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Salesforce for Nonprofits: Savior or Sinker?

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So what does it take to be successful with Salesforce as a nonprofit? Having worked with hundreds of nonprofits looking to make a meaningful change in their fundraising tools, Salesforce often comes up as a possible option.

As a purveyor of donor management tools ourselves, you would expect that we would jump in the fray of of the many blogs that try to talk nonprofits out of using, or even considering, Salesforce. Well, the next several paragraphs are less about Salesforce and more about you: as Executive Director, CEO, Board Member, Development Director, or some part of the fundraising effort. Yes, the question around Salesforce has much less to do with Salesforce and much more to do with the makeup of your staff, goals, fundraising methods, and financial investment appetite.

Unfortunately when Salesforce is raised up as a consideration for your next donor management database, the issue is usually just around two things: “It’s FREE!” and “I’ve heard of it!”

What’s getting lost in that, though, are two important questions: “Can we afford a successful implementation of Salesforce?” and “Have I heard of Salesforce being successfully implemented and used at a similar-staffed nonprofit as ours”?

So now, let’s look at 5 vital questions to help reveal if Salesforce will be your fundraising savior or sinker:

Assessing Salesforce: 5 Key Questions for Fundraising Success

1. Do you fully understand what the Salesforce Nonprofit Success Pack is providing your organization out of the box? Have you made a list of everything that you won’t be receiving with Salesforce?

Even after substantial research, it can be tricky to determine what you’re actually receiving as part of the free Salesforce promotion. However, even the smallest nonprofits quickly realize that they will need to incorporate an array of third-party vendors to facilitate even the basics: online donations, event registrations, wealth screening, mass email, payment processing. All of these not only require separate apps, but they also each have additional costs that can add up to over $5,000, plus implementation costs. Of course, now you have three, four, or more different vendors, when you were expecting all this to happen under the umbrella of Salesforce.

2. Will Salesforce be easy enough for everyone to use and execute the best practices of effective, sustainable fundraising?

Even if you make a substantial investment with acquiring and implementing all the additional apps you need, you may still be lacking meaningful engagement tracking, major gift/prospect management tools, easy-to-produce acknowledgments, mobile app capabilities, and a solution that your fundraising team will actually use to record phone calls, emails, visits with your most important donors, etc. In my role as a Senior Account Executive, the most common reason I hear as to why an organization starts looking for a new donor database is ease of use. It baffles the mind then that some of the smallest nonprofits are the first in line to bring in one the most expansive and complex sales platforms ever created as their first fundraising tool. It’s like using Noah’s Ark as your family vehicle just because it was free.

3. Have you determined your total cost of ownership of Salesforce for the first year? Three years?

The easy way to start to answer this question is to simply get at least two implementation quotes from third-party consultants to handle the setup of Salesforce, the additional apps you’ll need, the necessary customization, the migration of your current data, and the ongoing training and support that you’ll require.There are some really helpful online resources to help you start getting a close estimate as to what your specific costs will be. But here’s the bottom line: It will NOT be zero. The average Salesforce implementation costs for a nonprofit are $7,000 – $30,000. If’ you have more complex needs, it’s likely your spend could be nearer to $100,000.

Before we continue, let me me address some common objections you may be having to why you think these costs won’t apply to you:

  • We have someone on our team or board that has used Salesforce.
  • We know someone that works at Salesforce and they have agreed to “help us out.”
  • Our needs are so simple I’m sure we can just use what’s out of the box.

If one or more of these apply to you, here are few things to keep in mind.

  • A user or employee of Salesforce in no way implies that they possess the intense skill set it takes to implement Salesforce. Just because I own my car doesn’t mean I have any idea what’s under the hood. (And in my case, it really does not!)
  • Even if you have a volunteer that has some Salesforce implementation knowledge, they would need to volunteer no less than 40-70 hours of labor over the course of 3-6 months. Is this what they are truly offering you?
  • If you believe that Salesforce out of the box is sufficient, you should confirm this with Salesforce and a third-party consultant first. Don’t make a dangerous assumption that could derail your fundraising for years to come. Also, at the very least you’ll need training that will cost you at least $1800 per person.

4. Have you calculated the staff time required to own the implementation process and be trained to properly administer and use the Salesforce platform?

In their Salesforce Readiness Survey, Salesforce recommend the following be true if you’re really ready for Salesforce:

“We have a concrete training plan and budget for investing in key staff to lead our successful use of Salesforce. Salesforce skills, responsibilities and learning goals will be built into all appropriate position descriptions and yearly goals. We have identified what certifications and trainings will be required of our staff.”

“We have a core staff person or team of people who are certified as a Salesforce Administrator or Developer or who have significant hands-on experience working in Salesforce.”

Does this describe your organization? Even if it does, Salesforce consultants, conservatively estimate that a skilled resource at your organization should expect to spend 5-15 hours per week for 3-6 months as the owner of the Salesforce implementation. In addition to the $20,000 or so in yearly labor costs this represents, you should also expect to spend around $1800 for each person that will need to be trained in the day-to-day use of Salesforce.

5. Have you calculated your ROI on the total Salesforce investment required?

Has the notion of “free” been sucked out of the air yet for you? If so, don’t be surprised. What highly effective tool in life really is free? Who would want to live in a house or drive a car where the tools and materials used were completely free.

Similarly, you shouldn’t desire to lay the foundation of your mission’s funding on tools that are or appear to be free. In fact, Salesforce doesn’t even want you to do this. They know better than anyone that a successful implementation takes hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars.

So where does this leave you?

The point of this whole post, really, is to help your organization put together a realistic return on investment from Salesforce — the product, the third-party apps, the implementation, the data migrations, the staff time, the training, the ongoing support and upgrades — all of it.

ROI OPTION #1:  You’re the CEO, Executive Director or Board Member and you chose to ignore everything you’ve read and stick with “It’s free and I’ve heard of it” mentality. So if you don’t put any of the required investment (time+money) into Salesforce, how much are you losing in donations, major gifts, donor trust, staff time, frustration, turnover? What’s the true cost of all that to your mission?

ROI OPTION #2:  You chose to put the required ($7,000-$30,000+) investment into Salesforce. Are the revenue benefits that investment provides far and above a much more cost-effective solution that was built from the start to be a donor management system?

Put the effort into understanding what your organization’s total cost of ownership will be with a Salesforce solution. Your mission is too important and your fundraising efforts are too critical to entrust that to the wrong donor solution, even if it’s fr… well, there’s no such thing as free.

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  • Dan

    Awesome stuff
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