Elliot Harmon – October 25, 2010

Is cloud-based CRM right for your organization? In this article, we’ll discuss some of the questions to consider when adopting a CRM for the first time or switching from a traditional CRM to a cloud-based system. We’ll also point you to resources to help you find the cloud CRM best suited to your organization.

How does your nonprofit or public library keep track of its constituents? If your organization is like most, there’s probably more than one answer. You may have your donors tracked in a fundraising database, your beneficiaries in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, and your volunteers in a file cabinet, but what would happen if you began to assemble all those contacts in one place? How would that change the way your organization connects with people? A CRM (customer relationship management, client relationship management, or constituent relationship management database depending on who you ask) can help everyone who interacts with those contacts work together to maximize the impact of each of those relationships.

In this article, we’ll look primarily at cloud-based CRM applications – that is, programs that your staff can access over the Internet. We’ll discuss some of the questions to consider when either adopting a CRM for the first time or switching from a traditional CRM to a cloud-based system. We’ll also point you to several resources to help you find the cloud CRM best suited to your organization.

What Is CRM?

CRM refers to a wide range of traditional and online software solutions that help an organization keep track of its constituents. CRM programs keep a record of the organization’s contact with a constituent and can remind employees to follow up with that person at the appropriate time.

Traditionally, it’s most common to think of CRM primarily in terms of fundraising and donor management. Donor management is certainly a crucial component, but for many nonprofits and libraries, there isn’t always a clear line between donors and other types of constituents. A single contact might be a donor, a volunteer, an activist, a patron, and a customer in different contexts. In a library setting, your patron might also be a volunteer who may also attend events or book clubs regularly. Depending on the size and structure of your organization, a different staff member might manage each of those relationships, but what if you were all looking at the same record when you interact with that person? When writing to ask for a donation, your fundraising manager could thank her for her help with a recent project. When calling to schedule a volunteering slot, your volunteer coordinator could remind her that she hasn’t RSVPed yet for the fundraising dinner. By keeping all of this information in a single CRM database, everyone who interacts with that contact can see the big picture of your organization’s relationship with her.

What Makes Cloud CRM Different?

Put most simply, cloud CRM refers to any CRM system that you access over the Internet rather than hosting it on your own computer. The software itself runs on computers in datacenters owned or rented by the CRM providers.


Unlike most traditional CRMs – whose costs might include both a site license and licenses for individual users or devices, in addition to hardware costs – most cloud CRM systems offer a per-user pricing model. This makes it easier, and likely less expensive, to change the number of users who can access the database as your needs change.

Similarly, depending on how your organization is structured and who needs access to your CRM, you may find keeping your CRM in the cloud to be less of a hassle. If the people who need to access the database don’t all work in the same office, or if employees need to be able to access the database from the field, then connecting remotely to an office server can be an annoyance. If your organization or public library has multiple branches throughout a city, then cloud CRM can be a way to collate all of the branches’ shared relationships in one place

Since cloud-based CRM databases are hosted by the vendor, the vendor also manages product updates, security fixes, and server maintenance. Though, keep in mind that not all client data may be suited for the cloud. Read Security in the Cloud and In Search of HIPAA-Compliant Software if you house sensitive client data and are concerned with how to keep it safe online.

Hardware Requirements

With a traditional CRM – Microsoft Dynamics CRM, for example – an organization hosts its constituent database on its own server. Your organization could install Dynamics CRM on a server running Windows Server. Employees would then access Dynamics from a special toolbar within Microsoft Outlook or through an internal website.

A cloud CRM simplifies these requirements. Since the actual database is hosted remotely, you don’t need to worry about making sure your server meets the CRM’s hardware requirements. You only need to ensure that the computers your staff will be using to access the database are up to specifications, and since the remote server is doing all of the heavy lifting, those system requirements are usually very minimal. The databases that we’ll go over later in this article, including Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, require only a computer or other device with a web browser. Some require you (or give you the option) to install a small client-side application as well.

