Using CiviCRM - Second Edition

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By Erik Hommel , Joseph Murray , Brian P. Shaughnessy
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    Achieving Your Mission with CiviCRM
About this book

CiviCRM provides a powerful toolbox of resources to help organizations manage relationships with constituents. It is free, open source, web-based, and geared specifically to meet the constituent relationship management needs of the not-for-profit sector.

Beginning with broader questions about how your organization is structured, which existing workflows are critical to your operations, and the overarching purpose of a centralized CRM, the book proceeds step by step through configuring CiviCRM, understanding the choices when setting up the system, importing data, and exploring the breadth of tools available throughout the system.

You will see how to best use this software to handle event registrations, accept and track contributions, manage paid and free memberships and subscriptions, segment contacts, send bulk e-mails with open and click-through tracking, manage outreach campaigns, and set up case management workflows that match your organization’s roles and rules. With specific emphasis on helping implementers ask the right questions, consider key principals when setting up the system, and understand usage through case studies and examples, the book comprehensively reviews the functionality of CiviCRM and the opportunities it provides.

With this book, you can help your organization better achieve its mission as a charity, industry association, professional society, political advocacy group, community group, government agency, or other similar organization and position yourself to become a power user who efficiently and effectively navigates the system.

Publication date:
August 2016


Chapter 1. Achieving Your Mission with CiviCRM

Most people working in the non-profit sector would love it if their organization could do more with its existing staff and resources. We often care passionately about our organization's mission and the work we do, but lament the lost productivity spent with inefficient tools. Wasted hours, wasted money, wasted contacts, and wasted opportunities become the source of endless frustration! We want to make a difference — a bigger difference — and find the best tools to help us achieve those goals.


Why you need Constituent Relationship Management

Your organization probably has defined its mission and has a clear picture of what it wants to achieve. Obviously, constituents play a vital role in that mission and goal as you are reading this chapter. A plan of what needs to be done with those constituents would be the first thing to do before you do anything with software. We could call that plan a Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) strategy. For many non-profit, advocacy, government, and membership-based organizations, CiviCRM is the best tool to support you in achieving your goals and to ultimately help you in your mission.

Does your organization lack a unified and integrated system for managing contacts? Do you spend your energy simply trying to keep track of who your constituents are, without ever understanding how they have interacted, and will continue to interact, with your organization? These are common issues for non-profit organizations, be they large or small, centralized or distributed, more or less organized. Can you answer yes to any of the questions below?

  • Does everyone keep their own Excel sheet with constituent data?

  • Do you have several systems that essentially store the same data?

  • Do you have a system developed by a volunteer or staff person who left some time ago?

  • Do you spend a lot of time reconciling lots of data from different areas in a progress report?

At the heart of any constituent relationship strategy and the tools that support it is the need to manage contact records. Yet CiviCRM is much more than just a contact management system. As an integrated online system that handles contacts, donations, pledge commitments, event registration, bulk e-mail, case management, grant distribution, campaign tracking, survey collection, and other functions, CiviCRM provides the tools required to dig deeper, and collect more, from your constituents. And with a proven track record, consistently receiving top ratings from non-profit technology user surveys, you can rely on this toolset to help you deliver results.

By referring to a CRM strategy, we intentionally seek to include the broader management and mission goals along with the technology solution. Tools alone are not enough to achieve success. There must be organization-wide support, and a holistic viewpoint, to manage constituents effectively. Furthermore, the implementation of any tool must begin with an analysis of needs and objectives. We need to have a clear vision of what we are seeking to do and where improvements should be made, before we pick up the tool and start working with it.

A successful CRM strategy can help your organization in many concrete ways. Here are some examples:

  • Improving the frequency of donations; increasing the average donation amounts; improving the retention rates of your donors.

  • At a more basic level, enabling supporters to donate online through your website instead of mailing checks, or calling to submit a credit card transaction. Reducing how much manual data entry is required of staff, and eliminating double entry into multiple systems (such as a contact database and accounting software).

  • Automating the registration process for members attending an upcoming conference.

  • Increasing the likelihood of your existing subscribers becoming more involved with your organization and its mission. Encouraging commitment by empowering constituents to better self-manage their involvement in your organization.

  • Ensuring that more of your members show up to volunteer through automated reminders.

  • Identifying contacts already interacting with your organization who have the right skill set and interests to be worth approaching about an open board position, or committee leadership.

  • Making information easily available that quantifies what a great job you've been doing, including the number of hours volunteers gave to your organization last year, the number of cases managed, and the number of new viral signups from your latest urgent action e-mail.

  • Improving year-to-year membership retention rates by communicating the renewal process more effectively and providing better tools to simplify the renewal steps.

  • Providing a voice to existing constituents through online surveys that shed light on their greatest desires and hopes for your organization.

  • Empowering volunteers to work on your behalf by sharing your message through their social circles.

CiviCRM can help in all these areas, providing the building blocks and tools for constructing your constituent strategies.


What is Constituent Relationship Management?

