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Nonprofit CRM

Constituent Relationship Management (a people database)
14 min read
Last update: Apr 11, 2024
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In this guide, we will help you find the right tools to keep track of volunteers, supporters and partner organisations using a nonprofit CRM (a people database).

Summary

  • What is it? A CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tool is useful for activists to track and manage interactions with supporters. It is better than a spreadsheet.

  • Why use it? It helps you manage contacts, increase engagement, improve efficiency, enable collaboration, help with fundraising and provide reporting.

  • When not to use it? For activists involved in civil disobedience or underground groups, using a CRM is not advisable due to security concerns.

  • How much does it cost? CRM costs vary based on features, users and software providers. Free options are available, and discounts for non-profits exist. Using multiple tools with different strengths can provide similar functionality to an expensive all-in-one tool. Technical expertise can help save costs by using free open source software.

  • Which one to use? Recommended CRMs built for activists include Action Network, CiviCRM and NGP VAN. Commercial CRMs (also useful for activists) include Salesforce, Hubspot and Zoho.

What is a CRM?

Right now, you might be using a spreadsheet to keep track of your supporters. Or you might have a mailing list. A CRM is like that, but much better.

CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. Forget that the term was made up by capitalists. It is an incredibly useful tool for activists. We prefer the term 'people database', because it is more easy to understand than an acronym. Some activist reclaim the acronym by calling it a 'Constituent Relationship Management'.

Imagine this: You're passionate about environmental conservation. You meet people at rallies, communicate with folks on social media, collect signatures for petitions, and some people even donate to your cause. Keeping track of all these interactions is a mammoth task, but it's crucial because it helps you understand who your supporters are, how to best communicate with them, and what kind of involvement they are willing to have.

That's precisely where a CRM can help**. A CRM helps you manage, track, and analyze all the interactions you have with your supporters**, just as businesses do with their customers. You can record who you've contacted, when, how often, and what discussions or transactions have taken place. Importantly, you can also keep track of their interests, which aids in tailoring your message to different groups of supporters.

So, CRM is not just for businesses. It can also be a powerful tool for activists to connect with supporters more effectively and mobilize them for the cause.

There are some other related tools that you will likely also need:

  • ๐Ÿ“ Content Management System (CMS): This is the system you use to manage the content on your website. Whether it's blog posts, news updates, videos, or event notices, your CMS is what allows you to keep your site's content fresh and relevant.

  • ๐Ÿ“ฑ Forms: Forms are part of the tools to gather data about your supporters. Be it sign up forms, donation forms, or petition forms, whatever data captured is stored in your CRM for future reference. This data helps you understand the preferences, contributions, and engagement of your supporters.

  • โœ‰๏ธ Email Marketing: One of the keys to successful activism is regular and meaningful communication with your supporters. The data collected helps you segment your audience and send personalized messages, ensuring you reach people with the right messages at the right time. Sometimes, a CRM includes email marketing functionality. Other times, you need a different tool for it, such as MailChimp.

Some CRM providers include the above tools as an all-in-one package.

Why do I need a CRM?

As an activist, your role involves a lot of networking, coordinating and engaging with numerous individuals and organizations. This is where CRM software can come in incredibly useful.

Here's are key reason why you need a CRM:

  • โ˜Ž๏ธ Manage Contacts: As an activist, you augment your work by building a network of supporters, volunteers or donors. CRM allows managing all contact details and interactions of these people in one place.

  • โค๏ธ Increase engagement: It can help you track correspondence and engagement with each contact, ensuring that each relationship is nurtured properly. Not everyone you engage with will need the same type and level of interaction. CRM allows you to segment your contacts into different groups, aiding targeted communication.

  • ๐Ÿ˜… Efficiency: It enhances efficiency by automating repetitive tasks such as emails, newsletters, reminders, and reports so you can focus on your primary tasks, like planning campaigns or meeting with lawmakers.

