Everybody talks about CRM. They call it Relationship Management Software. Choose for yourself whether the C stands for Customer, Client, Community or Constituent. It boils down to the same bottom line. Your organization generates a load of data about the real people you serve and that data has its own inherent value, if you use it wisely.

Data is currency. It possesses the ability to drive your decisions and fuel your aspirations. Your associations and non-profits rely on data as well as donations to complete critical missions. If you still move and generate data in clumps of disconnected tasks and projects, only pulling them together in jumbled spreadsheets shared between a handful of people, CRM looks like a miracle. If you already experimented with CRM and still don’t have all the pieces working together, it’s time to reevaluate your options.

CiviCRM is my go-to solution for Associations and non-profit groups because:

  •  Unlike proprietary solutions from vendors like Wild Apricot or MemberLeap, CiviCRM provides their software as a fully open source solution, like WordPress, Firefox or the Linux operating system.
  • Anyone can download and install CiviCRM as part of their website using WordPress, Joomla, Drupal or Backdrop.
  • To you and me, that also means that we are free to use the software any way we want, free from license fees, and support contracts.
  • It also means that if you need to modify the software, you aren’t violating terms of service if you change something. If anything, user modifications frequently become favorite new features. It also means that the developer community is massive and global.

So there’s always someone working on new features, updating old code and basically keeping the software current and cutting edge.

The other biggest advantage is that your data is all yours. You aren’t sharing it with anyone. No one is looking to market to your users or gather their data but you. Privacy of your users is top CiviCRM priority.

CiviCRM consists of a number of components that mesh together tightly, like the workings of clock. You only deploy the components that you need, making possible thousands of custom combinations to meet your specific goals. That means that you don’t need to work around unwanted features. Like WordPress, there’s also a large library of 3rd party extensions (like plugins) that extend the features of CiviCRM even further.

Most importantly CiviCRM gives you the ability to manage relationships between the people in your organization and those it serves, because the people we interact with and serve are the priority.

CiviCRM’s main components include:

  • CiviEvent (event registration)
  • CiviContribute (contribution management, including connecting to payment gateways)
  • CiviMember (membership management)
  • CiviMail (like having your own Constant Contact)
  • CiviReport (to make sense of the data you generate)
  • CiviGrant (if your organization offers grants or scholarships)
  • CiviPledge (if you use pledge amounts for fundraising)
  • CiviCase (case management workflows)
  • and CiviCampaign (for coordinating the actions of the other components into cohesive fundraising or marketing campaigns)

All the components pull data from, add information to, and update a highly customizable contact database. CiviCRM has a list of pre configured “actions” including mailings, notes, phone calls, meetings, volunteering and more. Everything you choose to record can be used later to generate useful and actionable reports. That’s key. There’s no point in gathering this information if you can’t use it again to drive decisions and generate results. CiviCRM makes it easy to gather and the mine your own user data. Possessing information provides no benefit, unless you can do something with it and the right CRM puts your information to work for you.

I’ve compiled a four examples of how organizations put CiviCRM to work in their organizations.

Troop 115

Scout Troop 115, like many youth groups, has a number of activities throughout the year involving the youth members and adult volunteers. There’s also a number of fundraising activities throughout the year.

CiviCRM allows the troop to publish its camping schedule months in advance. It allows the member families to schedule their own activities with the troop in mind, giving scouts the opportunity to attend trips. Older scouts actually use the Troop event calendar to request time off from their after school jobs. Online event registration gives the scoutmaster the ability to see who plans to attend events, who can drive to campsites, and up to date contact information to call on families if camping trips are cancelled for reasons like last year’s hurricane Michael.

Three years ago, CiviCRM made it possible for the Troop to stop sending postcards for the annual Christmas tree fundraiser. The troop collects names of supporters, uploading their spreadsheet into the troop’s email list, and sends three scheduled emails each year, announcing that the tree sale will begin, that it has begun and that the early bird discount is about to expire. The email campaign  can be scheduled to send automatically, allowing volunteers to enjoy their Thanksgiving Day holiday. Since the troop started sending the scheduled emails, the Christmas tree lot has been selling out of trees earlier than previous years and saving on postage charges, which had previously represented a significant cost to the campaign. The troop also noticed a marked jump in sales when the earlybird expiration email is sent.

Now, after several years of using CiviCRM, the troop can finally take advantage of years of gathered troop data. As scouts age out of the program, their data remains with the troop. Troop 115 can mine that information about program alumni and parents, encouraging them to return to the troop as financial supporters and cheerleaders for the program. Recently those families were called together to honor their former Scoutmaster at a Court of Honor Banquet.

The International Polymer Clay Association

The IPCA is an international arts organization focused on sculpting with polymer clay, (a pliable form of PVC). They manage membership, complex event registrations, and access to member only content on their website with the help of CiviCRM.