Environmental Impact

There are a few ways that a cloud CRM can help you lower your organization’s environmental footprint. First, operating in a server farm optimized for a high workload means that cloud CRM means less overall energy use than when you run your CRM on a server in your office. One of the hallmarks of cloud computing is that the computers that host your data and applications don’t host only your data and applications. When your application needs more computing power, the datacenter will assign more computing power to it. When your application is not in use, the same computers are running other programs. That approach is more efficient than the wasted energy of a single organization’s server room. Second, by running multiple users’ applications on large computers, cloud CRMs can cut down on the energy used to produce the computers themselves. 80 percent of a computer’s energy consumption occurs in its production, so if using software as a service solutions cuts down on the number of new computers that you need in your office, that’s a big win for the environment.

Remember, though, that just because your software is “in the cloud” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require energy, and it might not mean that it uses clean energy. In an admirable report published earlier this year, Greenpeace USA urges large datacenters to make a firm commitment to using clean energy and become advocates for sustainable energy production.

Assessing Your CRM Needs

If you’re already using a traditional CRM system, then you probably already have a relatively clear idea of your organization’s CRM needs; on the other hand, migrating to a new CRM system will give you the chance to rethink the contacts and tasks that your organization’s CRM should be tracking and see what opportunities aren’t being met in your current configuration.

Identify Constituent Lists and Workflows

This is the most important part of CRM needs assessment, and may be the most time-consuming. Consult everyone in the organization who interacts with outside constituents. Find out where they’re keeping their lists. You’ll likely be surprised by how many different lists you uncover, and it’s possible that there’ll be more collation among them than anyone in the organization realizes.

With those same staff members, identify the main workflows that you undertake for each type of constituent. For example:

  • Send fundraising email.
  • Three weeks later, follow up with fundraising phone call.

As part of outlining the workflows, be sure to identify the end goals associated with each type of relationship. These will make a big difference both in deducing what kind of CRM database to use and in how you import and arrange your data from the start. For example, are you particularly interested in tracking online donations, in which case a database that integrates with your online donations platform would be advisable? Are you interested in tracking users’ clickthroughs to your website? Events attended? Pledges made? And what groups or sub-groups they may be part of within your organization’s structure?

Should certain components of these processes be automated – emails, for example? Should the CRM connect with your online donations platform or web analytics tool? These questions all make a difference in the complexity of CRM that you’ll need.

Having said that, there’s no reason that every list of contacts that everyone in the organization interacts must be incorporated into your CRM, and in some cases, combining certain groupings of contacts into a single CRM might not make sense. Paul Hagen, who wrote an excellent guide to selecting a CRM (Part 2) at Idealware, points out that there’s no magic bullet that’ll meet all of your organization’s needs: “Except for the smallest, most targeted nonprofits, there’s likely no such thing as an all-in-one solution. At best, organizations can consolidate some disparate data repositories within a package – which is a good step. Nonprofits may be better off investing in ecosystems of vendors that already integrate with each other, rather than a single one that tries to solve everything.”

Hagen’s chart shows the variety of services on the market and the areas in which they overlap:

Donor-management tools like Telosa, Blackbaud, and DonorPerfect (all of which are available for donation to eligible organizations through TechSoup) include CRM functions, but might not be optimized for event management, for example. Understanding the needs of your organization and where they overlap will help you identify the tools to invest your time and money in.

Total Cost of Ownership

As with any new technology decision at your organization, consider the total cost of ownership. As we mentioned above, cloud CRM systems can run considerably cheaper than traditional ones – particularly for smaller organizations – but the cost goes beyond the price tag. With any of these tools, there’ll be costs associated with adoption, both in implementation and training your staff to use them. In many cases, you’ll need a consultant to assist in implementing the CRM or porting records from your old one.

Instituting a CRM database means training your staff not only in how to use the software, but in why to use it. As much as CRM is about particular pieces of software, it’s also about defining your organization’s approach to working with constituents; getting various stakeholders aligned on an organizational strategy will take a significant time investment. The more disparate departments will be working with the CRM, the more significant that investment.

Overview of Cloud CRM Solutions

Software as a service is a quickly-growing field, and CRM is one of the areas that has grown most quickly. We can’t cover every solution on the market, but here are a few to get you started and some perspectives on them from the nonprofit community.


NetSuite is an integrated, cloud-based business management software solution that combines CRM, accounting, enterprise resource planning (ERP), professional services automation (PSA), and e-commerce.

