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Stages of CRM Adoption

Implementing and maintaining a constituent relationship management (CRM) platform successfully is no easy task. There’s a lot of work which goes into the initial setup and there’s just as much (or more) involved in sustaining and expanding the use of the new system. There are often some easy wins which come with a new platform, but there can be some real work to do in order to extend the potential of a CRM to all areas of an organization, such that everyone sees the value and it is immediately useful. Key business processes are well supported and important tasks can be reliably performed over time. At least that’s the goal of using a CRM! In practice however, an organization can struggle for months, or even years, to see the return on the investment as originally envisioned. There are many reasons for this which we will explore below.

Through my work as a Salesforce consultant I believe there are three key levels or “energy states” an organization can potentially occupy. They run from low-adoption, low-efficiency, up to high adoption and high efficiency. A key indicator of where your organization might be revolves around the use of reports. Let’s explore that a bit and learn more about these three states.


Both as a consultant and database administrator, I’ve worked with organizations that have struggled mightily to see the promised results from a CRM platform. This state of dysfunction can persist for quite a long time if not addressed and the longer it goes on the more effort it takes to correct, which then becomes a feedback loop where the task is just too daunting to even contemplate! Let me give you some examples of what I mean by organizations in a dysfunctional or low-efficiency state.

  • Distrust of the database. Staff openly or covertly disavow the database and will simply carry on their work using their own spreadsheets, contact lists, or applications. The common perception among staff is that the database is too hard to use and isn’t worth the effort.
  • Historic data is wrong. This is often due to staff turnover and long-standing legacy systems where the way in which capital campaign gifts were recorded, for example, changed over time. Even simple things like using “ED” to mean Executive Director in a title field switched over to “Director” at some point. Historic data sets often have the problem of multiple values meaning the same thing and this has to be fixed in order for adoption to progress.
  • Inconsistent data entry. This can be a real killer. Even if you’ve already fixed your historic data, if you aren’t vigilant at new data entry, you’re just going to repeat the problems of the past. Standardization and regular data hygiene are key here. Standardization is having clear and consistent rules for data entry such as naming conventions for donations, organizations etc. Data hygiene is a process, usually undertaken by an administrator, of verifying and correcting data entry mistakes, or filling in missing data, so that reports and dashboards continue to be correct and reliable.
  • Reporting and business processes are painful. Reports always look wrong. Even simple things take a lot longer than they should. Putting together a mailing list, running a year-to-date fundraising report, and acknowledging donations involve multiple manual steps. Your staff frequently have to “fix” data in a spreadsheet, fill in missing data, make corrections, etc. Not much happens with just the push of a button in this low efficiency state. A major reason why this is the case is because your data set needs some cleansing first. Even experienced admins can do little to help you if the underlying data is unreliable.

Quality data entry is perhaps the most important hurdle to overcome. Indicators that there are poor data entry / management practices at your organization are when you hear things like:

  • “I don’t even know what that field is for”
  • “I didn’t know where to put that stuff so I just put it in the notes field”
  • “I just build new reports every time – I can never find existing ones that I want to use”
  • “I don’t have time to learn how to do put this into the database, I just keep a spreadsheet on my desktop.”
  • “It’s really hard to find my [campaign, contact, account] because I can’t tell which one I’m supposed to use.”

If these sound like familiar phrases around your office, there’s some important groundwork which has to happen in order to move beyond the struggling stage and begin making progress toward a reliable and trusted CRM. Your administrator should be regularly running data hygiene, your business processes should be well documented, and staff held accountable for understanding them well.


An important threshold to cross with the use of any CRM is being able to consistently and accurately run reports. In my view, this is probably the number one indicator of how successful the use of your database is. Reports have to be trusted and will actually drive action within your organization. Without being able to cross this threshold, you and your staff will consistently feel that the database is too hard to use and that the investment isn’t paying off. The longer you persist in this state the longer the dissatisfaction has to set in. People will revert to old methods of working, be that in their own spreadsheets or the legacy system (just have to go into the old system one more time because I know right where to look!). In fact if you find that your legacy system is still referenced a year after you’ve “moved” to a new system, you know you have a problem.

