Keeping Track of Donors: Understanding CRM

Fundraising strategy is only as good as your data. According to my friend who sells a good CRM. Well, most fundraisers wouldn’t place a good donor tracking program at the top of a priority list — but likely in the top three. First you need a strong case or call to action, then a good strategy to engage with potential donors, and then a way to keep track of all your success (and your failures learning opportunities).

So, what is CRM? Customer Relationship Management. Adapted from the sales industry, it is a method of managing engagement with current and future donors.

Over the past 20 years, I have seen all manner of systems used, everything from a bound notebook through Excel spreadsheets (far too common) to very sophisticated software programs costing thousands per year. All of them work, to a degree. And I am not here to sell a product or convince you of a certain method.  My goal is to get you thinking about what we should be looking for, and how we should approach the question.

On one level, the function of a CRM is to ensure we track all donations, which will in turn ensure receipts are issued and the organization’s finances are accurate. But good accounting software can accomplish that.

More significantly, you need a way to track and analyze your relationships. Do you know your major donors and how they want to engage with your organization? Can you look up birthdays, preferences, and their donor history, oh, and track deaths? I once called a donor who had died six months earlier. The family had contacted my organization but the person who took the call made a note in her own files and didn’t update the database. Highly embarrassing.

Donor tracking is not simply about your major donors. A good CRM will help you understand the giving patterns of all your donors.  You want to be able to see who has been giving consistently, so you can offer them a monthly giving program; who has dropped off, so you can reactivate; who looks to have potential for increased giving; and so on. A CRM can help you identify which of your appeals are working year over year and which need to be changed or dropped.

Some key questions as you evaluate systems:

Will it get used?

This one is vital. Any program you implement must be embraced from the Executive Director to the finance staff, and all your development staff. Whoever interacts with donors must understand this system and have a good and secure method of entering and retrieving information. Make sure you are not the only champion. If you leave, will someone else be able to keep it moving?

I can’t emphasize this enough: will your ED use it? It doesn’t mean she needs to be inputting data herself. But it does mean she has a method of recording all her interactions so that others are fully versed on the progression of the relationships.

One organization I worked for had a half dozen separate Excel ‘databases’; each department keeping their own data separate from the rest. Integration was a long process but vital for the success of the organization.

Does it integrate with accounting?

If your finance team resist your CRM method, you will end up running two systems and entering data twice. This is inefficient and ineffective.

How important is web/cloud access?

Some organizations have a strong ‘work from anywhere’ culture and, if so, accessing your database remotely becomes critical.

Can you afford it next year?

Beyond initial setup, make sure you budget for upgrades, training and support.

There are lots of other areas to consider but this should get you started. If you are making a switch, or starting from scratch, ensure your data is clean and staff are all on board. And whatever you do, stay away from private-Excel-files-on-the-ED’s-computer method!