All You Need to Know

How to Select a Nonprofit CRM

Maybe you've outgrown your technology. Maybe you have a sneaking suspicion your job could be easier with better tech. Whatever your reason, we're here to walk you through the process!

Answers to Your Questions

Table of Contents

This guide will answer the questions many nonprofits have when they need to start looking for a new CRM.


Technology makes our lives so much easier, right? Those of us who remember the elation we felt when the Palm Pilot debuted still scratch our heads in amazement when there’s an update to our iPhone—it tells how to get places, lets us send immediate messages, and practically reads our minds. Communications, medicine, logistics,’s all been made easier with technology. 

A nonprofit CRM can be as lifechanging as a new iPhone, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all decision. If you’re in the market for a new CRM, it’s important to make sure it’s a solution that fits your needs. This guide will walk you through everything you need to know about selecting a nonprofit CRM. It will provide every question you need to ask and every detail you must consider.  

We’ve worked with nonprofits since 2008, and we’ve built our nonprofit CRM in response to how clients tell us they need technology to help them. If you want to see how some of our clients use our software, you can check out our clients' ideas on what’s possible with a nonprofit CRM. 

Experience has taught us that most CRM shoppers have the same questions: 

  • What will a nonprofit CRM cost? 
  • What variables drive the cost of the software up or down? 
  • What are the hidden fees I need to watch? 
  • What if everything goes wrong when I switch systems? 
  • How do I start my search for a new solution? 
  • What do I say to different vendors? 

There are a lot of CRM vendors out there, and each one will have a different focus. Finding the technology that aligns with your focus is a tricky task made easier when you can answer these common questions.  

Our goal has always been to make life easier for those trying to do good in the world. If we can help you narrow down the nonprofit CRM best for your charity, we’re a little closer to reaching that goal. So let’s take those questions, one by one, and give you the insider knowledge you need to be a smart shopper. At the end of this article, we will give you some downloadable tools that can help you organize your thoughts and data. 

Chapter 1

What Will a Nonprofit CRM Cost?

This is, for many nonprofits, the top-of-mind question. And the good news is that while CRM pricing varies, there are variables that you control that can change the cost within each vendor. 

Start with a list of features that are most important to your nonprofit and the type of fundraising you do.  

There are four essential functions you want in an off-the-shelf fundraising CRM: 

  • Donor management software, meaning that the data about your donors is collected and you can pull reports 
  • Email automation, meaning you can send emails to large groups of donors and their responses trigger follow-up emails 
  • The ability to create and customize donation forms and then collect the data you can use in targeted campaigns 
  • Basic payment processing, so that donations you collect on your website are processed 

Beyond that, you want to add features that will allow you to create a holistic, strategic fundraising campaign. So, consider if you’re going to want to add the following, or other tools: 

  • SMS texting outreach 
  • Event registration 
  • Online auctions 
  • Peer-to-peer fundraising 
  • Advocacy 
  • Shopping cart and e-commerce 
  • Major gifts 
  • Grant management 
  • Planned giving 
  • Sustainer or membership management 

CRM pricing is structured in a relatively standard way. For an in-depth look at how it’s structured (and how CharityEngine’s pricing is structured), you can read this article about what nonprofit CRMs cost. 

Chapter 2

What Variables Change the Cost of a Noprofit CRM?

As you can see, the number of contacts you have is a crucial figure in CRM pricing. So how can you prepare your contacts so your list is solid? 

Best practices require a contact audit as your first step. 

What is a contact audit? 

If your contacts are the core of your nonprofit outreach efforts, every contact must be valid, current, appropriate for outreach, and correct. When you’re moving, you don’t pack broken lamps or a throw pillow from 1972—you take what will be useful in your new house. Similarly, a contact audit makes sure your database is solid. 

The added benefit of a contact audit is that you won’t be paying for contacts that won’t lead to donor engagement. 

Who performs contact audits? 

If you have millions of contacts, your team might not have the resources to perform the audit yourselves. In that case, it makes sense to call in some outside help. Many software vendors will provide this audit based on the number of contacts you have. We can also recommend some alternative resources if needed.  