Let's take a step back and begin by better understanding what is meant by Constituent Relationship Management. Constituent Relationship Management is the set of processes and supporting technologies used to initiate and improve relationships with constituents. It's important to realize that CRM is not just a technology that is brought into your organization. Managing relationships with constituents involves all of the workflows, processes, and reporting that your organization uses to get things done, achieve your mission, and realize your vision.

Constituent Relationship Management is the non-profit equivalent of Customer Relationship Management in the business world. By comparing and contrasting these two concepts, we will understand the purpose and scope of this book (and the CiviCRM software) better.


Customer Relationship Management versus Constituent Relationship Management

In the business world, Customer Relationship Management systems are used to optimize a company's sales by focusing its resources on those who are likely to buy. They are also used to improve customer satisfaction and lower costs by providing self-service options. In most cases, businesses are looking to sell more by reaching new customers or expanding business with existing customers.

In order to do this properly, CRM systems track, automate, and personalize all aspects of client interactions across all communication channels, including website, phone, in-store, e-mail, and social media such as Twitter, forums, and blogs. Every time a customer touches the organization in any way, the interaction is logged. This information is used to better understand the relationship with the client, to ensure that all interactions are designed to maximize the long-term profitability of the client to the business, and to attract new customers. Typically, Customer Relationship Management systems focus on tracking and enhancing customer interactions in the marketing and sales funnel workflow for new and returning customers, and later improving after-sales support. Depending on the industry and the company, CRM systems and techniques might also be used for tracking and enhancing relationships with other stakeholders, such as regulators, shareholders, or media.

The ideas developed for Customer Relationship Management systems in the business world have been adapted to the needs of the non-profit world in Constituent Relationship Management systems. While increased donations may parallel higher business sales, there are generally differences in terminology and processes. For example, good Constituent Relationship Management systems are designed to account for pledges, recurring donations, soft credit donations, and the portion of ticket or product prices eligible for political or charitable tax receipts.

More importantly, Constituent Relationship Management will go far beyond mere financial goals and measurements. Most non-profits measure success in non-financial ways, such as the following:

  • How well their message is communicated (and embraced) by a certain audience

  • How their influence on a particular industry is realized (and increased)

  • Whether their candidate won an election

  • How many constituents are helped and how many issues are resolved

These organizations will have critical non-monetary measures of success beyond increased revenue and lower costs. They may include metrics based around education, service, advocacy, participation, case resolution, or other outcomes relevant to non-profit missions. Consequently, tools for managing constituents must go wider and deeper than financial metrics alone.

Despite these differences, Constituent Relationship Management systems are still fundamentally similar to Customer Relationship Management systems as they aim to support the growth in numbers and depth of engagement of contacts with an organization.

In the business world, one way this is done is by keeping existing customers happy, in order to avoid the high costs of new client acquisition. Similar strategies and techniques apply in the non-profit world, given the generally higher cost of acquiring new donors, activists, volunteers, or members, as compared to retaining existing ones.

Another good strategy in business is to aim to increase the volume of business received from existing clients. For example, you might identify one-time purchasers or low-end customers and seek to communicate the value of more expensive products (up-selling), or why they would want additional related products (cross-selling). It may also be achieved by focusing on increasing repeated business from customers who return more frequently for the same product (for example, to watch movies more frequently).

Non-profit organizations benefit from this same strategy, both in fundraising and in non-monetary appeals. For example, fundraisers typically aim to increase the recency (that is, how recently each donor has donated), frequency, and monetary value of gifts from their donors.

For non-monetary contributions, non-profit organizations generally measure constituent activity and communication. For example, they may seek to increase the actions of existing organization activists, such as appeals sent, educational programs attended, or shut-ins voluntarily visited. They also benefit by encouraging constituents to undertake actions that require more co-operation with the organization, or result in more impact, such as calling a radio call-in show to support a legislative position, in addition to signing a petition, visiting their elected representative as well as sending him or her a letter, and so on.

Increasing the number and depth of interactions can often involve targeting clients with shared characteristics, such as those who have made several recent low-cost purchases, or small donations for a special treatment such as an offer, a special ask, or other follow-up communication.

Another objective may be to ensure that those best suited for a product or service receive such a great experience interacting with your organization that they recommend it to others.

In the for-profit sector, this may involve sales personnel or systems using the purchase history of an individual or a company to respond strategically by offering appropriate discounts, cross-selling or up-selling suggestions, and so on. For example, a long-term customer might be offered a discount when he shows up at a website, a computer buyer might be offered small items at checkout time, including games for a previously purchased game system, or a client who has made premium purchases might get a more expensive range of products. After-sales support personnel would be provided with the whole record of attempts an individual might have made to resolve a problem, as this often helps narrow down an issue and avoid irritating requests to repeat actions. A complete customer record might show that an individual with a tough problem is considering a major purchase, or that they have had a history of making unauthorized technical changes to the product that might have impaired its functionality and voided its warranty.

