Check out this complete guide to choose the best nonprofit CRM.

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Finding the right CRM for your organization can be a major challenge. Between navigating an overwhelming number of features, prioritizing your organization’s needs, and creating purchasing and implementation plans, many nonprofits end up finding themselves lost in the various steps of the process.

This just goes to show that there’s a lot of confusion out there when it comes to donor database platforms, nonprofit CRMs, and fundraising software in general.

That’s why we created this step-by-step guide to help your nonprofit efficiently walk through the nonprofit CRM purchasing process. Before you make your purchase, your nonprofit should: 

  1. Understand the importance of nonprofit CRM software.
  2. Define your priorities and identify the best features for your ideal nonprofit CRM. 
  3. Create a budget to purchase the best nonprofit CRM for your organization. 
  4. Conduct research to find the best nonprofit CRM software in the industry. 
  5. Narrow down your list of the best nonprofit CRMs and make a selection. 
  6. Create a timeline for the implementation and training for your new nonprofit CRM. 

Your nonprofit’s CRM will be the most influential software in your tech arsenal, so your team should be experts in how to pick the right platform as well as how to make it work once you have it. Let’s dive in! 

1. Understand the importance of nonprofit CRM Software.

Before you get started examining the different CRM options and determining which solution you should choose, your nonprofit needs to understand why you need one in the first place. Otherwise, you’re likely to get swept away in the enticing jargon and risk choosing the wrong software. 

Let’s start with a definition of the term. 

What is a nonprofit CRM? 

A nonprofit CRM is a software platform that houses and manages everything you know and love about your nonprofit’s supporters. 

When an individual interacts with your cause (such as a donor, volunteer, event attendee, etc.), you can create a profile in your CRM that’s dedicated to that single person. Then, within that profile, you can store information such as their email address, donation history, and events attended. 

Of course, the first reasoning that nonprofits come up with as to why this type of database is important is: to better organize data. But why do you need that data organized? 

More organized donor data is important to boost your nonprofit’s:

  • Communication outreach. Nonprofit CRM software allows your organization to segment donors into groups, further enabling your organization to personalize messages based on what segments of donors are most interested in hearing. Plus, their profiles include contact information, making it easier to reach out. 
  • Donor cultivation. In addition to focusing on those things your donors want to hear, a better understanding of their engagement history will provide context about what they need to hear. Use this information to develop personalization techniques to steward donors and encourage them to increase their gift size. 
  • Donor retention rate. In addition to cultivating your donors, storing information about them will help you better understand when a supporter is in danger of lapsing. This gives you the opportunity to reach out to them and retain them longer, further boosting your retention rate.

Understanding that your CRM is used for organizing data is only half of it. The other half is understanding how to use that data.

The real difference between various CRM solutions is in the facilitation of the application of data. The various features of different software solutions will help you apply donor data to separate aspects of your strategy. Therefore, you also need to do some self-evaluation as to what application of data your nonprofit most needs. 

2. Define your priorities and identify the best features for your ideal nonprofit CRM.

Only you know what your nonprofit priorities are. We suggest that you make a list of your nonprofit’s goals and what you hope to accomplish with your CRM solution. 

For instance, if you’re looking for software that will help you better identify major donors, you may look for a solution that pairs well with prospect research software. Or you’re a small nonprofit simply looking for a way to store contact information, you may look for a scalable solution with more functionality that your nonprofit will grow into. 

Finished thinking about your personal priorities? While we can’t help you with that process in this article, as your priorities and goals are specific to your organization, we can go in detail about the emerging trends in the nonprofit world. 

Acknowledging these trends will help define some common features that your nonprofit should look for in your CRM to pick a modern solution. Some of these trends include:

Make sure your nonprofit CRM adheres to the latest nonprofit trends.