If, however, you have a more manageable number of contacts, it’s something an internal staff can do. 

Here are the most important steps you should take: 

  • Dedupe data, or remove duplicate entries (this is key, so you’re not paying for them!) 
  • Validate physical addresses with USPS 
  • Validate email addresses with an email validator
  • Segment the list into your most engaged donors, your donors you want to nurture, and prospects
  • Make sure each contact is someone that fits your donor profile; for example, don’t call someone who has never engaged with your organization

Next, look at the number of emails you think you’ll send on a monthly basis. Assume you’ll send at least one email a week to all the donors on your culled list, so multiply your donors by four to get an idea of the minimum number of emails per month. This is a number you can adjust to change your price. 

Finally, let’s talk about money! If your CRM includes a payment processor, this is the last significant variable in price. How much do you usually raise? Don’t fudge this number because these tiers are pretty specific. Blended rates can vary and usually fall between 2.1% and 5%, but can creep as high as 10% if there are a lot of middlemen.  

But also, don’t overstate your expectations, or you’ll be paying for optimism! Any robust system can scale up if you are knocking fundraising out of the park. 

Chapter 3

What are Some Hidden Fees in Nonprofit CRMs?

As with everything, being a savvy shopper can pay off. Yes, there can be hidden fees, and they’re often hidden in payment processing. For an overview of where you might find them, check out this article on payment processing for nonprofits. 

If you choose a payment processor that offers an included donation tool, you can avoid these fees. 

Other fees and questions to investigate: 

  • Anything called a service fee. 
  • Are software fees per month or per user? Do you pay to add users? 
  • How much are the implementation fees, and what are you getting for the price? This is an important place to compare apples to apples. 
  • How much will data migration cost? 
  • How much do add-ons cost once the account is up and running? These would be specific fundraising tools, like online auctions or text-to-give. Ensure there aren’t additional fees hiding here, and make sure you know which are included in your quoted cost. 
  • How much customization is included in the base cost (dashboards, pipelines, fields, workflows, permissions)? 
  • Think about the soft costs: how much time (and, therefore, money) will it cost you and your staff to get the CRM implemented, to get you trained, and to get data migrated? 
  • Finally, what does ongoing support look like, and what does it cost? 

Vendors aren’t out to cheat you. But they’re for-profit companies, and you need to ask the right questions to make sure you’re getting what you’re paying for without incurring unnecessary expenses. Being an educated consumer helps you set an accurate budget and ensures you won’t run into surprises along the way! 


Chapter 4

Common Concerns When Considering a New Nonprofit CRM

As your nonprofit grows, robust technology is essential to your long-term success. 

If you’re using spreadsheets and calculators for donor management and fundraising, it’s time to purchase a CRM. If you have a CRM but it’s standing in the way of what you want to accomplish, it’s time to start shopping. Or, maybe your CRM vendor is merging with another and you will have to switch systems. 

And sometimes you realize that you are overcompensating for lackluster technology, or you’ve created workarounds for what should be pretty basic tasks. Sometimes you need to break up with your CRM...but that can cause anxiety. 

What’s worrying you? Do any of these fears keep you up at night? 

  • Buy-in from the board of directors 
  • Convincing your peers (and your boss!) to support the switch in CRMs 
  • Managing data migration and the integrity of data security 
  • The time and cost involved in a move 
  • The implementation and support with a new vendor 
  • The unknowns - how will this vendor grow? Will it grow with you? 
  • Which is better, an on-premise or SaaS (Software as a Service) offering? 

We hear from our clients that the same five challenges come up when thinking about switching CRMs. We decided to write down these common challenges and offer potential solutions! 

Your fears are valid but not insurmountable. Talk to vendors and find the ones with the software and the customer service—and personalities!—most culturally aligned with what you need and want. There are CRMs explicitly built for nonprofits, and those tend to be the most closely aligned with what nonprofits look for. 

You’re looking for a partner, so make sure you’re treated that way. 

