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3 Steps for a Nonprofit CRM Implementation

A successful nonprofit CRM implementation is not a simple task. To better grasp what it means to make that change and implement a nonprofit CRM, I’ve always found the metaphor of moving houses to be effective. 

CRM Implementations are like Moving Into a New Home

After the first time my wife and I moved ourselves across town, I swore that no matter what, I would pay someone to do it for us next time. I didn’t like being the guy asking all my truck-owning friends for help moving for the low-low price of some pizza and drinks. But after a few moves, I began to learn the worst part isn’t the moving—it’s the unpacking.

The proof’s in the pudding, too. All my “moves” have been done in 2 days or less. The unpacking? Some might say I’m still not fully “unpacked” in my current home, a year and a half after moving in.

But why is it so hard?

The problem is—the goal is not just to move the boxes. The goal is to pack up my entire life and unpack it in an entirely different environment—with different spaces, shapes, and possibilities in the new house.

And that can take a tremendous amount of time. At the very least, it takes intentional planning and execution.

And as you go along, you’ll often find that an unpacked box is not so much indicative of laziness as it is a sign that some part of your last house doesn’t quite fit into your new.

What do I do with this couch that no longer fits in my living room?

Why in the world do I have so many coffee mugs? 

Where can I put my work desk to optimize the balance of great Wi-Fi and total isolation from my sweet but incredibly loud children? 

We talk about “moving houses” a lot at Rooted Software—and not just for group catharsis. We have a lot of experience partnering with nonprofits to complete Virtuous CRM implementations. This is often a helpful analogy to explain the importance of a strong initial implementation of a nonprofit CRM for future success.

Because you’re not just moving boxes. You’re packing up your entire digital house and trying to figure out how it fits into a new (dare I say, better?) one.

So, with that in mind, we wanted to share three strategies to up your game from “just moving boxes” to really making Virtuous your “new home.” 

Use Your New Floor Plan

When you move to (a.k.a. implement) a new nonprofit CRM, Virtuous or otherwise, you’ll find features and functionality that are split into three categories: 

  • Similar to what you had before
  • Same idea, but looks or feels nothing like what you had before
  • Completely new, something you’ve never had before 

In short: different. 

Sometimes, we confuse “different” with bad, because we generally don’t like change. But in change management, we know that people only make a move when the perceived “pain” of staying the same becomes greater than the perceived “pain” of change. 

So, if you find yourself in the midst of a CRM implementation, that means you’ve decided that making a change is worth the effort. At some point in the process, the idea of having “different” was actually desirable.  

This might all sound daunting, but it’s a really good thing. When you make a change, you have a great opportunity to examine your tools and processes to see if they are built based on what’s most efficient, or just “the way you’ve always done it.”

For instance, when you log into Virtuous’ nonprofit CRM looking for “Solicitor Relationships”, you may be frustrated when you find they don’t exist. Or maybe you know that Virtuous manages major donor development through Organization Groups, but you’ve grown used to the solicitor relationship structure. So you throw up your hands and say, “This new house can’t fit my furniture!” 

But you’re missing the benefit of the new layout! The hierarchy underlying Organization Groups in the Virtuous nonprofit CRM actually allows your Major Gift Officers or Solicitors to log in and immediately view a dashboard view of their portfolio of major donors (among other things).

You just have to be ready to implement your data based on your “new floorplan,” instead of trying to find an exact match to what looks familiar. 

A Decision-Making Framework

That said, if you find yourself just trying to mimic what you’ve done in the past, try this framework to build into the future:

  • What’s right?
  • What’s wrong?
  • What’s missing? 
  • What’s confusing? 

Asking these questions will help you and your team ensure your processes and tools are truly optimized to fit your new functionality (or floor plan) during your CRM implementation. Don’t dismiss anything at first. Any feedback is valuable. Dig in with some questions to understand, and you might even find some additional feedback along the way. 

One last word of advice- it’s way easier to optimize for the “new floorplan” of your nonprofit CRM at the beginning. Once everything is moved in and you’ve begun your work, it will actually cause more work to tear things down, move things around, and build it back up. So, take the time to have these conversations upfront. 

Which leads me to my next point.

Don’t Leave Boxes Unpacked

This is obviously easier said than done. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the “Tyranny of the Urgent.” Especially in the nonprofit world, where things are incredibly busy, and time management is always a challenge. So first, make sure you have the right frame of mind. Implementing any new tool, but especially a nonprofit CRM, is not just work being added onto your already busy schedule. This is proactive planning to help you build your future success.  

