How to Conduct a Nonprofit CRM Selection Process

How to Conduct a Nonprofit CRM Selection Process

Constituent engagement is the lifeblood of most nonprofit and civic organizations. Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) consists of the people, systems and processes that allow organizations to build growing networks of deeper relationships. Selecting the right CRM system (the database, communications tools, and analytical reporting capabilities) is a vital activity that many nonprofits go through every 4-5 years as the CRM market changes with new capabilities to engage constituents and track interactions.  If the selection of the CRM system is the right fit for the organization and the implementation is done well, organizations can see significant gains to the quantity and quality of their constituent engagement leading to increased donations, advocacy and attachment to the mission. 

Guiding Principles to the CRM Selection Process

In the last decade, I have established and overseen a dozen CRM selection processes both as a consultant and as a CIO, and while each organization has unique dynamics, there are some commonalities and lessons learned. 

  • Inclusive selection processes provide organizational buy-in when it comes time to implement.  Each department or unit that will touch the system should be represented at the table.  Find ways to engage the entire staff at key points in the process.  No one should be surprised or uninformed when the selection is made and it comes to implement.  Build interest, if not excitement, and certainly buy-in throughout the selection process. 
  • Strategy informs technology selection.  New technology opens up the possibility for new strategies.  When setting requirements don't just look at how the CRM can implement your current donor, communications and advocacy strategies.  The new technology can actually open new possibilities and new strategies.  Do a market scan as part of the requirement setting process to see what the state of the art is and whet the appetite for extending the current thinking about how to engage constituents.  
  • Get institutional buy-in (including budget!) first.  Begin with the end in mind.  CRM systems and implementations are not cheap.  They require investment both as part of the migration from existing systems and ongoing maintenance and subscription costs. That investment includes hard resources such as cash and soft resources of staff time.  Don't get to the end of a great selection process and not have the resources, both money and people, to implement the CRM system.  

Steps in the Process

  1. Form a cross-functional selection committee - The committee should be comprised of representatives from Development, Marketing, Programs, and IT.  Mix the group with those who are highly capable technologically and those that might be skeptical of technology's impact on the organization. 
  2. Gather requirements for a Request for Proposals - The major stakeholders should be engaged to share explicitly what they need from a CRM system.  You might also consider conducting a broader staff survey to gather input from multiple sources.
  3. Evaluate the importance of the requirements - The committee should determine which of the requirements are mandatory or more of a nice to have.  Also weight the requirements on a scale of 1 to 5 or 1 to 10 to determine how important requirements comparatively.  
  4. Release the RFP to vendors - There are no more than a dozen vendors who are in the nonprofit CRM space.  Consider sending the RFP to all of them. 
  5. Evaluate proposals and winnow down to 2 to 4 finalists - Based on requirements met and conversation, the committee should be able to eliminate a number of proposals and to rank solutions.  If there are solutions that are on the bubble, perhaps keep them in the process, in case your deep dives with finalists in the next step do not work out.
  6. Conduct deep dives with the finalists - Have the vendors do detailed vendor demonstrations with your team.  Develop a script as to what your team specifically wants to see the vendor do.  It is one thing for a vendor to state they meet the requirement like doing A/B email campaign message testing, it is another to see how easy it would be for your e-communications manager to implement the email campaign.
  7. Negotiate price. Nonprofits are often uncomfortable negotiating on prices.  However, vendors often do not present their best price in the process, especially Blackbaud to call them out specifically.  Don't be afraid to negotiate.  If there are two finalists, there are ways to indicate to the higher bidder that they are not as competitive on price as the other proposals you have in hand. 
  8. Make A Final Decision.  This is usually not as difficult as it might seem.  After your committee has completed an exhaustive process, the cream usually rises to the top and a recommendation can be made to your Executive Leadership Team and/or Board.  If that does happen, I would use three factors:  1.  How did they score on their proposal?  2. What's the vote of the committee?  3.  Who is providing more value for the price?
  9. Implement...Now the real fun begins!

Selecting and implementing a CRM well is dependent on people, systems, and processes that are aligned to building connections and deeper connectivity with people committed to the mission of the organization.  I don't know that I have perfected the process, but hopefully these lessons are helpful.  If I have missed a guiding principle or a step that you have found useful, be sure to share below with a comment.  


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