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4 Key Challenges NPO’s Face When Implementing Salesforce

By May 15, 2013

guest-sam1When executed right, adopting Salesforce can be transformational for a nonprofit.  It can change the entire way an organization operates, helping their transition to a smarter, more efficient, more data-driven, and ultimately more impactful operation.

But it doesn’t take very long working with nonprofits on Salesforce to recognize that the same set of challenges keep popping up for organization after organization.  Many groups seem to be tripping over the same hurdles, re-learning the same lessons, and reinventing the same wheels.

The data confirms it.

I worked with on an in-depth customer study, to clearly identify both what the biggest hurdles were across the nonprofit Salesforce community, and the solutions people were hungriest to see.  The process ranged from in-depth interviews with organizations, consulting partners, and the foundation itself, to a large-scale randomized survey, spanning the range of nonprofit Salesforce “customers.”

The data confirms that a handful of key challenges are tripping up the vast majority of organizations, and points a clear path towards how those challenges can be overcome.

What may be surprising to some is that these key challenges were not about technology or the Salesforce platform itself.  In fact, they are much more about the approach the organization takes towards implementation and adoption.  Organizations who enter this territory with accurate expectations, strong guidance, and an understanding of where to focus stand a much greater chance of success.

In this post, we’ll lay out the four main challenges that stood out above the rest in the study, while in the next post we’ll talk more about the solutions that people were excited about and the steps that are already being made in those directions.  I’ll also include several quotes taken directly from organizations and partners who participated in the study.

The 4 Key Challenges

The first two key challenges apply mainly to organizations who are just starting out on Salesforce.  They are:

#1: We didn’t know what we were getting into in terms of time, budget, or complexity.

#2: We didn’t know how or where to start.

The other key challenges happen throughout the Salesforce “life-cycle”.  Those are:

#3: Data migration and ongoing data management.

#4: Training or adoption for staff or leadership.

Let’s look at each of these challenges individually, and some of the wisdom and best practices that arose for each.

Challenge #1: “We didn’t know what we were getting into in terms of time, budget, or complexity.”


It turns out that one of the key stumbling blocks for many organizations in adopting Salesforce successfully is that they don’t come in with accurate expectations of the type of investment and focus it will require to be successful.

The dangers of inaccurate expectations

So what does it actually look like when organizations come to the table with inadequate expectations for the process? It turns out the consequences are predictable and detrimental.

When expectations aren’t set right, organizations attempt to implement and adopt Salesforce with inadequate resources, insufficient expertise, and often without the right people at the table.  This results in an incomplete or half-baked system that doesn’t fit the needs of staff or the organization’s programs.  On top of that, there’s usually not enough time spent on getting data into shape, and rarely an adequate plan for how training and support will happen.

These factors combined result in a system that staffers don’t understand, don’t like, and don’t trust.  And once that trust is broken, staff abandon it for their old, familiar — if dysfunctional — set of spreadsheets and inboxes.  The project is either doomed, or will require a much bigger and more costly effort to fix, both technologically and organizationally.

Chances are, if you’re planning to implement and adopt a new system as powerful as Salesforce, you’re doing it because it’s of significant strategic importance to your organization.  And if that’s the case, it deserves to be given the level of attention, focus, and resources that will make it successful.

“The whole list of getting Salesforce functioning in your organization is way bigger than most people anticipate.  By the time they’re a year down the road they’ve invested in it and see the value, they probably feel like it’s been worth it.  But the level of investment is always way more than they expected.  That may not be what every organization wants to hear, but it’s just true.”

“You need strong executive-level buy-in.  The leaders have to understand and sanction the project.  They have to understand the investment, why they’re doing it, and what are the outcomes.”

“It’s about building a culture of data in the organization.  It’s about having data so you can see where you’re being successful, and where you’re failing. And being able to take action based on the data, not just on gut feeling.”

Resource:  Readiness Survey from

Challenge #2: We didn’t know how or where to start


The other main challenge for organizations during their initial ramp-up period was not knowing where to start.  The lessons from this challenge can be broken down into a few different categories:

The importance of an implementation partner

It’s been shown previously and was confirmed again in this study: the chances for a successful implementation increase dramatically when organizations work with a good implementation consultant (often referred to as a “partner”).

It may be possible for orgs to successfully implement Salesforce on their own if they have someone with a very deep level of technical and “business analysis” skill, as well as a great deal of time, to devote to the project.  But even in that scenario the landscape is fraught with challenges, and generally speaking successful cases seem to be the exception more so than the rule.

“Until we got a Salesforce consultant, we were lost.”

Of course, having a partner is not a panacea in itself.  Implementations and adoptions are complex beasts, and the organization must “show up” as a full partner in the process in order to be successful.  However, a relationship with the right consulting partner can help the organization navigate a maze of important initial choices, eliminate some key hurdles, and get started on the right foot.

Selecting the right technical foundation

A host of important technical choices face organizations right off the bat.  Should they use the Nonprofit Starter Pack or another pre-fabricated “app” that fits their needs?  Should they customize Salesforce from the ground up?  Should they use the “1-to-1 accounts model” or the “bucket model”?  (If you’re confused by that question, you’re not alone!)

“It’s difficult to choose – NPSP, standard SFDC, go for Appexchange app?  It’s difficult to know the pros and cons for each.  And if you choose wrong, woe is you later on.”

These choices have significant impacts down the line, and a concrete relationship to the success of the organization’s efforts on Salesforce.  But not surprisingly, very few nonprofits come to the table with enough experience and foresight to answer them well when first starting out.

