Is CiviCRM suitable for a tiny nonprofit?
December 20, 2013 2:42 PM   Subscribe

I am involved with a tiny nonprofit -- we have a few hundred donors, volunteers and clients, and no paid staff. Some of our volunteers have been frustrated with our recordkeeping system (shared Google docs), and one of our volunteers is suggesting CiviCRM. I think this is overkill.

Our volunteer who wants to use CiviCRM has already been working on integrating it into our Drupal-based website, whose content is currently all static pages. Other volunteers are excited at the prospect of new tools. In particular, event and volunteer management will be very helpful for us.

I am concerned that because there's no one else in the organization who is even remotely technical, we will be relying on a single volunteer for anything other than data entry and running canned reports. Besides that, my own research into CRMs suggests to me that this tool is really designed for much larger organizations, and that although it can be customized for tiny organizations like ours, there's a lot that still adds into the total cost of ownership.

Based on our current growth trends, it will be years before our volunteer or membership database would contain more than a thousand people.
posted by anonymous to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Civi is great. There are tons of modules to track all sorts of things and you don't have to use any of them. I implemented it for a local political group. Some electeds had a few hundred donors, one had a few thousand. It was useful for all of them. Every two years like clock work I get a call from them and I train the brand new fundraiser for the season on how to use it. It takes about an hour.

So it is very simple, low cost, and if you don't like it you can export all of the data and put it in Access (no) or another CRM.
posted by munchingzombie at 3:03 PM on December 20, 2013

I considered this a few years ago when I was working for a small nonprofit that sounds similar to what you describe in terms of size and scope. I considered integrating it into our website (we used Joomla) but as the only paid staff, I was worried that there would be nobody around to maintain and troubleshoot it once I was gone (and my skills in the latter were marginal). It also would have taken valuable time away from work that furthered our mandate. I paused at "there's no one else in the organization who is even remotely technical" part of your question. It's always good to have someone around who can troubleshoot because there are always going to be issues with these things. I think your concerns are valid.
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:14 PM on December 20, 2013

Just be aware that google docs isn't 100% stable or secure. I think moving to a dedicated tool is a good idea and hey maybe being more organized will result in a need for a more robust tool.
posted by bleep at 3:17 PM on December 20, 2013

I don't think CiviCRM is a great tool for small organizations. There is significant overhead in keeping it running, up to date, etc. It tends to be a bit buggy. It is not very user friendly. As you identify, relying on a single volunteer to manage your database can be risky.

There are a number of paid options that make more sense at your scale. I've used Nationbuilder extensively, and while it has it's frustrations, it is relatively usable, would cost you $29/month, and doesn't require much technical knowledge.

$29/month is incredibly cheap compared to the time and money you will is spend on CiviCRM.
posted by ssg at 6:27 PM on December 20, 2013

I don't know the software myself, and I think a great deal depends on how easy it really is for inexperienced people and volunteers to learn and manage. It is a classic bad situation for nonprofits to depend on any one single person (let alone a volunteer) to manage their entire software infrastructure. That is fragile and brittle - and I've seen organizations really hobbled by it. If you do decide to go forward, insist on as lengthy a tutorial as it takes for the people who need to use and understand this system.

And that's the other thing to look at - true cost to use. If it is going to take a lot of people a long time to learn and manage, is that the best use of the very limited resources of your nonprofit? Why not evaluate the paid services ssg is suggesting? Chances are you can use a simple online suite, or a set of patchworked services, to do the functions you need to do. What are the functions, by the way? IT might help if you could answer that.
posted by Miko at 8:10 PM on December 20, 2013

Never ever rely on a single volunteer. Unless they can bring in 4-5 more people to train and form a support group, this is way too risky. Tell them to recruit some more volunteers specifically for this first.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:12 PM on December 20, 2013

Your mention of "total cost of ownership" is dead on. While I have seen Civi implemented by small orgs with great results, I've seen twice as many orgs struggle with managing both initial setup and maintenance.

My main reason for commenting though, is that if you're using Google docs..

- Do a regular download of your orgs data via takeout. Yes.. now you have to figure out how/where to securely store this backup, but Google can pull access to your docs. Some may consider this advice to be FUD, but I've seen a group lose access to membership data in docs, and the chaos that followed. It's not entirely clear *why* access was revoked, and restoring access was only possible because of a personal connection within Google.

- Maybe you can address some of these frustrations by tapping into slightly more advanced Google service usage. There are powerful tools within docs, like filters and cross workbook references. They're not exactly easy-peazy to set up, but are a far cry from Drupal coding/admin. Google sites (as crappy as they are in so many ways), can help to create a more user-friendly directory of documents. And remember, google groups, even if they're not used for communication, can be used to streamline access control, to avoid having ad-hoc lists of sharing permissions. e.g. You can grant access to a site or doc by adding the group address to the sharing/editing access page.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 4:14 PM on December 22, 2013

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