Understanding Your Nonprofit CRM Needs

This is part one in a series about how nonprofits should approach choosing a nonprofit CRM written by our partners JCA, a nonprofit consulting firm.

Are you a fundraiser currently feeling handcuffed to an outdated fundraising system or feeling like accomplishing anything on a day-to-day basis is an uphill battle? Perhaps ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do you trust the data in your fundraising system? 
  • Is your system enabling your frontline fundraisers to raise more money and build relationships? 
  • Do you navigate tasks with ease? 
  • Do you have direct access to the data you need? 
  • Are you able to achieve the desired 360-degree view of your supporters?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, your nonprofit CRM may not be working for you. There can be a number of reasons for this. Perhaps the reason is that it’s missing functionality that would make your tasks easier, such as automated workflows or real-time dashboard reports. Or maybe it’s overly complicated, and you need to submit requests to a database manager to get the information you need. 

Whatever the reason, it could be time to consider a change, but you need to choose wisely.

Choosing a new nonprofit CRM system better suited to your organizational needs is a big investment. Even if the new system you select is simple to use and relatively easy to implement, it will require an investment in time, money, and training to be successful. You need to be confident that the system you choose will solve your current problems. But how do you identify those problems to solve?

Start with a Needs Assessment

It may be tempting to immediately start shopping around when choosing  a new nonprofit CRM. Before you do that, you need to know what you’re looking for. A Needs Assessment is a process designed to uncover the true needs of your business. This is accomplished by asking your staff what they need to accomplish their work and what kinds of tools would help them. Uncovering these needs (or requirements) is typically achieved by conducting a series of “discovery” interviews. You should hold these interviews with functional teams within your organization. 

Who should you include in your discovery interviews? Start by thinking about all the different teams and people who use your nonprofit CRM or who need data from your system. This includes different frontline fundraising teams, like major giving, planned giving, and annual giving. But it can also include prospect managers, gift processors, record managers, researchers, and event managers. Don’t forget about other groups that interface with the system, like the IT team, finance team, and leadership team as well. These interviews are used to understand how these different teams and individuals interact with your system and data, to achieve their business objectives.

Also, make sure you consider your entire ecosystem — not just the system you are thinking of replacing. No nonprofit CRM exists in a vacuum — it needs to interact with different systems and teams. Understanding your data ecosystem is the first step in identifying the scope of your selection project and which stakeholders need to be involved. Think about all the different systems and tools that staff use, including spreadsheets. Consider the flow of data between systems and teams and include the teams that use those ancillary systems in your discovery process.  

Capture Key Information During Discovery Interviews

Before even considering choosing a new nonprofit CRM, you should perform discovery interviews with your team. In discovery interviews, you should work to identify:

Goals, objectives, and strategies for each team 

What are they trying to achieve? What types of goals or metrics have they defined, and do they have specific strategies to meet those goals? For example, the Major Giving team may have a goal of increasing the average gift size. To accomplish this, they will be increasing the number of touchpoints with donors in each officer’s portfolio. The Gift Processing team may have a goal of sending all receipts within 48 hours of receiving a gift. One of their strategies to accomplish this is to send electronic receipts for all gifts under $250.

Functional needs of each team

Start with a narrative description of the functional needs of each team. What tasks do they perform on a regular basis? Are they responsible for collecting, analyzing, or outputting data? How do they use the data available to them? What tools do they use to manage their work?

Obstacles and pain points for each team 

What is causing frustration or getting in the way of success? For example, perhaps you find out that gift officers can’t easily see a list of every donor in their portfolio for their most recent touchpoint. They rely on a monthly report to provide this information, but by the time they get the report, the information is outdated.

Key cultural findings from each team 

What are your key takeaways from interviews on how stakeholders interact? These could include information about a team’s staffing structure or skill sets. For example, your Corporate and Foundation giving team feels that their needs are often ignored because they get lumped in with Major Giving, even though their processes are different.