Translating Salesforce language to the nonprofit world.

There are a lot of resources out there for people looking to get up and running on the Salesforce platform.  But many nonprofits say they had a difficult time translating some of the typical for-profit sales language for the nonprofit world.

“Salesforce language was uncomfortable. I didn’t know what a lead, contact, organization, account, etc was…”

Overall, it does seem like this challenge subsides a bit as organizations get more comfortable on the platform, and as more getting started resources are created for the nonprofit community.

Resource: Nonprofit Translator from
Resource: Getting Started with Salesforce webinars for Foundation customers

Challenge #3: Data migration and ongoing data management


Data migration and maintenance was consistently ranked as one of the most significant challenges that organizations face, both when they are first starting out on Salesforce and throughout their usage.

There are two main categories here: data migration and data cleanup.

Data migration: Take the time to start with good, clean data

“One of the biggest pain points I’ve seen is data migration.  Convincing people that they don’t want to bring over all their junk.  Sometimes just getting the data from their old systems can be quite a nightmare.”

When budgets or timelines get tight, data cleanup and migration can sometimes end up on the chopping block. “As long as we have the system set up right,” the thinking goes, “we can always clean up our data later.  Just bring it all over and we’ll figure it out.”

Unfortunately, most often that approach seems to backfire.  It’s hard enough for staff to learn a new system and adopt it as part of their daily routine.  But when data is incomplete or inaccurate a couple things happen.  First, trust in the system is quickly broken.  Second, when bad data goes into a system, it’s very hard to get any valuable data back out.  If staff aren’t getting valuable information back out of the system, chances are slim they will spend the necessary time entering it in the first place.

“Data is the biggest problem.  It harms adoption.  If the data doesn’t have integrity people don’t trust the system and will never trust it.  It takes away all the impetus for them to learn, to dig in, to look at this thing with data they can’t trust.”

Data cleanup: it never ends

A challenge that many organizations found surprising was that keeping data healthy and clean required an ongoing investment of time and resources. Ultimately the data is the thing that is most valuable in the system.  However, there are many challenges to keeping data clean and healthy, from user error to training discrepancies, all the way to imprecise naming of fields.

That’s all very normal in the course of everyday life of an organization.  But when left unchecked it can threaten the integrity of the entire system, and quickly undermine the value of having a CRM in the first place.

“Getting staff to realize that keeping data clean is everyone’s problem, not just the administrator’s or consultant’s, is most of the battle here.”

Many successful organizations have found that the keys to keeping data in healthy shape include early detection systems, regular cleaning processes, and repeating training.

“The biggest challenge has been establishing formal protocol and processes, enforcing those processes for data entry and putting in place a regular cleansing regimen to correct inconsistencies.”

Challenge #4: Training or adoption for staff or leadership


Often, the majority of the focus for a Salesforce project goes towards the technical side.  Most of the energy goes to getting the implementation right, so the organization has all of the fields and objects and reports they need to track their work.  Of course it’s clear to everyone that this technical setup is necessary.

But it might come as a surprise that even when the technical side is done well, it can still be hard to get staff to actually use the system!  And in fact, staff adoption shows up as one of the most significant challenges across all types of organizations.

“Many staff see Salesforce as separate from what they do — this additional chore for entering data. It is hard to get them to realize how big of a help it’s going to be once they really use it.”

Plan for change and support it

The truth is, adopting a new system with the depth and power of Salesforce usually represents a significant level of organizational change.  And as such, it requires some careful “change management” planning.

In fact, it may be just as crucial to have an organizational adoption plan as it is to get the technical side right.  Such a plan may include getting and maintaining staff and leadership buy-in, communicating clearly about the vision and value of the project, and having a thorough plan for training staff (more than once!) and supporting them as they learn the system.  Some organizations have even had success from “gamifying” staff adoption.

Think about how the data will get used

The other important framework to keep in mind to help increase adoption is that the power of a CRM like Salesforce is not just entering data into the system.  Equally or more important is how you’re going to pull data out.  Often, some basic planning around the reporting side can be the driver of organization-wide use:

“The turbo super-charger for adoption is that people are tracking work in a system which is feeding a report which is feeding a dashboard which is getting looked at by executive staff.  And that feedback loop is closing by the executive saying ‘this is great’ or ‘where is this info’ or ‘you only met with 3 people, why?’.  People checking people’s work is the super-charger for this because it doesn’t say ‘use this’, it assumes ‘use this’.”

And more…

So is that the full list of challenges?  Well, no.

As is always the case with any complex technology project, getting a wide range of details correct always turns out to be more complex than expected.  So not surprisingly, we heard about plenty of other challenges that orgs have faced along the way, such as being able to prioritize and afford training and ongoing peer support for an organization’s internal Salesforce administrator.

However, the four challenges named here are ones that were consistently ranked at the top among the largest slice of organizations.  And the good news is, for the most part they are entirely preventable.

Organizations who approach their Salesforce implementation with these key ingredients — accurate expectations, a sense of where to start, adequate attention to data, and a serious adoption/training plan — put themselves four big steps ahead.


In the next post, learn what the study showed was the one solution that everyone seemed to want, and what is planning to do about it.

Thanks to Sam Dorman for authoring this guest blog for the Foundation. Sam Dorman is one of the social change sector’s recognized leaders in the technology arena, helping nonprofits deliver technology that works for people. After years of experience working in nonprofits at both a staff and executive level, Sam is known for his track record of helping organizations successfully navigate the confusing waters of technology change, delivering innovative solutions with wide internal adoption and deep external impact.