Salesforce for Your Nonprofit? 7 Things to Consider

By May 11, 2015 January 4th, 2022 CRM & Salesforce

Tens of thousands of nonprofits of all sizes are making the switch to Salesforce, for very good reason.  For our small and midsized clients, the price and flexibility simply can’t be beat.  The Salesforce Foundation provides a grant to ensure that your first 10 licenses are free, and subsequent licenses are available at very affordable prices.  The creators of the Nonprofit Starter Pack (also free to use) have thought through the majority of what any nonprofit needs to use Salesforce as a development and fundraising platform, and dozens of companies make integrated online fundraising a possibility.  Thousands of firms provide software to enhance and extend your Salesforce experience, and thousands more consulting firms can help you make the most of the system.

1. Focus, Clarity, and a Sense of Urgency Around the Project

Do you have a clear and compelling “why” for this project?

Can you articulate what you need out of any system, whether it’s Salesforce, Raiser’s Edge, ETO, Excel, or any other system?  Not the fields that you’ll put data into, but the strategic and operational things that this project needs to support.  We find that very successful projects often follow a strategic consulting engagement, a theory of change / logic model construction exercise, or some other top-level focusing of the organization’s efforts on answering core mission delivery questions.

Can you answer “why now?”  Of all of the times to take on a project, why is now the right time?  After all, a systems implementation is going to take the time and attention of your organization’s key staff, who are probably already juggling a million other high priority items.  If there’s no organizational sense of urgency, how are you going to compete for their time and attention?

2. Organizational Ownership and Executive Sponsorship

Salesforce shouldn’t be a black hole where data goes to be forgotten.  It is a living system that supports people in their daily activities. It’s real power is unlocked when one individual’s relationship to your organization can be as a donor and a volunteer, a volunteer and program participant – basically, any time you need to break down data silos in your organization.

Having everyone’s data in the same sandbox can be delicate.  There are privacy concerns, there’s the concern of inappropriate use of constituent data.  To get everybody on the same page, the organization has to be all in.  That means executive sponsorship, and executive engagement in setting the reporting and outcomes expectations.  It means having enough organizational wherewithal to allow those doing the implementing some time and space to get the job done and tackle the learning curve. And it means that everybody knows that Salesforce is here to stay and requires an ongoing commitment of time, energy, and, depending on your needs, some money too.

Our successful projects always have a very high level of engagement from our clients. They want to think through questions like “what do you mean by this criterion” and “how, exactly, do you decide that.” They are willing to learn “the Salesforce way” of thinking about 360-degree views of constituents.  They don’t expect the consultants to do everything in the background and present a finished project – in other words, they want to engage so they can really own their system and not need us in the future.

Clock3. Time Commitment during Implementation and Beyond

Are you and your key users able to spend the time during implementation to learn a new system, advise your implementation partner on your language and think around development and recruitment? Can you engage other staff who need to do the work in these same efforts?

Do you and all the important people in your organization understand that Salesforce has to be managed on an ongoing basis, at least minimally, to get utility from it?  And that management needs to largely reside in house?

In other words, are you able to commit the time and brainpower to adopting this system so that it’s actually useful to your organization, and not just “the database” where we have to go put stuff in as extra work?

4. A Solid Plan for Ongoing Maintenance

Is there someone relatively tech savvy on your team that you can task with doing the ongoing report creation? There’s inevitable systems enhancements like adding fields, changing page layouts, integrating apps, and general “uberuser” system work. Who will handle this? If not, do you have the resources to engage a partner in a support contract?

While some of this planning is about cost and budget, most of it is about understanding what you’re getting into, and making sure it’s a path you want your organization to be on.  It’s more about time and ownership over the long term than about pricing, per se.

As we’ve already mentioned in this post, a Salesforce implementation is just the beginning. 501Partners has done enough implementations that we can get you running and trained on development work for about $5000.  Unlike purpose-built software like Raiser’s Edge, Salesforce can grow and adapt to you as you grow and adapt with it.