Price: Contact NetSuite for pricing information.

Nonprofit Perspective: TechSoup offers donated licenses of NetSuite.


Salesforce.com was one of the first cloud CRMs to gain a lot of mainstream popularity. It offers a special version of its service customized for nonprofit needs.

Salesforce.com is considered an industry leader in business CRM. It’s highly full-featured and customizable, and as such, it may be a more complex solution than smaller organizations are looking for. Having said that, there’s also a large community of nonprofit users to draw expertise from if you opt for this solution.

Price: The Salesforce Foundation offers a donations program whereby qualifying nonprofits can request a donated ten-user license, with the opportunity to purchase additional licenses or features at a discount.

Nonprofit Perspective: There are a lot of resources for nonprofits evaluating or getting started with Salesforce. For starters, watch this TechSoup Talks! webinar as well as this Salesforce for Nonprofits page. Find many more links and resources in the Nonprofit Salesforce Practitioners Google Group.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online

You may be familiar with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, which is available as a donation through TechSoup. Dynamics CRM Online is the new cloud CRM product from Microsoft. It can easily import records from Dynamics CRM, and its interface will be recognizable to Dynamics CRM users. Like Salesforce, Dynamics CRM Online offers a special version customized for nonprofit needs. Again, as an enterprise-level CRM database, it may be overkill for some smaller organizations in terms of staff investment.

Price: Eligible nonprofits can purchase Dynamics CRM Online at $9.99/user/month, with a five-user minimum (more information).

Nonprofit Perspective: In this post on the TechSoup Blog, NPower’s Shawn Michael outlines what Dynamics CRM Online can do for your nonprofit.

Note: Several third-party vendors offer an online version of Dynamics CRM. This offering is not Dynamics CRM Online, but a remote instance of Dynamics CRM. Dynamics CRM Online is available only from Microsoft or an authorized reseller.

Zoho CRM

Zoho offers a wide range of web-based software as a service solutions. Zoho’s fans love the simplicity and interoperability of products in the Zoho suite. Zoho CRM is the simplest of the CRM tools covered here. Its interface is similar to Salesforce’s, but without nearly as many customization options. As a simpler tool, it may be more appropriate for a smaller organization without IT staffing to support a more robust database.

Price: Zoho CRM’s most basic edition is free, but supports only three users. The professional edition costs $12/user/month.


CiviCRM differs from the other tools we’ve discussed here in a few ways: first, it was designed specifically for the social sector. Second, it’s free and open-source. Finally, you install CiviCRM yourself on your web-hosting server: it runs as a plug-in on Drupal or Joomla, two popular open-source web content management systems.

Price: The software itself is free, but you must have a web-hosting server that meets its system requirements.

Nonprofit Perspective: Since CiviCRM is designed for the nonprofit and activist community, there’s a lot of information online from organizations using it. For starters, try the CiviCRM Forums. Local PoliTechs offers an interesting comparison between CiviCRM and hosted CRM packages.


SugarCRM is an open-source CRM database that’s available in both self-hosted and cloud versions. There are four different editions at varying price points. Additionally, there is a free version called Sugar Community Edition. In terms of its feature set and customizability, SugarCRM is comparable to Salesforce. It’s highly customizable and, like many popular open-source applications, numerous plugins and extensions for it are available online. Like Salesforce and Dynamics CRM, it’s probably best suited to larger organizations with a dedicated IT staff.

Price: Sugar Community Edition version: Free. The Sugar Professional version starts at $360/user/year, with a minimum of five users.

Nonprofit Perspective: In an interview we conducted with him and a guest post he wrote, Storycorps’ Dean Haddock describes his experience implementing SugarCRM.


As your organization audience grows, it’s essential that your processes for interacting with your audience grows and matures too. CRM databases are nothing new in the nonprofit and library communities, but recent developments in cloud CRM are making it easier to collaborate with your colleagues on managing your relationships regardless of physical or technological boundaries.

At its core, CRM isn’t about technology. It’s about your organization’s strategy for managing and maximizing the potential of its relationships. If you can cultivate in your staff a willingness to work together to be more attentive to your constituents, then finding the right combination of technological solutions will be easy.

Additional Resources