer relationship management – system is quite simply where a non-profit organisation can store all its data in one place, rather than keeping it in separate files, spreadsheets, and systems.
This can include everything from a charity’s own data on supporters and volunteers, donations, fundraising campaigns and events, and even grant applications, to information brought in from elsewhere such as event management systems, online giving platforms, and payment processors.
In uniting all of this in one easily accessible database, the right CRM system can help charities make better, more informed decisions, paving the way to improving communications with supporters, volunteers, or other teams within the organisation, as well as better fundraising campaigns, event management, and more.
Anthony Fawkes, Founder and Managing Director of Actually Data, comments:

“The Holy Grail for everyone in fundraising is that 360-view of the donor journey. The joy of a CRM system – and it should be a good thing – is understanding all the different touchpoints a supporter has with your organisation so you’re thinking from their view, helping you to engage well and better manage that relationship.”


What are the benefits for a charity of using a CRM system?

In no particular order, they include:
Accessibility: Bringing everything together makes it quicker and easier to find the information you need to communicate relevantly and effectively with supporters.
Compliancy: Keeping all supporter data, forms and declarations in one place and easily accessible is a major advantage for ensuring data protection law compliancy – as well as for claiming Gift Aid.
Suzanne Lewis, Managing Director of Arc Data explains:

“A key requirement of GDPR – which we still have to comply with post-Brexit under our own data protection laws – is that you know what data you hold about each individual in your systems, and can view, copy and delete it on request. A single supporter view makes it much easier to record and access consent choices, and to ensure that when you interact or communicate with a supporter, every action is traceable. Having that single supporter view also enables you to respond promptly to requests from individuals to see, transfer, amend or delete their data or to change their permissions.”

Consistency: One central database makes it a lot easier to ensure you don’t have lots of slightly different records for the same supporter – again important for complying with data protection legislation, as well as relationship building.
Teamwork: It also fosters better collaboration between teams, which again, will only serve to improve everything you do. One key area this helps with is to ensure that, regardless of which team is using the data within your organisation, every communication to supporters has the same voice, rather than sounding different depending on which team it comes from.
Integration: As an organisation adds to its service offering, a CRM system performs a valuable role in bringing all those data sources together, improving operational efficiency.
Fawkes says:

“Integration should be at forefront of minds. The more an organisation grows in terms of what it’s offering – from research, to funding, services, and volunteering, the more integration is needed with different data sources and systems such as events management systems and payment processors, and a CRM system can help by bringing all of that together in one place.”

Reporting: Most also have standard reporting inbuilt, helpfully keeping you informed on the likes of new donors and income acquired, and some go further with more intelligent reporting, helping you to contact supporters at the key times, such as the anniversary of their first donation.


What should we consider when making our choice?

Firstly – what do you need it for and what challenges do you want it to solve? Some for example are very focused on fundraising, while others have the capacity for wider functionality.
Does it need to integrate with existing software and systems, and will it also remain fit for purpose as you grow and develop? You’re likely to need a system you can scale over time as well as add new functionality to, so check this too.
If you want a CRM system specifically for fundraising, Salesforce has a quick checklist to consider when making that choice. For this purpose, it says, a CRM for non-profits should also be able to:

Its advice can be read in full here.
Whatever you’re seeking a CRM system for however, there are also other key general considerations to bear in mind.
Who’s going to look after and manage the system once set up? Larger charities generally have teams and database managers but small organisations will still need someone to be responsible for it and to ensure that people are trained how to use it.
And, unless it’s an entry point off the shelf solution, you’ll need to find the right partner to help you implement it.
Ivan Wainewright at IT for Charities explains:

“If you’re a small enough organisation you might be able to buy a solution you can use with just some training but as soon as you’re too big to get something off the shelf, it becomes a project requiring an implementation partner, so when making your choice about the system, you also have to consider who will help you configure and implement it.”

With much more than just the upfront cost to think about, budget will also be a big consideration. Wainewright recommends working out the total cost of ownership of a CRM system before making your choice:

“Budget is critical. A charity might just look at the cost to buy but will forget that in year 2, 3 and 4 for example, you’ll have to continue paying for maintenance, support, hosting fees, data migration, and training etc. Consider all of the costs for implementation and how much it will cost you annually for 5 years and suddenly a system might not seem so cheap while one costing more at the outset could turn out to be cheaper in the long run.”


What entry level or small charity-specific solutions are available?

So you’re ready to take a look at what’s available.
There are a number of charity-specific CRM systems available for new entrants to the market, as well as some free versions to start you off with (although bear in mind that what they can do and how much data they can handle will be limited).
In this section, CRMs include:

Others available started out as commercial CRMs and have since been developed to provide versions that also meet the needs of nonprofit organisations. Some commercial CRMs can also be used by nonprofits.
These include:

Main image: Photo by Federico Orlandi from Pexels

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