Nonprofit CRM: Your Guide To Selecting The Right Tool & 5 (Must-Know) Tips

Tina Jepson
Tina Jepson

Whether you have 20 donors or 2,000, we know you’re always looking to grow your supporter base. And, if you have a solid donor engagement plan in place, you’re likely well on your way to success in both your recruitment and retention efforts. From here, the question is: how are you doing to track all these donors, monitor your interactions and transactions, and ultimately grow the relationship?

It’s only natural to consider a spreadsheet initially. In fact, spreadsheets are a straightforward and affordable way to manage your donor date. But, let’s face it, it’s not necessarily the most sustainable option if you have plans to continue growing your donor base. Spreadsheets are effective, but they’re also limited because they focus on the data, not the personal relationship you’re working so hard to build.

What you need is a way to organize your donors that’s user-friendly, intuitive, and geared specifically for nonprofits. The solution is a Nonprofit “Customer/Constituent Relationship Management” program, often referred to as a Nonprofit CRM, CRM system, or simply CRM.

Nonprofit CRM: The Basics

Software that allows your nonprofit to input and track supporter information is referred to as a Nonprofit CRM system.

We’ll dive into the types of programs available to you later in this post. But, for the purpose of understanding the basics of CRM systems, it’s safe to assume that these programs offer a wide variety of capabilities, from tracking donation data, to helping with tax receipts, noting “touchpoints,” and understanding donor trends.

Why do nonprofit CRM systems work better than a spreadsheet at managing supporter data? It all boils down to capability. Nonprofit CRM systems are specifically designed for the nonprofit environment, and the technological capabilities of these programs reflect this. Unlike a spreadsheet, which is, for lack of a better term, one-dimensional, a CRM system can and should handle multiple aspects of your organization’s data, including:

  • Tracking all supporter (donor, volunteer, advocate, board member, staff, etc.) data, including contact information and financial transactions
  • Noting communications between your organization and the supporters
  • Pulling and mining data to understand trends

Although we tend to use these programs a lot in our role in resource development, CRM systems aren’t just for fundraisers– they’re useful for everyone in your organization, including program coordinators, marketers, and administration.

Here are six major benefits you will likely experience by switching over to formal nonprofit CRM:

  1. Accurate recordkeeping and tracking of financial transactions
  2. The ability to note specific details about your donors, such as their giving schedule, affinities, and preferred communication methods
  3. Providing a tailored engagement experience because you know more about your donors (and have the data to back it up– see above)
  4. Pulling data to learn about your typical supporter, note their persona, and then use that to market to prospective supporters
  5. Communicating through the software, including sending emails
  6. Staying on the same page across the board at your organization, wherever people are, including any staff turnovers, extended leaves of absence, and remote working situations

Types of Nonprofit CRMs

If you plan to use your nonprofit CRM program for fundraising management, but you choose a software that doesn’t fully support this functionality, it’s not helping you. So, as you look into your CRM options, consider the different types of programs out there and how they meet your needs.

To help you find the right program, think of nonprofit CRM systems on a spectrum. At the beginning of the spectrum, you have your programs that handle simple contact management, including name, address, phone number, etc. On the other end, you have full-scale organization management that organizes everything from fundraising transactions and program management. Depending on the size and scope of your organization, you may need something that falls at the beginning, middle, or end of the spectrum.

These are some of the types of nonprofit CRM systems you’ll find. Keep in mind that many programs combine many of these features into one single product:

  • Fundraising
  • Donor/supporter/staff relationship management
  • Donation processing and management
  • Grant management
  • Membership
  • Advocacy
  • Volunteering
  • Program management

For example, there are programs available that track your nonprofit’s volunteers, but don’t handle donor management. On the other hand, if you want a holistic program that helps you organize fundraising, memberships, and program participation, a full relationship-management program like will do the trick.

A Note About Fundraising-Specific CRMs: Since CRM systems are often primarily used by fundraisers and marketing professionals, there is definite value in using a program specific to the functions of fundraising and marketing. These programs are, for the most part, created with a holistic approach to relationship management in mind, meaning they help facilitate connections as opposed to simple transactions. With more and more of your donors coming to your organization via community-driven fundraising techniques, it’s vital that you consider these personal connections when choosing a CRM.

How Do I Choose A Nonprofit CRM?

Aside from the type of nonprofit CRMs, the features also vary with each program. Let’s break down some of the key components you may want in a CRM software program.