To put it another way, the more boxes you leave unpacked, the less “at home” you feel. 

An Example

A great example in Virtuous is the Automated Workflows. The ability to save time and optimize your processes in that tool is immediately evident, and most folks going through a Virtuous CRM implementation have that as a main point of focus. Even still, we’ve seen that there’s a temptation to skip any strategic planning of how your organization can use Automation, and “leave it for later.” But later never comes. 

It feels counterintuitive, but taking the time to plan out how you can use workflows will actually save you time in the future. If you take the time to map out your New Donor Journey, for instance, you might find that you have quite a few manual or repetitive tasks. Imagine how much time you’ll save if all those welcome emails were automated in your nonprofit CRM, or how many follow-up steps would no longer slip through the cracks! 

How to Prioritize Tasks

A final note on this one. Realistically, your team’s availability must inform the work you plan to implement your nonprofit CRM. And as much as you don’t want to fall back into the Tyranny of the Urgent, you also don’t want to overload your team. Which means “prioritization” is the name of the game. 

Saying “yes” to this doesn’t fully mean saying “no” to something else, but it should absolutely mean saying “not right now” to some things. I would recommend splitting tasks into “Projects,” and “Keep the Lights On” tasks. The “Projects” can be put on hold, but you cannot reprioritize the “Keep the Lights On” tasks. 

Just make sure you don’t put everything as a “Keep the Lights On Task, no matter how badly you want to!

Write Your New “House Rules”

Every house I’ve ever lived in had rules. What goes where, who sleeps where, who does what chores. Even most of my board games have house rules.

On the flip side, I’ve worked in a lot of nonprofit CRMs that are more like the Wild West. No rules. Things get messy quickly. And messy data, unclear workflows, and a lack of ownership can negatively affect any system. No matter how wonderful. 

As previously discussed, you have different capabilities and functionality now in your new nonprofit CRM—so managing how, when, and who uses each will be a huge part of your success. 

An Example

User access is a great example. All of the right people in your organization will be able to access Virtuous. If you come from a nonprofit CRM where only one admin could use it—and that was only after 10 years of painstaking experience with the tool—you might be tempted to keep access locked down in Virtuous. Or you might also be tempted to go in the exact opposite direction and allow full access to everyone and see what breaks. 

But if you take the time to create “House Rules” around permissions, you’ll see quick benefits.

Your experienced admin will spend less time on emails asking them to pull something out of your data. Also, the rest of your staff will be empowered to work effectively and efficiently in their day-to-day. 

Creating the Right House Rules

Of course, it’s important to remember that your “House Rules” might need to change over time. Here’s a really easy framework to make sure your rules and permissions make sense as your organization changes and grows: 

  • Implement: In short, in this phase, you are building, documenting, training, and reinforcing your new roles, tools, and processes. This is more than just a software task! Make sure the right people have the right levels of access (which may mean almost no access at all!). 
  • Inspect: Build methods to ensure your tools and processes are functioning as expected. This will probably include things like data reports and dashboards. But it will also definitely require occasional conversations about what’s working and what’s not. This allows you to stay flexible as realities in your organization change. It also allows you to reinforce any training you gave in your CRM implementation, and gently hold people accountable to the new “house rules.”
  • Iterate: So, you’ve successfully implemented a new nonprofit CRM, and you’ve started to inspect things as you go along. Then, you find that something isn’t quite working the way you expected. Or maybe you heard about a feature or module you hadn’t used before. But don’t get discouraged! “Your Process, Version 2.0” is good news, not bad. 

Remember, in change management, the goal is not to go from a “1” to a “10.” It’s to go from a “1” to a “2,” and keep building. Manage your expectations accordingly and stay flexible! 

Moving houses is exciting, even if it comes with some busy days spent sweating in a U-Haul. So, I hope that the rigamarole of data mapping, training, and documentation doesn’t mean you lose that sense of excitement. Take some time to be excited and strategize with your team about what’s possible as you make your new (digital) house a (digital) home. 

Ready to dive deeper? Check out our comprehensive guide to successful nonprofit CRM implementation.

About the Author

Toby Weiss serves as CEO at Rooted Software, and brings extensive experience in system selection, software development, core system implementations, product, and project management. Toby brings expertise leading complex customization and software development projects, overseeing both local and global development teams. Toby is a Certified Scrum Product Owner with substantial PMI Training and 10,000+ hours of project management experience.

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