In the nonprofit world, developing strong and meaningful relationships with constituents is an obvious prerequisite for success. Regardless of the particular cause or the role we may play in advancing it, we’re always managing and (hopefully) growing and nurturing relationships with people who can help us achieve our goals as people and organizations.

Customer Relationship Management, or CRM, is an entire branch of technology dedicated to helping organizations manage their relationships with their customers or constituents.

While originally developed to help large businesses manage the stages of the sales cycle, CRM technology is now being widely adopted and deployed in many different types of organizations – including nonprofits of every shape and size.

To help us get a handle on why CRM is important to cause-based organizations, let’s first take a look at its evolution from the humble Rolodex to the sophisticated cloud-based systems we have today.

CRM: A Brief History

Thirty or forty years ago, our options for managing our professional relationships mostly involved the use of pen, paper and typewriter. A Rolodex served reasonably well as a mechanism for storing and accessing contact details quickly, while rows of grey metal filing cabinets filled to bursting with paper were effective (if extremely heavy) repositories of the history of interactions with each contact.

Fast forward to the 80s and the arrival of the personal computer and spreadsheet programs like Lotus 1.2.3 and later Microsoft Excel. At this point the process of recording and managing contacts and all the activities associated with them took a giant leap forward (as filing cabinet sales inevitably declined!). Detailed contact information for everyone in your Rolodex could now be consolidated in a single computer file, or set of files. Comprehensive records of all the interactions with your contacts could likewise be stored in this same file. All of this information was now easily accessible and could be searched and quickly updated.

As digital technology continued to evolve over the intervening decades, a whole industry arose that was dedicated to solving the myriad challenges of managing relationships in a dynamic global economy. These new systems, now known as CRM systems, built on the foundation provided by simple spreadsheets and databases. Over time, they became the highly specialized cloud-based CRM systems we have today, like Salesforce, Microsoft Dynamic CRM, Siebel, etc.

At least initially, the problem with these systems for nonprofits was that they had an obvious sales focus. So they were great for a salesperson who needed to track leads and opportunities and manage incoming orders. But for a nonprofit professional – a fundraiser, say – there was no direct mapping between these sales tasks and the typical tasks they needed to perform as part of their day-to-day jobs. Like online fundraising, advocacy campaigns, and volunteer management.

Constituent Relationship Management for Nonprofits

Fortunately there are a number of vendors in the market who are catering specifically to the needs of nonprofits. These Constituent relationship Management solutions, as they’re called, offer an array of different features. And while they each have different strengths and weaknesses, most of the good ones have the potential to equip your nonprofit with some core capabilities that will help you improve the way you engage with your constituents.

Here are some of the big advantages that a CRM implementation can provide for nonprofit organizations:

1. Consolidate your data and eliminate data sprawl

One of the key advantages of implementing a CRM system for your nonprofit is that it allows you to consolidate all of your data into a single system. When you do this, you avoid having separate “silos” of data that can’t be accessed easily or quickly by people in your organization. The need for consolidation may seem obvious, but the reality is that many nonprofit organizations still have their constituent data scattered across many different systems, which makes it almost impossible to find the data you need when you need it.

2. Really get to know your constituents

It makes it pretty difficult to have a meaningful relationship with your constituents if you don’t know much about them. To really understand them, you need more than a name and an address. Are they a donor? If so, do they donate monthly? What causes do they care about? Where do they live? What events have they attended? Have they ever volunteered? What do they think about a particular issue? Ideally, you’d like a record of the entire history of your interaction with each constituent as well as an understanding of their preferences, goals, and concerns and how they align with your cause.

A strong constituent relationship management system give you the ability to collect and store every relevant piece of information about your constituents and begin to use it strategically to your organization’s advantage.

3. Segment your database

Once you have collected more extensive data at the micro level about your constituents and stored it in your CRM, you’re in the position of being able to view them from a macro level, which in turn allows you to segment your database based on multiple flexible criteria.

For example, if you’re planning an event, you could automatically generate a target list of all your monthly donors who live in a specific area and who have also attended a fundraising event in the last 18 months. Or to support a fundraising drive, you could target non-donors who have opened one of your email newsletters and have signed a petition in support of your cause. This kind of segmentation facilitates highly targeted programs and communications and can have an immediate impact on the success of your campaigns.

4. Become more data driven and make your activities measurable

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a CRM implementation can help you use the valuable data you now have at your disposal more effectively. It can help you make more informed data-driven decisions as an organization and begin to measure the success of your programs and initiatives – and make the required adjustments to make the biggest impact possible for your cause.

Image credit: Flickr user Ged Carroll