Skip to Main Content

What to Expect When Buying a Nonprofit CRM

15 min read
May 25, 2023
Neon One Staff
one person points to something on another person's laptop screen

Implementing a CRM solution can be a real game changer for small or midsize nonprofits. All of a sudden you go from disconnected systems, spreadsheet databases, and time-consuming manual tasks to a streamlined, integrated platform that unlocks the power of your donor data and empowers your staff to create amazing generosity experiences for your supporters. 

That’s all true. But first, you have to go out and buy one. And shopping for a CRM isn’t like shopping for a new pair of joggers. It’s an exhaustive and exhausting process that requires tons of research, a whole bunch of sales calls, and weeks (or even months) of careful deliberation. If you find the right solution, all that hard work will be totally worth it in the end—still, it’s going to be a time-consuming process. 

That’s where we thought we could help. Neon One’s Product Marketing Manager, Samantha Nyland, has extensive experience guiding nonprofits through the buying process. In this interview, she shares her insights on what to expect when buying a CRM, what kinds of questions you should be asking your sales reps, and the best way to go about finding the right CRM for your nonprofit.  

When Should Nonprofits Buy a CRM?

Alex: In your experience, Sam, is there a general size at which most nonprofits decide to implement a CRM solution? 

Sam: Yeah. I’ve generally found that there is. And it’s not about the size of the organization’s revenue. Rather, it’s about how many records they have. 

Generally, nonprofits look to implement a CRM once they hit around 1,000 contacts. When they’re smaller than that, managing all their records without a centralized, automated database is manageable. But once you start pushing 1,000 records, it becomes too much to handle manually. 

When a nonprofit is at that size, a CRM can help them segment their donors and automate certain processes. So they can look at their list and break out recent donors versus, say, lapsed donors. Both of those donor groups require specialized attention and, with 1,000 records, each group is going to be fairly substantial. 

You need a CRM to organize and segment all of that donor data so you can focus your time on building (or re-building) relationships with donors. The only way to manage that with a spreadsheet database is to set yourself a billion reminders. And that’s just not feasible. 

Why Do Nonprofits Need a CRM?

Alex: Before you moved into product marketing, you were on the Neon One sales team. In your past experience as a sales rep, what are the top problems nonprofits are looking to solve by implementing a CRM?

Sam: I would say the top things are data integrity and needing a one-stop shop. Many organizations have a bunch of disconnected data sources that do not talk to each other. That means they need to move data between their systems manually, which causes problems down the funnel. What should be a simple task takes forever.

For instance, a person makes a donation through the PayPal form on a nonprofit’s website. And then the staff members have to take that donation and put it into a spreadsheet, then they have to put it into QuickBooks. And then they have to send an email individually to that person or even write a physical thank-you letter. All of that probably takes a good half hour—for every single donation they receive! 

Yeah, I’d say that the biggest problem that nonprofits are looking to solve with a CRM is the need for an organized, central place to store all their data—and where that data can easily be moved from one function to another. 

What’s the Best Way to Shop for a Nonprofit CRM?

Alex: If you could give nonprofits shopping for a CRM one piece of advice, what would it be? 

Sam: Let’s start at square one. The most important thing to remember when shopping for a CRM is to find the right technology for your organizational needs. While things like backend experience are important—and I’ve had many customers reach out because their current CRM solution is too clunky—I don’t think it’s a great idea to switch from one solution to another that does basically the same thing.

Figuring out the right CRM for your nonprofit means unpacking your organization’s current processes, the areas where you are looking to improve, the areas where you’re already strong, and how you plan to grow. It also means talking to many different people in your organization about what they need from a solution and getting buy-in from each of those individual roles.

Before you can begin researching different solutions, you should understand who at your organization is going to be using the CRM and what they’re going to be using it for. What are their goals? How can a solution help them get across the finish line? 

Ask yourself, what do you need this CRM to do? Do you need it for donor management? Do you need it for events? Does your organization have a robust volunteer arm? If so, a CRM that has volunteer tracking functions could be really useful.  

