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Nonprofit CRMs: To Build or to Buy?

Congratulations, you're ready to move from spreadsheets to technology! But is it wiser to build a system or buy one? Let's explore the options.

Nonprofit CRMs: To Build or to Buy?

When you’re a nonprofit ready to make the leap from spreadsheets to a CRM, you’re at a crossroads. You know you need technology, but how sophisticated must it be? How can you get the most bang for your buck and save money, while automating some tasks and using tools that were built for the kind of fundraiser you are?

And you’ve got choices.

Perhaps you’ve called in some outside help, and they’ve custom-built a system just for fundraisers who focus on (advocacy…events…fill in the blank).

Perhaps you want to piece together different technologies to create a tech stack that meets your unique needs.

Perhaps you’re wondering if one of the popular CRM platforms is worth the money.

In this article, we will look at each of these three options and talk about when each might be right for your nonprofit.

A Custom-Built CRM

These solutions are often brought to nonprofits by consultants working for a company that has built technology from scratch.

There are some pros:

  • The technology is likely very good at the one thing it’s built to do, which matches your fundraising focus.
  • It is usually affordable.
  • It’s a good transition from spreadsheets to technology.

And there are some cons:

  • The technology is good at one thing, but your nonprofit likely needs more than expertise in one facet of fundraising.
  • Homegrown technology can’t scale as your nonprofit grows.
  • The technology can’t evolve quickly as the market shifts. There won’t be a consistent internal resource you can lean on for updating and maintaining the platform.

When is a custom-built solution the right solution? It might work if you are a very small nonprofit that has a single focus, like advocacy.

A Do-it-Yourself Tech Stack

It stands to reason that once you’ve got a database, you can add MailChimp for emails, Eventbrite for events, a direct mail provider, and a payment processor. Duct-tape all those systems on top of your records and you’ll have a tech stack that works.

There are some pros:

  • These systems have open APIs and will integrate cleanly with your database.
  • You don’t waste money on functionality you don’t need.
  • Established technology can likely scale as you grow.

And there are some cons:

  • Your data resides in different platforms and syncs on different schedules, so you will never have access to real-time data. Just because the systems are integrated doesn’t mean the data is complete or updated.
  • If something goes wrong, you will need to identify the problem yourself and try to fix it or try different support numbers to find an answer.
  • When you have multiple systems and logins, your ecosystem is harder to navigate. And consider the vulnerability when data is spread out: It can get lost, be duplicated, become obsolete…and systems with many different integrations are more vulnerable to fraud.

When is a do-it-yourself tech stack the answer? If you have a robust nonprofit CRM that is missing functionality you need, integrating with a third-party system makes sense.

An Off-the-Shelf CRM

There are many nonprofit CRMs built for fundraisers. And, spoiler alert, all of them are better than the previous options. But let’s give them the same treatment:

There are pros.

  • They offer easy-to-use interfaces and responsive support teams.
  • The tools every fundraiser needs are available. The systems aren’t focused on only one type of fundraising.
  • These systems are evolving, almost daily, in response to client needs.

And there are cons.

  • These professional nonprofit CRMs cost more upfront, which can seem daunting. Over time, though, you will spend less money (and raise more).
  • When you’re smaller, these CRMs might offer more functionality than you need, which can seem like you’re wasting money.
  • When you purchase a robust CRM, there’s a learning curve.

Who should consider purchasing a nonprofit CRM? Any team that wants basic automation, like emails or workflows.

What About CharityEngine?

Once you’ve decided to purchase a nonprofit CRM, we’d recommend you join some of the world’s most sophisticated nonprofits and give CharityEngine a look.

  • We are the only nonprofit CRM with all the tools a fundraiser needs, including payment processing, natively built into the system.
  • Because the tools are in one place, your data is in one place. You have a 360-degree view of your donors, in real time, all the time.
  • Our system has been tested at the highest, most complex levels. It scales as you grow.
  • CharityEngine was built for fundraisers frustrated by the technology available to them. Our only goal was to help nonprofits grow, which remains our focus today.
  • Our product is informed by our customers, meaning when you need functionality we don’t have, our team explores use cases and often builds what’s requested.
  • We hold your hand during implementation, and we have a team of customer service folks ready to answer questions throughout your contract.

Who should consider CharityEngine? Any serious fundraiser looking for all-in-one technology and a long-term partnership that will help them reach their goals.

To Build or to Buy?

If you’re a growing nonprofit, you’ll likely want to focus on multichannel campaigns. You will need to leverage comprehensive data. And, most of all, you will need a partner that supports you and focuses on keeping your technology current, evolving, and working for you.

These nonprofits should invest in a CRM. Our tip? Don’t focus only on the cost.

If you’re a very small nonprofit just hoping to take a baby step toward technology, you might want to start with a “build” option. At some point, you will outgrow it or realize how much more effective you can be with an off-the-shelf option. When that happens, please feel free to reach out.