What is CRM and why do I care?

Jonathan Eyler-Werve

April 01, 2012

From a new colleague at a small and scrappy community organization_:_

I am writing to follow up on that software you mentioned for managing constituents.  Can you send me a link? — AM

And here was my reply:

Hi AM —

The big topic you are looking at is called “relationship management” or “constituent relationship management.”

Think of CRM as your address book on growth hormones, so that it becomes a logbook of every interaction you have with someone who has a stake in your organization. You can be as complete as saying every time your organization has an email, phone or event contact with someone, that goes into the database so you can see what that person’s relationship to your org is. This is useful for lots of things but essential for small donor fundraising — is this someone’s first gift, or their 10th? You want to treat them differently: an introduction, or an informal thank you, or whatever.

However, this can be fiendishly complicated to the unwary. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars on one of these systems and still not like it.

Much depends on the quality of your data. If you are starting from scratch (ie everyone has their own lists or no lists) then it’s sometimes easier than starting with a big but messy database. If your data is really big and really a mess, then there are tears.

CC by Juhan Sonin

Useless but pretty: visualizing connections in Wikipedia articles. By Juhan Sonin (CC/by)

It would be great if you could find someone knowledgeable and local to help you implement a solution. Face to face works best, and you need someone who is a good long term partner — not an intern, not a one time volunteer — they’ll be the ones who help this database grow with you over time. Someone on staff who wants to learn can work well too.

A basic system that you can try out for a month for free is HighRise by 37 Signals. It’s a minimalist approach that emphasizes easy to use basics. It runs $25 a month, which is usually well worth it if you are using it heavily. This is a good solution for a group with minimal tech support and little up front capital because it works out of the box and is bills monthly. If it’s not working,  you can shut it off.

Here’s an Idealware reading list on CRM, but frankly a lot of this advice makes my head hurt. It’s good, but pretty dense stuff.

Here’s an Aspiration manifesto on how nonprofits should think about technology. Recommended.

Good luck! Let me know how you do.