Why You Should (and Should not) Use CiviCRM for Your Organization or Campaign

By Henri Makembe on 05.09.10

Social Contxt, A Boston-Based new media firmFollowing up on his post earlier this week presenting CiviCRM as an alternative to hosted CRMs, Riche Zamor, Principal at Social Contxt, writes a post detailing many of the advantages of CiviCRM as well some its weaknesses.

In my last post I wrote up a introduction post about CiviCRM, presenting as a alternative to proprietary hosted CRM solution. I did not want to end the conversation that.  The truth is over the course of my career working with the system, I have found many reasons why an organization or campaign should and shouldn’t use it:

Why You Should Choose CiviCRM:

In the crowded CRM market, there are some notable features that I feel make CiviCRM stick out from the pack:

Activities – CiviCRM offers a standard way of tracking all interactions with constituents, called activities. You can have an activity record for every communication you send to a constituent (phone call, email blast, text message) and one for every interaction they have with you (donation, event registration, website registration). You can customize create custom activity types with custom data fields so you can collect information relevant to each type of action. As an example, you may set up a custom activity for “signed petition” and add custom source and sub-source code fields to track how that person found your petition.

Custom profiles – Administrators can configure custom sets of fields to collect specific data about constituents on CiviCRM forms. This gives an organization extreme flexibility in what information they gather from constituents and can be used to build registration forms and program applications for your CMS system. As an example, you may configure a custom profile to collect a person’s food preferences on an event registration page.

CRM integration – Out of the box CiviCRM comes with integration with Drupal and Joomla. This can save organizations a lot on development costs from custom integration CRM systems.

Geocoding/Mapping – CiviCRM has native integration with the Google or Yahoo! Maps API to geocode all contacts as they are created. You can then map any custom search within the system. This is also very useful when building geographic search tools or mapping applications that plot CiviCRM data.

Task Management – CiviCRM uses activities as a tool for task management. You can assign an activity to any team member and track the status of that activity. Each user has a custom dashboard, which lists out all activities that have been assigned to them. This can be a powerful feature for managing organizing teams or staff spread out geographically.

Customizable Dashboards – Each user is given a custom dashboard similar to an iGoogle page. That person can embed widgets, which are CiviCRM reports, on that dashboard so they get a snapshot view of what is going on within the organization. You can get the information you need quickly without having to rerun reports each time.

Fundraising – CiviContribute is one of the most well developed components of the system. It offers very customizable donation forms, personal fundraising pages, embeddable widgets, and premiums. The one caveat is that CiviContribute does not allow you to source code contributions from specific pages, but that can be overcome if you have a developer who can customize the system to do so.

Why you shouldn’t use CiviCRM:

Capacity: The number one determinant, in my opinion, for any organization that wants to use CiviCRM is capacity. Although CiviCRM is free to download, it is not free to maintain. You need a level of technical expertise to apply upgrades and customize the system. You also need to host the system yourself, which will require some level of system administration work. If you do not have the technical expertise in house or the funds to pay a developer to support the system for you, then weight the cost/benefit of going with a hosted solution.

No Advocacy Tools – CiviCRM offers no tools for online advocacy. To launch petitions, letter to the editor or congress campaigns, etc., you need to roll your own tools. There are a few good modules for Drupal that allow for petitions, but are lacking when trying to target elected officials or some entity (newspaper, business, etc) with personal letters from constituents. There are some tools under development for running canvassing and phone banking reports, but there is still the gap in there not being a robust online advocacy solution.

No Asset Management – There is still no mechanism in CiviCRM for managing photos and other web assets associated with online forms. It is not uncommon for organizations to embed images in emails and on contribution pages. This is a huge annoyance to have to upload the image somewhere within the CMS them go back into Civi to include it within your content.

Underdeveloped Email Tool – The one area of CiviCRM I feel is the most neglected is the CiviMail. Don’t believe the hype when people say it can’t scale, it can. But, from a features perspective, most organizations running sophisticated email marketing programs would be disappointed with it. Templates are not very easy to set up, you cannot use conditional content or place in tokens donation amounts, there is no split testing mechanism, and there are repeated complaints about the accuracy of its reporting (which may or may not be true). You can customize it to your desire, but this brings us right back to whether your organization has the capacity.

Developer Focused – There have been great inroads in improving the usability of CiviCRM over the past year. It is still somewhat of a developer-focused system. To create custom reports, new case types, tokens for the email blast tool, etc.; you need to be a developer. Most organizations don’t have developers on staff and are left without the ability to implement some basic things, like custom reports, that other systems offer GUI tools to do.

Conclusion

Choosing a CRM system in general is a roll of the dice. You are presented with facts regarding features and functionality, but your success with any platform ultimately comes down to your strategy for utilizing it.

Do not be caught in a position where you choose to use CiviCRM for the wrong reasons, and don’t let a hack tell you why it is the best solution since sliced bread. CiviCRM is not free, there are cost to implement and maintain it which scale depending on your degree of use and customization. Using CiviCRM will not make you the next Barack Obama nor raise you hundreds of millions of dollars online. Get through the fog of misconceptions to get down to the real nitty-gritty so you can make an informed decision.