Work internally with your team members to understand the full value that a CRM solution could bring and what goals it could help all of you achieve. If you can find a nonprofit CRM that all the different leaders in your nonprofit are excited about—because it solves the problems that they are specifically facing in their roles—then that’s a CRM that’s really going to move the needle.

How Should You Compare Different Nonprofit CRM Options?

Alex: What’s your advice for someone researching different CRM solutions? 

Sam: There are a few different ways that people are going to research possible solutions. The first, the easiest, is heading over to Google (or Bing) and simply searching for what’s out there. Honestly, that’s as good a place to start as any! 

Next, you should look at review sites like, Gartner, or Capterra under their “nonprofit CRM” categories. For each of the products you’re researching, there will be tons of customer reviews to sift through. It can get overwhelming.

Here’s my advice when researching product reviews:

Don’t feel like you need to read everything. Skimming through and picking out a few reviews that feel authoritative to you is fine. Also, look for reviews from organizations with a similar size or mission to your own. Those are the ones that will be most relevant. 

Lastly, you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to your peers in the nonprofit sector. Ask them what systems they use, what they like about them, what the challenges are, etc. Once again, it’s a good idea to look for organizations that are similar to your own. 

The nonprofit world is small. Use that to your advantage!

What Can Customer Reviews Tell You About a CRM?

Alex: When someone’s researching customer reviews for a potential solution, what are the things they should keep an eye out for? 

Sam: This is another area where having a list of your organizational needs is going to be super helpful. As you comb through reviews, look for ones that speak specifically to the functions that your different team members are going to need from a CRM. 

Here’s an example:

Let’s say our nonprofit is implementing a CRM because we’re launching our first big fundraising campaign and we need a more automated, connected system. We can’t manually process these gifts and manually track all of our sub-campaigns, including the origin of each of these gifts. 

Given our needs, we’re looking for a CRM that has fundraising capabilities, including campaign tracking, and a nice donation form that’s super modern and super easy to build—hopefully without any limits on how many forms we can create. And then, once that campaign is over, we also want to be able to report on the campaign’s performance easily and be able to email donors directly to start following up.

So, given that we know exactly what kind of functionalities we’re looking for in a CRM, we can then search for reviews that focus on things like fundraising campaigns, reporting capabilities, built-in communications, etc. If a given CRM doesn’t have, say, built-in email functions, we can look for more information on their integrations with third-party email providers. Maybe a given CRM has an integration but they charge extra for it, or maybe they only have five donation form templates while another one has ten. All of that information is useful!

When considering reviews, I would also steer away from any review where someone is super angry. Those are usually outlier cases that don’t speak to the solution overall. And keep in mind the number of negative reviews versus the number of positive reviews. If a solution has mostly 4- and 5-star reviews but then also has a few really angry 1-star reviews, the positive reviews are probably going to be more useful. 

How Does Buying a Nonprofit CRM Work?

Alex: What are the basic stages of the CRM buying process?

Sam: We’ve already covered research, which is a critical first step. You’re going to be conducting research all throughout your buying process. But that initial round of research that lets you identify three to five potential options is where you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

The next step is going to be contacting the sales team for each of your potential solutions. You should be cognizant right off the bat of how long it takes each vendor to get back to you. That’s going to be a good indicator of how they value their clients. 

Your first call with a sales rep is going to be a “discovery call.” The goal of this call isn’t really for you to learn more about the vendor, it’s for the vendor to learn more about you! Go into your discovery call with three to five goals for implementing a CRM that you can provide to your rep. Why? Because you don’t want to be receiving some blanket, one-size-fits-all info dump. You want a tailored, specific presentation on how a given CRM can solve your specific needs.

The next step is the product demo, where the sales rep gives a guided tour of the CRM software that displays what the system can do. And it’s where you can really tell whether a sales rep was listening to you during your discovery call. If you told them that you’re interested in email marketing features and that you don’t do events but then they spend half the call walking you through event functionalities, you’ll know that they didn’t listen. 