The IPCA does a lot with very few resources because they can. Their website is central to almost everything else they accomplish, and that’s a lot. For starters, they maintain contact with local artist groups, as well as individual artists using dozens of custom groups defined in CiviCRM like members, non-member contacts as well as corporate sponsorship contacts.

The Groups feature, gathers contacts based on search criteria. You can create a participant list for an event, or mailing group for a fundraiser. Groups can also be used to create online directories. Finally, groups can be used for defining access control, allowing users to function in different roles and perform specific tasks, like viewing a family profile or registering for classes.

The IPCA makes extensive use of the smart group features, which constantly apply a user defined database search criteria, so the list self updates and remains accurate at all times. If new members join online, or expire, the member directory is always up to date without any intervention from staff or volunteers.

The IPCA holds a number of events in the US and abroad. They are able to process online registration for all their events through their own website. They can include special sessions, set attendance limits and enforce them all through CiviCRM. They can even generate the name tags for attendees straight from their own website. Of course, they also collect dietary information from participants as well,  so that meals can be planned and there are no surprises over kosher meals or food allergies.

The organization relies heavily on CiviMail to help maintain group mailing lists, unsubscribes, and bounce processing. They even use CiviCRM to control access to online juried art competitions. CiviReport provides feedback on all of these activities and the organization has collected many years of valuable data about their all of their contacts that helps them stay in touch with the changing trends in their field and chart their course into the future.

Leon Fruit and Nut Exchange

It’s hard to imagine a project like the Leon Fruit and Nut exchange even existing without a powerful CRM behind it. In a nutshell, homeowners produce more food their own fruit trees than they can consume on their  own, but they have no way manage the burden of picking the fruit and nuts so that those who need it most can have fresh food in their homes. The website combines CiviCRM’s powerful contact manager and geo-mapping features with the goodwill of those who are willing to offer their fruit to those willing to pick for the organization.

Homeowners register the fruit bearing trees in their yard through leonfruitandnutexchange.org. The organization provides fruit crates or picking  crews to harvest the fruit, logging the yield and locations of donors. A history is created and a picture  emerges from the reports generated in CiviCRM of a community which is willing to feed their neighbors in need.

The resulting harvest is then distributed through farmers markets, schools and food banks around the county. The organization is able to track tree locations, and yields. The data results in tons of fresh food reaching people in need, as well as helping homeowners keep their yards cleared of falling and rotting food.

Florida Public Pension Trustees Association

Sometimes you have a lot of related data and you need a better way to see and manage it all. That was the situation when FPPTA first reached out to us. Ironically, our most ambitious project is probably the most typical scenario for a CiviCRM user. The organization manages a contact list of thousands with hundreds of corporate and organizational members.

The first obstacle to managing all those contacts is understanding the relationship of people to their member organizations and eventually to each other. It wasn’t just a two way relationship with organizations and contacts, because complicating the process is the involvement of 3rd party administrators who also have connections to multiple member groups.

It’s a spider’s web of crisscrossing relationships, resulting in different permissions and access depending on each user’s role in the organization. Some people interact with the website for things like conference registrations for their organization. Other users interact on behalf of organizations they manage, and the users connected to each organization. Finally, some users can only interact on their own behalf.

Registering users for conferences requires many moving parts. Attendees and sponsors make most of the bulk of the participants, but what about guests? Spouses and children needed tracking to provide meals and daycare. CiviCRM manages all the attendees with aplomb. CiviReport tracks registrations, revenue and guest counts.

CiviEvent allowed us to configure all event locations and dates for the next three years. We programmed each event to open on a scheduled date. Early registration fees and late registration fees  expire and become active on predetermined dates.

CiviContribute generates invoices for conference fees and sponsorships. Contribution reports keep the staff informed of which members have paid dues, and event fees as well as which fees are still outstanding.

Smart groups are used to create lists of potential sponsors and guests needing services. Event income reports are pinned to the administrator’s dashboard, available at a glance and ready to be examined at any time.

The charity golf tournament runs in parallel to the conference. CiviCRM takes the double duty in stride, collecting player information, groups, sponsors and shirt sizes, proving that if you need information, CiviCRM can collect it for you.

The organization also funds an emergency fund and a scholarship for members. CiviGrant collects applications online and tracks them through the approval process online.

Even though the website only recently went live, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from all users.


I frequently hear from my clients that CiviCRM saves hours of time, and frees human resources to be applied to in other productive ways. It’s not about replacing people with technology, but using technology to free the people in an organization to better serve its members and constituents. All the  volumes of data collected, help you better understand the people you serve. No one will tell you as much about your audience as they will tell you about themselves. You can use that information to make your own organization serve them better.

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