There’s a good chance you’ll wind up accessing your nonprofit CRM at least once a day, if not many, MANY times. Therefore, your first considerations should be how the program feels to you.

  • Is it easy to navigate?
  • Are the buttons and options intuitive?
  • Can the typical employee at your nonprofit understand the basics?

These are questions to ask yourself when you test-drive systems.


Many nonprofit CRM systems allow you to customize their products to meet your specific needs, while others are pre-built and ready for you to start inputting data in minutes.

Think about the data you’d like to track and decide how much customization you need. For example, you may want to add customized tracking for family members, checks received, and event attendance.

Size & Scope

It bears repeating that the size of your program matters. If you work at a small-to-medium nonprofit, you may not need a program with as much capacity like a large nonprofit would. Plus, you don’t want to pay for functions you aren’t using!

As you select a nonprofit CRM, consider the size of your organization and the scope of your needs, and narrow down accordingly.

Integrations and Extras

While they may not seem that important upfront, integrations and other software tools are vital in today’s fast-paced online world where you use many different tools to connect with donors.

Take data importing, for starters. You’re going to want to take all the data you’ve kept thus far from your spreadsheet or document, and transfer that to your new software program so you can keep everything in one place. Therefore, your new nonprofit CRM needs a data import tool.

When choosing a nonprofit noCRM, also check its integration and plugin tool options. Today, many CRM systems can link to your website’s donation page, so that donor information is automatically imported into your database when someone donates on your website. CRM systems can also link with your e-mail and e-newsletter systems to track when you sent an email and what it said.

Good Company

Your nonprofit is doing good work in the world, and you probably want to work with a company that reflects your values. Therefore, try and learn about the companies behind the systems you’re planning to invest in.

What is their mission? Does it align with what you do? Also, learn why they got into the business, or, to put it more simply, find out “what is their why?” Is their idea of success hundreds and thousands of customers and money money money, or are they customer-focused? To give a real-world example, CauseVox began because we wanted to provide nonprofits an affordable and easy to use fundraising tool, and, since the start, we’ve adhered to the mantra: “customer-first!”

Once you gather this info, expand from there. Learn if they’ve been around for a while and note their history and key team members you may want to connect with before you commit. If the company is new to the game, don’t hesitate to read online reviews from other nonprofits.

Customer Service

Customer service is vital, especially when you’re working with a brand new software program.

So take note of their customer service and support systems, and look for a nonprofit CRM that provides a help desk, resource center, or another sort of knowledge base. If you see videos, written articles, and walkthrough support tips, you know you’re on the right track.

One-on-one assistance is especially important if you generally feel uneasy adjusting to new software programs. Support with onboarding, extra coaching, and consulting can greatly benefit virtually all nonprofits.

Determining What YOU Need: 3 Questions To Ask

You’re now armed with some nonprofit CRM-specific knowledge, so ask yourself these three questions before you start shopping around:

1. What Capabilities Does Your Entire Team Need?

Ideally, you’ll want the entire organization on board with using the CRM. Again, CRM isn’t just for tracking donors.

Your communications team, for example, might find the database useful for tracking press contacts, and some nonprofit CRM systems are even social media-enabled to track all of your social media engagements. When choosing and implementing a CRM, get buy-in from everyone and imagine all the ways it can optimize your team’s workflow.

Note what everyone is looking for, including both essential components and non-essential, but potentially helpful ones.

2. What’s Your Budget?

Programs range in cost. Some require a flat annual fee, others a monthly fee. In some cases, the program takes a percentage of all donations (usually around 1-2%). Determining how much you can allot to new software will help narrow your choices.

3. What’s Your Comfort Level?

Any and all new technology comes with a learning curve. Be honest with your ability, as well as that of your team. Better yet, check out nonprofit CRM free demos and ask for a walk-through of the program before you invest.

Having a solid grasp on what you can do yourself, versus what you’ll need help with (possibly with the help of a consultant or customer service rep) can help you find the right program without any surprises.

When it comes to selecting a nonprofit CRM system for your nonprofit, there’s a lot to consider. Start by understanding the purpose and benefits of using one, and then find the one that’s right for you. Note the functionality and capabilities you need, as well as your budget and comfort level, and then compare that criteria with the products on the market. And, no matter what, don’t forget to test out each system before settling on a program for you.

Before you know it, you’ll have a better grasp on your nonprofit supporter base, which is bound to benefit your relationship management efforts and satisfaction rates in the long-run!

This post was originally published in July 2014 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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