A Few Good Constituent Relationship Management Tools

Your organization maintains relationships with a number of people in a number of different groups, some discrete, some overlapping, and being able to track and manage information about those relationships is critical to your success.

For example, maybe you have a devoted volunteer who has given faithfully to your annual campaign for years, participates in the walkathon, and got his company to match donations his coworkers make to your organization. Ideally, you have relationships with dozens of people like him, or more. In the not-so-distant past, we relied on a combination of paper files, institutional knowledge, and notes in various constituent databases to track all those details about them in a way that’s accessible and actionable. But technology can provide a more holistic view of constituents—a way to see the different ways they’re involved, and make sure they’re being shepherded to even greater levels of commitment.

While some databases are designed to provide a detailed look into only one constituent group, like your donors or your volunteers, a CRM (Constituent Relationship Management system is meant to provide a high-level look at all of your different constituents. They’re often marketed as “all-in-one” database solutions.

Is a CRM a good fit for your organization? Let’s take a closer look at some of the determining factors before diving into recommendations about specific tools available to you.

Do I Need a CRM System?

Think of constituent relationship management like fishing: You can use a shallow net and catch a lot of fish, or a deep net to catch those big guys lurking at the bottom. In other words, if you need track a little bit of information about a lot of different kinds of things, a CRM might be a good fit, but if you need to track a whole bunch of very detailed information about just one aspect of your work, you may want a database devoted solely to that part.

For a real world example, consider a homeless shelter that needs to manage open beds, check-ins at curfew, and confidential referrals to rehab clinics. A case management system could manage that aspect of the work, but a CRM might be a compelling approach to manage donors, volunteers, and event attendees. It’s fine to maintain separate systems alongside a CRM, as long as the data in each system is clean and up-to-date and it’s relatively easy to import and export data between them.

CRMs are, by design, very flexible, but they require a fair amount of customization in order to meet your specific needs. That customizability is their strength and weakness. Since most systems come out of the box without much specific infrastructure built in, the transition process will require a lot of staff oversight to design and tailor features for your organization. However, once the process is over, you’ll have a system that fits for your needs without the cost or aggravation of building an entire custom database from scratch. And because custom fields and modules are relatively straightforward to add, a good CRM will be able to accommodate new processes implemented by your organization without too many growing pains.

Unless you’re very comfortable with technology, you’llprobably have to hire a consultant to set up your system during the initial customization process, and to be available as needed for ongoing technical support. By modifying out-of-the-box platforms, however, you’ll be able to track constituents in a number of different groups—not just donors, members, and volunteers—and see the different ways that they interact with your organization. You’ll also be able to track your organization’s communications with its constituents if you use the database to send emails and record such other interactions as meetings and phone calls.

An experienced consultant can even build in features that go beyond basic constituent tracking, like member dues renewal and sophisticated event workflows, for example. The cost of implementing these adjustments to fit your company’s processes will often be offset by a lower ongoing cost—some of the platforms we’ll cover don’t cost anything to acquire. Another asset of CRM systems are their ability to integrate with an organization’s website, social media presence, and broadcast email.

Comparing the Tools

The term “CRM” has become something of a buzzword in the nonprofit technology sector, and is often appended to specialized databases that don’t really fit the definition of a true Constituent Relationship Management system—which is not to say that these software systems couldn’t help you manage your relationships with your constituents, just that they don’t meet the strictest definition of the tool. Below, we look at the four systems that do meet the definition: flexible, customizable, all-in-one systems able to integrate with your online communication strategy as well as your fundraising, case management, event management, and other activities.

Free to Acquire, but Not to Maintain


CiviCRM is an open source, web-based Constituent Relationship Management system offered for download at no charge. However, you’ll almost certainly need a consulting firm to configure the software to your organization’s specific needs. Luckily, CiviCRM consultants are becoming easier to find, and there’s an active community of nonprofit users who help develop and beta-test new developments. It’s quite strong in helping you keep track of your constituents, households, and donations, and offers helpful event management and broadcast email functionality as well.

CiviCRM does have a few drawbacks—if your organization requires a CRM with sophisticated accounting and billing features, you may want to choose another system, as CiviCRM will require a lot of additional work. The user interface isn’t always the most intuitive, either, although many improvements have been made in the past few years.

With customization, though, it’s a system that could help your organization function more smoothly. Some of the out-of-the-box functionality includes CiviCase, a basic case management system; CiviSchool, which is meant to manage educational programs; and a new feature called CiviBox Office, which allows for sophisticated, airline-style seat selection for ticketed events. Beyond these ready-to-go modules, customization of the software could cost anywhere between $2,000 and $50,000 based on the complexity of the organization’s needs. A consultant would almost certainly need to manage the customization, and could also manage the migration from your previous system and any technical support that might be needed down the line.