Ideally, you will experience some return on your Salesforce investment after implementing it.  A successful Salesforce adoption doesn’t stop there. Many of our clients tell us that implementing Salesforce allows them to ask and answer questions that they didn’t even know they should be asking.  Take a look at the Hierarchy of Nonprofit Data for an idea of what this can look like in your organization.

But somebody has to own that. Ideally, the whole organization owns the process, from data input to evaluation and assessment of success, to adaptation and adjustment.  It will likely lead to new fields, new reports, new automations in your data system, and somebody has to be available to implement that.  Whether that somebody is internal or external, successful organizations go into a new Salesforce install with a plan.

Data Collection

5. A Hunger and Capacity for Continuous Improvement in Data or Operations

Are you comfortable with the idea of a system that evolves as you use it, that you’re highly unlikely to outgrow? With some systems, you ask the question “how do I …” and the system tells you the one way to do it. With Salesforce, many times the answer is “it depends [on your budget / goals / preferences].” That has huge power and flexibility, but it can also feel frustrating if that isn’t what you want.

All nonprofits that we’ve engaged with have a hunger for continuous improvement – in the delivery of their mission, in the effectiveness of their activities, in the funds they can raise.  That’s a big part of why we love working with nonprofits, because we feel this hunger ourselves.

Hunger, unfortunately, isn’t enough.  You also have to have the capacity, and most nonprofits are pretty strapped in terms of cash and time.  It’s absolutely OK to funnel your limited personnel and fund capacity into something that’s more important to your organization.  Adopting a data system that can evolve as you evolve is very much a strategic decision, and requires the same type of backing as any other strategic decision.

6. Tradeoffs and Priorities

Most nonprofits are adept at being very open in their budget tradeoffs, which is a great place to start.  Adopting Salesforce is often an exercise in budgeting – both time and money – and a willingness to discuss limitations and tradeoffs.  With such a large, endlessly flexible system that has thousands of extensions and enhancements, plus the ability to develop it yourself if you can’t find the right fit, it’s very easy to get excited about the possibilities.  And you should!

We encourage our new clients to make a wishlist – all the things that could help, all the pain points you want to alleviate.  And then take a more real-world look at it after your consulting partner has told you what’s easy, what’s hard, and what’s expensive.  Prioritize.  Plan to move in phases, with the core functionality first.  Be honest with yourselves as an organization about what’s necessary to have and what’s nice to have.

7. Patience

After doing a lot of implementations, we’ve come to the conclusion that a Salesforce implementation is best approached like moving to a new city, or possibly moving to a new country.

The first few weeks, depending on your personality, you’ll either be giddy with all the new stuff to play with, or miserable and hating all the unfamiliar stuff.  The next several months will be a slow adaptation phase, where you realize what’s missing and what’s better – no, you can’t get that one brand of cookies you love, but you have found a local bakery with better pastries than you’ve ever tasted in your life.

It’s only after about six months that you can make any real decisions about what should change.  What’s unendurable, and what’s become commonplace.  Do you really need to pay for a new UI development because nobody can deal with the default Salesforce screens, or now that you’ve learned them, is it really OK (hint: the vast majority of our clients prefer the default screens, because they’re the most flexible, maintainable, and lowest cost)?  Do you really need a solution other than Campaigns for your event management (hint: sometimes yes, sometimes no, it’s very much up to you).


Making the switch to Salesforce is a big deal.  It offers unlimited flexibility and power at a price point that is almost unheard of.  But it also is a big shift for a lot of people – culturally, internally to your organization, and even in expectations of how to engage with technology.  Our successful clients embrace the new technology, are patient with their own learning curve, and give themselves room to adapt to the technology while expecting the technology to adapt to them.  They understand that this isn’t a “hand it off to the tech company and wait for results” kind of job, and are highly engaged in the process both internally and with us.

We hope you feel a little better equipped to embark on a Salesforce implementation. Thinking about moving forward? Contact us! 

Allan Huntley

Author Allan Huntley

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