What is Salesforce exactly? An answer for nonprofits, by an admin

If Salesforce has come across your org’s radar, you’ve probably wondered “what exactly is this sales force thing”.  

Maybe you heard that it’s free for nonprofits. Or maybe you’ve realized that nonprofit peeps can have strong opinions about using it…positive or negative!

Speaking as an admin in the sector, it’s true. The platform can inspire strong feelings on both sides. 😬

But to determine if Salesforce is right for your org, it’s important to understand what it is and what it’s not.

First, what is meant by the term CRM?

Bear with me, gang! Before we talk tech, we need to briefly cover CRM as a concept.

Customer Relationship Management (or in our case, Constituent Relationship Management) is about the activities & relationships that an organization has with its people. Whether those are buyers, donors, volunteers, board members, or program recipients, your CRM strategy is all about how you acquire, relate to, and retain those individuals. 

And obviously, the tracking component is super useful. That’s where CRM platforms come in.

Now, what is Salesforce?

Salesforce is a cloud-hosted CRM platform, designed to support organizations in executing their CRM strategy

Like the name suggests, Salesforce was initially built for sales teams. But in the 20+ years since it started, that utility has ballooned. With over 40 products now baked into their CRM, Salesforce serves a wider range of business needs: like case management, data visualization, email marketing, and more.

The Salesforce AppExchange is another testament to its robustness. This online store is filled with hundreds of apps & packages (think of these as “add-ons”) built by the larger community.

You might say that Salesforce is like a smartphone in that way. And speaking of apps…

Where do nonprofits fit? (Slash, what the heck is NPSP?)

Salesforce can be customized to meet a nonprofit’s specific needs. But most orgs start out with an app installed on top of their Salesforce instance, called NPSP ( the Nonprofit Success Pack).

The NPSP app is a package of preconfigured Salesforce components, intended to meet the most common needs of an org in our sector. That includes configurations for donations, households, volunteers and more.  While it got its start as an open source solution built by volunteers and community members, it’s currently managed and maintained by the nonprofit arm of Salesforce. 

p.s. There’s also a “Nonprofit Cloud” product in Salesforce, that I’m 90% sure is the same thing as (or close to) NPSP. But if anything, this just goes to show just how confusing the product ecosystem can be. 😅

So how much does it really cost?

The rumors are true. Salesforce is free for nonprofit organizations, for the first 10 licenses. The NPSP app (that most nonprofits start out with) also comes at zero cost.

However, free don’t mean easy.

At best, Salesforce comes with a steep learning curve. You’ll need someone on staff willing to take that on – whether they become the admin themselves, work with a consulting partner ($$), or enlist a volunteer to help. 

Also, keep in mind that Salesforce alone is unlikely to fill your org’s tech stack. You’ll need other (possibly paid) tools that integrate with Salesforce, to act on your CRM strategy.

More on this last point later, when we cover all the things that Salesforce can’t do.

p.s. For those considering a consulting partner, implementations can cost a few thousand dollars (or much more, depending on your needs & size). For more info on choosing a partner, check out this informative series on Salesforce partners by Watt Hamlett.

Everything that Salesforce is

Here’s what you can expect with a Salesforce account. 

A highly customizable database, that grants tons of flexibility. There’s lots of room for configuring objects, fields, page layouts, permissions, automations, and more.

Powerful reporting & dashboard capabilities. Think advanced visualizations, report criteria, and multi-object reporting.

A tool that integrates with lots of other tools. As a top player in the CRM space, you’ll find tons of integration options – including many fundraising platforms, email marketing platforms, and other systems. 

A product backed by a massive ecosystem. That includes their Support & Product teams, their learning resources, and the community of customers/consultants/bloggers out there sharing their expertise! 

Potential for true centralization. It’s tough to find a platform that can accommodate your program, fundraising, volunteer management, operations and/or marketing teams all at once! With time & proper leveraging, this is what Salesforce’s flexibility can achieve.

