The CiviCRM project started in late 2004 with the aim of creating a freely available web based CRM designed from the ground up to meet the needs of nonprofit, and other civic-sector organizations.
After a few months initial development work, the first release, in March 2005, was intentionally modest in scope. You would not be far off calling it a shared address book with special powers, like the ability to record activities, import/export information, and do a couple of other things that developers find interesting. With each further release, more functionality was added: donor and event management came early on, followed by a set of tools for managing memberships. Later came a case management framework and a campaigning framework. As more features were added, more organizations found ways in which they could use it to support their work. A community of users and developers built around CiviCRM. Each new release built incrementally on the work of previous versions; more people started to add new features – and refine existing features – in response to feedback from users.
Today CiviCRM is a fully fledged mature CRM used and developed by thousands of different types of organizations all over the world. A vibrant and diverse ecosystem of service providers support these organizations.
This chapter looks at CiviCRM through the lens of three different nonprofit organizations that use it in their daily work to illustrate how these organizations have been able to both benefit from CiviCRM, and contribute to it along the way.
Each organization uses different parts of CiviCRM, and have structured their projects in different ways. We hope they will inspire you to think about how you could run your CiviCRM project.
At the end of the CiviCRM section is an introduction to the CiviCRM community and a few pointers to help you get involved.
The UFI Charitable Trust is a new organization (founded in 2012) whose ambitious mission is to "use 21st century technology to create a step change in adult learning and employability in the UK". They do this by funding projects that will achieve this step change, and they have a total of £50 million to distribute. Although £50 million is not a small amount of money, UFI are keen to run themselves as a "lean charity": to keep infrastructure spending as low as possible so that as much money as possible goes toward achieving their stated aim.
Key to keeping spending low was investing in a low cost, scalable solution to support their business processes, which are: an online application process; publicity to support this process; promotion and marketing of the projects they are funding.
With the help of an external consultant, UFI identified CiviCRM with Drupal as a toolkit that could be configured to support these business processes. They used CiviCase and integration with Drupal's webform module to create a two stage online application which was successfully used to support their first round of funding.
A key decision made early on in the project was to only use "out-of-the-box" CiviCRM components and not develop custom code. It is worth while spending a little time thinking about what out-of-the-box really means and why was it important to UFI.
In the case of CiviCRM, out-of-the-box often means adjusting your business processes to do things "the CiviCRM way", which might initially sound like a sacrifice, but often makes a lot of sense when weighed against the cost of developing and maintaining a custom solution. Bear in mind also, that "the CiviCRM way" is a distillation of the experience of the nonprofits that use and develop CiviCRM. In this way it represents a lot of best practice, and a high degree of reliability.
As well as being out-of-the-box, the fact that CiviCRM is well supported was another key decision for UFI. The combination of the two significantly lowers the risk in choosing a service provider since if things don't go well, UFI are able to easily move to another provider.
UFI worked in partnership with their developers in a series of "sprints" – a series of all-day coding sessions – where they got together for 2 days at a time to work together to understand the problem and rapidly develop the solution. Being in the same room dramatically increases the opportunities for communication and collaboration, and can in this instance really sped up the development process and helped to keep costs down.
UFI now now have a reliable documented application system that has been successfully used for round one of their funding and they can further improve and refine for further rounds as necessary.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is an internationally recognized organization that plays a critical part in defending civil liberties in the digital age. They do this through campaigning, legal work, publishing, and support software development and research.
As a technology lead organization interested in digital rights, privacy, etc., it is important for EFF to hold their own systems to the same standards that they promote to their supporters. Before migrating to CiviCRM, EFF used a toolkit which had significant gaps in this area (for example it sent users their passwords in plain text each month). And because the system was proprietary and controlled by an external company, staff at EFF had little ability to inspect the system or change its behavior to better meet their needs.
Given their skill set and internal technical capacity, EFF were in a good position to evaluate the options available to them and to find one that met their needs. They decided on CiviCRM for two main reasons: 1) it did a considerable amount of what they needed it to do "out-of-the-box", and 2) they could inspect the software and were free to change and improve how it worked.
The EFF now use various parts of CiviCRM (CiviMember, CiviContribute and CiviMail) to manage their membership, raise money and communicate with their supporter base. They have over XX contacts in their database and use CiviCRM to support major campaigns. Do you remember SOPA Blackout day? When sites like Wikipedia, Google and Wired "went black" to protest against the SOPA act, on that day Wikipedia directed people to an EFF page to invite people to contribute to a EFF campaign against SOPA.
Since deciding to switch to CiviCRM, EFF have become quite involved in the CiviCRM community, hosting meet-ups and code sprints, attending conferences, writing documentation and contributing their improvements back to CiviCRM.
Kellie, is the Donor Relations Coordinator at EFF. Through EFF's CiviCRM project and her interactions with the CiviCRM, she has become a passionate supporter of CiviCRM. In autumn 2012, she started a CiviCRM ambassadors program which aims to create an network of users of CiviCRM who can talk to other potential users about CiviCRM and how it has benefited them.
