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7 Pearls of Wisdom on Starting Salesforce for Fundraising

By December 9, 2015


shutterstock_229076785 is growing its community of users around the world, and as this happens we’re noticing a growing group of enthusiastic experts eager to share their experience and knowledge of Salesforce with the wider nonprofit community. Getting started with Salesforce might be easy when compared to other solutions, but with every type of IT, business, process etc. change a huge amount of work and planning needs to be put in to ensure success, scalability, and return on investment.  Getting a little bit of inside knowledge before starting out can be truly invaluable.

Marsha Sussman, Vice President, Fundraising Operations, Direct Response and Analytics at the Jewish Agency for Israel shares her 7 Pearls of Wisdom on Starting Salesforce for Fundraising.

I have had the pleasure and heartache of working with many different legacy donor management systems during my tenure with The National Geographic Society, Smithsonian Institution, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other employee/consulting relationships. At The Jewish Agency for Israel we have been using the Salesforce platform for Financial Resource Development for over 5 years and I can truly say that “the cloud” requires a new paradigm.  When you start with Salesforce, you’re challenged to rethink a lot of things about your organization; how you manage your programs and processes, what’s the quality of your data etc.  It’s a time when honesty is the best policy, and planning can save you a lot of time and heartache in the future.

I had a personal goal this year, of connecting with 3-4 new fundraising professionals every week (it can get lonely working in a virtual organization). Meeting with these people, whether at conferences, dinners, or through friends and colleagues I learned a lot about the challenges they face when it comes to technology, and their concerns about getting started with Salesforce – “we have so much data, how do we move it?”, “Salesforce is so flexible, how do we define the parameters” – all valid questions.

At the Jewish Agency for Israel, we definitely didn’t get everything perfect to begin with, but we’ve smoothed out the bumps and today have a very robust fundraising engine for the largest Jewish Fundraising Organization in the world.  Reflecting on the conversations I’ve had the last year, I’ve gathered some of my top tips/pearls of wisdom for those thinking of, or in the process of moving to Salesforce.

1 Goals, Scope and Parameters

Start out by clearly defining the parameters of your new system and put it in writing. A well thought out plan will give you an idea of the scope of work, help manage expectations and help prevent the project from growing out of control. Decide on the parameters of the project early on – will you be using Salesforce for major gifts, direct response, donor management, grant management, gift management or contact management? You’ll likely do a phase based approach, so be sure to define these phases, and the amount of time required for each stage, like system configuration, user testing and implementation.

2 Management Buy-in

I always attribute our successful adoption of Salesforce to the eternal support of our COO and CEO.  It’s critical to have your leadership buy-in to the system and provide incentives for system adoption. Proper training and continuous education is the foundation for success, but tying measurable system output to performance reviews really helps carry this through.  We have a motto – “if it isn’t in the system, it doesn’t exist” which helped fundraisers accept this new reality. Pick one or two features of the new system that will “improve the lives” of the users and/or managers. One feature that sold our managers on the power of Salesforce is the “bounceback”.

3 Salesforce Expertise

Salesforce is extremely dynamic, open, and easy-to-work-in and our experience has demonstrated that, as users and management become comfortable working in the cloud, requests to expand the parameters of the system come quickly.  For instance, in 2010/11 we launched a contact management and new gift entry system for fundraisers.  Over a five year period, our Salesforce system has expanded to grant management, moves management, event management, gifts in play and many other areas which enrich the fundraisers ability to achieve success. Salesforce however, requires trained expertise for implementation and on-going support.  Projected resources must include a realistic provision for accessing staff or consultants that are certified to work in the Salesforce environment.

4 Know Thy Data

The design and structure of Salesforce’s fundraising system is driven by the unique characteristics of each organization.  It’s critical to understand and know your database prior to spec’ing out a new system or beginning your transition.  Pull a series of frequencies (counts and moneys raised) from your current system including but not limited to: donor distribution; gift distribution; major donors/mid-level donors/low-end donors/inactive; prospects vs. donors and counts for each field.  The best time to clean your files is prior to, not after the move. If you don’t do this, problems just compound, are reproduced and it’s harder to identify these issues in the new environment. Most critically, you should have baseline data for comparison to insure the move has been done accurately.

5 Network

I’ve heard from several nonprofits that they find/found it difficult to visualize the end result with Salesforce, because the system can be tailored to any organizational needs.  Before making any decisions, be sure to network with other organizations, whether that’s in the Power of Us Hub, at or 3rd party events, online on social networks like LinkedIn. It’s OK to ask to take a peek at their system, inquire about what apps they find helpful, and learn from their experiences.

6 Be Creative and Check out Apps

The move to Salesforce provides the opportunity to capitalize on the NEW.  Evaluate all components of your fundraising workflow and look for improvements and methods to generate incremental revenue. There are tools/apps like WealthEngine, which seamlessly integrate with Salesforce, making a 21 page prospect profile, just a click away. Unlike legacy donor management systems, Salesforce can easily track and report the movement of each prospect/donor through the various stages (as established by your organization) and pinpoint all activities – number of contacts, type of contact, reason for contact, timing of interactions, events etc. The successful use of Salesforce is only limited by the creative imagination of its users.

7 Back-end Integration

This ended up being the most common topic from all my meetings over the last few months.  Many charities are struggling with legacy donor management systems, which have been in place for years. As a result, an entire vendor support industry has evolved around servicing production needs such as list pulls, appeal uploads, acknowledgments, pledge reminders, contribution processing, change of address, data hygiene, reporting and other relevant tasks.  It’s not as easy to find vendors that work in the Salesforce environment. The production vendors, agencies and consultants currently used by your organization might not have the expertise or experience to work on Salesforce. The back-end of your operations must be factored into the plan before any decisions are made and must be part of the system testing.  This especially applies to organizations that have a significant direct response campaign.  Get the experts in the room to talk and propose solutions before making your move.

If you’re a Salesforce expert, newbie or somewhere in between  and think I’ve missed something, please let me know. If there’s anything you’d like me to expand on or discuss further, please feel free to reach out to me on the Power of Us Hub or via email – [email protected]