  • Donor retention
  • Multi-platform communication
  • Mid-tier donor cultivation
  • Software integrations

As we said before, the differences between nonprofit CRM solutions is the functionality that they have to help you fulfill your greatest needs. Let’s dive deeper into the features that will help you fulfill these needs. 

Donor Retention

Donor retention is defined by how many donors continue giving to your nonprofit year after year. It is significantly more difficult (and expensive) to acquire new donors than it is to retain your existing donors. Therefore, maintaining a healthy donor retention rate will help your nonprofit develop a more consistent revenue stream while saving time and money. 

The features that you should look for in your new nonprofit CRM to help with donor retention include:

  • Complete dashboard. Look for a solution that shows your donor retention rate front and center, on your dashboard. For example, Bloomerang’s dashboard data updates daily with your “retention wheel” so that you can get a good idea of how well you retain donors.
  • Engagement level measurements. Dr. Adrian Sargent came up with an algorithm that can measure a donor’s engagement level with a nonprofit. Look for a solution that takes this valuable research into consideration so that you know who is most engaged and who needs additional stewardship. 
  • Constituent timelines. Timelines give a visual representation of the engagement for a specific donor. This way you can easily see when donors have given, volunteered, attended an event, etc. chronologically without searching through cluttered lists. This provides further context into each individual donor engagement.

Bloomerang's nonprofit CRM dashboard shows donor retention rate.

When your software solution focuses specifically on the research of experts like Adrian Sargent, you’re sure to have all of the tools you need to boost your donor retention rate.

Multi-Platform Communication

Make sure you can save communication preferences for each of your constituents in your nonprofit CRM. This way, you can be sure to incorporate a multi-channel communication approach that will best meet the needs of your audience. 

Look for a nonprofit CRM that offers various methods of communication such as: 

  • Letters and mailings. Design and save direct mail communication documents like solicitations and acknowledgments for quick fulfillment. Saving these in your CRM makes it easy to send them quickly when necessary. 
  • Email design & distribution. Similar to direct mailings, make sure you can write and save templates for your nonprofit’s emails. This makes it easy to send information directly to the inboxes of your digitally-minded constituents. 
  • Communication audits. Look for software that offers built-in audits that will help you write the most effective messages possible. For instance, the Ahern Audit runs the “you test” and grade level tests to make sure you keep your donors as the subject and write between a 6th- and 8th-grade reading level to ensure it’s skimmable.

Bloomerang's nonprofit CRM helps your organization create the best appeal letters.

You can decide what platforms your constituents prefer by viewing their historic interactions with your communication documents or by asking them directly. If your nonprofit CRM also offers this survey software, that’s even better! Then, the responses will automatically flow into your database.

Mid-Tier Donor Cultivation

Many nonprofits focus very heavily on either their donor acquisition or major gift strategies, both of which are very important! However, it leaves a big middle ground where those organizations may let their stewardship strategies slack for their mid-tier donors. To help relieve this issue, nonprofits can start applying some of the same identification, cultivation, and stewardship strategies to all levels of supporters. 

In order to maintain an effective cultivation strategy for all of your donors, be sure to look for nonprofit CRM features such as: 

  • Their Generosity Score. A generosity score gives an indication as to the philanthropic giving potential. This feature provides insight into potential giving capacity, showing you who your prospective major and mid-tier donors are. 
  • Configurable reporting. Instead of only running reports for your nonprofit’s major donors, look for a solution that allows you to configure reports so you can also run numbers about your mid-tier donors. 
  • Event management. Events are perfect stewardship events for mid-tier donors. When event management is a built-in part of your nonprofit CRM, you can quickly and easily design an event, then make sure the invite is sent to the correct segment of donors.

Bloomerang's nonprofit CRM offers a generosity score to help with donor cultivation.

The purpose of this cultivation strategy is to ensure that no donor gets left behind. Eventually, those mid-level gifts may become major gifts over time with the right level of stewardship and engagement tactics.