  • ๐Ÿ™Œ Collaboration: Activism often involves working with a team. Having a CRM ensures that everyone on your team can see whatโ€™s been done and what needs to be done, which improves coordination and accountability.

  • ๐Ÿค‘ Fundraising: If your activism includes fundraising, a CRM can help manage donations and track donor behavior, providing insights to assist in future fundraising campaigns.

  • ๐Ÿ“Š Reporting: Many CRM provide strong reporting features. This can help you analyze trends, see your progress, and make data-driven decisions.

  • ๐Ÿ“† Event Management: Some CRM systems feature event management tools, allowing you to manage event invitations, RSVPs, and follow-ups all from one system.

Remember, your effectiveness as an activist is largely driven by the relationships you create and maintain. A CRM tool helps strengthen those relationships, saving you time for what really matters - making a difference.

When not to use a CRM?

Civil disobedience ๐Ÿ”ฅ

If your activist group uses civil disobedience tactics, make sure not to associate any individuals with illegal actions. You might still want to keep a general newsletter. But do not keep track of signups or attendance at civil disobedience actions in your CRM.

Any company offering a CRM can be forced by law enforcement to hand over data about your members. In fact, this goes for any website or app: all data stored on web servers is not safe, unless it is end-to-end encrypted (not to be confused with in-transit encryption or at-rest encryption!).

You might decide to use an open source CRM and host it yourself. However, if you are hosting this CRM on a computer that is not yours (using a web hosting provider), your data is still not safe. The web hosting provider can also be forced to hand over your data.

Underground groups ๐Ÿ™ˆ

If you are an underground group of activists, do not use a CRM. For underground activists, it is really important to protect your anonymity. Having a database with contact details of all your fellow change-makers is usually not a good idea in that case.

If you do want to keep a record of some sorts, store it locally on an air-gapped and encrypted computer instead of using a publicly available CRM service. Note: even if you store data locally, you might still risk it falling into the wrong hands if law enforcement gets physical access to your disks.

Make sure any contact details stored cannot be linked to individuals. Never store phone numbers. Burner phones are usually not private. Only store email addresses if you know how to get a private email address. Unless you have technical expertise or are helped by someone who does, you probably do not know how to do that properly.

How much does it cost?

The cost of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software varies greatly depending on the features you require, the number of users who will be utilizing the system, and the software provider chosen.

  1. Free: There are some free CRM options available that offer basic features, these are usually limited in terms of users and storage, but can be a good starting point for activists and small non-profits.

  2. Low cost: Basic CRM systems can start from as low as $10-$20 per month, offering features like contact management, email marketing, and basic reporting tools.

  3. High-end: Enterprise level CRM systems can cost several hundreds of dollars per user per month, offering extensive features, customization, priority support, and more.

Additional costs

Remember, the cost of a CRM system also includes the time and resources you'll put into setting up, migrating data, and training your team. Additionally, consider the ongoing maintenance costs and costs for upgrading if your organization grows or needs change.

Cost saving advice

Many CRM suppliers offer discounts for non-profit organizations, so it's worth asking about this when you're shopping around.

You can save a lot of money by not choosing one single tool that does everything. Instead, pick multiple tools that each have their strengths. Combined, they can often offer very similar functionality for free or very cheap, compared to a single all-in-one tool.

You might need a bit more technical expertise to connect all these tools and make them work well together. In general, having someone on board with technical expertise can help you save a lot of money: it allows you to use free open source software, which does require some know-how to install and maintain. It is all a matter of balance: if you notice that you are spending a lot of money hiring external expertise, you might be better off hiring someone yourself. Or make use of your smart volunteers! There are many tech savvy folk working for banks and other miserable jobs, who would love to take the opportunity to do something good.

The costs of a CRM that fits your needs will often outweigh the costs: it can save you a lot of time, it can help you scale up your campaigns and make more impact, and it can even directly earn you money through more effective crowdfunding campaigns.

