8 Kinds of Nonprofit “CRM” Databases for Managing Constituents

To those shopping for your org’s next CRM: how’s that process treating you? 

I ask because I get it. New tech that moves your mission forward is exciting! But if you’re doing this for the first time, you may be feeling like:

Credit: Giphy. And The Jersey Shore.

There’s a lot that goes into choosing the right system. But there’s one, common mistake that can derail the process early on: not knowing what kind of system your org needs.

If you’re stuck trying to evaluate different options, you may not be looking at the right ones. But you wouldn’t know that, unless you’re familiar with the constituent database landscape!

So let’s get acquainted.

First, let’s quickly talk CRM.

CRM stands for customer (constituent) relationship management. It describes the processes & tech that support how we connect with constituents. 

Every nonprofit needs a CRM strategy. But not every org needs a CRM platform. Head spinning yet?? 😇

That’s because true CRMs are often robust, built for large teams and support multiple departments. And they typically require a heavier implementation.

Small to medium sized orgs can usually do without – at least for a few years.

But those orgs still need tech to support their CRM strategy. So we’re going to cover different types of constituent systems. That includes true CRMs and platforms that aren’t CRMs, but often get confused/lumped together with them anyway.

As you read, keep in mind that deciding on the right platform(s) depends entirely on:

Who your org serves
What data you need to track
How your org carries out its work
How much your org can afford

8 Types of Constituent Database Platforms

Disclaimer: The examples below are not comprehensive, nor do they endorse any specific platform. Always do your research to find the best platform for your org!

Also, I understand that some platforms overlap in terms of functionality. But for simplicity’s sake, I’ve put each example into a single category

1.) Email Marketing Software

About: Email platforms let you send mass marketing emails. (Most have extra bells & whistles, but this is their core function.) So if your org plans to send newsletters or one-off campaigns, this is typically where you’d start.

How this relates to CRM: Some CRMs have their own email capabilities. For those that don’t, many will integrate with the more popular marketing platforms.

How this differs from CRM: These platforms are not CRMs. They are purely a way to engage (email) constituents. Also, since they’re intended for Marketing teams, their tracking is centered around content performance: things like email opens, clicks, AB tests, and more.

Examples: Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact, Emma, Mailchimp, Mailerlite (what I use for this blog!),  Vertical Response

Pro-tip: Keep in mind that email platforms charge differently. Some charge based on the # of anticipated sends. Others may charge based on the size of your database.

2.) Case Management Software

About: Case Management is more common for orgs who provide direct services – especially in the health & human services space. This kind of platform lets orgs log & manage individual tickets (or cases) pertaining to constituents.

How this relates to CRM: Some CRMs have case management capabilities. For example, Service Cloud is a case app that sits on top of Salesforce (the mac daddy of CRMs). 

But platforms marketed as case management software are typically just that. So they won’t double as a CRM where you can store other constituent data, like donations.

Examples: Apricot Essentials, Apricot ETO, Casebook, Caseworthy, CaseFlow, CharityTracker, CiviCore, Exponent Case Management, ExtendedReach, Foothold, FreshDesk, HappyfoxHelpspot, NeonCCM, NewCore, PlanStreet, Penelope, Zendesk

p.s. I included both nonprofit-specific & corporate options. That’s because the case/”ticket” concept is similar across the board.

3.) Membership Software

About: Is your org an association or similar entity? Membership software lets orgs manage individual members and associated fees.

How this relates to CRM: Like case management, membership software (also known as AMS software) is specific to that use case. But you’ll find a good number of donor CRMs (further down) that include membership tracking in their platform.

Examples: 360Alumni (ed institutions), Aptify (Unions), ChamberMaster (chambers of commerce), Fonteva (Salesforce app), Glueup, iMIS (unions), Memberclicks, OmegaFi (Greek Institutions), WildApricot

p.s. Wild Apricot has a really helpful post on the difference between AMS’s and CRMs. Check it out here.

4.) Volunteer Management Software

About: What it sounds like! Volunteer Management platforms let orgs manage their volunteers. That can include contact info, engagements, time-tracking, messaging, and more.

How this relates to CRM: We often hope that volunteers become donors. So you’ll find that most donor/CRM solutions (further down) come with their own volunteer management capabilities.

Examples: Charity RepublicGalaxy Digital, Golden Volunteer (this is primarily a site to for finding volunteers, but they offer tracking capabilities)

5.) Fundraising Software

About: Fundraising software helps us collect donations. Features typically include the ability to create donation pages, run campaigns, send acknowledgements, and various gift reporting. 

How this relates to CRM: Some fundraising platforms have “CRM-like” features for donor tracking. But their main focus is the gift itself, rather than the person.

How this differs from CRM: Unless your CRM has its own fundraising solution, this kind of software is typically separate. But in many cases, they’ll integrate with other CRMs.

Examples: Blackbaud Etapestry, Classy, Donately, Donorbox, Doubleknot (integrates with Clearview CRM), GiveButter, Givegab, Givelively, GiveSmart, MightyCause, MobileCause, NGPVan (political fundraising), SalsaEngage, Txt2Give

Pro-tip: This is not to be confused with payment processing software, like Paypal or Stripe. Those are distinct systems. However, most fundraising platforms will include a payment processor connection as part of their service.

6.) Donor Management Software / Donor CRMs

About: Donor CRMs let us manage tasks, activities and other data about donors. They can have robust features that span different functional areas: like memberships, volunteers, grants, sponsorships and/or events.

How this relates to CRM: Whenever we talk about nonprofit CRMs , we’re typically talking about these donor management platforms.

How this differs from CRM: Donor CRMs don’t come with features dedicated to delivering programs. That’s why I consider them to be a subset of the CRM umbrella.

Examples: Bloomerang, CharityEngine, Clearview CRM, DonorPerfect, DonorSnap, Flipcause, Funraise, GivingFuel, Keela, Kindful, LittleGreenLight, NeonCRM, Network for Good, SalsaCRM, Virtuous CRM

Pro-tip: Still not seeing the connection between donor CRMs & fundraising software? Check out the difference between SalsaCRM & SalsaEngage. This is one vendor offering two different, related services.

7.) True CRMs

About: A true CRM (in my opinion) is a platform that covers many of the areas above, and also programs. This means your clients, students, and any person who is directly benefitting from your org’s services.

Because donors & volunteers aren’t the only constituents we care about!

Systems like this are few & far between. Some, like Salesforce & Oracle, are massive and meant to be highly customizable. Others are built with specific causes or sub-sectors in mind. Examples of both below!

Broad Examples: Apricot & Apricot 360, Blackbaud CRM, Hubspot, Insightly, Microsoft Dynamics 365, Oracle Netsuite, SAP, Salesforce, Sumac, ZohoCRM

Program-Specific Examples: Breeze (church focus),ContinuetoGive (church focus), Everyaction (offers voter tracking), NationBuilder (campaigns/advocacy), Trailblazer (politically focused)

8.) Unofficial “CRMs”

About: These are the tools that were never intended to be CRMs, but make for decent ones anyway (specifically if you’re a smaller org). That includes collaboration platforms like Trello, Airtable, Monday and good ol’ reliable: spreadsheets!

One last thing…

I hope this post helped you understand the different kinds of constituent platforms out there. Because I know it’s a lot to grasp!

But if you’re still feeling unsure about this whole process – I’ve got something that might peak your interest.

I decided to create a free email course on how orgs can choose their next CRM/constituent platform. It’s my attempt to demystify the process, by highlighting all the different steps that lend to an effective search.

If you think you might benefit, you can sign up today!

Share your thoughts!