Software Integrations

With so much nonprofit tech available, nonprofits have a tendency to purchase one-off solutions to satisfy their needs as they arise. However, taking a different, more intentional approach may pay off more effectively for your nonprofit when it comes to looking for nonprofit software. 

Intentionally looking for software integrations will help streamline the activities your nonprofit staff must do daily. It’s especially important to streamline activities involving your CRM because manually entering data can take a lot of time and is subject to human error. 

Look for a CRM solution that will integrate with your nonprofit’s: 

  • Fundraising software. Integrating your nonprofit’s CRM with a top fundraising solution like Qgiv will help facilitate a smooth flow of data from your online fundraising campaign to individual donor profiles. 
  • Prospect research software. Integrating your prospect research with your CRM allows you to easily save prospect information directly in relevant donor profiles. 
  • Website. Look for software that integrates with your nonprofit’s website. This integration makes it easy to collect information from your site and automatically transfer it to your CRM. 
  • Accounting solution. Your CRM provides information about your fundraising activities such as the amounts that various people gave to the campaign, which communication techniques were best, and more. Meanwhile, your accounting software helps your nonprofit compare these successes with the budget. An integration ensures consistency of data.

Bloomerang's nonprofit CRM integrations with Qgiv's fundraising software.

Integrations are designed to save your nonprofit time and energy. Plus, it cuts back on the human error inherent in manual data input. For example, the above image was a donation made through Qgiv, automatically saved in the nonprofit’s Bloomerang database.

3. Create a budget to purchase the best nonprofit CRM for your organization.

When your nonprofit is creating a budget for your new CRM, keep in mind that this software will quickly become the backbone of your organization. It’s where you’ll store fundraising information, donor data, and other key metrics. While the solution you choose shouldn’t break the bank, it is worth making an investment. 

Just like with your priorities, we can’t give your nonprofit specific numbers to say “this is how much you should pay” because every organization has a different budget. But we can provide tips to help you make the most of your budget, no matter what it may be. 

Our first tip: watch out for “free” fundraising software. 

Free nonprofit CRM software does play a role in your purchasing decision. However, it’s not the one you’d expect. If you ever invest in something that’s “free,” you should never expect that solution to stay free for long. If it is completely free, it’s likely that software won’t have the security features your nonprofit needs. 

However, a free option can often be a good thing short-term because it allows your nonprofit to test the software out to make sure you like it and are prepared to make the full investment down the line. 

Other things to look out for when developing your budget for your nonprofit is that you’ll want a solution to: 

  • Be scalable. Scalable solutions allow your nonprofit to choose a plan with the features you need at the moment for a lower price. Then, as you continue to grow, you can scale up the software to better meet your needs. It prevents you from needing to invest in a whole new solution every time you outgrow your current features. 
  • Have clear pricing. Many organizations will try to hide fees regarding the implementation and training of the nonprofit CRM software. Conduct a lot of research so that your organization knows exactly what is included in the purchase before you make it. 
  • Provide training resources. As your nonprofit grows and develops, you’ll need to continue training in order to ensure your software also reflects your needs. Look for a solution with training resources that will help you first set up your software and continue to learn as you use the solution.

If your nonprofit has a frequently unstable budget from year-to-year, consider focusing on developing your donor retention strategy and boosting recurring gifts to stabilize the issue. Look for a solution that prioritizes these two features.

4. Conduct research to find the best nonprofit CRM software in the industry.

Cast a wide net when you start looking for the best nonprofit CRM for your organization. Develop your list of effective solutions by: 

  • Asking other nonprofits what solutions they use. 
  • Reading referrals like this one from trusted nonprofit resources and software companies.
  • Conducting research on your own to expand the list even further. 

As you’re going through these sites, take notes of the solutions you find that will meet your needs (as defined in section 2), but also make sure to take notes of those that won’t meet your needs so that you can eliminate them from your list of contenders. 

Take notes on everything on one document, but make sure you have a separate finite list of those solutions you want to look further into. 