Evaluation criteria

How to find the right CRM? We have written a general guide on how to choose tools for your nonprofit or grassroots movement. In that guide, we discuss general evaluation criteria such as pricing, ease of use and integrations.

Below we discuss some things that are specific to choosing a CRM. Use these evaluation criteria as a checklist: does a CRM have all the features I need? You might discover that you need multiple tools to cover all your needs.

Local groups members

If your nonprofit or activist movement operates in multiple cities, you will likely wan to give local organizers access to the contact info of your members in that area. Of course, you could just give local organizers access to your full database, but you likely should not do that for privacy reasons.

Some CRMs offer the option to assign contacts to one or more local groups. That way, local organizers can only see people that have been assigned to their local group. In commercial CRMs, these local groups might be called 'companies' or 'departments'.

Assign an integrator

Integrating is the proces of welcoming new members, and helping them get started as active volunteers. If you have lots of new people signing up for your movement, you will likely want to divide the work of integrating them among multiple people. Many CRMs offer the option to assign an integrator to a contact person. In commercial CRMs, these integrators might be called 'owners'.

Tasks

Creating tasks for integrators and other admins that are linked to contact properties. For example: "Call to welcome new volunteer".

Manually updating contacts

For organizers, it is really useful to be able to add contacts to your CRM on the go. For example, an organizer might be at an event and talk with some new people. They can then ask these new people for their contact details, and add these to the CRM. For this use-case, it is very valuable for the CRM to have a mobile app or mobile-friendly website. Ideally, the mobile app also works offline (and syncs its data later), for working in remote places.

Such a mobile app can also be used to update a contact. For example, if someone decides to take on a certain role, the organizer can register this in the CRM. With automation flows, that contact can then immediately receive a manual to help them get started in that role. A general notes field is also very useful, because it helps organizers remember important things about the people they talked with.

Forms

Besides manually adding contact details, it is also important to offer a way for new people to sign up for your movement via your website. These are some ways you can use forms:

  • You can use forms to collect leads (leads are contact details of people who might want to contribute with their time or money). A common use case is using petitions as a low-barrier way of asking people to support your cause. After people have signed your forms, you can contact them to ask them to do more.

  • You can also use forms to allow people to RSVP for events or sign up as volunteers.

  • Another use case for forms: imagine you are organizing a public event. Lots of people whose contact details you do not yet have will be attending. You can put up a QR code that people at the event can scan. The QR code will lead to a page with your form, which they can fill out to become more involved.

There are different ways of sharing forms.

  • Embedding: Embed a form on your website. This is useful if you already have a website, and you want to add forms to it. There are different technologies that allow you to embed forms:

    • Native CMS integration (for example, with a Wordpress plugin): This is the easiest way to get a form on your website. You select (or even create) a form right from within your CMS.

    • iframe: The form tool will allow you to copy some code, and paste it into a CMS text editor, such as in WordPress.

    • JavaScript embed: This works the same way as an iframe (copy & paste some code), but is generally a better way to embed a form.

    • API: If you are a developer, some form tools also offer an API to fetch the form properties. That way, you can render the form yourself.

  • Landing pages: design nice standalone pages that you can share to collect form submissions. Some form builders also allow you to set a custom domain (instead of the domain of the form builder).

  • Integrated website builder: Some CRM companies also offer a full CMS. You can use this CMS to build a full website that includes your forms.

Automation flows

Good CRMs allow you to automate a lot of manual work. These are some examples:

  • After someone signs up as a volunteer, assign an integrator and create a task for that integrator to call the new volunteer and welcome them.

  • After someone signs up for an event, send a reminder and a follow up email.

  • After someone schedules a call, send a text message 30 minutes before the call with the meeting details.

These automation tools are often called 'marketing automation', 'CRM automation', 'workflow automation', 'email ladder'. Automation features are often included in CRMs or email marketing software. But you can also have a look at more general automation software, such as Zapier, make.com or n8n.

An automation always has a trigger that starts it (someone fills out a form), some routing options that allow you to set different paths based certain on conditions (check if they read an email recently, yes/no), and finally actions that do something (sending an email).

