How to Choose a CRM for Your Nonprofit

We’re often asked how to choose a CRM or what our favorite CRM is … but we rarely answer the same way twice!

While we do work with a number of Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) tools, it’s close to impossible to recommend a specific CRM without knowing more about what your organization specific needs. So, here’s how we think it through:

First, what’s the problem?

Maybe you’ve never used a CRM but have the distinct feeling that keeping your donor history in Excel files isn’t super efficient. Or maybe your current CRM is making your days way too stressful and complicated and you need to know if there’s a better way. We get it.

There are plenty of reasons why your organization could choose a CRM, but understanding the problems you’re facing now will help you focus on what you need to solve.

Start by making a list of questions, problems, and concerns that help you gauge your current situation. How urgent is it that you choose a CRM? And how soon does this need to happen? Defining your problems and checking your list alongside your coworkers’ perspectives will help with guiding the next steps in your investigation process.

Speaking of your coworkers, if you’re really ready to do this, you need to know who on your team needs to be involved! Don’t forget to consider:

  • Executive Leadership: May not need to be involved in every meeting, but should be kept in the loop.
  • Department Leads: Make sure fundraising, advocacy, engagement, and other teams are all on the same page. Think of these different data needs from each perspective to cover all of your use cases.
  • Data Specialists: Who’s involved in data entry every day? Who will you need to work with when it comes to migrating your data from one platform to the next?

Identify the types of users who need to work with your CRM and try to create user stories for each of them. These clearly defined statements will help you not only identify problems but also assess what success should look like later in the process.

And don’t forget to speak with your current vendor. Moving platforms is costly, time consuming, and always stressful. It’s possible that your current vendor could meet your needs by adding features or reducing fees.

Then, assess your options

Whether you search, read reviews, or learn more from vendors at conferences, don’t forget to supplement your CRM research by asking friends and colleagues at other organizations what they think about the ones they use.

After you have a starting list, narrow it down. Refer to your original list of problems and create a spreadsheet to compare key details across the platforms.

A few things to consider:

  • When comparing prices, make sure you’re also comparing the cost of staff and time. Consider whose time will be needed for any data migration as well as day-to-day support of the new CRM.
  • Are you looking for an “All in One” solution, or is a siloed approach acceptable for some types of data?
  • Will you need any other services to build your dream setup?
  • Will you need any data integrations or third party services? Even if you’re not a developer or don’t have immediate integration needs, check to see if the new platform is extendable through an API. It’s also a good idea to search to see what plugins or integrations have been created for the platform through companies like WordPress, Drupal, and Zapier, so you don’t have to recreate the wheel if you need additional integrations.
  • What needs do you have for your frontend forms? Do you require specific fields? Do you require unique features that might not be available in all platforms? What level of customizations can you make to your forms? Can you embed the forms on your website (and do you want to do that)?
  • Get as specific as possible with your needs assessment. Most platforms can process transactions, but not all of them allow you to setup dynamic giving or all for custom CSS added to the form template.
  • Alongside the types of features and forms that you’ll need, what kind of reporting will you need? 
  • What does “done” look like? How will you measure success with your new platform?
  • Even if none of the CRMs on your list are perfect (spoiler alert: they won’t be), in what ways do each improve your current situation?

Possible CRMs to consider

While we have our favorites, there are dozens of CRM providers that cater to the specific needs of nonprofits. There is no way for us to include all platforms (and we apologize to any of our friends if we left you off!), but here is a good starting point when looking at a new CRM:

Tech Impact is also a great source for learning more about options and comparisons that will help you choose a CRM.

What does “done” look like?

While you sort out your options, you’ll need to make sure you have a fairly clear understanding of your timeline.

Sometimes, your timeline will be most impacted by your contract with your current CRM, but there may be other factors to consider. For example, do you need to work with a third party for any data integrations? What sort of setup time is involved with your new CRM?

Will you need to build any new workflows or features?

No matter what, make sure you plan in at least a few weeks — or ideally months — for “just in case” time, since chances are very good you’ll run into new questions or concerns in the process.

Refer to your user stories to make sure your CRM choices align with your needs. Your timeline might also include your first few months of learning on your new CRM.

Our friend Alan from the National Trust for Historic Preservation shared a great tip to check with your new CRM during the sales process and see if you can include training time for three months after your official start date. This way, your team will have a much better sense of how the new CRM works and what types of questions they have!

In closing, remember that no CRM is perfect, but there are many options to consider that may help your organization grease some of its super squeaky wheels. Planning ahead and padding your timeline for testing is a great way to save yourself, your team, and your organization some major OOPS! Moments.

Most importantly, remember that you’re part of a nonprofit community, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel and you can reach out for help.

Peers in organizations like yours can really help you vet tools that you may not have had direct experience with. And web services firms (like ours!) can provide you integration or custom development information that could be part of your current — or future — organizational CRM improvement plan. Like we said earlier, we get it.



Chelsea began her work with progressive organizations, online communication strategies, and nonprofit technology in 2005. She spent many years managing technical support, product development, and product marketing with Salsa Labs before joining the Cornershop team. Her passion for quality communication, authentic relationships, and creative nerds serves her well in her work. Chelsea tolerates three cats with her husband and two kids at the end of a dead-end gravel road in Wisconsin.