Think of a Nonprofit CRM like a Shopping Cart

The Complete Guide to Nonprofit CRMs

Have you ever gone to the grocery store and thought, I’m not buying much, and set off without a cart.

You start with milk, then get some cereal, decide you need bananas, the nearby strawberries look great too, oh and you’d been meaning to make your own guacamole.

Thirty minutes and an avocado later, you’re up to your neck with groceries and you accidentally drop them all.

I’d liken the grocery store experience to that of a growing nonprofit.

Your database starts as something simple like an excel sheet, but as your organization grows, so too do your database needs.

At a certain point, it is time to head to the front of the store and get a cart, before things get too out of hand. In this case, the cart is a nonprofit CRM.

CRMs are powerful and necessary tools for nonprofits.

When utilized correctly, they can be the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful fundraising year.

There is a lot of information out there on nonprofit CRMs and it can be overwhelming and confusing.

For your convenience, we’ve compiled a user-friendly guide to CRMs.

Let’s start with the basics.

What exactly is a CRM?

Before we go any further, we need to break down the initialism.

CRM can mean two things:

  1. Customer Relationship Management (tool, system, software, etc.)
  2. Constituent Relationship Management (tool, system, software, etc.)

They both mean roughly the same thing, the big difference being which sector the two terms apply to. Option one, customer, is associated with the commercial world.

For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be dealing with option two, constituent, since it applies to the nonprofit sector.

Nonprofit CRMs can be divided into two subsections:

  • as a software
  • as a system

Think of nonprofit CRM software as a one-stop-shop for your organization. The software is going to keep and maintain the whole of your nonprofit’s data and assist in the management of all of your organization’s practices.

Sounds amazing, right? It can be, though the problem comes when your organization grows.

The bigger your nonprofit, the less likely a solitary software will work.

For example, a professional athlete doesn’t have one coach and one exercise type.  No, she’ll have a head coach, a strength and conditioning coach, a masseuse, a chiropractor, a dietitian, AND she’ll vary her workouts to be as all-around prepared for competition as possible.

From CRM software, we move on to CRM systems.

If a software is a bike, a system is a car. Yes, it is more complicated on the surface, but much more beneficial as a whole. It will get you to your fundraising and mission destination quicker and with less energy expended.

For a CRM system, we refer to a combination of software working in conjunction with the purpose of meeting all organizational needs.

Coordinating a system takes planning, but it is well worth it. If it sounds like a hodgepodge conglomeration, it is not.

Keep in mind, there is a difference between “thrown together” and “strategically brought together.” A CRM system is strategically brought together.

The CRM is going to maintain various pieces of information on all of your constituent types, including:

  • program participants/service recipients
  • volunteers
  • staff
  • board members
  • donors
  • vendors
  • partners

If a constituent is pertinent to serving your mission, he goes in the system.

The nonprofit CRM should help you track:

  • donations
  • volunteer hours
  • basic constituent details
  • records of communications with constituents
  • general constituent involvement

Be it a software or system, a nonprofit CRM should be the nucleus to your organization’s atom.

What types of nonprofit database software are out there?

Organizations use CRMs for various reasons including:

  • donor management — maintaining your donor records
  • communications management — direct mail, email, event-based
  • fundraising — processing donations
  • events management — scheduling, ticket sales, seat assignments
  • membership management — registrations, benefits, renewals

You can find a nonprofit CRM to cover one, two, or all of those categories and more.

That final option would fall into the all-in-one CRM option.

Additionally, some CRMs are cloud-based, meaning they can be accessed anywhere via an internet connection. Cloud-based CRMs are really beneficial for a mobile or remote staff.

What information is stored in a nonprofit constituent management system?

The brief answer is lots.  Hopefully lots and lots of information. The more informed your staff is about supporters, the more likely they are to be effective fundraisers.

In your CRM, you should have as many details about your nonprofit stored as possible. The detail type breaks down into two subcategories:

  • personal
  • philanthropic

The necessary personal details for your CRM to have are as follows:

  • contact information
  • names of spouse and child(ren) if applicable
  • notes on past interactions
  • interests
  • communication method and frequency
  • business relationships

Whereas the pertinent philanthropic details are:

  • preferred giving channel
  • previous charitable giving
  • event attendance
  • nonprofit involvement

Obviously, this information won’t be readily available for all constituents, but the hope is that your CRM has space for it, so if you know the detail, you have a clearly understood place to input it.

What are the benefits of a nonprofit CRM?

Up until this point we’ve dedicated this guide to understanding nonprofit CRMs. Now it is time to pivot and examine the many benefits.

CRM systems provide a broad range of organization improving features. The right CRM will be the perfect pairing with your nonprofit. Batman, meet Robin.

