Nonprofit CRM | The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide

Wendy Levine
February 21, 2020

Check out our nonprofit CRM ultimate buyer's guide.

Today's CRM systems are much more than the original "Customer Relationship Management," systems that tracked customer names and addresses, and little else.  Today's CRM systems are complex platforms that track every aspect of a company's client relationships and activity. Nonprofit CRM systems, also known as "Constituent Relationship Management" systems, similarly can track almost any piece of information about all of your supporters. 

A good nonprofit CRM system will allow you to segment supporters effectively and optimize your communication strategies, engagement, and fundraising.  Therefore, selecting the best nonprofit CRM system for your nonprofit is an important project that should be given serious consideration and effort.   

This post covers:

1) The Basics: Why You Need a Nonprofit CRM

2) Setting Priorities: Finding Nonprofit CRM Features You Need

3) The Future:  Considering the Long-Term Impact of Your Nonprofit CRM

4) Decisions:  Making the Final Choice in Nonprofit CRM

5) Top Solutions:  Start Your Research with the Best Nonprofit CRM Software


The Basics: Why You Need a Nonprofit CRM

Build relationships with your Supporters

A good nonprofit CRM system allows you to track LOTS of information - including data that may be unique to your cause or your organization.  For example, an animal shelter may collect the breed, name, and birthday of their supporters' pets. Sending birthday cards to donor's pets creates a personal connection and generates significantly more good will than generic appeal requests!  Your CRM system is an incredibly powerful tool for collecting the type of detailed information you need to engage on a personal level with each supporter.  

Some examples:

  • Pet names and birthdays:  As in the example above, and especially relevant for organizations with animal-related causes.
  • Event attendance history:  Use specific event attendance history to ask frequent attendees to volunteer at your next event, or simply craft a targeted message to those who have attended events before.
  • Volunteer history:  For many organizations, volunteers are a precious resource.  Use your CRM system to track the information that will allow you to personally engage with them on a regular basis.
  • Family information (spouse name, etc.): Having information readily available about a supporter's family is not only helpful when you are talking to a supporter, but can also help you avoid sending duplicate requests to multiple members of one family.

Access Data in a Single System

A strong nonprofit CRM system will provide a centralized view of donor activity, campaign success, and overall fundraising numbers from both online and offline sources.  

Storing all of your data in one system allows your staff to view reports and dashboards that give a complete picture of overall fundraising success, campaign-specific results, and supporter-specific activity.

When using additional software, such as event or marketing automation tools, the CRM system is most often the central "system of record"  - storing all supporter data that your organization needs to report on, including information that may originate in another system.

Identify and Manage Major Donors

Tracking donor information and giving history will allow you to identify and cultivate potential major donors, especially if paired with a wealth screening tool.  Your nonprofit CRM system will allow you to track not only donors who have made large donations in the past or who have given consistently over time; but also donors with certain categories of job titles and other specific "wealth-indicators" that you choose to track separately.  Build a Major Donor Fundraising strategy to identify the information you want to track.

Optimize Donations by Personalizing Ask Amounts

Personalizing the requested donation amount that you are including in each appeal will allow you to truly optimize your fundraising efforts.  Determining the best ask amount and using it in Dynamic Ask Strings is part art and part science.  The general idea is that you ask leave money on the table if you ask a donor for less than they are willing to give, and can scare away donors if you ask for more than they are comfortable with.  Smaller asks increase the number of donations and larger asks increase the amount of the donations - you cannot optimize for both, but you can find the right balance for each category of donors within your organization.  

The best nonprofit CRM systems will allow you to track the data you need to determine the optimal "next suggested gift amount," such as last and largest donations, and will allow you to calculate and store that number within the system so that it can be used seamlessly in communications with your donors. 

