The Salesforce Platform for Nonprofits: Why It Matters


At the May 29th Innovation +SocialGood Event in Washington, DC, Salesforce and the Salesforce Foundation announced how much they will be supporting the nonprofit community in the years to come. Keith Heller and Salesforce partner Nick Ward, founding partner and chairman of roundCorner were able to talk about what it all means. In the last post they discussed how important it is for nonprofits to get started combining their strategy and tools into a complete plan. In this segment, they explain the strength of the Salesforce Platform, and how it benefits a nonprofit to become a member of the Salesforce ecosystem.

After the original posting, Nick’s company roundCorner announced their partnership with and the release of the renamed product NGO Connect. Find out more here.

Keith: So far we’ve covered a good number of topics at the strategic level. Salesforce also was talking about technology today. One of the things they talk about a lot is they are not offering simply a product but they provide a platform and solution sets. What does that mean and why should nonprofits care?

Nick: I think the Salesforce platform is a really important distinction and isn’t understood as well as it should be. The Salesforce platform is the reason we chose to work with Salesforce technology since 2003. It really has 3 core ingredients:

  1. The Salesforce platform is engineered as a multi-tenant structure that both separates and protects each client’s data while managing each client’s application in ways that assure all clients are on the most current version of the underlying technology platform; it’s a structure that allows individual organizations to have confidence that their data is managed and stored securely and accessibly regardless of where they are.
  2. The platform is also an application development platform that provides tools and standards for creating an astonishingly wide array of applications that plug natively into Salesforce’s open and robust API.
  3. Finally, the platform also allows access to a coherent group of utilities and technologies that are completely focused on constituent management through core objects that form what they call the Sales, Service, and Marketing Clouds. If an application provider chooses to build, as we do, using those clouds, they gain access to best in class workflows and practices learned from world-class commercial business processes. So the underlying platform is not just a series of raw technical capabilities, but it is a system assembled in a way that organizations can take advantage of it and have access to a series of tools, almost like Lego blocks, for building whatever they want to build.

Over the years we’ve been working with Salesforce we have watched this toolbox become increasingly sophisticated, agile and capable. Salesforce has been relentless in looking out into the future, predicting and shaping the next horizons of CRM and saying “We need to make that technology a part of our platform.” Whether it’s email marketing, whether it’s social tools, whether it’s service management, all of those are capabilities they didn’t have back when CRM was essentially sales automation. They have made that transition through their passion for innovation. So the platform is not just technology and the management of data, it is really an assembly of best practices and capabilities that are always leading toward the next horizon of constituent management for the nonprofit world.

Keith:  How has the growth of Salesforce as a “platform company” influenced software developers, and in turn their customers?

Nick: The Salesforce platform is an amazing place to start for developing a software application, accelerating what any company can do with their programming resources.  For us, the platform enables a reliable, consistent underlying data model and technology that allows us to build plug-and-play alternative components whatever the particular business requirement may be.

And, because of the multi-tenant structure, developers like us are able to push seamless upgrades into their technology because there aren’t version control problems. That platform thinking enables developers to be certain that each individual organization that takes advantage of and uses the platform is always up to date. That rigorous adherence to multi-tenant structure basically future-proofs and de-risks the application and the technology for large and small organizations across the globe. It was a terrific vision.

And the result is an ecosystem of innovation. By staying consistent with Salesforce’s requirements and expectations for both security and quality, developers can manage the applications they create on what is called the Appexchange, a sort of shopping mall of special-use applications. Many of them are available at almost no cost to nonprofits and can be used to enhance and augment their core capabilities. Apps in the Appexchange can even transform the way an organization thinks about what they can deliver to their constituents and the way that they can do it. Built on this underlying technology, work processes, and workflows, developers can provide best in class tools, and then the eco system of innovation can bundle those up into solutions. One of which is the solution that we have built, roundCause by roundCorner.

Keith: That’s pretty deep stuff, so let me see if I can put it in laymen’s terms as I understand it.

