Dear Spreadsheet Whisperer,

One of my goals and projects is to shift our work with volunteers from “engagement” to organizing. As my team looks toward building and supporting distributed action teams, we are also grappling with tools and tech, of course – and the question of which CRMs (or Salesforce plug-in apps) are most useful for distributed organizing.  Can you help?

Sincerely, dis-Organized


Dear dis-Organized,

I always begin these posts with a heart-y thank you and congratulations. Thank you for the work you are doing to shift power and bring your (and others’) unique strengths to movements for social justice. And congratulations! You’re not only battling systems that exploit and alienate us, but also infrastructure that doesn’t support your vision for distributed organizing. That must feel frustrating and hopeless at times. You’ve already made more progress than you might realize, because you’re asking the right questions and dreaming that there must be a system out there that can do what you need it to do. That’s the sweet spot where creativity, ambition, elbow grease, and root cause analysis make the magic happen. I’m glad to join you there!

Of course, I have more questions than answers. Here’s a few for your team to chew on, and then I’ll explore how you might proceed with your database journey.

  • Do you already use Salesforce at your org? If yes, do you use it primarily for fundraising or other purposes? If yes, when was it implemented and has it been maintained over the years? If no, what makes you want to consider Salesforce now?
  • What’s not working in the current iteration of your databases? Be specific! For example, “We have contact duplicates!” “We cannot keep track of our most engaged volunteers!” “The system takes too much time to administrate” etc. To get a little deeper, are these tech limitations (the platform simply cannot do X), culture limitations (the team is stuck), knowledge limitations (no one knows enough to figure this out), capacity limitations (everyone is too busy to tackle this project)? Of course, they’re all combined, but sometimes teasing out the types of problems can be liberating.
  • Do you already have a tapestry of spreadsheets and sign-in forms? How are they set up?
  • What does distributed organizing mean to you?
  • How many people are we talking about and how technophilic are they? How many are staff? How many are volunteers? Would your volunteers LIKE to engage each other in a dedicated online space? (A good way to test your hypothesis on this is to start with a “free” option like a Slack org or Facebook group, and if it really takes off, expand it). If not, then a Salesforce Community (which is a specific product within Salesforce) is probably not necessary, which is good since they tend to be expensive to sustain!
  • Do you have a defined process for volunteer onboarding and leadership development? Can you draw a picture of it? (I love using this exercise with teams because 9/10 times, everyone will draw it differently, and you’ll learn quite a bit about each other and the system you need to support your collaboration).
  • Is this platform designed to be internal facing (for deep relational organizing, mostly used by staff) or external facing (public-facing maps, events, sign-ups, logins for volunteer leaders) or a community in-and-of itself (forums, volunteers engaging each other, etc)?
  • How does your data roadmap align/overlap with your campaigns, organization’s strategic plan, professional development plans, etc? Just to play the cards in my hand, I would caution you against developing an organizing database in a silo 🙂
“Data chaos” by Katie Blanchard.

Salesforce? failSource?

I can see a path in Salesforce where you can track volunteer leadership development and distributed organizing using a combination of packages and features, some of which are pretty new, all of which are free-ish (free for the first 10 people, and free to set up, although expert help might be required… which isn’t free!). Let me elaborate:

Learn more:

I know a lot of us are anti-hierarchy (wink wink, dis-Organized) so the word “Levels” might be a turn off. But it’s a pretty cool technological feature where you can assign criteria for your most engaged volunteers (or donors) and be able to easily sort them based on auto-calculated formulas. I could imagine this being really useful for an organization with a broad volunteer base!

Engagement Plans are super interesting – they originally come from the fundraising side of the house where people need to plan “cultivation schedules” for major donors. However, I think Engagement Plans are under-explored for volunteer onboarding. There isn’t yet a “recipe” doc about how to apply Engagement Plans to different scenarios (which there *is* for Customizable Rollups) but it’s still fun to imagine and without-a-doubt possible (I think) to extend the functionality.

The challenge is that all of these features are applied to individuals, and I think you are interested in having little pods of people doing decentralized organizing. The PMM is an open source model that sits on top of Salesforce (and it’s free for nonprofits) that groups people into cohorts, which could be a really supportive data architecture for your org. I say “could” because I’m not close enough to make an official recommendation.

All of this to say, I agree that Volunteers for Salesforce is probably not your best bet, since the kind of organizing you are talking about (and the kind that I am most passionate about!) doesn’t line up very well with pre-defined shifts and that’s really the model that V4S is designed to accommodate.

To figure out if this combination of features would be workable, I think you would need to do a lot of mapping and evaluating of your needs and these capabilities to determine area of overlap. My mentors have taught me about the 80% rule (you’re looking for something that can get you 80% of the way to your goal). Remember, progress not perfection. Typically, consultants help lead you through a mapping process because it’s very hard to do DIY!

I am spending so much time talking about Salesforce because (1) it’s what I know best (2) I think you might already have an account (based on your email) which would limit time spent “migrating” data and (3) I think it *could* work. But you’re still looking at a kind of Rube Goldberg situation with lots of somewhat disparate packages and maybe even some third party apps if you want to do certain types of advocacy (Soapbox Engage is a favorite platform of mine). My experience is that it can still feel a bit square-peg/round-hole-y, especially if you don’t have someone treating your database with TLC and natural curiosity. That’s a real downside.

“Data serenity” by Katie Blanchard.

Other fish in the C… RM

In your email to me, you mentioned a couple of other platforms, like Salsa, Mobilize etc. I have not worked directly with Salsa (solo or integrated with Salesforce) but I have heard that it is a headache! It looks like the Mobilize-Salesforce integration is nascent at best – but I don’t know anything about Mobilize to confirm or deny its suitability or usability. That being said, I think there are other CRMs in the sea that you might want to learn more about.

I have heard exciting reports about Powerbase (built on an open-source platform called CiviCRM) and Action Network which is growing in popularity and comes with many glowing recommendations from people I trust. Action Network, in particular, is a much more all-in-one platform whereas Salesforce is more modular and requires you to make decisions and maintain separate pieces of it. Though politically complicated, I still think Nationbuilder is good at what it does as an all-in-one tool. Salesforce doesn’t have a clean political track record, for that matter, so if that’s a priority for you, I would say you should articulate that ASAP!

So, dear dis-Organized, you have an interesting road ahead of you. I hope this blog post doesn’t read like “TL;DR – it depends!” because what I’m hoping to share here are some thoughts on what it depends ON and guide you as you compare these platforms.

Recently, I was asked to research and select an new email sender platform (like Constant Contact versus Mailchimp). I went though a process to get really clear about what we needed. At first I thought it was simple, but then it turns out we had 61 requirements, from ability to tag contacts with different preferences to managing bounces and unsubscribes to having nice email design tools. After we knew our non-negotiables, we created a spreadsheet to compare how each platform handled our needs. At the end, we could see which one was strongest, while evaluating if our needs could shift to better accommodate how the email platform handled different scenarios.

Ahh yes, I think philosophers call this “dialectics,” nu? (Full disclosure, I’m on a Marxism kick!)

If there’s one piece of overarching advice I could give you, it would be to ask peers at other organizations to give you a “tour” of their systems. Start off system agnostic. Ask lots of questions. Let them show you the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve learned more from these types of sessions than from any sales demo or product marketing. And trust me, I receive a LOT of both!

Good luck, dis-Organized! I wish you lots of hospitality on your database travels and I can’t wait to hear where you end up.

Yours always, Spreadsheet Whisperer

“Data community” by Katie Blanchard

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