In the non-profit world, parallel examples would include the following:

  • Encouraging a regular attendee at events to come to an upcoming breakfast seminar using a discount coupon

  • Asking users who sign petitions to make a donation in support of a cause

  • Inviting those who volunteered more than twice in the past year to consider becoming a board member or committee chairperson

Similarly, technical support has parallels in non-profit case management. Imagine how much a non-profit serving at-risk youths could benefit from being able to easily pull up the records of someone calling in about depression, when those records reveal a caller has a history of suicide attempts? The extent to which you can capture, and later retrieve, such data for a constituent may significantly impact your ability to serve them effectively.

In all of the preceding business and non-profit examples, a tiny organization with a single staff person, serving a small constituent base, would be challenged to recognize the individual, remember the history of interactions with them, and act appropriately by providing a discount. More difficult challenges would include calling up someone who had stopped coming in, going the extra distance for someone who needs it, or curtailing resources dedicated to a relationship not related to the mission of the organization. Technology helps to scale these appropriate behaviors to situations where many staff members and volunteers have been involved in the interactions with the client or customer. It can help in situations where some of the staff members or volunteers may not have the best memory, and may not have the best judgment as to how to respond to the situation. The proper tools also help your organization retain institutional history through the inevitable staff turnover.

Who are your constituents?

We've made an assumption so far that you have a clear concept of your constituents, but it is worth taking the time to define this clearly for your organization. A constituent is any person, household, or organization that has some relationship with your organization. Depending on your organization, they may include the following:

  • Donors

  • Funders

  • Elected officials you seek to engage, educate, or influence

  • Newsletter subscribers

  • Broadcast e-mail and action alert subscribers

  • Members of your organization

  • Coalition members

  • Participants in your petition, e-mail, and letter writing campaigns

  • Participants in your face-to-face events

  • Volunteers

  • Clients

  • Website visitors

  • Board members

  • Staff

  • Organizations or individuals who are not staff members, but help you deliver programs and services (for example, lawyers volunteering for a pro bono legal services clinic)

  • Users or purchasers of your products or services

  • Media outlets and/or personnel your organization contacts

  • Advertisers or sponsors of your organization, its events, or publications

  • Voters

  • Government agencies that influence policies impacting your organization

In some cases, your relationship with one constituent may need to be through another. For example, a parent might be the constituent who signs up their child for a program, or a staff person might be the contact person for the organization they work for.

Which constituents your organization needs to focus on—individual donors, volunteers, granting agencies, newsletter subscribers—depends on your mission and situation. It's usually good to keep in mind that one person often has many hats and may fall into several categories of constituents. It's also a worthwhile exercise to periodically brainstorm your list of constituent types. There may be audiences you've not effectively reached because they have fallen out of your peripheral vision — and yet may in fact be very valuable to your cause.

It's often most effective to gather information about a relationship when the constituent can understand why it is needed. For example, explaining that a mailing address is needed to provide a charitable tax receipt when a donation is being made, asking about food preferences only when someone is purchasing tickets for dinner, or requesting policy interests when signing up for a newsletter helps reduce the burden in any particular interaction, and makes for a more natural deepening of the relationship.

While designing your CRM strategy, you will need to balance the benefits of having information about your constituents with the costs of acquiring, maintaining, and using it. As you develop your strategy, you should ensure that it focuses on gathering data that will help your organization act effectively, and know that it is acting effectively, in the constituent relationships that are most important to achieving its mission. These are often the constituents with the most transactional encounters with your organization—donors, volunteers, members, event participants, and so on. However, sometimes, a small number of constituents can provide a breakout value—a game-changing, qualitative improvement. For example, investing in some research and wooing a few key media contacts, potential coalition partners, or swing legislators, may help your organization realize its mission more than great gains in number and efficiency at other levels.


When is CiviCRM the best CRM?

So far, we have discussed CRMs generically, comparing how they are used in the business world with the non-profit sector. There are many options available for implementing a CRM, which prompts the question—when is CiviCRM the best CRM for your situation?

Perhaps more than any other factor, what sets CiviCRM apart from other CRM solutions is that it was built from the ground up with non-profits in mind. While other products exist that are geared toward the non-profit audience, many are either a modified version of a product originally built for commercial sales, or target a very focused slice of the non-profit world, such as soliciting donations or managing members. Very few other options provide as complete and robust a solution, tailored to the common workflows and terminology of non-profits.

For organizations managing contact records, but needing to track both monetary and non-financial interactions, CiviCRM provides a powerful set of tools. These uses may include the following:

  • Donations and pledges

  • Event management

  • Membership management

  • Case management

  • Bulk e-mailing

If your organization requires functionality in a couple of these areas, then it is very likely that you would benefit from CiviCRM. CiviCRM's integration with Joomla!, Drupal, and WordPress (popular open source content management systems that are excellent for running your website) also distinguishes it from a number of competing CRMs. By integrating directly with your website, information collected from your constituents will immediately be part of your contact database. Furthermore, you can expose real-time data to site visitors, or logged-in users, through searchable directories and self-service profile forms.

That said, we want to acknowledge upfront that CiviCRM isn't the right tool for every non-profit to manage its constituent relationships. There is no perfect one size fits all solution. Depending on your needs and resources, you may find CiviCRM unable to meet the unique demands and workflows of your organization. This section provides some general guidelines for situations where you might want to consider an alternative to CiviCRM.