This shouldn’t be a vague walkthrough of every single bell and whistle a system has to offer. It should be a highly tailored presentation on how this technology can help your nonprofit achieve its specific goals. And a good process should also make room for questions, so bring as many as you can muster.

The next step is the comparison process. This is where you can ask your rep for case studies covering organizations of similar size and mission to yours, or—better yet—you can ask them for references. Don’t be afraid to hop on the phone or shoot off an email to another organization that’s currently using this software. They’ll be a great resource!

Generally, by the end of that process, people have a good feel for which CRM solution fits them best. I should also say that sometimes you’ll have more than one demo call. There were many times as a sales rep that I would do second (or even third) demos for Executive Directors or even board members. If you need to ask for additional demos, a good sales rep will be happy to provide them!

Once you’ve made your (firm, but not final) decision, you’ll set up a call to discuss data migration. You’ll show the rep all the places where your data is stored, all the different ways that it’s organized, and how you would like it migrated into the new system. Based on what you show them, the rep will then give you a recommendation as to what kind of data import process will be the best fit for you. 

At Neon One, for example, we look at data migration as another way to personalize the experience for our clients. We come up with the process that best fits your organization’s data and general skillset. 

After that, if your decision to implement this CRM stands, you’ll sign the agreement, then get started with training and data migration. Overall, the CRM buying process can be pretty involved, but implementing a CRM is a big decision! A good sales rep can make the process a lot easier, but you’ll want to make sure you take your time and cover all your bases. 

What Questions Should You Ask Your CRM Sales Rep?

Alex: When someone’s shopping for a CRM, what are the best questions that they can ask of a sales rep? 

Sam: To start with, you should ask detailed questions about all the features that a given CRM offers. Once you’re far enough into your research process that you’re actually reaching out and talking to sales reps, you should be talking with solution providers that check all (or at least most) of your major boxes. So talk to your team members to learn more about their processes and challenges, and use that information to dig in deep with a sales rep as to how their solution can help.

But a really critical area you’ll want to dig into is training and support. If a solution has training and support offerings that are a great fit for your organization, then that could be a deciding factor. After all, a CRM that does everything you need it to but that your team members will have a hard time mastering due to poor training isn’t going to end up being a great solution. 

Training is something that Neon One has really invested in through Neon Academy. Of course, we have the usual written guides and videos—which are all great—but Neon Academy also includes in-product simulations, which we’ve found make a big difference. To make sure we cover all needs and learning styles, we also have one-on-one consultations as well as group trainings. 

All the Neon One systems together form a pretty comprehensive suite of nonprofit software solutions—and that’s the same approach we took with Neon One Academy. It’s a comprehensive suite of learning options that covers Neon CRM and all our products.  

I’d also recommend that shoppers dig into scalability. And not just in terms of how a system will scale with their nonprofit as it grows, but how the company itself is scaling its products. How are their solutions going to grow, and in what ways, and along what timeline? How often do they release product updates? How often do they release new features? How often do they update their user interface? It’s really helpful, I’ve found, to get a sense for a product’s future state above and beyond its current form.

How does a company invest in their clients? That’s another great question to ask relating to scalability. After all, the clients are the ones using the product day-in and day-out. They’re going to understand how it needs to improve better than anyone!

With Neon One, for instance, we have a suggestions portal where our clients tell us what kinds of new features or improvements they would like to see. Not only that, but they can also vote on features proposed by others. Our product team really values the information that we get from that portal and we implement suggestions into our product roadmap. I could really go on and on about that. I think it’s great!

Check Out Neon One’s Nonprofit CRM Buyer’s Guide

Still have questions about shopping for a nonprofit CRM? Don’t worry, we’ve still got you covered! Download our Nonprofit CRM Buyer’s Guide for even more information on features to look out for, questions you should ask, and ways to address common concerns.

Join the discussion in our Slack channel on connected fundraising

Looking to become a more connected nonprofit leader?

Join 73,000+ of your peers getting industry news, tips, and resources straight to their inbox.