IT & Technology

How to choose the right CRM system for your charity

11 December 2015

Managing all your donors can be a headache for charities of any size. Here's how to choose a system that helps, whether your charity is large or small

Charities generally think that their ‘customers’ are their beneficiaries. Of course for the purposes of fundraising, the customer is the person on the other end of the phone/letter and without them, no charity could survive. Over the last few years we have seen an explosion in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to help build these relationships, with tools and techniques coming over from the private sector.

Choosing the system that’s right for your charity is not simple. CRM procurement and implementation cannot use a ‘one size fits all’ approach. The fundamentals may be the same (e.g. the need for requirement gathering, project management, risk analysis etc) but large and small organisations will have different considerations. Below are some of the different things you should be considering depending on the size of your charity.

Large Charities

Extensibility and an open development platform are important 
i.e. the ability to extend the features of your system beyond ‘what comes in the box’ and one that is based on open standards so, for example, another program could integrate with the platform to add functionality.  These functions are almost certainly an important factor if you are a large charity, so use a system which offers this. The days of ‘closed fundraising packages’ are no longer suitable for large charities as most now want to extend and develop their systems.

CRM implementations are not cheap for large charities
It's not just the software but the professional services, data migration, hardware/hosting and critically your people. You will need to backfill roles and you may need specialist outside contractors/consultants, so do plan for an appropriate budget.

Consider the organisation selling the system carefully
They will be more than just a vendor as you will need to rely on them for support. Do they understand your business? Fundraising? Do they empathise with your staff? Are they a suitable size so they can support you if some of their staff were to leave? They will be a key part of the success (or otherwise) of your implementation.

Never under-estimate data migration!
A successful data migration on its own won’t mean your overall CRM project will be a success, but a poor data migration may well mean your overall CRM project will fail.

Consider your in-house resources
If you want a new system which will allow you to do more software development in-house than you have been able to in the past then you might need a new structure to your development team – start considering that at an early point so you can be planning for it.

Configure don’t customise wherever possible
If there is one thing which is likely to increase costs, time and risk then it is over-customising a system.

Small Charities

You almost certainly do not need bespoke software!
Too many small charities think they do or are told they do. First, look at all the great ‘off the shelf’ fundraising/membership packages available and even the CRM systems – they almost certainly can do all (or most) of what you need.

Free software doesn't mean zero cost
You will still need to pay for hardware/hosting, development, support, data migration, consultancy, training and so on.

A new CRM system is not a magic bullet
You will still need to record good quality data, have your business processes in place, use the software etc. It should help you but it won’t mean you can suddenly “do” CRM. And someone in your organisation still needs to administrate your system in one way or another – don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.

Match your processes to your new database
This means bearing the database in mind when creating acknowledgement letters, membership renewal processes and managing outcome plans for your beneficiaries. If you buy a new database, (assuming you have bought a good one) don’t try to mould it into something it isn’t. If you need to change your business processes to match the new system then do so – don’t force the software to change.

Your system must be able to provide your fundamental operational requirements
Make sure any new CRM system can handle your basic requirements and don’t be blinded by whizzy gadgets.

CRM systems just aren't as simple as Excel
… sorry! Which is why you need to spend time and effort in understanding and reviewing your business processes to get the most out of your system. But…

...Simple is good!
If you can find a simple CRM system and it does all you need then don’t think you have to buy a large, flashy one.


Whether your organisation is small or large, these tips should guide you to a system that supports your work and drives donations without overwhelming you in complexity or cost.

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Ivan Wainewright

Ivan has been working in information technology (IT) for over 23 years in consultancy, project management, customer support, training and sales. He has been working with the not-for-profit sector since 1994 (initially for a leading supplier of fundraising software) and set-up his consultancy, IT for Charities in 1998. 

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