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Whatever your nonprofit experience level and situation, you probably have to keep track of donors and other key constituents. Many of you have probably relied on multiple Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and maybe a Microsoft Access database at some point in your professional life. But, as an organization’s needs grow, this kind of system becomes burdensome and labor-intensive. Contacts begin to slip through the cracks, and it becomes harder and harder to juggle all of the data.
The solution to this dilemma is a customer relations management (CRM) system (sometimes called a donor management system in the nonprofit arena). There are dozens of CRMs out there that cater specifically to nonprofit needs. A great resource for finding your best fit is NTEN’s Consumer’s Guide to Donor Management Software.
One resource you will inevitably hear about while researching CRMs is Salesforce. My purpose here is not to try to “sell” this product, nor is it to discourage people from implementing Salesforce in their organizations. Rather, my primary motive with this blog post is to share a bit about the ASU Lodestar Center’s recent experience in implementing Salesforce as a CRM solution. My hope is that I can provide insight and experience that will be helpful for other nonprofits who currently use, or are thinking of implementing, Salesforce as their primary database.
Many of our readers may not be aware of the fact that Salesforce has created something called the Power of Us program. The essence of this program is that Salesforce donates 10 free Enterprise Edition licenses to qualifying 501(c)3 nonprofit institutions and other organizations. It also provides deep discounts on additional licenses, products, and services. This “free” price tag makes Salesforce a service that should seriously be considered by any small to medium nonprofit. It can be a great resource for those looking for a CRM solution.
However, with most “free” things, you may find that Salesforce isn’t quite as “free” as it seems on the surface. While it is true that Salesforce is an incredibly powerful and highly customizable CRM product, it should be noted that it has a fairly steep learning curve. It is possible to implement a Salesforce database without any outside consulting help, but most users I have met feel that it is unwise to do so. A very common practice when switching to Salesforce is to hire a consultant who will help you assess your needs and assist in customizing the product to fit your particular use-case scenario. This is what we chose to do after an unsuccessful attempt to implement it on our own. This is particularly advisable if you are merging data from multiple existing databases into your Salesforce system.
The best advice I think I could give to nonprofits considering a switch to Salesforce is to do your homework first. The nonprofit version of the product is called the Nonprofit Starter Pack (NPSP). Salesforce was originally developed for a business-to-business sales model. The NPSP is basically just an “app” that takes the underlying architecture of the product and converts it to be more compatible with the nonprofit business model. You should be aware that the NPSP does not function the same way as the traditional Salesforce product, and so customer service experiences with Salesforce may not be as helpful as they otherwise might. It should also be noted that it is an open-source product, which means that it does not have the same quality assurance as Salesforce proper. Luckily, there are several discussion boards and meetup groups which can greatly augment the traditional customer service options available and assist you in your use of the Nonprofit Starter Pack.
The Salesforce Foundation (creators of the NPSP) hosts a couple of online discussion boards (here and here) that are very useful. As mentioned before, local meetup groups can also be extremely valuable as resources when implementing a Salesforce database solution. I have personally joined the Phoenix Nonprofit Salesforce User Meetup Group, and have found the meetings to be enlightening and helpful. My only regret is that I hadn’t known about the Meetup Group and discussion boards until after we were pretty deep into our implementation. We probably would have made several choices differently as a result of lessons learned from this extremely useful resource. It ultimately would have saved both time and money.
If you choose to hire a consultant, I strongly recommend using a local consultant who specifies in nonprofit Salesforce configurations. Local consultants who specialize in nonprofit Salesforce configurations intimately understand how the Nonprofit Starter Pack handles nonprofit transactions. Also, they will often be able to anticipate problems or situations that may arise in the future as you continue to work with Salesforce after their contract has ended. Plus, they can visit your organization and get a better feel for your workflow and organizational needs, rather than conducting your business solely through teleconferencing and webinar.
These are just a few of the lessons we have learned as we have begun to use Salesforce as our chosen CRM. Is your nonprofit using Salesforce? Share some of your experiences below in the comments section!
Travis Butterfield is a Project Coordinator, Marketing & Communications at the ASU Lodestar Center. He has been with the Center for over three years and enjoys working with the websites and doing graphic design/marketing projects. He is currently going back to school for a second bachelor's degree, this time in Graphic Information Technology. He enjoys reading nerdy books, eating PEZ, and inserting movie quotes into everyday conversation.
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Read Travis Butterfield's "Research Friday: Resources to close the nonprofit technology gap."