What Advancement Leadership and CIOs Should Know About Modern Advancement CRM Systems

Senior Analyst

Top of Mind: What Advancement Leadership and CIOs Should Know About Modern Advancement CRM Systems
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A tremendous number of higher education institutions have upgraded their advancement CRMs in the last two years, migrating away from legacy systems of 20 or more years. A key factor precipitating this flux of activity is that several widely used legacy advancement systems have been sunset. Another even more causative factor is the inability of legacy systems to support the needs of the modern constituent, which is critical to fundraising and increasing institutional endowments. As higher education rebounds from the COVID-19 financial ramifications, a critical lesson learned is the institutional imperative to increase endowments to augment revenue streams in times of need. 

Tambellini research shows that at least 80 percent of institutions select packaged advancement CRM solutions compared to building custom applications or other strategies. The US higher education advancement market is rich with eight leading solutions, including Affinaquest Advancement RM, Blackbaud CRM, Blackbaud Raiser’s Edge NXT, Causeview Advancement, Ellucian CRM Advance, Technolutions Slate for Advancement, thankQ CRM, and UC Innovation ascend for Advancement. These solution suites vary widely by supported functional complexity, especially in gift processing, CRM platform, cost, extensibility, and available companion applications.

When an institution embarks on the selection and evaluation of a new advancement CRM, in addition to functional and technical requirements, it is important to understand the solution and vendor’s fit and alignment with the institution. For example, does the solution (functionally and technically) flex to the institution’s technology ecosystem and required use cases? Also, how well does the selected solution work with the institution’s resources and culture?

CRM Alignment and Platform Extensibility

While advancement systems have historically been selected as stand-alone applications, institutions are increasingly considering an institution’s enterprise-wide strategies for data governance and CRM, which can narrow best-fit options. In speaking with campus leaders, a frequent recommendation is to ensure that any software selection aligns with the institution’s CRM strategy. CRM platforms that underpin modern advancement solutions include Salesforce (Affinaquest, Causeview, and UCI ascend), Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM (Ellucian CRM Advance), and Microsoft proprietary CRMs (Blackbaud, Slate CRM, and thankQ CRM).

While enterprise-CRM (ECRM) is not yet mainstream in higher education, institutions are evaluating advancement CRM systems with an eye toward the future. Most institutions see the selection of a new advancement system as a minimum 10-year commitment. Consider which vendors and platforms can provide your institution with longevity and extensibility. Many institutions want CRM platforms that can support future applications outside of advancement. Extensibility involves configuration flexibility, open integration and APIs, availability of partner applications, and more. Institutions want to keep the door open to deploy ECRM. Even if ECRM is not on your institution’s immediate roadmap, there may be a future requirement. The goal is to avoid being locked out of future innovation.

Partnership with IT

Advancement is also increasingly partnering with IT to evaluate, select, and maintain a new system, especially at institutions where CRM is supported centrally within IT. CRM-based advancement systems require technical knowledge to support the CRM platform and associated advancement applications. As institutions deploy modern advancement CRM systems, Tambellini sees institutions take one of two paths. Some institutions have an advancement services team to manage the new CRM and advancement system within the advancement office. Other institutions are moving the technical management of the CRM to IT, and advancement is managing the functional aspect of the system. Neither option is a best practice. It really boils down to what works best for the institution. Tambellini often sees institutions that are already using the selected CRM platform in other areas of campus manage the CRM centrally in IT.

Implementation Strategy

There are two aspects of implementation that should be considered as part of evaluation and selection. The first aspect is deciding who is going to handle the implementation, and the second is establishing the desired project timeline. There are three core options for implementing advanced CRM systems:

  • The institution assumes responsibility for the implementation
  • The vendor handles implementation for a fee
  • The institution hires a third-party implementation partner

While some vendors support 100 percent of the implementation (Affinaquest, Blackbaud, and Ellucian), others rely on implementation partners (Causeview, Technolutions Slate, thankQ CRM, and UCI ascend). Implementation costs vary significantly among vendors and represent the largest spend in years one and two of advancement deployment. Since implementation can add significant costs to an advancement modernization—sometimes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars—it is imperative that implementation be fully scoped in conjunction with a product selection.

Implementation Timeline

The implementation timeline is the second aspect to consider. Some institutions start advancement CRM selections with preconceived, unrealistic go-live timelines. Modern advancement CRM systems are complex solution suites with deployment timelines on par with enterprise administrative systems. An average timeline to deploy an advancement CRM system is 18 months. Institutions with basic requirements can often deploy in less than a year, and the most complex institutions can take more than two years. Several factors influence implementation timelines, including the complexity of requirements, the advancement CRM solution selected, availability of institutional resources, the start or end of a capital campaign, and other technology projects. Institutions should avoid at all costs creating an overly aggressive timeline that adds stress and risk to the overall project.

Institutional Staffing

Like any technology transformation, deploying a modern advancement CRM system requires careful consideration around institutional staffing, including required technical and functional skillsets, training, documentation, project backfill, and more. As institutions embark on an advancement modernization, the best process is to identify and plan for staffing and skill set requirements upfront. Most advancement projects, especially those with a large magnitude, should plan to staff—either internally or externally—a full-time project manager and a CRM developer or administrator. Institutions will also need staff to support integrations, reporting, testing, change management, end-user training, and documentation. The institution will need employees who serve as ongoing functional subject-matter experts and decision makers. While many institutions can staff advancement modernization projects internally, others contract with external firms, and some institutions secure backfill for specific job roles. Identifying these skillset requirements upfront gives you the option to include additional staff in the project budget.

Change Management       

Project success is dependent on user adoption, and change management is critical to user adoption. Change management often gets overlooked or is underserved in advancement CRM projects. In recent interviews with institutions that have modernized their advancement system, lack of adequate change management is one of the most frequently called out lessons learned.

Organizational and cultural change management works to ensure the success and adoption of the new system and its processes. Institutions are addressing change management from both a functional and technical perspective. Research and lessons learned show that the earlier change management efforts begin, the greater the user adoption. User adoption requires repetitive communications and messaging that socializes new and improved processes. Project awareness, collaboration, and trust help drive cultural change and user adoption.

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Mary Beth Cahill |

Senior Analyst

Mary Beth Cahill
As a senior analyst for Tambellini Group, Mary Beth Cahill focuses her research on CRM and advancement initiatives. She has led numerous research efforts, specifically in vendor administrative systems and student information systems (SIS) software solutions, data and learning analytics, CRM, learning management, and social networking. Mary Beth is also the co-author of several published industry reports, including Tambellini Group's "Upgrade or Replace" and "Vendor Review" series of reports.

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