Renting versus owning your CRM

When you’re a nonprofit executive, you can choose to rent or own your CRM software. It’s a major decision that will have ripple effects for years to come, so how do you decide prudently?

When you rent a house, you don’t need to think about the plumbing, house layout design or what furniture you’d like to put in what rooms. It requires less thinking and you can get down to work. And sure, there is an appeal to that. But moving isn’t fun so you need to get this right. I’m about to move in the middle of the Florida August sun, so believe me, you want to avoid a digital move too. 

Renting is attractive because it is safe bet, comes with some pre-made planning for you. But it is not without risk either as outgrowing a SaaS tool is a common phenomenon too.

Renting is easy and there’s no strings attached. Well, a caveat to that is “vendor lock-in” but that’s a topic for another day. Hint: SaaS providers’ strategy operate on the mode of easy entry and hard exit. Set that aside for a minute, the appeal is you can get up and running “in only 15 minutes” as one commercial SaaS provider, NationBuilder, puts it on their homepage. And sure that’s an attractive, spin up an instance, load some contacts up and you’re off.

You can now declare that you have a CRM. OK.

But like most people, you probably don’t want to rent your whole life. Buying a house is scary, fun and amazing all at the same time. It’s a decision you make when you have a good idea on your career trajectory, found a partner to move forward with or your general expectations for what you want in life are clear.

So, say it with me, your CRM is a long-lived asset. 

Unlike a website that can be outdated in a few years, your institutional knowledge needs to be preserved and cultivated over time. It’s your relationships that fuel your fundraising and those who rally behind your cause.

So the factors come down time-horizon, risk tolerance and the extent of your CRM plans that you may, or may not have. Will your shiny new CRM work for you not just today, but for many years out as well? Does it give you a runway to grow with it?

You’ll know this when you’ve done your due diligence with a product roadmap.  This involves outlining key goals and functional requirements and prioritizing with a framework like the MoSCoW method.

Look, when you own an open source CRM like CiviCRM, there are attractive benefits to consider. But, is the juice worth the squeeze? You could:

  • Have a high degree of customization options via in-browser and custom code, if you so choose
  • Save substantially long-term with lower Annually Recurring Costs (ARC)
  • Make it as simple or as complex as you want
  • Never have to take, “You can’t do that” as the final answer

But this doesn’t come without some hard work and proper planning, because you will also need to:

  • Accurately understand the results you’re after and what the CRM will do to help in that endeavor,
  • Find hosting or delegate this to your preferred CRM contractor,
  • Decide who will help you “build it out”

Getting started with owning your CRM route doesn’t have to be full of fuss. In the end, it can pay off many times over the long-haul because it works exactly how you want. Plus, you won’t be shoveling cash into subscription and license fees but rather into your actual mission.

Here’s the deal:

Renting is using what exists, is pre-made and ready today that carries less short-term risk.

On the other hand, owning is starting from a solid platform and asking you to make it your own with the flexibility and control that entails. And the benefit is you perform better when you have that comfortable feeling because it truly feels like yours. This requires a thoughtful planning exercise. More on that next week.

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Andy took the time to fully understand our immediate needs and limitations. He also worked with us to develop a process to keep our short and long term development/features goals moving forward at our pace. This ensures that implementations done today also consider the impacts on future planned enhancements.

– Evan McMahon, LPIN
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