As a low-end cut-off, your organization needs to have resources to set up, host, and maintain CiviCRM, either by paying a hosting provider and consultants, or by using internal staff resources. Tiny community groups with no budget or IT resources will not be able to afford these costs even though CiviCRM itself is free open source software without any upfront or ongoing license fees. While the public-facing pages are easy to use, administering CiviCRM does require a certain amount of tech-savviness. You may be constructing searches, setting up templates that will be merged with contact data for e-mail blasts, deciding on the fields to put in forms, and performing other similar activities. More advanced skills are necessary for some initial setup tasks such as configuring e-commerce connections to payment processors and designing how to store information among fields representing contacts and their contributions, participation in events, memberships, relations with other contacts, and so on. Not all organizations have these skills available internally, or can afford to outsource for them.

Thinking through alternatives

If your organization is small and your needs are focused on a particular task, it might be better to use a single-purpose tool, whether free, purchased, or available through paid subscriptions. Best-of-breed single-purpose tools can provide superior usability, desirable flexibility, lower cost, lower administrative burden, and higher-end features for that particular functionality.

For example, Google, Yahoo!, and other providers of free group e-mail list and discussion software is one example. EventBrite is one example, in the event management area, where the narrow task of managing event registrations may be accomplished more easily. There are a multitude of applications that can help you with bulk mailing, organizing and managing events, and memberships.

You will find that many single-purpose tools have started to expand functionality into other areas, but are primarily focused on one area. If your needs align in one of those focused areas, the limitations may not be problematic and the solution more appropriate.

Where each of these single-purpose tools may be very strong in one area and weak (or completely absent) in other areas, CiviCRM is generally very solid, if not exceptional, in all. It's CiviCRM's superior capabilities across the many diverse functionality areas needed by non-profit, advocacy, and membership-based organizations that sets it above competitors with even moderate CRM functionality.

Too often, many organizations find that they start using one of these targeted services to meet one need, and then adopt a second for a requirement in a different area, and soon end up with multiple data silos— systems that won't talk to each other, or require complex data-syncing protocols. Migrating to CiviCRM at that point is common, but the additional hassle of the migration and change in tools and procedures can be avoided by choosing CiviCRM from the start.

Customizing CiviCRM to match your needs

A different type of problem confronts organizations that have significant and well-defined needs that are not met by CiviCRM out of the box, even if it is functionally pretty rich. In these cases, the decision is often between building an in-house application from scratch, or customizing an application such as CiviCRM to do the job. CiviCRM as the basis for a custom solution makes sense in a number of situations. (See the Chapter 11, Interacting with Constituents – Managing Cases for more information and background.) These include the following:

  • When you have the in-house skills and resources to work with the various technologies used to build CiviCRM, or have the budget to hire those who can do that

  • When you are willing to invest initially in more general and customizable software, in return for getting the services of other users who will report bugs, improve documentation, submit patches, and enhance the functionality you have contributed

  • When you can work with the core team and community effectively, which usually involves more time and a willingness to take other viewpoints and interests into account, but which often includes the benefit of others sharing the costs of development

Before continuing, let's pause to note one of the most significant aspects of CiviCRM that sets it apart from many of its competitors. Unlike most commercial CRM solutions, the CiviCRM software itself is free and open source. By open source, we mean the code (written primarily in PHP) is freely available and may be modified and customized to whatever extent you need.

When we discuss using CiviCRM as the base of a custom solution, we are suggesting that CiviCRM's out-of-the-box functionality may meet a certain threshold of your needs, and through custom development, you can tailor it to fully meet your needs.

There are still scenarios when using CiviCRM as a base for your custom solution doesn't make sense. If you find the base-level functionality only minimally meets your organization's needs, it is likely worth looking for a more complete solution to start from.

The advantages of building functionality into a full-fledged CRM also sometimes need to be balanced against the cost of extending CiviCRM. Significant changes or additions may require a significant investment of time and resources.

CiviCRM is built using PHP, Smarty templates, jQuery and pure JavaScript, and connects to a MySQL database. The variety of libraries and technologies, and the sheer size of the code base, have presented barriers for some developers hoping to modify or extend the core software that the CiviCRM team distributes and maintains. Even for experienced developers, there is a learning curve to understanding how the code is constructed and how various libraries are implemented. That requires a certain investment of time for your in-house developers as they acquire a knowledge base of the software. Of course, the CiviCRM community doesn't leave developers to wander in the dark without assistance. There are online resources for developers, an IRC chat channel, a CiviCRM Stack Exchange forum, additional support forums, and periodic developer training events.

Depending on the nature of your custom requirements, and the extent to which they are of potential value to the broader CiviCRM community, you may find it easier to extend CiviCRM through native CiviCRM extensions, Drupal modules, Joomla! plugins, or WordPress plugins. We will discuss the tools available through third-party extensions throughout this book, and touch on some of the underlying developer tools that make many aspects of customization quite easy in the last chapter. For now, understand that many customizations may be accomplished using extensions without the need to radically alter or expand the core software.