Sometimes, CRM or email automation software can only perform actions within the software package itself. Ideally, the automation tool offers ways to integrate with other software. This can be done using webhooks, API calls or native integrations.

Triggers

a trigger is something that starts your (email) ladder

  • Contact changes

  • API

Routing

if/then statements

  • Contact details

Actions

things that your ladder does

  • Send email

  • Send text message

  • Modify contact

  • Call a webhook or API: send data to another app or perform an action in another app

  • Run code

  • Wait

    • Fixed Time Wait: This is a simple wait statement that pauses the email ladder for a specified number of hours, days, or weeks. This is useful for spacing out emails in a sequence or ensuring that a specific amount of time has passed before sending the next email.

    • Smart Time Wait: Wait for a fixed period (for example 5 days), but adjust to occur on a specific time (for example, the first morning after 5 days, or the first Friday).

    • Until Specific Date: This wait statement pauses the email ladder until a specified date and time. This is useful for sending emails on specific dates, such as holidays or birthdays.

    • Until Event Occurs: This wait statement pauses the email ladder until a specific event occurs. This could be a website visit, a form submission, or a purchase. This is useful for sending targeted emails based on customer behavior.

Integration pipeline

Pipelining is a popular feature for sales purposes, but if you are an organizer, you are also going to love this feature.

In commercial sales-focussed CRMs, you can often use pipelines using something called 'deals'. These deals are meant to be used for selling products, and keeping track of how far a customer has progressed in purchasing the product. Sales-people use pipelines to close these deals, which often have a certain monetary value attached to them.

While the monetary value is less useful for activists, the deal pipelines are quite useful. A 'deal' can also be "someone has become an active volunteer". This is a multi-step process which we usually refer to as the 'integration flow'.

Using a pipeline tool, you can keep track of how far all volunteers have progressed within the integration flow:

Open stages

  1. Get in touch (tasks: call new volunteer, then meet up IRL)

    • If successful, put in integrate column

    • If unsuccessful, put in one of the closed stages

  2. Integrate (tasks: invite to training, send guides, check in for questions, after 2 weeks ask they need any help getting started)

    • If successful, put in active (upgrade potential) column

    • If unsuccessful, put in one of the other closed stages

  3. Upgrade (task: ask if they are willing to take on more responsibility, or take on a role that fits them better)

    • If successful, either put back in active (upgrade potential) column, or in the active (satisfied in current role) column.

    • If unsuccessful, put in one of the other closed stages

  4. Retain (task: show your gratitude)

    • If successful, put back in the active (satisfied in current role) column.

    • If unsuccessful, put in one of the other closed stages

Closed stages

  • โœ… Active (upgrade potential) โ†’ after X period put in upgrade

  • โœ… Active (satisfied in current role) โ†’ after X period, put in retain

  • โŒ No response (did not pick up phone/not convenient) โ†’ put back in last column to retry after X period, unless a retry has already happened (ideally, you're able to set a time yourself when to call back, so you can take their preference into account)

  • โŒ Not interested

  • โŒ Interested, but not right now โ†’ put in first contact after X period

  • โŒ Contact lost (reason unknown)

  • โŒ Left because of conflict

Event signup & attendance

As a nonprofit or grassroots movement you are likely frequently organizing events. It is really useful to be able to track signups and attendance in your CRM.

However, most commercial CRMs do not offer this functionality, because companies do not tend to use this. However, there are often workarounds possible. For example, you can add a tag to indicate someone signed up for an event. Some CRMs also allow you to create custom modules (see custom tables below).

Look for CRMs built specifically for activists if you need built-in event signups & attendance.

One-on-one conversations

Some CRMs offer an integrated email client with which you can send and receive emails to individual people. They might allow you to connect your Gmail or Outlook inbox. This is a really useful feature if you want to keep your contact record and all your one-on-one communication in the same place. Some CRMs even offer integrations with chat apps such as WhatsApp.

