The CRM Dilemma


One of the real joys of being a strategic consultant is the variety of clients you work with. In the past year or so, we’ve worked with organisations from across the UK and Ireland and countries as varied as the US, Bangladesh, Egypt and Uruguay. We’ve worked with non-profits of pretty much every description and cause area from local and regional charities to massive UN organisations. The projects we’ve done have been incredibly varied, including market entry studies, auditing and reviewing fundraising and marketing functions, developing major appeals and campaigns, creating change strategies and supporting restructures as well as lots of recruiting.

Despite this diversity, there are some common themes in all of our projects and clients. Fundraising only works when it is fully embedded in everything that a non-profit does. Everything in the end comes back to strategy and people, and one can’t work without the other.

Another common thread is that everyone understands they need to make their organisations digitally enabled and data driven but hardly anyone has the systems they need to make this happen.

At the moment it feels like every one of our clients either is in the middle of or about to embark upon replacing their CRM database. These are very significant projects involving major investment and which take up very large amounts of organisational time and attention.

As may have been mentioned, I’ve been around for a bit. But I did have a life before fundraising and a big chunk of that was spent in the IT sector. I’ve been involved in major business systems projects since the days when the computer was a big box the size of a room with less memory than today’s pocket calculators. I’ve spent quite a lot of time specifying and implementing CRM systems and while the technology has moved on, the basics of successful systems implementation are exactly the same now as they were thirty years ago.

It’s extremely frustrating to see CRM projects go wrong today for the same reasons as they have for decades.

There are I think, five key ways your new systems implementation doesn’t give you the answer you wanted:

Unrealistic expectations. The tech industry has been over-hyping what it can deliver since the first Colossus was turned on at Bletchley Park and is still merrily selling blue sky solutions to this day. We are constantly told that the latest whizzy thing (marketing automation anyone?) will magically solve all previous problems. You know what? If you put the same crappy data into a system with the old structure that the intern came up with a decade ago, you get the same rubbish results in a shinier box.

Mission creep. Out of unrealistic expectations comes an overly ambitious project. It’s a great idea to put all of your data into one database, right? So combine all information about everyone the organisation deals with into one place. Makes sense. The problem is that you have committed yourselves to replacing not only the fundraising system but the services database and potentially other business systems across the organisation. All with own processes and needs. Oh and systems able to handle all of these functions together are much more expensive. When actually you could have got the integration that is actually essential by taking feeds from all of these systems and putting them into a data warehouse. Someone needs to make a properly informed decision about what information is actually needed when, where and by whom before you buy a Rolls Royce when a Nissan Micra would have done.

Too much focus on the brand, not enough on the people. There’s lots of focus on which system a charity should adopt. Salesforce, Dynamics, Raiser’s Edge? Usually it doesn’t matter all that much which particular system is selected as most popular CRMs do basically the same things in pretty similar ways. It is all about how the solution is specified and implemented. And crucially who by and how good they are.

Knowledge gaps. A fundamental problem is the gap between the people who know how the system works and those who understand the business processes. This is definitely an issue in fundraising where there is a combination of some quite quirky processes and activities, and a workforce that isn’t particularly digitally literate. The lack of digital understanding often seems to increase in proportion to the seniority of the individual. There are not many people who both thoroughly understand how fundraising works at a granular level and who can transfer that into a proper specification and architecture for a business system. If someone like that is not at the heart of a new implementation (on the client side), you are in trouble.

Ownership. Senior ownership of the project is crucial. This is not just oversight of a project board, it is active engagement in making sure not only that the project has priority for time and resources but that it keeps to its scope and vision. Unless the new system is bringing significant improvements in business processes, the investment is being wasted. All the way through the project, there will be pushback against change and unless this is challenged, existing inefficiencies will be replicated in the new environment.

Planning and timescales

Just as the IT industry over-promises on the technology, it consistently underestimates how long it takes to implement systems properly. Or vendors promise to hit unrealistic deadlines to win contracts.

The reality is that everything will take longer than you think. And cost more. But the more time you spend upfront on the preparation, the more time and money overall you will save. Getting the specification right is both absolutely essential and really hard. There will always be the temptation to rush to the solution, but if key issues aren’t identified and dealt with up front they will come back and bite. These are often nothing to do with the technology itself. How can you know what reports you want out of the system if the charity hasn’t completely clarified what its key fundraising KPIs are, how they are defined and how they should be measured? And if your overall fundraising objectives aren’t clearly set, how can you come up with these KPIs?

The key point is that technology doesn’t solve organisational problems. Non-profits need to answer the important questions about why they need information, who needs it, in what form and when before they embark on major technology projects. Then the right skills and experience need to be brought together to come up with the most practical answer and that project has to be given real organisational support and priority.

Embarking on a new CRM project isn’t something to be attempted lightly. But the pitfalls can be avoided with a combination of strategy, planning and resources. Oh and time, lots of time.

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