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How to Choose a CRM

Searching for “CRM system” will get you 247 million results from Google. There are a lot of CRM options with many different features. You may not be a CRM expert (nor should you be required to be), but you are an expert in what your organization needs, which is the first step in choosing the right CRM.  

Choosing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool is a big decision.  A CRM is an important and critical tool for your organization that will be used for years to come. CRMs are also a bit of a mystery. It is easy to see examples of other organizations’ websites or digital ad campaigns, but CRM examples are not floating around on the internet. In the end, the best way to see how a CRM works is to experience it directly; however, this leaves you in a Catch 22 situation: how do you navigate choosing a CRM with little to no experience with one in the first place? Let’s see how we can help.

Start with the basics: What is a CRM?

A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system is a software technology that allows organizations to more efficiently manage and document customer (or constituent) data and interactions in an organized and systematic way. CRMs enable organizations to take a modern, digital approach to how they manage and use their data.

Why is a CRM important?

For nonprofit organizations or government agencies, a CRM system may not intuitively seem like the right tool because there is no commercial product or service being sold. However, your target audiences are your customers. They are an essential part of your organization, and without them it is challenging to achieve your mission  While CRMs were initially designed to support traditional sales organizations, they now serve many verticals and for cause-driven organizations, they are an excellent tool to help strategies such as marketing, fundraising, grantmaking, volunteer management, and event planning. Being able to forge and keep good relationships with your users — whether they are customers, donors, or partners — is a critical part of any organization. CRMs enables good user relationships and can give you insights into acquiring more. Within one system, you can learn a whole lot about your audiences’ histories, demographics, and preferences. A functional CRM does all this with efficiency and accuracy to boost your organization to the next level. Learn more about the benefits of CRMs for nonprofits.

Define your needs and use

Just as you approach your digital strategy, articulate for yourself how a CRM is going to benefit your organization. What challenges are you trying to solve? What is it that you need? Who is going to be using a CRM in your organization? What is your budget?  Clearly define your goals and what you hope to accomplish with a CRM before you start the search. Once you’ve spent the time doing this, let the shopping begin! Let’s dig further into the details to define what type of CRM makes sense for you.

Features and requirements

Are there specific features that you absolutely need from your CRM? Is there a particular application you need to integrate, does the CRM allow for easy integration or not? Look back at the goals you made before starting your search. The CRM needs to work for YOU, so if it does not have what you need, it may not be the right fit. There is plenty of fish in the sea!


Do you have a defined CRM budget? Many CRMs charge by the number of unique records, so knowing how extensive your database is (or will be) is vital for getting a sense of how much it will cost. Also, how many internal users will have access? The number of people using the CRM system can also impact the cost. Some systems are more cost-efficient with many users, others not. Apart from monthly or start-up fees, what other costs do you need to account for? (E.g., training or integration work). If any of these are required, think of the associated cost; some things may be included in the CRM, while others are an additional fee. 

Cloud-based vs. on-premise 

Decide if you want a cloud or an on-premise CRM system. A cloud-based CRM is online, and you can access it on any (safe) computer using a login. But if there is any trouble with your internet connection, you will not have access to your data. The up-front cost will be small, but there certainly will be a monthly or yearly subscription charge. 

An on-premise CRM system is installed directly onto your organization’s computers. A proprietary system may be easier to integrate with your operations, and you only have to pay once. Though the up-front cost will be more expensive and there may be additional costs for installation or tech support. There is also no way to access your data other than on the computers that have the installed CRM. 

Flexibility and integration

Does your organization need specific customization? Is the CRM compatible? If you are unsure about what you need, then return to your goals and re-evaluate. If you are still unsure, then find a CRM where you can quickly drop and add features. Stay clear of CRMs that want to lock you into a strict plan. 

It is also crucial that your data (and your organization) does not live in a silo. Can the CRM integrate with your other systems? (E.g. email, calendar, and website). A CRM is meant to streamline your process, not act as clutter. Verify that the CRM can integrate not just with the sales team but the whole organization. Also, a CRM should easily be able to import your data; your acquired data should not have to go to waste. You should be able to easily export your data as well.  

User and mobile friendliness

Is the CRM intuitive and easy to use? If there is a lot of confusion, then maybe the CRM is not right for you. Ensure the team is comfortable because ideally, they will use the CRM most. If employees are misusing a CRM, it can result in corrupt data results and analytics. A CRM is supposed to make life easier, not harder.

Do your employees work on their phones a lot? Do employees travel often? Mobile phones are becoming more commonplace at work, especially when employees are on the go. Even if your staff does not use mobile phones, it is still essential to have a mobile-friendly CRM. 

CRM testing

Many CRMs have a free trial period. Use it to your advantage! Verify it works with your team, that it can actually be effective. If everyone is lost, confused, and calling customer service, you should try another CRM. Though that does not mean there will not be growing pains. If the CRM does not offer a free trial that might be a red flag or they might provide a demo presentation instead.

Training and tech support

While a CRM may be user-friendly, it can still take time to get familiar with the system, and there will be questions. Does the CRM tool offer training? How long will it take to train your staff? Does the CRM have a good support system in place or none at all? If you can not correctly use the CRM, then it will be ineffective. A CRM vendor should help you through implementation until you are fully operational. A CRM vendor should be your partner, not a stranger.


Some CRM’s have specialized tools and interfaces made for nonprofits or government organizations. Some CRMs like Salesforce may even have discounts and deals for registered nonprofits. A CRM will let you know if it specializes in a field, however, be sure to check with others in your industry to see what they are using. Many of these specialized CRM come with pre-configured features that can serve your organization’s needs and require less upfront implementation time (and costs) to deploy. 

GDPR features

Data privacy and security are hot topics. Does the CRM ensure protection and abide by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)? Does it have features to handle GDPR requests effectively? You do not want to waste time manually deleting a user’s information or compiling a data report for a user. A CRM should have the functionality to delete a user’s information and create a report in the click of a button.  If you come across one that doesn’t, it is likely not a good fit. 

Ability to scale

Think down the road, is your business growing or undergoing significant changes or moving locations? You should be thinking long term about your CRM. If you are going to be updating your tech, then maybe getting a proprietary CRM is not the right choice. Is there a major company growth in your future? Confirm that the CRM can handle more data and more users. Does the cost of CRM grow exponentially with more users? Determine if you have the budget for expansion. Thinking long term when choosing a CRM will ensure you do not have to do this all over in 5 or so years.

Decide with confidence

If your organization has decided that a CRM is necessary, then you will have to find the right CRM for you. With many options, new CRMs popping up, and small ones becoming big, it can be hard to sift through all the potential possibilities. We hope this guide helps you navigate the CRM landscape and confidently decide what tools and features you will need from your next CRM solution. 

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