Create Target Groups

Basic Marketing and Fundraising best practices tell us to target our messaging as much as possible.  In order to do this, you need be tracking the information necessary to group your supporters into appropriate categories.  What information is important to your organization? Some typical items that nonprofits segment their "list" by:

  1. Major donors vs. potential major donors vs. other donors
  2. Location/Metro-area (useful for event notifications)
  3. Donation frequency (one-time donors vs. frequent donors should receive different types of communications)
  4. Event participation (those who have participated in the past vs. those who haven't)
  5. Supporter Type:  volunteer, donor, board member, staff, etc.
  6. Key Issue(s): Especially for advocacy groups - track the specific issues your supporters are most connected with.  For example, environment-focused organizations
  7. Cause-specific information:  for example:
    1. Animal causes - dog or cat owner?
    2. Health-related causes - patient, family member, or health-care provider?

Use the information stored in your CRM system to create as many groups as you need to segment and target your communications. 

One important tip: be aware of situations where a supporter may appear in multiple groups. You may want to exclude certain lists from an email send to ensure supporters don't receive duplicate or similar  emails.

Setting Priorities: Finding Nonprofit CRM Features You Need

One of the first steps to think about when managing a software selection project is the development of a requirements document.  I've been through many software selection projects - both from the user side and the vendor side. In my experience, a spreadsheet full of hundreds of specific feature requirements is not the way to go.  You do, however, need a requirements list that will allow you to compare systems.

First, focus on major functional areas as a way to quickly eliminate packages that are missing major features, such as fundraising forms or major gift cultivation.  

Second, put together a list of specific features that are critical and/or unique to your organization.  

Try to stay away from:

Standard features that should be in every system.

For example, every CRM system has the ability to track contact data.  However, if you think you will need to track non-standard data, one of your required features may be "ability to create custom supporter fields."

Extremely specific features that are not "must-haves."

Focus on what you need to accomplish, not how.  For example, instead of "major donor quality field," try "ability to track different categories of major donors."  The best nonprofit CRM systems will have different ways 

Here are some common requirements typical of a nonprofit CRM selection project:

Custom fields

You will most likely need to track some information that is not standard in the system you select.  Make sure you have the ability to add custom fields, and to use those fields on forms and in reports.

Campaign tracking

Make sure that you have the ability to track as many campaigns as you want, and that donors can be members of multiple campaigns.

Ability to support "offline" communication

If you send physical mail pieces be sure your CRM system can handle that.  Can you write and store the letter electronically in the system, and then merge and print for a list of supporters?  Do you need the capability to handle bulk mail barcodes? 

Gift tracking & processing

This will be a relatively standard feature in nonprofit CRM systems, but not "regular" CRM systems.  Be sure you have the features you need to track and report on all donations, including soft credits, stock donations, and in-kind gifts.


Evaluate the features you need to track the information and categorize your donors in order to optimize cultivation of major donors.

Deduplication features

Managing duplicate records can be one of the most frustrating parts of using a CRM system.  It is common for people to register for an event, sign-up for a newsletter, or submit a donation using a different spelling of their name or even a different email address.  Be sure that your CRM system has the ability to identify potential duplicate records.

Customized reporting and dashboards

Most organizations want the ability to create their own reports, but systems vary widely in their capabilities here.  Evaluate the ease with which a user can create a new report, whether all fields are available to the report writer, and whether graphs and dashboards can be designed.- 

Also, don't forget to consider a vendor's ability to deliver quality training and support, as well as on-boarding services during your implementation of the system.  

The Future: Considering the Long-Term Impact of Your Nonprofit CRM

It is important that you consider your selection of a Nonprofit CRM system to be a long-term decision.  Selecting and implementing a new system is not a small project, and not one that most organizations will want to repeat frequently.  What does this mean? 

  1. Consider the expected growth of your organization:  If you believe your organization is going to grow - either in terms of donation levels, staff, or types of activities - make sure that your new CRM system can grow with you.   Also, understand the costs associated with adding more users, supporters, or features
  2. Consider the ability to on-board new users:  Nonprofits typically experience a high level of staff turnover. How easy will it be to bring new users up to speed on the CRM system? Understand the types of ongoing training and support that is available, and their costs.
  3. Consider the ability of the CRM system to help your organization grow:  Does the system provide the built-in best practices, training, and support you need to take your organization to the next level?