CiviCRM is an open source project that is quite responsive to community needs and contributions to address areas it does not currently cover. Indeed, the project generally extends its functionality by working closely with organizations that can sponsor new functionality or contribute new features back. Instead of hacking the core just for your own implementation, you can improve the core code so that it handles your own needs and those of others with similar needs.

If you search the CiviCRM wiki ( and forums (, and communicate with the core team and the community via the forums, or the CiviCRM Stack Exchange site, you may find that there are others who are interested in the same functionality, and may be able to contribute something to having it built. Even if your needs are unique, there may be ways to generalize them so that they can be met with software that addresses the needs of others at the same time.

One successful way organizations began collaborating to build new functionality into CiviCRM is through Make It Happen (MIH) initiatives. Started in August 2010, MIH initiatives have helped aggregate support from many users and consultants for several new pieces of functionality. The program works when one organization defines specifications for a project and works with the core team to refine the specs and determine the budget required. The organization must seed the sponsorship and can then invite other organizations to donate to the project. Once fully funded, the core team will begin work and incorporate the functionality into the core software for all to benefit from. The MIH program has proven a successful way to crowd-source specific improvements to the software.

Alternatively, your forum post or question on CiviCRM Stack Exchange may result in suggestions for simple or ingenious workarounds that can suffice in addressing an oddity in your requirements that was holding your organization back from going with CiviCRM. In this way, you learn from other organization's users how to use the software in more creative ways without requiring code customizations.

While the burden of maintaining your own code in sync with changes in the core is significant, well-resourced organizations sometimes find that it makes more sense to develop custom versions of open source software containing features that are not shared back with the community. Usually, this is because the needs are quite unique, such as integrating with a custom in-house legacy application.

Other CRMs

When deciding on a CRM tool, there are many existing CRM offerings that could be considered. The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN; conducts periodic surveys of technology use in the non-profit sector and publishes the results. Though they are heavily focused on North American non-profits, they provide a good indication of CRM market penetration and user satisfaction, with common solutions in this very large and influential region.

CiviCRM, Salesforce, and Convio are the three most used systems in the most recent surveys. Other providers or tools widely used, or acceptably rated, in these surveys include Antharia, Blackbaud, SugarCRM, Kintera Sphere, DemocracyInAction, and Organizer's Database. Although the cost and functionality is significantly different, Microsoft Dynamics CRM is another notable CRM in the larger non-profit sector, while Salsa sometimes crosses over from its focus on small and medium-sized businesses.

Needs will vary from one organization that uses a CRM to another. For example, Salesforce has tended to do better with large organizations (those with greater than $3M budget), as has Blackbaud's Raiser's Edge. As you evaluate a CRM tool for your organization, you should take into account the current and expected needs of your organization, as well as the current and anticipated functionality in possible CRMs. In other words, to the extent you are able, try to get a sense of where the CRM development is headed, and who is the core audience they are seeking to cater to. Given this caveat, the next section will outline common reasons for adopting CiviCRM over the other alternatives.


Why CiviCRM?

Every organization should do its own evaluation of CRM options using criteria appropriate to their particular needs, weighing each suitably to provide the right overall balance. This section summarizes some of the reasons why CiviCRM is right for many non-profit, advocacy, government, and member-based organizations.

Focused on needs of non-profits

More than anything else, what sets CiviCRM apart from other competing programs is that it is designed specifically to meet the needs of non-profits, and provides a well-integrated platform that addresses all their basic needs. This avoids or alleviates the complexities, problems, time, and expenses associated with running separate systems for things such as donations, e-mailing, events, and membership, or trying to programmatically integrate them.

CiviCRM is well suited to the needs of many kinds and sizes of organizations:

  • Non-profits

  • Non-governmental organizations

  • Government agencies and the offices of elected representatives

  • Membership-based organizations

  • Advocacy organizations

  • Grant-giving organizations

  • Fundraising organizations

  • Service-providing organizations

  • Neighborhood associations

  • Political campaigns and organizations

  • Business associations

  • Government entities

  • Unions

  • Sports clubs

  • Co-operations

Many CRMs are built around common workflows in for-profit businesses that don't always map well into the non-profit world. The sales funnel model, and terminology underlying sales force automation, for example, may not map well to the activities in an awareness-raising campaign. Substituting some terms, and adding some non-profit specific tools, as Convio Common Ground does with Salesforce, doesn't always overcome the issues with the underlying model.

User satisfaction

NTEN's 2007 CRM Satisfaction Survey determined the following:

The three systems that were most commonly used by all organizations—CiviCRM, Salesforce, and Convio—were ranked first, second, and sixth, respectively, in willingness to recommend.

NTEN's 2009 Data Ecosystem Survey reinforced this result by finding that the overall happiness of organizations was similar, with grades of B+, B, and B- going to the top three tools: CiviCRM, Salesforce, and Convio, respectively.

