Salesforce CRM for Charities

I first looked at Salesforce nearly 10 years ago when I was asked to consider it as a Raisers Edge replacement for a medium sized medical charity. My response then was that it simply failed to meet the basic requirements of a UK charity focused on committed giving and appeals. No gift aid, no regular giving functionality, a sales process more suited to managing high value opportunities rather than volume direct marketing – this was not a comparable system with a sector specific fundraising application like Raisers Edge.

Five years later I was working with a campaigning charity who were rolling out Salesforce and became heavily involved in their UK implementation. By now things had moved on a bit in terms of not for profit functionality in Salesforce. Salesforce provided the Not For Profit Success Pack module and third party vendors were starting to try and fill gaps like Direct Debit processing and Gift Aid. However the NFPSP still focused on high value rather than volume and third party products were very immature. In the end the project delivered a successful implementation but considerable development was required both internally and with external partners to plug the functionality gaps. On leaving this project I didn’t think Salesforce was a perfect fit for all NFP organisations but it’s definitely worth considering for organisations with specific profiles.

In summary Salesforce is most suited either to smaller or newer charities, particularly where fundraising is focussed on high value giving. Or larger organisations who can invest the time and effort to get the best out of the platform. The former can benefit from a sophisticated cloud CRM at a reduced cost via the Power of Us programme. The latter get a platform that can be developed to customise and automate their CRM processes and incorporate operational processes as well. However it feels like a bad fit for medium sized charities with an established fundraising system who don’t want to invest time in developing an expandable platform. For these organisations moving to Salesforce would be an expensive and complex piece of work that would not realise any benefits that could not be made by investing in their existing systems.

Platform not a CRM

When considering Salesforce it’s helpful to think of it as a development platform as well as a CRM. Central to the product’s offering is the ability to extend its functionality in a range of ways. From plugging in apps from the Salesforce marketplace to developing custom data models and business processes. This provides the ability to customise the CRM process but also to implement operational business processes on the same platform. For many charities these processes may be peculiar to their organisation and having a customisable tool to implement them can be a real benefit. But for organisations that don’t want to go to this level of customisation buying into this ecosystem may look unnecessarily complex and expensive.

Costs and Limits

It’s impossible to do any serious cost comparison between CRM options without a lot of work. But it’s probably fair to say that for small organisations which would be covered by the Power of Us programme Salesforce is likely to be a very attractive option for ongoing costs. For larger organisations Salesforce is certainly not cheap. And there are a lot of costs to consider beyond basic licencing. Like all cloud providers Salesforce set a huge range of limits on how their system is used. This is necessary to ensure no individual client gets a unfair share of available resources. But these limits are real and exceeding them will incur additional costs – in particular data storage limits are likely to be concern for medium to large charities. Furthermore most plug in apps will come with additional costs and these may include the necessities such as direct debit processing.

Cloud Infrastructure

Again for smaller organisations selecting a cloud based CRM system is all upside. They probably don’t have or want an on-premise infrastructure and the cloud makes total sense. For larger charities the picture is more nuanced as they will already have invested in infrastructure. Although there may be savings to be made in the long term as more services are moved to the cloud most organisations will be running a mixed cloud/on-premise service for some time to come. This makes the benefits at best hard to realise. In addition there are downsides to moving your data off-premise. No matter how good the access is to your cloud system (and to be fair Salesforce data access tools and APIs are great) it’s never going to be as easy to manage your data as it would be on premise. There are also data security issues to consider though I think these can be overstated.

Direct Marketing Fundraising Model

Over the last few years some of the biggest gaps in the Salesforce offering for UK charities have been plugged with products such as Giveclarity’s banking and gift aid apps. But being originally a business to business sales platform Salesforce is still skewed towards a low volume / high value model. This is fine for high value philanthropic giving or for small organisations with low volumes. But it does raise issues for large charities with a direct marketing fundraising model. Since this means a high volume of low value transactions there are impacts for data storage costs as Salesforce charges per data row. Furthermore reporting performance may be impacted. So again for larger organisations with a established, high volume fundraising there downsides to moving to Salesforce which need to compensated for by leveraging the Salesforce platform elsewhere.

In Conclusion

I wouldn’t quite describe myself as a Salesforce champion but it’s definitely a viable option for many charities now. It’s important however to have a plan to realise the potential benefits as there are definitely downsides in comparison to a traditional sector specific CRM.