First, “what’s a CRM?” — Constituent Relationship Management system. A quick web search will turn up the products you can buy to do it, but won’t explain why your organization needs one. Rather than gravitating towards a piece of software, first consider how a CRM approach – creating a central place you store constituent data – can transform your ability to build and maintain relationships with individuals: the building blocks of organizing.

Building Relationships? But we already do that.

I work with many grassroots groups on emerging issues. Some of you are not so new … and neither am I… I am surprised at how often an organizer calls me (or meets with me), and has no idea that I am a current/former donor to the organization, have been on the staff, or have been invited in the past to join their board. 

Why? Because the information is not anywhere in the organizational memory.  It’s in an individual’s memory. And that individual is not the person calling me on the phone right now. Too bad. Because when an organizer has key information about a constituent, they can get more done. Better for me, and better for the organization.

What information do you need to organize well?

When you are interacting with a constituent, you need to know…

  1. What your organization does that I care about. 
  2. What I have already done with your organization.
  3. How to get in touch with me.

You’ve had organizing meetings with someone where you had part of that information but not all of it… in which case the meeting consists of getting the rest of that information. These pieces of information are the building blocks of organizing. Organizations need to be able to share this data among organizers in order to be effective. If not, when one organizer leaves, a lot of the constituent relationships go with them.

For each of these, there is a key way that a CRM approach offers an advantage to your group: the power of storing this data in one place that all your staff can access.

Track what your organization does that I care about

A CRM approach allows us to do some very basic things, like have a check-box for people to say, “I want to hear about how to stop NAFTA-like laws.” 

Of course, this sort of check box is only helpful if you actually have information and action opportunities to stop NAFTA-like laws. You can send me emails about everything you do, but if only a small amount of it is about how to stop NAFTA-like laws, then I’m going to leave your list, thinking you don’t have something for me (because you’re not giving me what I asked for). A CRM approach allows you to be sure you include me when you are communicating about issues I care about.

Separating your one main data set into smaller sets when you use it is called “list segmentation.” In one of the more well-known examples of list segmenting based on interests, a national animal welfare group separates their constituent list into people that are more interested in cats, and people more interested in dogs. This way, they can engage constituents with the information they are most interested in (saving cats, saving dogs, or both).

What I have already done with your organization?

Or, it may turn out that I checked the NAFTA box, but I’m actually more interested in the Green Jobs movement. How would you know? An online CRM, for example, will track not just what I say I’m interested in, but which of your emails I open, and what online actions I take.  

Many of us, it turns out, are not great predictors of our own behavior. We’ll say we’re interested in one thing, but the best predictor of what we are willing to do is what we’ve already done.  A CRM approach allows you to segment your list so you can personalize your messages for me, even if I haven’t told you I’m interested in a particular issue, or likely to take action. 

For example, you can change just a few sentences in a mass email to acknowledge people who have already taken action or made a donation (“thanks for your recent gift” or “you’ve been with us since 2007.”) 

And, as individuals, we move through many roles with any given organization: donor, activist, volunteer. A CRM approach allows you to keep information about the different ways I have engaged with your organization in one place. Rather than a bunch of lists scattered among different staff or departments, your group can use one central list to stay in touch with people as you move them from becoming donors to volunteers, or online activists to donors. Over time, there will be one record of all the connections I have with your group.

How to get in touch with me

And of course, you can’t organize me if you can’t find me. A CRM approach means that all my contact information is in one place in your organization, and it’s right alongside the information that you want to have in mind when you are actually contacting me. 

For example: if you are calling me to get me to show up at an annual lobby day, shouldn’t you know that I’ve been to this event for the last three years? If you are sending one final fund appeal at the end of the year, shouldn’t you exclude me from that message if I’ve given in the last month? 

A CRM approach makes sure that the data you need about me is close at hand when you are actually contacting me: either to include me in a particular communication, or refer to my past relationship. My email address, phone number, and former board membership are different pieces of information about me, but don’t keep them in completely separate places!

The reason why online CRMs allow online organizing to grow faster than offline

Collecting data takes time. Entering data takes time. And then looking up the data for useful segments takes time. Here, online organizing has a huge advantage over offline organizing: in the case of online organizing, I, the constituent, submit the data for you. 

Instead of a stack of paper that you’re waiting for a nimble-fingered volunteer to enter, with online organizing, I create a record of my own activity by sending an email to my Senator using the form you provide, or by clicking a box to tell you that I placed a phone call to my state representative, or by texting to sign up to your list at a particular event that you organized. Because the data gets recorded in the CRM right as I take the action, you don’t have to plan to spend time recording it manually. 

That’s why these CRM solutions are called “scalable” – they can grow without putting a huge burden on your organization’s staff time. Sending an online action request to 1,000 people who have previously taken action on a bill doesn’t take ten times longer than doing it with 100. Your workload for processing outgoing communications is largely the same, even as the number of people you’re organizing using an online CRM approach grows. Instead, use that time to craft a slightly different message for people who are taking action for the first time, versus people who’ve been on your list for a year and acted on multiple online actions you’ve sent.

What doesn’t change with a CRM approach

With a CRM approach, you still need to create simple and effective communications that move people to take action on your issue. And you still have to find ways to listen, to pay attention to how your constituents are responding and adjust your approach accordingly. 

But, if you keep your information about your constituents that’s essential for organizing in one place, you’ll have a powerful tool available to your organizers – online and offline. And you’ll have a way to show your constituents that you value them enough to offer a personal touch to your communications, even when you’re communicating with 1,000 people instead of 100.

As usual when it comes to talking about nonprofits and software, Idealware has great information.

This article includes examples of nonprofits using them: 

Managing Constituent Relationships: Four Case Studies

This in-depth piece is on what it means to be “relationship-centric” and includes some useful graphics:

Creating the Relationship-Centric Organization: Nonprofit CRM 

Next: CRM series, Part Two: Four Steps to Select an Online CRM

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