The advantages of using a CRM are plenty, let’s look at some of them:

(1) Donor Management — Managing donors well is at the heart of any successful fundraising efforts. A good CRM gives users quick and easy access to:

  • a main dashboard
  • donation and pledge information
  • recurring donations
  • donor trends
  • donation tracking
  • acknowledgment letters

Features will vary by CRM, so make sure you choose one that suits the most needs within budget.

(2) Campaign Creation — Campaign creation is crucial to any fundraising effort. With the assistance of a CRM, your nonprofit will be able to run a fundraising campaign from start to finish, from organizing donors to automating and personalizing acknowledgments.

(3) Event Management — CRM event management alleviates the stress of event planning. With it you can create event tickets, generate registration forms, manage wait lists, and so much more.

(4) Integrations — Many CRMs, like NonProfitEasy’s, will provide integrations that make the database software as all encompassing as possible. The CRM will integrate with useful outside resources to maximize software, and by extension, organizational efficiency.

(5) Data Reporting — CRMs can take your raw donation data, track it, and then convert it into reports for analysis.

(6) Sharing Information Across Fundraising Teams — Nonprofit CRMs are designed to make life easier for fundraisers. If all members of a fundraising team can access donor data via the organization’s CRM, you’ve streamlined the process.

(7) Donor Communications — With a CRM you can both release and track communications, from newsletters to email campaigns.

(8) Proper Timing for Follow-Up Activities — Fundraising is an art form. It takes special tact to know when the appropriate time to follow-up is. CRMs can help manage the scheduling and take the guess work out of the process.

(9) Create New Development Plans — CRM software keeps data organized and easy to find. Gift officers can make use of the prepped data to help inform the design of new development plans.

(10) Eliminate IT Maintenance — Many CRMs come with tech support. The IT maintenance from your CRM will lessen the need for various other tech support outlets.

To learn more about the benefits of using a nonprofit CRM, click here! 

How do you choose a CRM to buy?

Choosing a CRM is a major decision for any nonprofit. The right software will have a drastic impact on your organization’s productivity and overall fundraising success.

A lot of factors go into the decision to buy a new or your first CRM, some more important than others.

There are seven main factors to consider when buying a nonprofit CRM:

  1. Strategize first — Before you can begin narrowing down your options, your organization will need a clear idea of what it needs from a CRM. Consider your nonprofit’s ultimate goal, budget, and wish list of features when starting the shopping process.
  2. Get input from the people who will be using it — Feedback from your staff and the various people who the CRM will affect is crucial to decision-making. Speak with your fundraisers, your researchers, and your marketers.
  3. Figure out who needs to use the system — This point is slightly related to the one above. Not all CRMs offer universal team access. Decide who from your team needs access, and make sure the CRM you select has enough seats.
  4. Consider set-up needs — CRMs have a broad range of set-up requirements. Your organization’s time and tech expertise will need to be assessed in conjunction with the installation difficulty of the CRMs you’re shopping for.
  5. Research integrations vs. built-in features — Built-in features come within your CRM, whereas an integration brings in an outside tool. Find a CRM that has the necessary built-ins and fluidly designed integrations.
  6. Evaluate your communications requirements — Think through how you communicate with donors, and determine what from that list you’d like to be able to use the CRM for.
  7. Document your reporting needs — Reporting capabilities vary by nonprofit. Just like with communication, figure out what you can and can’t live without.

Click for more information on these game-changing CRM purchasing best practices.

How do you migrate data to your CRM?

No one likes moving. Packing, lifting heavy things, truck rentals, rearranging, long days. Donor database migration has some of the same headaches as a real-life move.

Just like we move, even though we don’t like to, because the benefits outweigh the negatives of the transition itself, nonprofits migrate databases for the same reason.

However, if you approach the situation with the proper plan, the move will be ten times easier.

Here are 11 tips to manage data migration excellently:

#1: Clean your donor database before the switch — Think of this as a spring cleaning. Save time on the second half of the move with proper organization before hand.

#2: Appoint a project manager — Data migration is complex and time consuming, simplify some of the process by selecting a point-person to lead the migration charge.

#3: Keep all departments informed — This transition won’t be easy. The more your staff knows about when and how they’ll be affected, the better able you’ll be to maneuver and troubleshoot any problems that arise.

#4: Find an outside partner to help — Many CRM companies offer migration assistance, and if yours doesn’t, you want to consider hiring an outside adviser.

#5: Prioritize your data — You can’t take everything with you in the move. Rank your data according to how necessary it is to bring along, and only take what you need.

#6: Migrate in stages — Migrate only what you have ranked as necessary in the first stage of the move. See how that data plays out and determine if you need more. Stages will also make the migration easier for staff, as only certain pieces of info will be unavailable at various times.

#7: Save a backup — This is pretty self-explanatory.

#8: Customize if needed — Chances are, all of your data isn’t going to fit in your new CRM’s preset fields. Decide which data that doesn’t have a field is still a must and then customize a storage option. Customization is not always easy, so the decision to do so will need to take time and finances required into account.

