I fielded another inquiry recently about how a small nonprofit organization can set up a reasonable system to keep track of donors and prospective donors (often called a Constituent Relationship Management system, or CRM). There are a lot of choices here, so how can you figure out how to spend the right amount of time and money for software? Keep in mind that the easiest misstep for small organizations is to overestimate. So most importantly — don’t overbuild, don’t overspend, and don’t change too many things at once.

How to keep from overbuilding your CRM

Be very deliberate when you set up your feature list — what information you need to be able to collect about donors and prospects? What specific tasks do you need to be able to do?

Stay focused on the daily tasks that you are currently doing and improving them. If you’re going to start tracking or using new data, limit yourself to one or two new things.

Don’t try to add several new elements at once–whether it’s new types of data you’re going to start collecting, or new ways of handing data. Keep in mind that you can still be improving the way you manage donor data. But, pick the one or two biggest shortcomings you currently face, and focus on addressing them. If you try and improve too many things all at once, it’s easy to find yourself in change overload and not use your new system very well.

For setting up your feature list, I have a longer, more detailed set of suggestions (including a worksheet!) for identifying what you need in a CRM that I created for MRG Foundation grantee organizations in 2011.

Set a price point based on the size of your donor base and stick with it. If you’re spending $1 to $2 per donor/prospect per year to keep track of people, that’s reasonable in today’s software world. Don’t expect tools to be free, but also, use the cost per donor to remind yourself that there’s a limit to how much data you are going to collect and store.

Maybe we should build a custom tool we can manage ourselves

If you’re a small organization, you wouldn’t build phones for all your staff… you would buy phones that were already put together. I suggest the same approach to your CRM.

That’s not to say that I haven’t seen many groups do great things with CiviCRM or Salesforce, which are both powerful and highly customizable tools. But I am often reluctant to suggest it unless I know a group has two things: multiple admin staffers with tech skills, and a budget that allows for ongoing skilled tech support.

Otherwise, I generally suggest that small organizations use services that are pre-built, and maintained by skilled and reputable service providers for a monthly fee. Even when these systems don’t cost anything to download, it takes plenty of staff time and know-how to set it up correctly, keep it running smoothly, and keep your data secure.

Researching CRMs

The definitive guides to software for nonprofit use come from Idealware (based in Portland, ME): and Idealware’s 2013 CRM comparison is a great research tool. Even though some of the specific product descriptions will be out of date (and it doesn’t include NationBuilder, which I continue to hear good things about), it’s a great place to start. Doing web searches may not be as helpful, since there are literally hundreds of products out there.

Also, if there is a nonprofit that solicits you regularly, ask them what CRM they use! Most of us don’t keep our donor management software a secret, and are often happy to help another nonprofit avoid headaches.

My favorite CRM for entry level groups right now: Little Green Light

For a small nonprofit that wants to get up and running quickly and doesn’t want a lot of startup costs, I personally love Little Green Light, which is easy to use, has great tech support and is has great integrations: ways to work with other software (for example, MailChimp or PayPal.)

Techsoup has a great Little Green Light option for very grassroots groups with operating budgets under $100K: a $425 discount off the first year. For groups with bigger budgets, there’s a substantially lesser discount.

Keeping track of your donors is essential to keeping your organization sustainable and building your community of support. Keep track of your donors, but don’t go overboard.