Micah is (amongst other things) a CiviCRM developer based at EFF. Over the summer of 2012 he spent a fair amount of time improving EFF's donation pages: making it easier for people to donate and increasing the amount of money that EFF can raise with CiviCRM. After seeing the improvements that these pages made on his site, he contributed these changes back to CiviCRM in a more generalized way so that they can be used by other organizations using CiviCRM. So why did he do this? (apart from the fact that he is a generally good guy and wants other people to be able to benefit from his work!). Well Micah knows that when it comes time to upgrade, if he has contributed these changes back to the core, upgrading will be nice and simple, and he'll be able to use his new contribution pages as part of Core CiviCRM as well as benefiting from all the other improvements in the latest version.
Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organization (known as GMCVO) is the voluntary sector support organization for the city-region of Greater Manchester, UK. Independent "GMCVO-like" organizations exist around the UK to support organizations in their locality.
Key to the work of GMCVO is an accurate picture of the local voluntary and community sector and the work that they do to support organizations – and CiviCRM plays a major role in this work. For example, they use CiviEvent to plan and deliver relevant training courses to staff at local organizations. They use CiviMail to communicate with thousands of contacts with targeted newsletters. They use activities to record support work with their clients. This helps them in a number of ways: they can better understand the needs and development of the sector; target work, staff time and communications; and they can report to funders on their work.
As well as using CiviCRM internally, they also run a paid CiviCRM consultancy that offers CiviCRM implementation, training and hosting to the organizations that they support. This consultancy is financially self sustaining and generates an income for GMCVO. So how did they get here?
In 2008 GMCVO won funding for a project to provide a performance and monitoring system for use by organizations providing voluntary sector support in the Greater Manchester area. The idea behind the funding was to benefit from the economies of scale of providing the same solution to many organizations. They could have gone away and written their own software to do this, but instead decided to build this with CiviCRM. Building with CiviCRM meant they got most of what they needed at no cost and could focus their funding on providing training and functionality that did not already exist.
Four years down the line, GMCVO have contracts to support over forty local organizations who pay a fixed yearly subscription to GMCVO. This allows GMCVO to employ three members of staff that support those organizations and provide unlimited (within reason) support to these organizations. The type of organizations being supported has become more diverse over time as GMCVO staff have developed expertise in the full range of functionality that CiviCRM provides.
As GMCVO staff have built up their knowledge of CiviCRM, they have started working more widely with the CiviCRM community, delivering training in Manchester and London (with a freely available code base) and participating in "code sprints". This wider participation in the community both increases their CiviCRM skills and profile, and contributes to a wider uptake of CiviCRM and a stronger community.
This chapter should give you a good basic idea of how CiviCRM has helped nonprofit organizations achieve their mission and given you a good idea about how you could run your own CiviCRM project. Remember that these are just examples – each project is different and there as many different ways to run CiviCRM projects as there are nonprofit organizations.
But before we get too carried away it is worth stopping to remember that choosing CiviCRM or open source in not a guarantee of a successful project. The above examples have tried to pull out some of the ways that people have been successful with CiviCRM, but there are equally many – if not more – ways to be unsuccessful! The best way to ensure success is to talk to people about what you are planning and to listen to people that have been there and done that before.
Fortunately, there are many ways you can start talking to CiviCRM people, both online and offline. Places online include the CiviCRM forum, blog and on twitter. Real life places include CiviCRM meet ups, conferences and trainings (check if there is one happening near you soon).
If you are lucky enough to live somewhere with a regular CiviCRM meet up, you should go along. If there is no local meet up, and that surprises you, then you should start one up! You might also want to talk to local developers / service providers with experience working with CiviCRM. For obvious reasons, they will probably be very than happy to chat with you.
In terms of online resources, the case studies and ambassadors on civicrm.org are a great starting point. Find an organization similar to yours and get in contact by phone / email and meet up with them in person if possible. If you have any questions about whether CiviCRM is right for you / your organization, you can ask them on the CiviCRM forum. The important thing is to talk to – and get help from – people who are experienced with CivICRM. You'll learn from their mistakes and your project will be better for it.
CiviCRM is not a software company in traditional sense. For the CiviCRM project, building a community of people around the software is as important as building the software itself. And everyone is welcome to play a part in that community.
You might have an idea for a project that is an innovative way to supply CiviCRM services, or a new way to market CiviCRM, or a way to raise funds to develop CiviCRM, or something else very cool. Whatever your project, if you want to do something in the CiviCRM community, then the best thing to do is 1) tell people about your idea and 2) go for it! OK, doing 1) might sound like a bad idea and is hard to do since this is your great idea and you don't want anyone to steal it, but talking through your ideas with others is definitely the best way to improve them, and in any case, having the idea is the easy bit – the hard bit is implementing it.
What ever happens you'll find the CiviCRM community a welcoming place for good ideas, and while we can't guarantee that your project will be successful, it is worth remembering that all the good ideas in CiviCRM come from someone trying something out and contributing it back. Over time the good ideas stick and the product and the community gets better.