The Constituent (Redefined) | npENGAGE

The Constituent (Redefined)

By on Jan 15, 2008


(originally posted on BlogBaud)

A very popular term thrown around in buzzword bingo games for the past 20 years or so has been CRM. The for-profit world defined it as Customer Relationship Management and companies like SAP, Siebel, and Oracle have built very large technology companies around the concept. In the nonprofit world we prefer to call it Constituent Relationship Management and Blackbaud is one of a few companies that provide solutions around the concept.

CRM grew out of the disco database marketing days where companies and organizations crunched through mounds of information in an attempt to sell more widgets or reach more people. The problem with relying on just data to make important decisions is that data ≠ information. What decision makers really wanted were systems that could track every interaction, connection, transaction, and other important events to build a more informative picture of the relationship. And thus, CRM was born.

Companies like General Electric, Procter & Gamble, Ford Motor Company, and Wal-Mart spent hundreds of millions of dollars on sophisticated CRM systems to sell more jet engines, shampoo, toilet paper, cars, dog food, and household items. Over the years CRM became a lot more sophisticated and companies like, Costco, JetBlue and Target took things to a whole new level.

What these innovators understood was that it was very myopic to define “customers” as just people that purchased one of their products or services. A much broader view is that customers can also be influencers, trendsetters, early adopters, referrers, and have a hand in other important roles. In a highly competitive global market, managing those relationships and retaining those relationships has never been more important. The word “customer” has been redefined.

Nonprofit organizations have also been making the transition from “donor database” systems to solutions that enable the entire constituent relationship to be managed. They understand that fulfilling their mission and satisfying the needs of stakeholders requires more than just a place to put data about dollars and events. Organizations have been gradually embracing the concept that a constituent isn’t just someone who donates to the organization.

In the past, I’ve given presentations about the three different ways individuals ”give” to nonprofit organizations. People give their time, talent, or treasure. (cue the visuals)

An activist might give their time to support a cause, an accountant might give their talent and serve as a board member, and an alumnus might give their treasure through a major gift. (I think you get where I’m going here.) A traditional fundraising model might be entirely based on moving individuals from time to talent to treasure. But a more modern approach is to acknowledge that constituents may have their only interaction with an organization through a time/talent/treasure relationship.

I used to think that this broader definition was overstating the obvious. But I continue to talk to organizations that still have an old school view of things, and worse yet, nonprofits that have a progressive view but are stuck with systems that still don’t get it. The other limiting factor to success is having multiple disparate systems to track and manage different types of constituents. Activitists in one system, alumni in a another, donors in another, major donors in another, corporate contacts in another, online donors in another, volunteers in another, direct mail recipients in another, email recipients in another, and no ability to look across groups to better personalize the relationships.

Bits and bytes won’t entirely solve the need to redefine what constituents mean to nonprofits. This is a bigger philosophical shift to understanding that every individual and organization that interacts with a nonprofit is a valuable relationship that needs to be nurtured and developed over time. Technology can help carry some of the load , but it will take the leaders of nonprofit organizations to point the way.


Steve MacLaughlin is the Vice President of Data & Analytics at Blackbaud and bestselling author of Data Driven Nonprofits.

MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising and nonprofit expert in many mainstream publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, The NonProfit Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Bloomberg, and has appeared on NPR.

He is a frequent speaker at events including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), American Marketing Association (AMA), Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA), Giving Institute Summer Symposium, National Association of Independent School (NAIS), Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC), Institute of Fundraising National Convention (United Kingdom), Civil Society Conference (Netherlands), International Fundraising Congress (Netherlands), Ask Direct Fundraising Summer School (Ireland), and a keynote speaker at several conferences across the social good sector.

Steve previously served on the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) Board of Directors and is currently an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University.

He is a frequent blogger, published author of a chapter in the book People to People Fundraising: Social Networking and Web 2.0 for Charities, and is a co-editor of the book Internet Management for Nonprofits: Strategies, Tools & Trade Secrets. His latest book, Data Driven Nonprofits, became a bestseller in 2016.

Steve earned both his undergraduate degree and a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Indiana University.

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