How to fail your CRM project

Updated: Jan 14, 2019


Illustration by Angeline Veeneman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

CRM projects are notoriously difficult to get right, but failure is not a given. If you are a not-for-profit organisation looking at improving your existing CRM (or considering for the first time an alternative to Excel spreadsheets or old Access databases), here are 6 ways that will guarantee you join the ranks of CRM fails.


A foreword on terminology


Whilst in commercial organisations CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management, the word Customer doesn’t resonate well with non-profits and is often substituted with Client, Constituent or Community. Some also talk about donor or membership management, supporter engagement and so forth. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what you choose to call your CRM as long as it makes sense to you (and feel free to adopt an acronym that is meaningful to your organisation). First and foremost, CRM is about how you create, sustain and grow relationships with people that have a connection with you and your purpose. And CRM is about putting that person (whether they are a donor, a supporter, a funder, a partner, a client, a volunteer, a beneficiary, a stakeholder or several of those at once) at the heart of everything you do.


CRM fail #1: treat it like a technical project


Of course, technology is a major component of CRM when it comes to delivering cost-effective and scalable ways of growing and managing relationships. There are other components involved in getting CRM right though: key things like adopting new processes, changing the way you’ve always done things, managing the impact of change on your teams and your stakeholders, getting your leadership team buy-in, training and supporting end-users, working on getting your data right. But if you want to fail, best to ignore those and put all your effort and money solely on software development.


CRM fail #2: pick the wrong technology


Notwithstanding the previous point, selecting the wrong CRM tool can be disastrous. There’s a myriad of products out there, each with their pros and cons, and none perfect. So if you want to make sure you end up with a solution that doesn’t work for you, don’t spend any time defining what you need and selecting the CRM that’s fit for your purpose. Just pick the cheapest and/or most popular tool. If it works for others, surely it’s going to work for you.


CRM fail #3: focus only on fundraising


CRMs were originally built for salespeople, and that’s left a legacy of using CRM mostly for the thing that comes closest to being a sale in the NFP sector: a donation. Managing your donors and growing your funding streams will almost always be a critical need when you do CRM, but if you ignore other relationships and the needs of other parts of your organisation (such as client services, community organisers, volunteers managers, grant makers, policy advocates, events managers and so forth), you’ll get a nice little siloed, impenetrable database. And your supporters (who can be so much more than just donors) will still wonder why you can’t get their information right.


CRM fail #4: Give the project management role to an inexperienced member of staff (who already has a full-time job)


Regardless of the size of your organisation, any CRM implementation will have a big impact on your teams and your operations. Managing a CRM project is not something you do on the side, and requires dedicated project management skills and time. So to be sure to fail, just give the job to one of your staff (especially if they have no experience in leading this type of project) on top of all of their business-as-usual duties.


CRM fail #5: Don’t manage expectations


CRM can do a lot for an organisation: streamlined processes, better data, more meaningful and relevant stakeholders engagement, increased revenues, better decisions, productivity savings and greater collaboration are all outcomes you should expect from CRM. But there’s no magic button: you still need people to engage with people. You still need to keep your data clean and adapt your processes to an ever-changing environment. You still need to use the intelligence and make decisions. And you still need manpower to design and execute compelling campaigns and services delivery strategies. So if your teams, including your board, think CRM is going to solve all their problems (and that CRM will implement itself without their involvement), let them do so. You can always blame the technology when the solution doesn’t quite match those expectations.


CRM fail #6: Don’t bother spending time on defining what success means


Last but not least, having no vision of what your world will look like once your CRM is in place is a great way to make sure you put in a lot of effort, time, money and commitment for nothing. Not being clear upfront why you’re doing this and how it will help your purpose is a good way to make sure you choose the wrong tool, the wrong vendor, and the wrong way of doing it. As for the on-time, on-scope and on-budget project success measures, you could just go for those. Never mind if your membership numbers dwindle or if no-one actually uses the tool.


So now that you know the straight road to failure, how about taking the alternative path? It’s a more difficult one, but the destination is worth it.

© 2018 by Maysix Consulting.