#9: Address the issue of lapsed donors — You don’t want to take a large group of former donors who are never going to donate again with you to the new CRM. Decide who is still a candidate for donating, and only keep data for those supporters.

#10: Determine how many years of data to migrate — This number will vary, and it really depends on how far back your staff usually goes when pulling up information.

#11: Set a timeline — This migration cannot go on indefinitely. Establish a timeline, and implement checkpoints to help manage progress.

Data migration can sound and can be awful. It will take extensive planning, time, and effort. The results are worth it though. A high functioning nonprofit CRM can truly elevate any organization’s fundraising.

Still worried about migrating?

Read our “how to” on data migration for more in-depth discussion.

How do you maximize your organization’s CRM function on an ongoing basis?

You have purchased a CRM, you’ve installed it, you’ve migrated your data. Now you walk away and let it do all the work, right? Semi-wrong.

The CRM is there to take a lot of the busy work out of your fundraisers’ work days, however, it needs to be properly run in order to be able to do its job.

Here are some suggestions for maximizing CRM effectiveness at your organization:

  1. take advantage of the free training
  2. explore the system
  3. set knowledge goals
  4. pay attention to software updates
  5. participate in online user communities
  6. put a transition plan in place in case someone leaves the nonprofit
  7. create and implement a maintenance budget

Fundraising is always a challenge. Your team needs to take every advantage it can, including maximizing your CRM!

Discover more about the CRM maximization process here!

What are the best ways to manage the data in your CRM?

We touched briefly on database cleaning in our migration advice, but we’ll delve into it further in this section.

Frequently scheduled and performed checks of your database may take a little bit of time in the present, but they will prevent errors and problems in the future.

When working to ensure that your database is functioning at peak efficacy, keep these six tips in mind:

Tip 1: Keep Track of Which Donors Have Been Active Within the Past Two Years

We know, it can be hard to leave things behind. Just like you realistically will never re-wear your favorite shirt from high school, you’re unlikely to need data from a donor that hasn’t been active for two years. Let go of that data.

Tip 2: Make Sure You Have Up-To-Date Home and Email Addresses for Your Donors

If these addresses are your main point of contact with donors, make sure they are accurate. You don’t want to be wasting time sending emails that will sit unopened in inboxes.

Tip 3: Track Matching Gifts

Donor acknowledgement should never be overlooked, so it is important to track all the generous behavior of your donors. When a donor secures a matching gift, that donor’s employer is the one making the gift, but the donor’s efforts to get the funding need to be addressed as well. When it comes time to do year-end thank yous, you’ll want that matching gift information readily available to guide your acknowledgements.

Tip 4: Pinpoint Your Average Donation Amount

Once you have a median donation amount, segment out donors that fall above and below that line respectively. You can then target those segments with varying approaches informed by where they sit on the donation spectrum.

Tip 5: Get Rid of Duplicate Information

Duplicate information is bound to happen. With multiple people accessing the database, there is going to be some cross-over. Keep that in mind and dedicate some time to eliminating the doubles.

Tip 6: Have Detailed and Specific Data Entry Procedures

The more systematic and uniform your data entry process, the better. If there’s one methodology, every staff member who uses the database can learn it and use it.

Database cleaning is crucial to running a CRM, the above list is an outline of the process.

For a more substantial discussion of donor database cleaning, click here.

How can a CRM help with reporting to donors and stakeholders?

Reporting is one of the most important CRM functions because it allows you to communicate with key groups:

  • the government
  • donors
  • board members
  • partner organizations

In terms of the government, when you need to report your organizational finances, having all data centralized will drastically speed up and improve the process.

For the remaining three groups, CRM report creation helps organizations be as transparent as possible. Transparency is a growing concern for nonprofit constituents. Supporters want to see what your organization is truly accomplishing and how it is doing so.

The rapid and accurate reports generated by CRMs aid in creating a culture of fundraising transparency.

CRMs will generate a wide variety of reports. They can help create reports on:

  • financial transactions
  • event attendance
  • campaign responses through email or direct mail
  • and various other custom needs

Think about how much time it takes to have one or two staff members produce an entire report. With the CRM automating the report creation, your staff can focus on presenting and explaining the findings.

The CRM might not be able to automate the entire process, but it will be able to seriously cut down on employee involvement. And speaking from a pragmatic mindset, the less human involvement, the less room for human error. A CRM is less likely to make mistakes in reporting than a staff member would be.


This guide may seem like a lot, and that’s because there is a lot to know about nonprofit CRMs. Whether you are just starting your search for a CRM or looking to improve the functionality of your current donor database, learning more will never hurt.

If you are over reading and ready to jump in and investigate a working nonprofit CRM, schedule a call with a member of the NonProfitEasy team today!

Schedule a demo with NonProfitEasy today!