No vendor lock-in

A significant problem with many proprietary CRMs is the difficulty organizations face in moving to a different vendor. As a free and open source software system, CiviCRM places no restrictions on the ability to export and migrate your data. It resides in a MySQL database which may be accessed through your hosting provider at any time. That ability, to directly access and work with your data for customizations, advanced database queries, data migration, and so on, is often quite important. Most significantly, it guarantees that you, the organization, owns your data.

Some proprietary systems are only offered by a single vendor. Service outages, poor help response times, or unhelpful technical support responses, may leave your organization with no option but to switch to a different CRM just to deal with vendor issues. By contrast, the growing pool of integrators, trainers, and consultants for CiviCRM ( enables organizations to shift from one provider to another without having to change CRMs.

Unlike with some proprietary systems, there is no vendor lock-in with CiviCRM.

Integration with Drupal, Joomla!, and WordPress

Drupal, Joomla!, and WordPress are the big three most commonly used Content Management Systems (CMSes) in the world. CiviCRM integrates with all three systems. This is important because it allows your CRM to easily present public-facing forms and listings on your website. Easy configuration of donation and event signup forms, and self-serve functionality for membership signup and renewals, are incredibly important to many organizations. By centralizing your database and integrating directly with your website, you remove or reduce data entry and data syncing between different systems.

If you are building a new website while implementing CiviCRM, you will need to spend some time comparing the features and tools available in each of the three CMSes to determine which is best for your organization. At a very high level, Drupal is the best in terms of providing a robust rapid application development environment, for programming highly customized sites, using numerous user-contributed modules that integrate well with each other. WordPress, by contrast, tends to earn top scores for usability for administrators. Joomla! tends to be in the middle. But such evaluations are hotly contested, benefit from being more fine-grained, and need to be updated through evaluations of the latest versions. In many ways, the three have converged significantly in terms of the tools and experience they provide. There are less distinct strengths and advantages of one over the other than there used to be. You should evaluate each against your particular needs using third-party reviews.

One factor to consider when comparing options is to research the types of third-party extensions available that may be specific to a certain CMS. For example, you may find the organic group integration module that is available for Drupal to be a persuasive argument for working with that CMS. The webform, views, and workflow integrations for Drupal developers are particularly strong. Or you may need to have membership-based authentication rules that are only available through the Joomla! CiviAuthenticate plugin. Then again, the shortcodes feature that is unique in Wordpress might be the deciding factor in your choice.

Each CMS has a growing list of extensions available, most of which are listed in the CiviCRM extension directory (

In recent versions of CiviCRM, significant work has been done to expand the capabilities of CiviCRM's native extension-handling tools. A native CiviCRM extension installs and operates similar to how a Drupal module, or Joomla!/WordPress plugin works, but it is CMS-agnostic — it will work in any of the three CMS environments.

In any case, CiviCRM lets you take advantage of a powerful open source content management system, integrating your contact database directly into your organization's website.

Total cost

The common saying that free and open source software is free like kittens rather than free like beer applies to CiviCRM. The total cost of ownership of a software system is an important metric for deciding which is more appropriate. Open source software costs for a system such as CiviCRM are different from those of proprietary systems. The absence of an upfront purchase cost is not the end of the story. The costs of maintaining the system over its whole life need to be calculated. Instead of one-time purchase costs, or annual or monthly software license costs, there are likely to be additional expenditures on installation, training, and support. As you use the system, and your needs begin to change, you will likely have costs to customize and adjust things. And as new versions of CiviCRM are released, you should anticipate ongoing costs to upgrade the software. Depending on an organization's CRM needs, number of CRM users, and staff competencies, CiviCRM may be more or less expensive than the other alternatives. Support (upgrading, maintaining, and customizing) of a software tool such as CiviCRM can be done by your own staff or volunteers, if the knowledge is available; you can work with a developer or CiviCRM partner, which might be expensive in one way, but save you time when users need to work with the system; or you can get a support contract with a partner or an SaaS CiviCRM offering, which then gives you a flat monthly cost. What is important is to consider these costs when examining your CRM options so that you can meaningfully compare your proposed solutions.

Dynamic open source development

The free in free and open source software is primarily the freedom to modify the software to meet one's needs (see This is certainly an advantage for many organizations with resources that are unable to get proprietary systems adapted as they require, or that are unwilling to let another organization drive the feature development roadmap and time frame of their enterprise CRM system.

CiviCRM has a strong, growing, international open source community and software ecosystem. CiviCRM averaged over 8,300 downloads per month in 2013. There have been over 500,000 installations since version 2.0, with around 3,600 known active CiviCRM installations in the winter of 2014. Total downloads per month tend to vary significantly from month to month, with jumps reflecting windows of time when new versions are released. But, over the course of the project, there has been a steady increase in usage, based on these download stats. If you're interested in viewing more recent stats in an interactive view, visit the newly released statistics portal:

In addition to Make It Happen contributions, CiviCRM receives a large number of contributions from the community in the form of code patches for new features, including the following:

  • BC Physician Health Program

  • MAF Norge

  • Front Line International Foundation for Human Rights Defenders

  • Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

  • International Mountain Biking Association

  • Alpha International

  • New York State Senate

  • Progressive Technology Project

The number of issues reported and patches submitted by the community has increased significantly over the years. But along with the reporting has come increased contributions from the community to help provide patches and new functionality.