Email marketing

There are many tools dedicated specifically to email marketing. However, some CRM software packages also include email marketing functionalities. We recommend you to check out our guide on email marketing tools for evaluation criteria to look out for in that regard.

Custom user interface

Individual contact

Every organisation has different information that they want to be able to see at a glance. The best CRMs allow you to customize what your screen looks like if you have a single contact open.

Contact list

The same goes for viewing multiple contacts at the same time. You might want to be able to see specific fields. Or perhaps you are looking to customize the user interface:

  • Spreadsheet: edit contact details directly in the list

  • Map: see your member locations on a map and select people based on areas.

  • Pipeline columns: see how far members have progressed in their integration flow, or select a different field to categorise people by.

Custom fields & tags

You will likely want to store some data that is unique to your organisation. For example, you might want to store topics that your members are interested in. To be able to do this, make sure to check if a CRM allows you to create custom fields in which you can store data. Or make use of tags to group your members.

Custom tables

From a database perspective, a CRM is just a collection of data tables. Your most important table is your list of contacts. But you can also have other tables that are somehow linked to your contacts. Examples of such other tables are local groups, integrators, forms, pipelines, tags, etc.

Some CRMs allow you to create custom tables. For example, you can use this to create a table 'events' if your CRM does not offer this by default. Note that the ability to create custom tables may have a different name such as 'custom modules'.

List of tools

The list of CRMs is endless. So how do you find the right one? Well, we do not know (yet). The people who wrote this article (which could also be you!) have not tried all of them. As a first step, we have tried to list all the ones we have heard of. Secondly, we have categorised them:

  1. CRMs for activists: built specifically for nonprofits and activist movements

  2. Open source CRMs: free CRMs that you can host yourself

  3. Commercial CRMs: tools built for businesses, but also useful for activists

  4. Related tools: tools that are not CRMs, but something related and useful

CRMs for activists

These CRMs were specifically built for and by activists:

  • Action Network (focussed on mailing) and Action Builder (focussed on organizing)

  • NGP VAN (only in United States)

  • Neon CRM

  • Citipo

Open source CRMs

  • CiviCRM

  • Odoo

  • Bottle CRM

  • SuiteCRM

  • OroCRM

  • X2CRM

  • Vtiger CRM

  • EspoCRM

  • ConcourseSuite CRM

  • Axelor CRM

  • Crust CRM

  • Twenty (early access)

Learn more about open source CRMs.

Commercial CRMs

There are many commercial CRMs available, check out a list of CRMs with a free plan.

  • Salesforce

  • Hubspot

  • Zoho: Zoho offers two different CRM products:

    • Zoho CRM

    • Bigin

  • SugarCRM

  • Insightly

  • Freshsales

  • Monday Sales CRM

  • Pipedrive

  • Freshsales

  • Capsule

  • Less Annoying CRM

  • Really Simple Systems

  • EngageBay

  • Bitrix24

  • Streak

  • Apptivo

  • Agile CRM

  • Flowlu

  • Folk

  • Attio

Activist organizing platforms

These tools are not strictly CRMs, but there are related and definitely useful for activists. Some combine functionality (for example: both a website builder & a CRM), others offer specialised functionality (for example: really good for calling people).

Data apps

Check out our guide data apps (modern spreadsheets such as Airtable). These tools are databases with user friendly interfaces. Since a CRM is basically a database with a nice interface, data apps are an interesting alternative to ready-made CRMs. If you do not mind tinkering, definitely take these into account!

Email marketing

We have another guide on email marketing tools, such as MailChimp.

Workflow automation

We have another guide on workflow automation tools such as Zapier and n8n.

Fundraising

  • Donorbox

  • Bloomerang

  • Blackbaud: fundraising, nonprofit financial management, education, corporate social responsibility.

  • Bonterra (US-only): a collection of tools for donor engagement, supporter engagement, program management and corporate social responsibility.

  • FundHero

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