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Create Accurate Nonprofit CRM Requirements

Once you have completed your discovery, it’s time to translate these business needs into system requirements that will help you when choosing a nonprofit CRM. Here are some tips on how to write strong system requirements for your organization:

  • Write clearly and concisely, in a way that all stakeholders can understand.
  • Be specific. Write the requirement in a way that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” response.
  • Try to focus on the “what” instead of the “how.” In other words, make sure you are describing the requirement, or the thing you need to accomplish. You don’t want to be describing a process, which may be based on your current software.
  • Think about the “three W’s”—who, what, and why. Each requirement should be able to trace to a high-level business need.
  • Avoid subjective terms like “easy to use.” Instead, state your expectations whenever possible. For example, instead of saying “reports should render in an acceptable time frame,” say “reports should render on screen within 30 seconds.”
  • Don’t forget system and vendor requirements, such as security protocols and service level agreements.

The number of requirements you need to document is going to depend on the type of system you are looking for, and the complexity of your needs. The list can contain anywhere from 40 to 400 requirements. 

Managing Your Nonprofit CRM Requirements

If you find yourself at the higher end of that range, make sure you don’t have duplicate requirements, and that the requirements are not too granular. It is helpful to add a category and subcategory label to each requirement, to group similar items together, and see if any can be combined or reworded. For example, you may have heard from both the Major Giving and the Planned Giving teams that they would like the system to prompt them when there is a due date for a task. Each team may have expressed this requirement slightly differently, but the required nonprofit CRM functionality is the same, and thus, should only be listed once.

Alternatively, if you find yourself with too few requirements, confirm that you have provided enough detail for each requirement. If the requirement cannot be easily evaluated with a “yes” or “no” response, you may need to break larger concepts into smaller pieces.

As you categorize and combine requirements, retain information about where the requirement originated—which team or teams require this functionality. Retaining the requirement “owner” helps to share responsibility for the list across the organization and makes it easier to address any concerns.  

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Fortify Your List of Requirements When Choosing a Nonprofit CRM

Once all your requirements are represented, organize them into functional categories. Then, do a final review with each team of stakeholders. Ask your stakeholder to assign each requirement a priority rating. They need to reach an agreement on the items that are non-negotiable, and which ones are important but not critical. 

We recommend using the MoSCoW prioritization method, which gives each requirement a priority code. There are four priority codes: “must have,” “should have,” “could have,” or “wish list.” Reaching an agreement about priorities ahead of evaluating solutions will help the team stay focused on what’s important throughout the decision-making process.

Now that you have a complete and prioritized list of requirements, you can move forward with the next phase of choosing a new nonprofit CRM solution that meets your requirements. Completing this process will not only help you get the best results, but it will also start preparing your organization for change. By giving your stakeholders an opportunity to express their needs and provide input, they will be even more willing to invest in the new solution once it is selected and implemented. 

Take a Step Back Before Choosing to Move Forward

Before embarking on the journey of choosing a nonprofit CRM, we recommend you take a moment to reflect. 

  • Are you sure you need a new system to meet your requirements?
  •  Is it possible that your current system is capable of performing the functions you need? 
  • Perhaps your team just needs training or help with configuration changes to improve your current system? 

If there’s a chance that this might be the case, consider sending your list of requirements to your current software vendor. They, or other experts, can answer these questions for you. It could save you time and money. If not, this exercise is still valuable to help strengthen your case that your current system needs to be replaced. Most organizations require that you justify the need for a new system before you make an investment of this size. This process gathers and documents the information you need to justify the cost.

Stay Tuned

Stay tuned for our next blog in this series. We will be sharing the process of identifying and selecting a new system.

Steve Jacobson

Chief Executive Officer

Steve Jacobson founded JCA in 1988 to provide information management services to nonprofit organizations. Since then, Steve has provided systems consulting and implementation services to a number of clients, including Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Museum of Natural History, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Minneapolis Institute of Art, Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo), New York Botanical Garden, and the National Constitution Center.

Prior to his tenure at JCA, Steve worked in the field of economic consulting for Rinfret Associates, Inc. (New York) as a research analyst and, subsequently, as a senior consultant for Data Resources, Inc. in San Francisco, California.

Steve is a past Adjunct Instructor at New York University where he taught courses in Technology for NYU’s Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising. He is the Immediate Past President of the New York City Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), and serves on the boards of the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy, and the Nonprofit Cooperative. Steve is also a member of the Museum Computer Network (MCN), the American Association of Museums (AAM), and the International Ticketing Association (INTIX). Steve holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in Economics and Psychology from Stanford University.

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