This has grown further since the migration of core code to GitHub ( Git provides a distributed version control system model, which encourages code contributions from the community through pull-requests. While the bulk of the contributions are made by the core development team, an increasing number of contributions come from members of the community.

While some might perceive more issues being filed by the community as a problem (people are finding the product buggy), it is very healthy from another perspective. For example, it's not uncommon to see a spike in issues filed when a new version is released through the alpha/beta cycles. During that time, community members are encouraged to download, install, and test pre-production versions in order to provide feedback on features, usability, ease of upgrading, as well as identify bugs before the new version is released. This push is generally very successful and leads to a spike in patches submitted, and ultimately results in a better and more bug-free release. In recent years, there has been an increased effort to get consultants and better-resourced users to contribute patches, in order to allow the core team to focus on enhancements for new releases. Furthermore, many of the issues created in the CiviCRM tracker are feature improvements and suggestions, which over time will make their way into core.

One unique aspect of CiviCRM, that sets it apart from many other open source projects, is the presence of a core development team working full-time on project development. While community involvement is a great sign of project health, the presence of a core development team has ensured steady releases, an aggressively planned project roadmap, and more responsive support patching bugs and supporting users.

In addition, the presence of a core team provides resources for helping new developers in the community get up to speed on CiviCRM development practices. Through training programs, forum support, and the IRC channel, new developers have ready access to the core development team when working through projects.


Extensive administrator, user, and developer documentation is available at and through an online book ( The wiki is maintained in a version-specific format, allowing you to access past versions of the wiki that reference older versions of the software, if needed. The online book is generally updated on an annual basis, and provides the best starting place for general users. Newer, fast-changing, and rarely used functionality is better covered in the wiki.

In addition, inline help is found throughout the software, in many cases providing both a description of the tool or feature, and a link to the online book or wiki for more information.

Responsive community support

One of the challenges faced by users of some open source software, compared to proprietary software, has been the difficulty of assuring that support will be available when needed.

Often, when an issue arises in your installation, others have tried to tackle the same or similar challenge, and a record of how they were helped to solve their issue can be found by searching in the CiviCRM Stack Exchange site at If you find that you're stuck and can't find documentation dealing with the specific problem or use case you are experiencing, begin by asking questions and searching related answers on Stack Exchange. Quite often, you will find tips, workarounds, or debugging steps that will lead you to your solution. The CiviCRM community and core team are renowned for their quick and generous replies to questions on Stack Exchange. It is here where the community really shines. We can't guarantee every question or problem will be solved there, but it is the best place to start when you are stumped.

For those developing in CiviCRM, there is also a #civicrm IRC channel on, where one can usually find the core team and other knowledgeable community members responding to more challenging inquiries. IRC provides the benefit of real-time conversation over the forums, where there may be some lag time while you wait for others to respond. However, the IRC channel also tends to go through high and low traffic periods. If you stop by, ask a question, and receive no response, you may need to come back at another time, or proceed with posing the question on the forums.


CiviCRM events

The best way to benefit from community knowledge and experience is by attending a CiviCRM event. There are several different events hosted by the core team or by community leaders:

  • Several CiviCon conferences and user summits are organized all over the world, and are held every year. These one-day or two-day events are packed with sessions geared toward different types of users —end users, implementers, developers, and so on —and cover a breadth of topics, from site security and code architecture to case studies and practical how to recipes.

  • The core team and quite a few of the CiviCRM partners host several training programs each year, held in various locations around the world. There are two types of training: developer training, providing new developers with a crash course in CiviCRM code structure and tools; and administrator and end user training, providing both a broad overview of CiviCRM functionality and basic use, along with important configuration and planning considerations for system administrators.

  • Throughout the globe, there are an increasing number of CiviCRM Meet-up groups. These regionally located, community-led groups will typically meet monthly or bi-monthly, and use the time to learn about new features in CiviCRM, have a round-table discussion about working with particular tools, or make it a working meeting, where attendees break open their laptops and work on some aspect of their own site implementation. Meet-ups frequently include case study presentations, which provide a valuable way to learn about how other organizations are using the software, which in turn may inspire you to use it in new and creative ways.

  • Once a year, CiviDay is announced, which sees CiviCRM meet-up groups meet all over the globe on the same day.

  • The CiviCRM community also offers a wide variety of online and in-person training sessions and quite a few webinars can be found on the Web.

Depending on where you are located, it's not always easy to allocate the time and resources to travel to a CiviCRM event. But if you are able to, it's well worth the effort. Aside from the presentations, which may help you understand and utilize the software more fully, you will benefit from building relationships with other users and tapping into their experience.