So why do reports often seem so hard? You’ve been to the trainings, checked out the online resources but still you can’t seem to get to the promised land of analytical insights. What gives? Well, the report builder itself does have its own learning curve, but I find that’s not really the issue at hand here. The ability to consistently craft reports you can rely on really comes down to two key things:

  1. Understanding your data
  2. Beginning with clean reliable data

Those may seem obvious but they are not simple to grapple with. Your ability to create useful reports depends on your understanding of where the data lives in your database and what that data actually represents. For instance, your reporting outcome might be pulling together the member appreciation invitation list. Most likely you don’t have a field simply called “invite this member” – it is actually the combination of several fields which tell you this. So, as a database user you need to understand that you need to report on Membership Status, Membership Level, Mailing Address, Formal Addressee for the household, and suppression data like Do Not Mail. Then you’re supposed to always include board members whether they hold an active membership or not. Staff should be included too. And the list of criteria goes on. If you do not know for sure where all the data which represents these various facets is located, you will struggle with pulling this report.

To further complicate the issue, consider that even if you do know how to access all the relevant data to compose your invitation list you will constantly run into problems if the data itself is not reliable. For example, you’re supposed to invite board members but your administrator has been slack about keeping the board info up to date. So you’ve missed the new appointments and those who have stepped off the board are still on your list. Maybe your membership manager missed putting in the period of membership dates correctly so all the newest members don’t have the right Member Status. And so on. Those are simple examples and in reality I’ve seen cases where it’s much more complicated.

I once worked for an organization where they were running a long-term capital campaign. Whenever we would run a report to check the current fundraising to date for the campaign, an argument would ensue about the numbers. The database said one thing, the bookkeeper said something else, and the ED had a third number which he would present to the board. Why was this so? It turned out that the way in which pledges were being recorded had changed over time and several prospecting pledges had been entered as if they were signed and ready to be filled. The accounting office was only watching cash flow, not informal promises from prospective donors. But the development director didn’t want to discount that prospecting and would always include those numbers in the report. In the end, a line-by-line reconciliation between the database and the accounting system had to take place. We had to remove some of the pledges as they were never real commitments. At the same time some rules about pledge tracking had to be agreed upon between the various offices. The process took about 3 months but you know what happened? People began to agree on the campaign numbers. The database was seen as holding the truth and that report only took a few minutes to churn out. I hope this example illustrates why dealing with data hygiene is so important and how it’s often a major obstacle to your organizational efficiency. Once you’ve made the investment to clean house (so to speak), the results will start to pay off.


This stage is in many ways easiest to talk about since there less struggle going on. We get to start celebrating victories instead of ruminating on troubles! Once your organization has battled the dragons of bad data, poor data entry, and has standardized how the database is to be used, you should be ready to start really leveraging your CRM. You can now engage in a host of attractive sounding adventures such as: business intelligence, data analysis, data-driven decision making, thought leadership, outcomes tracking, market research, etc. Your director and board gets that dashboard of KPIs they always wanted. Your donors and supporters get the right information from you regarding their donations and you’re inviting them to the right cultivation events. Administrative staff are a happier bunch and your staff retention starts looking better. Even when you do experience turnover, your organization can roll with the changes and your investment in the CRM doesn’t walk out the door.

I hope this information is helpful to your organization and my desire would be that even if you’re struggling with your database, you can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hard work for sure and well functioning teams will be better at resolving issues that arise than less effective ones, but this is, in my opinion, critical work to perform. The days, weeks, and months after adopting a new CRM are your time to make or break on the investment and I hope that this post gives you some guidance on how to find success. It’s also never too late – even if the database has been neglected for some time. You just need the will to address the problem head on with plenty of time set aside to do it right. There will always be small things to overcome and no organization is 100% effective at using a CRM. I encourage you to set your sights high and achieve great things.

Interested in reading more about overcoming adoption and data hygiene hurdles? Check out these resources:

Implementation Best Practices: Data
How Nonprofits Can Get Past Technology Culture Shock
Keeping it Clean: The Data Import Basics