  • You as the developer can develop faster.
  • Salesforce has already taken some of the complexity out of development for you.
  • You know that you, and your clients’ data, are in a secure environment.
  • You don’t have to attend to some of the blocking and tackling issues.
  • Everybody is always on the latest version so you as the developer know that your clients are getting the best of what you have to offer as soon as you can offer it.
  • It’s allowed the growth of the AppExchange, which functions a bit like the iTunes store, but with hundreds of applications that are readymade, many of which are discounted to nonprofits.

Are those the benefits, and what else might you add?

Nick:  It’s all of those, and what it enables us to do is to build on the best of what is already there, tried, true, and proven in the commercial world, and focus exclusively on those things which are unique to the nonprofit world. We adapt and tailor what has already worked to the needs of the nonprofit business processes and constituent relationship issues so we don’t have to focus on the other stuff. We can focus exclusively on how to make the best solution for nonprofit constituent relationship management.

Keith: Part of what I appreciate about this for my clients is those fundamental issues that have been tackled by commercial industry have also been paid for by the commercial industry. Those of us focused on the nonprofit industry get to concentrate our much more limited resources on the needs of our particular constituents. The commercial sector has paid for and continues to pay for the ongoing research and development, and Salesforce and the Foundation through their largess are making it available to the rest of us.

Nick:  Exactly. A really terrific example is almost every nonprofit that we work with uses Salesforce’s case management capability, a way of dealing with constituent service issues. The case management practices and processes that are built into Salesforce’s Service Cloud are really wonderful. Easy to use, clearly best in class. That was paid for by Dell and Cisco and others a number of years ago. They saw the advantages of the platform but wanted to be able to tailor the platform to their customer service needs, so they built the original case management process that continues to get refined and enhanced over time. It just comes with a Salesforce license now. No cost, no charge, no additional incremental anything, you just get it when you buy the Salesforce license.

Keith: That’s another great point that ties back to my earlier question about why a nonprofit should be thinking about platform and not just your next product.

Part of what we see is when people join the Salesforce platform, it’s often a result of shopping for a specific need for a particular department. They quickly see that they can fulfill that particular need well, and within a few months they are finding more and more applications and ways to use it that they didn’t anticipate.

Nick:  Exactly. Let me give you a really interesting example. Three years ago I was at a nonprofit conference, and the world of all things “social” was starting to plague and perplex the nonprofit world. People were trying to figure out “what do we do on Facebook” and the emerging “social engagement” strategies. There was an expert standing in front of this group of very anxious and uncertain large-scale nonprofit marketing leaders simply terrified about what this meant for their future. The expert said there’s a new strategy called “social listening” coming, and showed several emerging “social listening” companies. She shared some of the wonderful things that they can do, and explained that the best in class is a company called radian6. She explained that radian6 was far too expensive for most nonprofits, but it was really pointing the direction to the future.

Three months later Salesforce had acquired radian6, and it’s now a part of the Marketing Cloud along with ExactTarget. It is now available from Salesforce with substantial discounts for all nonprofits as part of the platform. So that kind of capability, that best in class access to the latest and greatest technology, is embedded in the platform.

Keith: I like how you you’ve described what today’s announcements mean, but how can nonprofits best take advantage of this? Where should they start?

Nick:  Dig in and get started. Anywhere. There are multiple possibilities for any nonprofit, but that shouldn’t prohibit an organization from just digging in and saying “We have a challenge we need to meet. Let’s find the best way to do that.” Whether it’s with fundraising, mission management, communication, case management, or events, pick an area of your business and start there. Let your organization profit from rethinking a few established business practices and processes. It’s starting small but thinking big, and understanding that ultimately it’s about the organization transforming the way that it engages with constituents. You can’t change the way you engage with all constituents straight out of the box. But you can Just Get Started.

Find out more

If you would like more information about strategy and technology possibilities for nonprofit organizations, check out our resources page for our most recent white papers and posts, or contact us. We’d love to help you find the answers you need.


About the author

Team Heller

Heller Consulting has been helping nonprofits establish and improve their communications, fundraising and mission management systems since 1996. Our distinctive methodology comes from our hands-on experience with the technology AND strategies utilized by today’s successful nonprofits to build rewarding constituent relationships.

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