How CiviCRM will help your organization

Good CRM implementations facilitate better outcomes and improved relationships with your constituents, which may be measured by such things as increased donations or volunteer time. They also improve staff efficiency and automate workflows, reducing the average cost and time involved in interactions with the constituents. This allows you and your organization to do more. CiviCRM will improve the relationship your constituents have with your organization through various features, including the following:

  • Easier online event registration

  • Self-serve membership renewal

  • More complete record of history of interactions available to the entire qualified staff

  • Automated workflow improvements for case management

  • Personalized communications

  • E-mail communication self-management (subscribe/unsubscribe tools) and mailing result statistics

Improved relationships also result from deeper changes to the underlying work of an organization. Segmentation of constituents can enable more targeted and effective communication and interaction. For example, sending a text version of your newsletter rather than the normal HTML version to those who have not opened three HTML issues in a row can improve deliverability. Cross-marketing action alerts to frequent donors, or donation appeals to frequent activists, can be more effective than sending these appeals to all donors or activists, since the latter may end up filling people's inboxes too frequently, leading many to unsubscribe. Surveying those who immediately return for more service on their case can reveal systemic issues in case of management protocols, or quality assurance issues.

Organizations with well-focused and right-sized CRM strategies properly balance the costs of acquiring and updating constituent information against the benefits of having and using it. Staff effort and constituent inconvenience mean that it is often better not to force, or even encourage, the entry of less important information. Nonetheless, CiviCRM will provide quantitative and qualitative information that can guide actions, inform executive decision-making, and allow balanced scorecard types of reporting to boards and external funders.



In this chapter, we looked at the reasons that organizations develop a CRM strategy, the importance of considering the work processes as well as the supporting technologies when developing your Constituent Relationship Management strategy. We also saw the ways in which non-profit constituent relationship management is similar to, but different from, business Customer Relationship Management in objectives and techniques. We learnt to identify and prioritize the constituents and interactions to be managed by your CRM, when CiviCRM is more appropriate as a tool to support your CRM strategy rather than single-purpose tools, custom software development, or other CRM systems. The common advantages that CiviCRM provides include the following:

  • Better focus on non-profit needs

  • Greater user satisfaction

  • Avoidance of vendor lock-in

  • Excellent integration with popular and powerful Drupal, Joomla!, and WordPress content management systems

  • Lower total cost of ownership

  • A strong and active development community

  • Extensive documentation for all kinds of users

  • Good free and paid support

  • The benefits your organization will likely see when it adopts CiviCRM

It might be tempting to jump in and start installing and configuring CiviCRM and migrating data from your existing systems. However, our experience is that there are great advantages in developing a CRM implementation plan that identifies, at a minimum, your team, your requirements, and the major tasks that will need to be accomplished. The next chapter will walk you through how to develop a CRM implementation plan that is suited to your organization's size, culture, and needs.

About the Authors
  • Erik Hommel

    Erik Hommel has been an active member of the CiviCRM community since 2009.

    He is one of the founders of CiviCooP ( and one of the partners in EE-atWork ( With both organizations, he has supported CiviCRM implementation and customization projects with customers such as MAF Norge, Amnesty International Flanders, De Goede Woning, PUM Senior Experts, Wikimedia The Netherlands, and many more, as a project manager/developer/consultant.

    Erik has hosted sessions at CiviCon in London and Amsterdam, and several CiviCRM Developer Training workshops. He has taken part in the development of a number of extensions for CiviCRM and has taken part in several CiviCRM sprints in Europe.

    You can find Erik regularly on the CiviCRM Stack Exchange site, the IRC channel, and at CiviCRM events in North West Europe.

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  • Joseph Murray

    Joseph Murray is the owner and principal of JMA Consulting, specialists in e-advocacy, e-consultation, and citizen engagement for progressive organizations. He has extensive experience on nonprofit boards, at senior levels of government, and in running electoral, referendum, and advocacy campaigns. JMA Consulting has provided CRM systems to hundreds of political campaigns, tracking interactions with tens of millions of voters, as well as providing CiviCRM, Drupal, and Wordpress strategy, implementation, development, and training services to numerous nonprofits, associations, and advocacy groups. JMA Consulting has published extensions for CiviCRM integrating it with mail, social media, chat, and other services, as well as enhancing the core functionality for grants and other areas.

    Joe is an active contributor to the CiviCRM ecosystem, and assists the CiviCRM core team in areas including accounting functionality, sponsorships, and community governance.

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  • Brian P. Shaughnessy

    Brian P. Shaughnessy is the owner and principal of Lighthouse Consulting & Design, a web development firm specializing in CiviCRM implementations for Joomla!, Drupal, and WordPress. Brian previously worked with a communication firm serving not-for-profit professional, trade, and charitable organizations for over 10 years. After starting his own business, he channeled that experience into effective implementations of CiviCRM for not-for-profits and government institutions. He has worked with organizations around the world, helping them to achieve greater efficiencies and expand functionality through CiviCRM.

    Brian is very active in the CiviCRM community, regularly contributing code to the core software, speaking at CiviCon events, and helping to lead a local user group in the Albany, NY area. In the past he has worked with the core development team to provide end-user training and maintains a strong working relationship with the project leaders.

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