7 Lessons Learned About Implementing CRM Systems for Nonprofits

7 Lessons Learned About the Implementation of CRM Systems

Implementing a new nonprofit customer relationship management (CRM) system can seem like a daunting challenge. But with a sound strategy and execution plan, it’s actually quite manageable – and the benefits of a new CRM system can be well worth the effort.

In this post, I’m sharing some of our top lessons learned about the implementation of CRM systems that are applicable to a wide range of nonprofits.

A lot has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic. Read about how we think about CRM strategy in a post-COVID world in our guide: The Nonprofit’s 2022 Guide to Digital Transformation.

Lesson # 1. Plan. Plan. Plan.
Effective planning is essential for a successful CRM implementation. This is especially true at the beginning of the project because it helps you a) determine which vendors and products to consider and b) identify which people within your organization will help establish requirements and make choices on behalf of their colleagues.

Planning also should include:

A CRM roadmap or technology roadmap is a great place to start. It helps you to define your technology vision, determine which approach best suits your nonprofit’s unique needs, and then select the right technology.

Lesson # 2. Know exactly what you’re buying.

Equally important is to have an accurate understanding of what the CRM platform you’re choosing can and cannot do. Be sure to complete an assessment of its specific capabilities and what will be required to integrate it with your existing systems. This should go far beyond reading the marketing material from the vendor.

For example, keep in mind that that more than likely no single product will do everything you want it to “out of the box.” So, be sure to explore what additional third-party tools you’ll need to include in your entire CRM ecosystem.

Also, there might be certain functions that are not immediately available when your new system is first launched. So, you should have a roadmap in place to address interim plans and solutions that might be temporary or could remain in effect for longer periods.

Lesson # 3. Make sure the right people are involved.

It’s essential to have a good representation of your new CRM platform’s users and other stakeholders to get an accurate picture of their needs — and ultimately, to get their buy-in and support.

It might seem obvious that the director of IT would be involved. But it’s also essential to include representatives from each of the functional areas that will use the technology or be affected by it, such as staff from development, membership services, and so on.

By involving stakeholders from business units or departments, you’ll be able to more effectively define and prioritize your needs across the organization. This approach will help to:

  • Break down silos and promote cross-functional collaboration
  • Ensure that you’re setting realistic expectations with staff
  • Allow you to clearly communicate your priorities to your technology vendors

By putting people first as you implement your CRM nonprofit strategy, you can anticipate their wants and needs and minimize any bumps in the road.

Discover successful techniques for communication during every phase of a nonprofit technology implementation. Read the guide, Project Communication Plan for Technology Change.

Lesson # 4. Brace yourself for a productivity dip.

Getting used to new technology takes time. So, there will likely be a productivity dip following the launch of your new CRM system. But there are things you can do to minimize the disruption to your organization.

For example, keep in mind that the effect on productivity is one of the reasons that timing is so critical to the implementation of a new CRM system. Be realistic about what staff will be able to accomplish during the time that they’re adjusting to the new system. And plan to remove any other barriers. For example, don’t plan any big events or program launches prior to kick off.

Remember that, in the short term, some users will cling to their old, trusted processes. And all users will need a bit of time to get used to doing something new in a different way. But with the right planning, training, and support, productivity will increase and user adoption of the new system will grow until it becomes the accepted way of doing things.

Lesson # 5. Pay attention to change management.

As previously mentioned, launching a new CRM system is bound to be somewhat disruptive. You’re asking employees to change the way they’ve been working for years. But proactive change management can help.

Build change management practices into your technology plan from the very beginning so that you can manage and mitigate the disruptive effects of change. One way to start is by communicating clearly to employees what’s going to happen, when and why, and where they can turn to for help and answers. In addition to clear and consistent communication, effective change management includes:

  • Encouragement
  • Training
  • Support

Learn more about change management in our guide, The Nonprofit’s Guide to Change Management.

Lesson #6. Count on needing further support.

Most organizations require some level of ongoing support after a technology launch. This support can include fixing bugs, providing training, and releasing enhancements. Depending on the size of your organization and your implementation project, your organization might need this support for a matter of weeks, or much longer.

Be sure to factor this into your plan. And count on allocating additional resources, either internal or external, to support your users.

Lesson # 7. Keep your eye on the prize.

I would be remiss if I didn’t conclude with this big lesson: The implementation of CRM platforms takes work. There are multiple decisions to be made, trade-offs to be hammered out, and conversations to be had across the organization.

But acquiring a modern CRM ecosystem can provide game-changing functionality for your nonprofit. It’s well worth the extra effort on the part of all stakeholders to make it a success by focusing on the end-state vision and project goals.

One helpful approach is to create a “why statement” that explains why your organization is implementing a new CRM system in the first place and why you’re doing it now. Ultimately, this technique will help you get buy-in from project team members. It can also help to keep the team focused if (and when) times get tough during a new technology implementation.

Learn how to make more informed decisions about your nonprofit’s technology. Read The Nonprofit’s 2022 Guide to Digital Transformation.

Even with the benefit of these lessons learned, be prepared to encounter some surprises and challenges. But of course, as they say, forewarned is forearmed – the more realistic you are about the challenges ahead, the better you’ll be able to mitigate risks and have a successful implementation.

Here at Heller Consulting, we’ve worked with many nonprofits to help them create and implement the right technology plan for their organization. If you’d like help with your technology planning and implementation, contact us today.

About the Author

Cynthia Coleman
Cynthia joined Heller Consulting in 2009 and before that had been working with nonprofits and specializing in fundraising operations for more than seven years. Her drive to learn and expand her role from data entry to managing the donor database... Read More
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