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Best Practices

Getting Started: Prepare for Success

Many of the biggest hurdles organizations face when implementing Salesforce are not about technology, they are about the approach the organization takes towards the process overall. Take a look at the recommendations below:

Your Getting Started Journey

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1. Clarify the Why

It may sound surprising, but one of the most important steps you can take before you implement Salesforce is to make sure your organization understands exactly WHY you're going to implement Salesforce.

Here's a hint: If the answer only goes as deep as "we get 10 free licenses with Salesforce", you may be in for a rough ride.

EXAMPLE: We want to become a more "data-driven" organization, and better understand where we're doing well and where we're coming up short. Therefore we need to invest in our ability to track and report our data, so it can help us improve our programs and our impact overall.


When done well, using a robust, flexible CRM system like Salesforce can be transformational to your organization's work. It can help you become smarter about your programs, raise more money, and ultimately have more impact overall. But the hard-earned truth is that "doing it right" is not a small undertaking. It takes a significant commitment of time, money, and continuous learning in order to customize the system, use it well, and be successful in the long term.


2. Understand What You're Getting Into

It may sound surprising, but in a large study we found that the most significant challenge for nonprofits starting out on Salesforce was that they hadn't clearly understood what they were getting into. And those inaccurate expectations can be detrimental to an organization's chances of success with the adoption of any new system.

Expectation #1: Salesforce is a platform

Salesforce is not a software application - it's a platform. As you probably know from using applications on your smartphone or computer, an application is pre-built for a specific use, like taking photos or listening to music. A platform, however, is a toolset that you can use to build your application. It can do anything you want it to do, but you have to decide what that is. It's kind of like a Lego set: you can build a house with it, or a boat, or a robot. You have to decide what you need, and then build it around those needs. Most organizations can't "switch on" Salesforce and start using it right out of the box. 

Expectation #2: Staff Participation and Key Roles

Red flag number one for an organization trying to adopt Salesforce is when the project has been delegated to the "computer guy," the summer intern, or silo'd within one department. A successful adoption requires that the organization views it as a high enough strategic priority that they are willing to dedicate time, resources, and leadership to the project on an ongoing basis. A few staffing-related roles you may want to consider include:

  • Executive Level Participation - It's been shown repeatedly that an organization's leadership needs to be involved and highly bought-in for a major strategic project like this to succeed. That's because in order to succeed, the organization is going to have to dedicate substantial resources and staff time to the project, fight through an inevitable amount of change-pain, and have a clear understanding of the strategic value at the end of the tunnel.
  • Internal Administrator - If your organization was using a traditional software application before, you may not have needed an in-house "admin." But with the move to Salesforce, you're going to need someone to be a specialist on site. For smaller organizations that may be an existing staffer who wears multiple hats. For mid-size or larger orgs, you'll likely find yourself needing something more like a dedicated staffer. That should either be someone with Salesforce admin expertise, or someone who can develop into this capacity. A great resource for developing these skills is Trailhead. Trailhead is an interactive learning path through the basic building blocks of the Salesforce Platform. You can review a full list of training options here.
  • All Staff - Many organizations are also surprised at how much focus the system takes from other staff as well. That's because, while some of the work required is technical in nature, a lot of it is actually about clarifying and defining "business processes." This is a good thing, and it's one of the factors that allows you to get meaningful value from the system. But you need to plan to allocate time from staff from around the organization, such as programs, development, operations, and executive leadership. Everyone needs to have an active role in developing, using, and offering feedback on the system on an ongoing basis.

Expectation #3: Cost

So how much will it cost? It can be frustrating, but there's no way around answering this question with "that depends." That's because every level of customization is possible, and cost varies with numerous other factors as well.

  • License Costs - Salesforce grants 10 licenses to qualified nonprofits at no cost. However if you're a larger organization, or you envision giving others like volunteers or constituents access to the system, you may end up paying for additional licenses above the first 10. Sometimes, organizations figure that only a few of their staff will need to access the CRM, so they can "get away" with less than 10 licenses. However this rarely ends up being the case in successful adoptions. When done well, Salesforce typically evolves to be a central resource for all staff, so it may be worth considering licensing costs eventually growing to be the same scale as your staff size.
  • Implementation Costs - This is where the system gets customized to fit your organization's needs and processes. It includes both technical work and organizational process work, and requires a good deal of time and focus from your organization. 
  • Training Costs - As mentioned above, having an internal Salesforce specialist is a major success factor. Whether that person is a staffer who is wearing multiple hats, or a dedicated, experienced specialist, training is still a crucial investment for your organization to make.
  • Application Costs - Salesforce provides a rock-solid CRM platform on which to track your programs, but it does not include some online tools that nonprofits commonly need such as mass email tools and credit card processing. There are a number of good tools available for those sorts of functions which plug right into Salesforce, and each have their own cost structures.
  • Ongoing Support and Development - As any organization who is successful on Salesforce will attest, their system didn't start out fully-baked on day one. Rather, it evolved over the course of time as staff used it and came up with new ideas, new features, and new ways it could be improved to help in their day to day work. It's a highly iterative process. Once staff are using the CRM, you need to be able to act relatively quickly on the best ideas for improvements, fixes and customizations. That will help staff embrace the system and get the most out of it, and harnessing those ideas will enable your organization to get better value out of the system overall.