Salesforce is a CRM platform used widely in the for-profit world. The company offers up to 10 user licenses of the Enterprise edition, one of the tiers of the system, free-of-charge to qualifying organizations. Salesforce also has an implementation called the Nonprofit Starter Pack that’s readymade to fit the needs of nonprofits. The system is cloud-based, and doesn’t require dedicated hardware or a server. Strong in household management, donation management, and member management, Salesforce is not as strong out of the box in event or case management.

A defining feature of Salesforce is the App Exchange, a bustling online marketplace where developers sell applications designed to sit on top of the platform. There are hundreds of apps for sale, and many have been designed especially for nonprofits. These are usually offered on a monthly subscription basis, and the cost can add up, but can also add substantial capabilities to the system.

For smaller nonprofits, Salesforce is technically free, but to properly configure and support the system, you’ll need the services of someone tech-savvy enough to navigate its substantial technical intricacies and possibilities. In addition, the apps you’d need to assemble a system that meets the requirements for most synagogues could potentially cost you thousands of dollars per year. Larger nonprofits who need more than 10 user licenses would need to negotiate a contract with the company.

CRMs with Subscription Costs


SugarCRM is an open source, web-based Constituent Relationship Management system, or Customer Relationship Management system, designed for for-profit businesses. The vendors of the system make no bones about their desire to challenge Salesforce for the title of most widely used CRM for enterprise. Consultants for the tool have also begun to court the nonprofit sphere.

Sugar is a powerful and user-friendly system, but doesn’t have a widely available customization for nonprofits like the other tools profiled here, so a consultant would have to build in donation management, event support, and other basic features. Almost all of the out-of-the-box language is geared toward the sales process, although the fields and modules can be modified extensively. Still, many basic features that nonprofits need will require workarounds, and Sugar doesn’t have the ability to integrate with a nonprofit’s website as seamlessly as other CRM products.

An organization looking to implement SugarCRM would need to work closely with a consultant to tailor the software to the organization, but once the customization process was completed,

SugarCRM might be a helpful relationship management tool. Pricing for SugarCRM is based on a tiered system—there’s an open source implementation called the Community Edition, which isfree. Most nonprofits would want to start at the higher-level options, which range between $420 and $1,200 per staff user per year. Additionally, there are fees charged by a consulting company to work with you on getting the system up and running, which are likely to come in around the $10,000 mark.

Microsoft Dynamics

Microsoft Dynamics CRM is the software giant’s answer to an integrated Constituent Relationship Management system, and is designed to be an all-in-one database accommodating all of an organization’s needs. The Nonprofit Template, developed by Microsoft and available at no charge to sit on top of the CRM, transforms the out-of-the-box sales-centric tool into a nonprofit-centric platform. The system is pretty user-friendly, especially if you’re used to MS Office products, and is able to handle donation management, reporting, member management, direct mail correspondence, and email. Event management and web portal capabilities are available for an extra fee, and but require additional configuration and more advanced technical knowledge to implement.

The price might make it worth exploring, however. Dynamics CRM has both a hosted and installed option. For nonprofit organizations, the price for Dynamics CRM Online is $119.88 per year per user. Pricing for the installed option, Dynamics CRM 2011, varies based on the consultant from whom you buy the system; one quote we received was $212 for the server licensing and $30 per license.

Other Options

Some other vendors have harnessed the power of CRM and offered managed packages, or products you can subscribe to that are built on CRM platforms but marketed toward specific segments of the marketplace, like cultural organizations. These come with most of the features you’d need already built in, and usually require a monthly or annual subscription.


Whether volunteers, donors, constituents, lawmakers, or anyone else, your organization relies on its relationships to do the day-to-day work that effects change in the world and meets its mission. Managing them is an ongoing challenge, but finding the right tool makes it easier by eliminating unnecessary obstacles and helping you focus on the personal aspect of these relationships.

A CRM isn’t the solution for every organization, and those with specialized needs or highly focused interactions may benefit from a more specific system. It’s not uncommon for donors to also be volunteers, or for constituents to donate. By tracking your relationships and making records quickly and easily accessible, a good CRM facilitates your work by letting you map the way people truly interact with your organization—even when those interactions overlap.

For More Information

Heller Consulting has written a comprehensive report on CRM strategies for nonprofits: http://theconnectedcause.com/crminsights/

NTEN also offers a helpful article on CRM Strategy: http://www.nten.org/articles/2012/selecting-a-nonprofit-crm-system-start-with-the-strategy

Idealware’s Laura Quinn provides a list of factors to consider when choosing a CRM: http://idealware.org/articles/10-things-consider-crm


Thanks to TechSoup for the financial support of this article, as well as to the following nonprofit technology professionals for their recommendations, advice, and other help:

Heller Consulting

Derek Shealy and Jennifer Marlett, Concentrix

Shawn Michael, Better than Bitter Consulting

Jane Ryan Beck, Rayogram

Sean Speer, Exponent Partners






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