Chapter 5

Shopping for the Best Nonprofit CRM

Okay, you’ve done your research, and list in hand, you’re ready to hit the (online, likely) road and start shopping. 

But let’s make sure you’ve asked yourself and your staff the right questions: 

  • What is the primary goal of our nonprofit? Start with your mission statement and turn your goals into specific actions. 
  • Historically, what has been the most effective outreach method to engage our donors? 
  • What fundraising tools will be of interest to us (for example, a peer-to-peer campaign or a text-to-give campaign) in the future? 
  • What holes exist in our current system in terms of needed functionality? 
  • What’s not native to our system? For example, are we using third-party email automation or a payment processing system? 
  • What integrations do we have in place? Are they recurring? Are they effective? How much do they cost? 
  • What do my staff or I spend time doing that technology could manage? 
  • What data is in our CRM, and what reports do we need to pull? 
  • What types of transactions do we handle: split donations, pledges, or sustainers with various giving frequencies? 
  • Do we need enterprise billing capabilities? 
  • What reporting capabilities do we need? 
  • Do we need to incorporate Business Intelligence (BI) for more in-depth insights? 

These answers will help you narrow your search so you can find the best nonprofit CRM for your organization.

Chapter 6

Start Talking to CRM Vendors

All CRM vendors worth a second look will conduct a discovery call with you to learn about your organization, then will schedule a customized demo to show you how their software can help you achieve your goals. 

Let’s take a second to talk about how important the discovery call is. This is a chance for the vendor to learn all about your needs so they can prepare a thoughtful demonstration of their software solution. This is what you want to see in a good discovery call: 

  • The vendor’s primary purpose is to learn about your nonprofit 
  • They let you speak and ask follow-up questions 
  • They don’t try to sell you on their software 
  • They specifically ask about your pain points with your current tech stack 
  • They demonstrate social or interpersonal empathy 
  • They show interest and/or expertise in your mission 

The discovery call is the first step of a long partnership, so make sure it meets or exceeds your expectations. 

Chapter 7

Nonprofit CRM Comparison Workbook

Use some downloadable tools to put your thoughts on paper. Start with a nonprofit CRM assessment to see what you’re currently spending and to document future initiatives. Then use the nonprofit CRM vendor comparison worksheet to compare three vendors side by side, with unweighted and weighted vendor fit scores. These are objective tools that can help you focus on finding the perfect fit. 

Here are some questions you can ask potential vendors: 

  • In which industry do you have the most extensive reach? (Hint: nonprofit is the only satisfactory answer.) 
  • What do I get in your off-the-shelf SaaS? 
  • If your solution is on-premise and not in the cloud, talk to me about outages and security. How is this better than a SaaS solution? 
  • As my nonprofit grows, will I be able to add additional capabilities? How much will they cost? 
  • What is your growth strategy? 
  • What is your implementation process? 
  • What kind of support is available post-launch? 

And, of course, go back to the spreadsheets, and match up your desired functionality with each vendor’s capabilities to find the best match. 

Chapter 8

You're Ready to Start Shopping for Your New CRM!

If you’ve made it through all these steps, you have everything you need to find the right CRM. Let’s review what you’ve learned! You now know… 

  • What a nonprofit CRM is 
  • How much it will cost 
  • How to control the cost of your CRM 
  • How to avoid common worries 
  • How to shop for new technology 
  • How a new CRM can amp up your fundraising 
  • What to say when you talk to vendors 
  • How to score vendors to find the perfect match 

You’re in control. You’re ready. 

Here are the next steps we recommend to take charge of your donor data and use it to engage effectively and raise more money. 

  • Take stock of your current system. 
  • Match up your priorities with what each vendor provides. 
  • Look at your vendor’s client list: 
    • Are there many in your vertical? 
    • Does the vendor have long-term clients? 
    • Are there testimonials or case studies? 
  • Book a demo and ask the right questions. 

Nonprofits exist to change the world. Don’t let technology stand in your way! Harness the power of the latest technology to make your life easier and your mission stronger.