    So it's important to budget for an ongoing process of development and further customization, and to view it as an ongoing, annual cost that comes with the new level of sophistication you gained by implementing a next-level CRM. Some of the ongoing customization work (like adding fields, changing page layouts, advanced reports, etc) may be able to be done by your internal admin, but other types of customization will likely require coding which may be best outsourced to a consulting partner.

Expectation #4: Timelines and Phased Implementation

Organizations who have gone through a complex adoption process often say that they wish they had taken a more phased approach, starting by building a solid basic foundation, and then building on top of that. It's also the case that change is often difficult for people, and change pain is inevitable. So a phased approach allows you to minimize the amount of change pain endured at any given time.

As with any complex undertaking, even with clear expectations, you can still expect plenty of surprises along the way. But having a sense of what to expect in these four areas should put you ahead of the curve, help you scale some of the common hurdles that have tripped up other organizations, and ease your path to a successful adoption.

3. Get Expert Help

In theory, you can implement Salesforce yourself. In practice, you probably shouldn't. Why not? Because the learning curve is steep, the technology is complex and ever-evolving, the possibilities are endless, and there is a minefield of pitfalls out there. Unless you've got some serious database background, a whole lot of time to invest in learning, and experience facilitating major change inside an organization, you're going to need expert help. In fact, even if you do have those things, you still might need expert help! Bottom line, it's been shown repeatedly that the chances for success increase dramatically for those organizations who use a consulting partner to help them get up and running. 

4. Focus on your Data

"Data" is consistently ranked as a significant challenge facing any CRM project. The truth is, getting and keeping good data is always a bigger task than people expect it to be. But it's also true that without good data -- really good data -- your system is doomed. 

When people talk about a successful data-driven organization, they often refer to the fact that staff "trust" the data in the system. At first, "trust" might seem like a surprising aspect for them to focus on. But the truth is, the vast majority of experience people tend to have with systems has taught them not to trust the data in them. If you've worked at most organizations, you might recognize some common complaints about the database: There are tons of duplicates. There are tons of errors in the data. Not everything is in here. We only use this system for emails because most of the detailed history is in staff's heads or in their email program. The "computer guy" is the only one who can run a report. Donor info is stored in one system, the email list is stored in another, and event lists are stored in another. And the list goes on. Unfortunately, as soon as the trust is broken, the system falls apart. Staff realize they have to create their own workaround systems to get their jobs done, and they don't feel the need to prioritize good data entry into a system with bad data that is useless anyway.

Broadly-speaking, the challenge of data can be separated into two main categories: data migration, and ongoing data management.

  • Data Migration - Unless you're completely starting from scratch, chances are that you already have some existing data that you need to migrate over to your new system. It's tempting to just import it all and tell yourself that you will clean it up later, but that is usually the much more painful option in the end. Plan to spend some significant time getting your data out of your old system, cleaning it up, and then matching it to your new fields in Salesforce.
  • Ongoing Data Management - Equally or even more important is having processes in place to keep your data clean and healthy as the system is used. It's kind of like cleaning your house. You might try your best to keep everything ship shape every day. But periodically you're going to need to spend a few hours straightening up. And once in a while you might even need to move the sofas and get out the gloves and the scrub brush.

    You can break down ongoing data maintenance into: training/support, monitoring, and cleanup. Let's look at each:
    • Training and Support

      Getting accurate and consistent data often requires the cooperation of every person who uses the system. Training people to use the system in a consistent way is crucial if you want to have even a remote chance of ending up with clean data.

      Of course from the staff's perspective, attending a training is one thing. But actually remembering all of the details about how to use the system later is another. As people start using the system for their actual work, they may forget pieces of the training. And they will almost certainly run into new, unanticipated situations that require smart decisions about how to proceed. Documenting your organization's business process and customizations is a great step in providing information to your current and future users.

