Managing Your Organization’s Contacts with CiviCRM

Whether you’re selling products, managing a non-profit or running a political campaign, one of the most important things you do is to manage relationships with other people. Your ability to maintain your organization’s contact database, whether it contains potential customers or donors, is essential to your operations.

Many organizations use various types of Contact Relationship Management (CRM) software such as Salesforce or Microsoft Dynamics in order to collect and maintain all of the important details on the people they interact with. Depending on the software and features selected, this can run into hundreds of dollars per month. Other software has a high entrance fee or additional costs for importing existing records and other features.

One free solution is CiviCRM, an open-source web-based software managed by CiviCRM LLC and developed by a community of software developers who contribute their talents to the project. CiviCRM is designed especially for non-profit organizations and functions as part of a Content Management System (CMS) such as WordPress or Joomla. This means that it integrates with an organization’s website so that users can easily collect data and use it within everyday operations.

CiviCRM running as part of a WordPress site. The main screen is shown with the CiviCRM menu at the top.

CiviCRM is a customizable solution that enables an organization to tailor it specifically to their needs. The software’s core functions provide contact management that includes maintaining relationships between individual contacts such as households and other groups. CiviCRM also includes a set of modules users can activate based on the organization’s needs. These modules include:

  • CiviEvent – Event management including registration and payment.
  • CiviContribute and CiviPledge – Tracking of contributions and pledges from donors.
  • CiviCase – Case management to track and document interactions with contacts including follow-up and oversight.
  • CiviReport and CiviMail – Development of reports based on the organization’s data and communication with contacts through mailings.

In addition to the modular design, CiviCRM features the ability to add and integrate custom fields into the system and install available extensions for additional functionality. The software also includes import and export functions to transfer data and an API that enables qualified developers to further customize its operation as needed.

As with any software, CiviCRM does have its imperfections. Critics cite an unattractive look and feel compared with other professional CRMs. CiviCRM is also less intuitive than other CRM software and might require a learning curve for both administrators and users. Some features, such as report development, are seen as especially difficult. Finally, as is usually the case with open-source software, support is primarily available through the documentation and the community of other users who participate in support forums. The lack of an official support line might be a deterrent for some users.

Another issue to consider when choosing a CRM is where your organization wants to store its data.  CiviCRM installs as part of an organization’s website and therefore requires either a web hosting account or an internal web server along with an installation of a CMS such as WordPress to support it. This might be more setup and administration than an organization wants to commit to. It also means that the data is stored on an in-house server or hosted space. There are other free or low-cost CMS plans that are cloud-based meaning that the data is stored on the provider’s servers. The nature and security needs of the data and your willingness to trust it to an online service will determine which solution is best for your organization.