By the way, that last bullet is sort of the dream when it comes to having a holistic CRM strategy.

Everything that Salesforce is not

I’d say this is the most important, yet confusing, part.

Yes, Salesforce has tons of functionality in comparison to other CRMs. But know that it’s not:

An email marketing platform. Yes, you can send a limited number of marketing emails through Salesforce (something like 5K per day). But it’s not a replacement for MailChimp, Emma, Constant Contact or any other true campaign tool.

A payment processor or fundraising solution. Salesforce may be a way to organize donors and gifts, but it’s not the vehicle through which gifts enter your system. For that, you’ll need a solution that integrates: like Classy, GiveLively, Salsa Engage, or Salesforce Elevate, among many others.

p.s. If you’re not clear on the difference between fundraising platforms and CRMs, check out #5 in this guide.

A ready-to-use solution out of the box. Salesforce is powerful, but there’s a reason I have a job as an admin! You won’t know how to use it – let alone configure it – on day 1. It takes time and tons of learning to ramp up.

A tool that comes with an implementation partner. Salesforce doesn’t actually set up the tool for you. They offer tons of documentation instead, and allow their consulting partners to handle the rest.

A tool that looks the same for every organization. Far from it! Salesforce setups vary greatly based on the org’s needs and specific configurations.

p.s. Keep that last bullet in mind when hearing others’ feedback! It partly explains why some people find Salesforce cumbersome to use, while others think it’s a dream.

How can I tell if Salesforce is right for my organization?

Let’s start with the obvious. If you’re only drawn to Salesforce because it’s free, I can tell you that’s the wrong reason to lead with.

In fact, if you’re gung ho about using Salesforce, I’m going to point you to this article on all the reasons why you should reconsider.  As someone who’s built a career thanks to Salesforce (and loves the platform!), I understand that it’s not made for everyone. And it can be costly in different ways, if the decision isn’t carefully considered.

But assuming that list didn’t deter you, here’s what I’d say:

Have a clear vision for what you want your CRM platform to accomplish. If no other platform fits the bill, then maybe your org is ready to tackle that complexity.

Consider where your org is in terms of CRM strategy, and where you hope to be. All of us are in different places with our mission. Salesforce works best when approached as a stepping stone for an existing strategy, or an extension of a system that your org has outgrown.

Involve leadership in this conversation.  I’ve seen someone compare Salesforce to getting a puppy, because of the work involved. The dog person in me loves this! But I’d never adopt a puppy for the office without planning with my ED, and neither should you. CRM shopping is a big project on its own. Salesforce just ratchets things up a notch. 

Then, when all is said and done, make sure all of these stars align before you shoot for a Salesforce implementation.

p.s. If you’re a smaller org, I recommend taking extra heed when considering Salesforce. I won’t say it’s a no-go, because I don’t know your situation! And I know some small orgs love it. But the setup/learning curve is very real, especially if you’re not using any other CRMs to start.

Friends, now ya know

I hope this was a helpful intro to Salesforce! But let’s get back to the reason why you’re here: your org is probably in need of a new CRM.

In that case, I’ve got 1 small item to plug.

I recently decided to create a free email course for how to go about choosing your next CRM platform. Whether it’s an actual CRM or something similar, I basically share my framework for getting from the organizing phase, to the research phase, to final decision.

And fun fact: I’m using those lessons right now to help an org move away from Salesforce.

So if you’re interested, I encourage you to check it out here. Worst case, you can unsubscribe at any time.

p.s. For those who want more reading on the subject, here are more articles that help explain Salesforce and NPSP.
Salesforce for Nonprofits Implementation: What to Expect by DNL Omnimedia (extensive)
What is the Nonprofit Success Pack by Salesforce Ben (more contextual + extensive)
Salesforce for Nonprofits: Savior or Sinker? by Bloomerang (Keep in mind they’re a competitor, but raise some valid questions)
Salesforce NPSP Ultimate Guide by SalsaLabs (Another competitor, but with a product that can integrate into Salesforce)

Share your thoughts!