      What you don't want is for each staff member to decide on the fly for themselves how they are going to deal with those situations, because it will result in a jumble of inconsistent data. Instead, you want staff to be well supported, so that as soon as they forget something from the training, or run into a new question, they can ask the organization's "administrator" for help. Or when there's a new hurdle, the admin can make appropriate changes and then re-train any relevant staff.
    • Monitoring

      No matter how much training you do, problems with the data will emerge over time, either from user error, or from a new scenario occurring, or from some technical change that couldn't have been anticipated. Data problems are going to sneak in, one way or another.

      Of course, if you only discover the problem when you're trying to export data for your annual report, the problem is a lot more urgent and harder to clean up. Sometimes at that point cleanup isn't even possible.

      On the other hand, if you have systems in place to regularly monitor the quality of your data and find issues when they first appear, then you stand a chance to identify and correct issues early, keep your data clean and healthy, and have the data you need when you need it.
    • Cleanup

      Many internal admins have found that it can be useful to set aside blocks of time in their schedule on a regular basis specifically to do deeper data cleanup. Otherwise it may never make its way up the list of priorities for any given day. If there's a chunk of time set aside every week, or month, or even quarter,then they find that essential data cleanup tasks do tend to happen over the long term. Think of it like spring cleaning. Only hopefully it will happen a bit more often than once a year! The truth is, data is complicated and detailed. At any given time, your data is basically trying its best to get messy. You have to stay vigilant! Of course there's no easy formula for keeping your data clean, healthy, and useful. But you'll find yourself in much better shape if you give adequate time and attention to data migration at the outset, and if, throughout the life of the system, you keep a sharp focus on training, monitoring, and cleanup.

5. Make Some Key Initial Decisions

Decide what to use as your technical foundation

One such major decision is whether to start with an existing pre-packaged application from (Nonprofit Success Pack), or whether to custom build from the ground up. It is best to make this decision with an experienced implementation partner who knows the nonprofit space well, but this article aims to give you enough background and context to make that discussion a bit less confusing!

Option 1: Start with a Application from

  • The Nonprofit Success Pack (NPSP) - The NPSP is a free set of apps ("packages") that you can install in Salesforce to help "translate" Salesforce from its original sales model to a typical nonprofit model. The NPSP was developed so that, rather than every nonprofit having to make the same set of typical nonprofit customizations, anyone who wants to can use the NPSP to get those customizations for free. The NPSP contains packages that cover everything from allowing Salesforce to work correctly when tracking individuals, to handling recurring donations, pairing people into households, tracking relationships between people, and tracking which external organizations people are affiliated with. You can -- and probably should -- still customize Salesforce on top of the NPSP. But the NPSP just gives you a more robust "nonprofit" foundation upon which to build.

Option 2: Pre-built Apps

Some companies have created applications built on top of Salesforce which are designed to be a bit more plug-and-play for organizations in certain focus areas (e.g. arts organizations who do ticketing, human services case management, etc). Those can generally be found on the Salesforce AppExchange, although it can be a bit confusing to determine which is a pre-built application and which is a tool that you plug into any Salesforce implementation. So it's worth consulting with a partner or the company that makes the App before you begin.

Option 3: Fully custom implementation

In some cases, neither products, nor a pre-built application from the AppExchange may be the right fit. Some organizations may decide to build their entire implementation from the ground up starting with the Enterprise Edition. Again, that decision should probably be made in consultation with an experienced consultant who understands your goals and process.

6. Start with the Basics, then Iterate

People who have been through a complex Salesforce implementation often wish they had taken a more gradual, phased path to their project. That usually involves starting by building a strong, basic foundation, and then adding additional pieces in phases, moving from less to more complex.

As you think about how to plan your phases, it can be useful to think about constructing a pyramid that you hope will remain standing for years to come. You wouldn't start with the smallest triangle on the bottom. You'd start by building a solid, wide foundation, on top of which the rest of the structure would stand securely.

The same goes for planning your Salesforce instance. In many cases, that foundation might be the very core of your CRM. At its most basic level, your CRM is likely the place where all of your constituents are tracked, and the history of your interactions with them are recorded.

Once you've got the foundation (such as contact management) laid, you can then build subsequent layers on top of that, such as donation and grants management, communications, programs, and more.

One department at a time

Alternately, a phased implementation strategy might be appropriate for bigger organizations. For example, you could start with the Fundraising team and get them up and running, before moving on to the Executive team, and then the Programs team, and the Communications team, and so on. In this scenario, strong internal communication is often helpful so various teams understand why they are waiting for their day in the sun.

