A few years ago I wrote a blog post called The Raiser's Edge: Why Does One Person Love it and the Next Hate it? Importantly, it wasn't about The Raiser's Edge per se, but it reflected my opinions on all similar fundraising packages - but I used RE as the key example because of its popularity. So, as I decided it was about time to update that post, I also thought I should make it a bit more contemporary and apply my thoughts to the well-liked generic CRM systems - and therefore, this time, use one of the currently most popular and most discussed CRM systems as my headline: Salesforce. But as before - let me emphasise - the points below are not solely about Salesforce; they could be just as true for other, similar CRM systems used by charities today: Microsoft CRM Dynamics, SugarCRM, Workbooks, NetSuite and so on.
I've also written this post because one of the most commonly repeated LinkedIn Discussions/Questions is: What Cloud CRM System Should I Use for my Charity? And then the questioner gets lots of answers about individuals' experiences and beliefs (and even the odd salesperson saying how great their system is…). And I wanted to provide what I hope is a more rounded, independent answer.
As before, with my Raiser's Edge post, I am sure that plenty of people will agree/disagree with my points below - and that's fine! If you want to discuss them then please do so in the Comments.
So, let's get to it:
Why do I think that one person you talk to will love Salesforce (et al) and the next person will hate it?
- Configuration and Flexibility: One of the most important things about these CRM systems is that they are so flexible, configurable, customisable and extendable, and as a result one implementation may be completely different from the next, even if they are both addressing the same core fundraising functional requirements. It is of course fantastic that this can be done, and if it is done well then anyone using that particular implementation may well love it. But if not, if it didn't deliver what was promised - or perceived to be promised - if it took too long, cost too much and it seemed like it was still not giving someone what they really wanted, then it is hardly surprising that such users will not like it. It's the double-edged sword of such flexibility.
- The start of the project and then the on-going bit… Following on from the above, it is also quite feasible that the CRM system was implemented well in the first place, and the users liked using it at that point. But for any number of reasons thereafter (e.g. budget, lack of impetus, lack of resources, the wrong resources, lack of understanding of CRM systems), it may not have been maintained well at some sites, and thus its usage at such charities could have dwindled and the users became disillusioned. And this is because if the CRM system was developed for the charity as its needs were at that time, then it is quite feasible that those needs may change over time. The good charities, the good Salesforce users, know this. But that's not everyone.
- Cost of Start-up and perceived TCO: Salesforce provides 10 free licenses for charities and heavily discounts others thereafter; Microsoft also gives charity discounts for Dynamics; SugarCRM has an open-source option. So it can appear to the less well informed user that the software is free or very cheap. And why wouldn't you think that if you didn't know! And yes, this is a great thing because you can then spend your budget on key things like development, training, consultancy, implementation, data cleaning and so on. Critical things. Unfortunately, although the licenses are free/cheap, the design, development, resources needed and maintenance are not - they cost money, and carry on costing money. And if a charity is not aware of that, or unprepared, or thinks the CRM will do all they need without any of the above, then what did seem a low cost option suddenly is not.
- Ease of Start-up and Type of User: Salesforce in particular is very easy to start to use: sign-up to a free trial, then buy the licenses (or get them free) and Bob's your uncle (or rather, Marc). No hardware issues, no need to deal with your IT department, no need to talk to any pesky salespeople (!) And Microsoft also offer a similar SAAS option now. Again, all that offers great benefits - it's the Cloud at its best. But it also means that anyone - database-savvy and the non-savvy alike - can start to use Salesforce, regardless of their database or CRM knowledge, their understanding of what it can do, of what you have to do to run such systems well. You would never get that with a "traditional fundraising database" - which shows one of their downsides and conversely their benefits at the same time. But if anyone can start to use Salesforce et al so easily, then there are bound to be people who don't really get it and therefore ultimately won't like it.
- Different types of usage: All these CRM systems are now extremely flexible and can be used for a multitude of applications: fundraising, membership, client management, grant management, help desks, HR needs, (even sales!!) and many more areas of need. It's a really great thing about the systems and shows just what you can do with them. But if charity X has used it for membership management and says how great their implementation is, then charity Y, who wants to use it for grant management may not realise that it might not be so applicable for them or that they need to address it differently. And that can also lead to disillusionment.
- The Salesforce and Dynamics fundraising/membership 'templates': Just to add to the complication of some of the above, there are now a number of good and getting-better 'templates' which third-party companies have designed to manage fundraising and membership almost out-of-the-CRM-box. So, not only do you now have the CRM system with all its pros and cons, you have another layer to consider which also offer benefits and downsides. But some people will still think of it as Salesforce, Dynamics etc. On the plus side, if a charity is using template X, then it can at least say how good/bad that template is, and other charities can get some feel for it that way. On the downside, such templates are just starting points which many charities will adapt and enhance which again will lead to differences of implementation; and ironically, as the templates become more package-like, so you then get the potential issues arising which I listed in my original Raiser's Edge Why Does One Person post. Plus ca change…
- Data, People, Processes (even hardware…): And of course, regardless of everything I have written so far, even if you have the best possible CRM system, it still doesn’t matter a hoot if your data is rubbish, your users not trained, your processes not defined, your project management and implementation managed badly… and so on. All the things I bang on about so often in my other blog posts. As such, charity X, who has a great system with great people managing it and who really understands CRM, will indeed have the potential to have a great CRM system. Unfortunately, even if you gave exactly the same system and configuration to charity Y, who doesn't get CRM, data management, the need for investment in training etc, then that system will soon be hated by its users. Oh, and if you do buy a CRM system which you can install on-premise/hosted, then the hardware still needs to be up to scratch. And yes, this is exactly the same for Traditional Fundraising Databases as well. But just because you buy a CRM system, that doesn't mean those issues disappear.
- Marketing and the Buzz of the Cloud: Finally, there is also no doubt that some CRM systems are helped by excellent marketing and the belief by some people that the Cloud is the answer for all their needs. The Cloud may well be an answer for some of some people's needs, but it's not quite as simple as that. Personally, I believe that if a system can't provide what you need it to do operationally - say, direct debit management, gift aid, income processing etc - then it doesn't really matter if it's in the Cloud or not. There's no point buying something that isn't right for you even if it does have superb technology (which many of these CRM systems do!) But the CRM suppliers/partners have great marketing staff!