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Is a free charity CRM ever really free?

Melanie May | 1 February 2023 | News

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With a number of CRM providers offering free systems to charities, a common question is: do they really cost nothing? We ask the experts.

Certainly for small charities with limited budgets that are just starting out on their CRM journey, a free system is an attractive prospect.

As the saying goes however, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’, so it’s important to understand just how ‘free’ these systems are, and what they can and can’t help you with.


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CRM consultant Ivan Wainewright says a key thing to consider is the total cost of ownership, and not just the initial price (or rather the lack of it):

“Except for the very simplest and smallest systems, there is no such thing as Completely Free Software. There will almost certainly be other costs. One example is Salesforce: they provide 10 free licenses, but you will almost certainly still need to pay for training, support, data migration from your current database, additional apps and so on.”

Wainewright adds:

“Some “free software” is very good, and as long as you understand there can be additional costs, then it may be right for you. But consider the “Total Cost of Ownership.”

Another point to be aware of is that not all CRM systems are the same – in that they’re not all suitable for charities. Some are sales-, rather than charity-focused, and there are also platforms like Mailchimp that aren’t CRMs but provide some of the features you might be looking for, like the ability to send out emails and track performance. Any system or platform that’s sales-oriented may do the marketing side well but won’t have the capability to provide what a nonprofit needs in terms of a database, donation management, or integration with giving platforms for example.

Something else to consider is that a free solution will be more basic than a paid-for one, and less easy to customise. As a result, your charity could well end up changing some of its processes in order to work with it, which means it’s important to ensure you have a clear understanding of what it can and can’t do before taking it on.

Rob Dobell, Managing Director at Hart Square says:

“A free solution will probably have restrictions on the number of records that can be stored, or the level of support provided (if any). Many tend to be designed to draw customers in then to encourage them to sign up to paid versions. This is done by locking down or excluding very specific functionality which they know will become important to a customer using a CRM. What’s important here for the charity is to do the research so it is very clear what is and isn’t included. Having accurate expectations is crucial to avoiding frustrations down the line.”

Even if it is does tick your boxes, there will still be work to be done at the outset to ensure you’re able to get the most from it. And this includes making sure your data is in a fit state to go into the system in the first place.

Dobell adds:

“CRMs can allow charities to put their data to work; this means profiling supporters, understanding and acknowledging why they engage, then delivering campaigns which reflect this insight. Simply moving existing data from files to a CRM without any investment in improving the data won’t create this change though, hence the need to focus on planning, structure and quality.”

So while a CRM software licence might be free, making really good use of a system will involve time, work and possibly more software that isn’t. Keith Collins, Principal Consultant at Adapta Consulting, says charities will always need help to get a system up and running, whether it’s from staff internally, or from external suppliers or consultants to get them configured in the first place and data migrated over. Integrated apps might also be needed to connect the CRM system with tools like an email marketing solution or a payment processer, which will again require time and effort to set up, or small license fees to use.

Collins adds:

“The idea that a charity CRM solution is ‘free’ is not just wrong, it’s actually unhelpful. The language of “free” sets an expectation – wrongly – that perhaps a charity doesn’t need to invest appropriately in its technology, processes, digital, data etc. Software licences are generally only a small proportion of any CRM implementation; the real costs are in the initial set-up and the ongoing use of the system.”

There’s no doubt that free systems can be extremely useful to a charity starting out with CRM, or wanting to dip its toe in the water. The key thing to remember however, is to consider before taking the plunge whether a system has the capability you need to support your organisation’s strategic objectives, what it will take to get it where you want it if not, and whether, bearing all that in mind, it’s right for you.