7. Invest in your own Expertise

Moving onto a sophisticated system like Salesforce is like upgrading from a rowboat to a jet. Anyone can jump in a rowboat and start paddling, but you can travel a lot farther a lot faster with someone who knows how to pilot the jet. Like a jet, an advanced CRM is not not plug and play. It's a living system that needs to be built carefully and thoughtfully, then monitored, protected, and improved going forward. Think again about the jet. Obviously you expect that your jet was built by skilled engineers, maintained by careful mechanics, and flown by experienced pilots. None of those are likely to be jobs for the summer intern. Same goes for your in-house Salesforce expertise.

The good news is, it's actually relatively easy to develop the expertise you need. There are a lot of resources for it, and lots of people have the capacity to become experts. But it's up to your organization to invest in hiring or developing that expertise.

Investment areas to consider

  • Training for Administrators - Having an internal Salesforce specialist on staff has been shown to be a major success factor for organization's on Salesforce. Whether that person is a staffer who is wearing multiple hats, or a dedicated, experienced specialist, training is a crucial investment for your organization to make. Most organizations speak highly of the 5-day "Administration Essentials" courses offered at 50% discount to nonprofits. See all your training options in this article: Salesforce Training and Certification Options for Customers. There's also no substitute to learning by doing! In fact it's crucial to allow enough time and space for someone to get up the learning curve. It's not exactly that the learning curve is too steep -- it's more that there are so many areas to master and the technology moves fast enough that most people end up in a near-continuous learning cycle. This is a good thing, but it does require adequate time to be set aside to focus on it.
  • Learning - There is also a vibrant community of people from organizations who use Salesforce, who are constantly sharing lessons learned and helping each other out. One such venue is the Power of Us Hub, where staff from nonprofits can ask questions and get support from others in the community and from staff. In addition there are numerous volunteer-led local user groups where nonprofit staff periodically get together in person to meet up and help each out. Admins also often report major benefit from attending the annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco, where there is a concentrated area for nonprofits to learn from sessions and each other, and network with others who end up being helpful.
  • Support - Your administrator also needs somewhere to go when they need to find an answer. The Power of Us Hub is a good place to start. And some organizations have reported getting a lot of value from the Premium Success support plan from Salesforce, offered at a discount to nonprofits. But it's also generally a good idea to have an ongoing relationship with a consulting partner, and to budget for it accordingly. A partner can often help answer some of the trickier questions, and the good partners will focus on a "train the trainers" approach so you are developing in-house expertise instead of always needing to call them in. Partners can also help in the event that you need to do something that requires a more advanced level of technical skill, such as developing apex triggers or custom visualforce elements.
  • Documentation - There are two huge advantages to creating good documentation. The first is that many internal admins find themselves answering the same questions over and over about common usage of the system. So taking a bit of extra time to create documentation that helps users be more self-sufficient can end up saving countless hours down the road and free you up for other, more satisfying work. The second advantage is for preserving important institutional knowledge. It's all too common to see organizations floundering when their in-house expert unexpectedly leaves and there is neither anyone else internally with enough knowledge of the systems, nor adequate documentation to help someone else learn it. Rather than attempting to do all your documentation at once, just create your documentation one piece at a time whenever anything relevant arises in your day-to-day work. Create a running document like a google doc to capture everything, and then when you find yourself explaining how to do something, add it to your documentation. When you ask your consulting partner a technical question, add their answer to the documentation. When you create an onboarding process for a new hire, add it to the documentation. And so on. Spending an extra 2 minutes here and there can save the organization weeks or months of lost time and productivity down the line.

These are some of the strategies you can use to ensure your organization develops and maintains the expertise you need to be successful with your system. Remember, you're upgrading from a rowboat to a fancy jet and you need to make sure you have a highly capable pilot to help you fly it.

8. Let the Data Make You Smarter

It's true that a good CRM system will help you organize all of your disparate data into a single unified place. But it's not just that. You are also creating the nerve center for your organization and the tools to constantly review your impact and extend your mission. Even more than a shift in technology, that is a critical shift in culture that can take your impact to the next level. It's really about performance. It's about having data where you can see where you’re being successful and where you are failing. It is about being able to take action informed by the data, not just based on a gut feeling.

So do the work! Invest the time, money, and brainpower to implement your system well to begin with, and to continuously improve it going forward. And watch your organization come out on the other side as a data-driven organization -- more sophisticated, more informed, more powerful, and more impactful.


1. Clarify the Why

2. Understand what you're Getting Into

3. Get Expert Help

4. Focus on your Data

5. Make Some Key Initial Decisions

6. Start with the Basics

7. Invest in your own Expertise

8. Let the Data Make You Smarter



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