Decisions: Making a Final Choice in Nonprofit CRM

Research: Identifying your initial "potential" list

Consider the following sources of information when starting your initial search:

  1. Staff members and other nonprofit contacts:  The best source of information will be referrals from those who have used different systems.  Ask for recommendations.
  2. Online research: Take the time to look at online articles, review sites, and consultant blogs.
  3. Nonprofit organizations:  Many professional organizations have forums dedicated specifically to the topic of software selection.  If you are a member of NTEN, CFRE, or other organizations, use the resources they make available. Organization trade shows are also a great place to check out software vendors in a no-pressure environment.

Determining your Shortlist

Cutting your initial list down to a short list of 2-4 systems usually takes a couple steps:

  1. Compare your "must-have" features and your budget range to readily available information on the software vendor's website: You should be able to quickly rule out a large number of systems based on published pricing and feature lists.  
  2. The number of systems remaining on your list should be small enough to allow for calls or emails to each vendor:  Ask specific questions about pricing and major features, and don't agree to move forward until you get those answers!

Make a Final Choice

The final selection of your nonprofit CRM system should be made carefully.
Take the time to:

  1. Participate in vendor demos:  Ask every vendor on your short list to present a full software demonstration.  The more information you can provide them ahead of time regarding your priorities and requirements, the better the vendor will be able to focus the demo on features important to you.
  2. Involve your staff:  Be sure to involve staff members who will be using the system in this part of the process.  Not only will they bring a different perspective to the decision process - the implementation process will go more smoothly if your users were involved in the process!
  3. Objectively rank each system:  Use a spreadsheet to rank your required features, along with the vendor's ability to provide implementation, training, and support services.  There is definitely room to consider subjective opinions of which vendor will be easiest to work with - but start with an objective ranking of features and capabilities.


The success of your new nonprofit CRM system will depend on how complete and thorough your implementation process is.

  1. Involve key users and identify an executive sponsor who will drive the project.
  2. Make sure your staff has the time they need to work on the project.
  3. Use your software vendor as a partner throughout the process.
  4. Be open to changing processes to best match software functionality, when appropriate.

Make sure that you understand what services your software vendor provides, and if there are additional costs associated with services that customers like you typically use.

Top Solutions: Start Your Research with the Best Nonprofit CRM Software

Salsa CRM

Salsa CRM is a donor management platform that will help your nonprofit compile profiles for your donors while tracking key engagement metrics. With Salsa CRM, you can learn more about your donors and track campaign success.  Use Salsa's built-in dashboards and reports to generate actionable insights to guide your fundraising strategies, target your messaging, and take your donor management to the next level!


Salesforce is an extremely customizable CRM system that can be the right choice for nonprofits who are larger and have dedicated staff to manage their system, or for nonprofits with unique needs requiring a higher level of customization.  Salesforce has a version specifically tailored for the nonprofit industry, the Nonprofit Success Pack (NPSP).

Both Salsa CRM and Salesforce are paired tightly with Salsa Engage, to provide nonprofits with full marketing automation, fundraising, and advocacy functionality.


360MatchPro by Double the Donation is an easy-to-use tool giving nonprofit donors the ability to identify, and take advantage of, employer matching gift programs.  Many employers offer 1:1, 2:1 and even 3:1 matching programs. But only 7% of nonprofit donors take advantage of matching gift programs available to them!


WealthEngine is a powerful wealth intelligence platform that provides nonprofits with key wealth data on existing and potential donors.  Integrating WealthEngine to your CRM system allows nonprofits to view wealth intelligence data inside their CRM system - and to use this data to effectively target the right message to the right people.

Wrapping Up

Finding the best CRM system for your nonprofit organization is a project that deserves a defined project plan and involvement from key members of your team.  Be sure to thoroughly evaluate your needs, separate the "wants" from the "must haves," and get input from your users. For more information on running a selection project - see Selecting the Right Software Solution for your Nonprofit.


Topics: Nonprofit Marketing
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