Make sure to also take notes about the cost of various solutions you come across in your research. Try to keep the software on your list reasonably within your budget. Allow for a little bit of leeway for your budget. You’d hate to miss out on a really great solution simply because it’s slightly over budget. 

5. Narrow down your list of the best nonprofit CRMs and make a selection.

Once you have an extensive list of possible solutions, don’t get too overwhelmed. It’s time to narrow down that list. The following questions should help: 

  1. Research further into the features available through each nonprofit software solution. Do these features meet the immediate needs of your nonprofit?
  2. Consider the future needs of your nonprofit. Does the solution also meet those requirements? 
  3. Is the solution scalable so that your nonprofit can expand the engagement with the software provider down the line? 
  4. Is the software reasonably within your nonprofit’s budget? 
  5. Will an implementation team help you set up the solution? 
  6. Do you have access to training materials to use the software to the best of your ability? 

After you’ve created a shortlist of solutions, look for comparison pages between the solutions. For instance, organizations like G2 provide reviews such as this one:

Organizations like G2 provide nonprofit CRM reviews like this one.

After narrowing down the list as much as possible on your own, schedule demos with the software providers of those who made the cut. 

Don’t be afraid of asking your remaining questions during the demo. No matter how awkward you may find the questions, you’ll regret not asking them. Here are some ideas of things you may consider asking: 

  • Is this software available offline?
  • Can I control the information different members of my team see? 
  • How often is the software updated? 
  • Who are some of your other customers? 
  • What is the real cost breakdown of this solution? 

Take elaborate notes during the demos. If you’re watching more than two to three demos, the information may tend to run together. Accurate notes will come in handy later on. 

At this point, you should have everything you need to make a decision! 

Make sure to run the decision past your team and board members to make sure they’re in agreement. You’ll need enough information to make a solid case. If you don’t feel comfortable making a case yet, you may need to conduct more research. 

6. Create a timeline for the new nonprofit CRM implementation and training.

Once you’ve made your choice, your job isn’t done! You’ll need to develop a nonprofit CRM implementation and training plan. The plan should look something like this:

Here are the next steps for implementing your nonprofit CRM.

  • First, set a goal for when you want everything to be up and running. 
  • Next, work closely with the implementation team and don’t be afraid to ask questions. 
  • Then, ask for support when you need it! Make sure you take advantage of unlimited email and chat support from a provider. Or, call when you need to. 
  • Finally, consider implementation consulting. Even for a small fee, sometimes implementation consulting is absolutely worth it and can make all the difference in your use of the nonprofit CRM. 

Make sure your team members all have the training they need to work with the software at the capacity that they need to. Also, show them where they can access additional training opportunities that they may use to better understand the solution if they feel the urge to learn. 

Create a step-by-step plan to reach full implementation by your organization’s goal deadline. 

Purchasing nonprofit CRM software can be tricky. There’s a lot of thought that must go into it. But with this guide, you should have everything you need to create a plan that will adhere to your nonprofit’s specific needs. 

If you’re looking for more information about nonprofit CRM software, check out the following resources:

Check out Bloomerang's nonprofit CRM with a demo today!

Jay Love

Jay Love

Co-Founder & Chief Relationship Officer at Bloomerang
A 30+ veteran of the nonprofit software industry, Jay Love co-founded Bloomerang in 2012. Prior to Bloomerang, he was the CEO and Co-Founder of eTapestry for 11 years, which at the time was the leading SaaS technology company serving the charity sector. Jay and his team grew the company to more than 10,000 nonprofit clients, charting a decade of record growth. Prior to starting eTapestry, Jay served 14 years as President and CEO of Master Software Corporation. MSC provided a widely used family of database products for the non-profit sector called Fund-Master. He currently serves on the board of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and is the past AFP Ethics Committee Chairman. Jay is also the author of Stay Together: How to Encourage a Lifetime of Donor Loyalty.
Jay Love