Community Discussion: Managing human rights contacts

What CRM systems are human rights groups using today? What’s working well, and what are the challenges?

By Kristin Antin HURIDOCS on

Summary now available!

From mobilising supporters, to organising interviews, to fundraising, to persuading decision-makers, relationships are at the heart of human rights work. This is why it’s so important to have a system to document and manage these relationships. There are many Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) systems out there to help manage this information, but human rights groups often require additional attention to security, sustainability, and other custom features. So what CRM systems are human rights groups using today? What’s working well, and what are the challenges?

We hosted a webinar on 12 January 2017 to discuss these questions (here’s the recording on YouTube). The webinar featured presentations by:

  • Neil Blazevic of DefendDefenders will talk about their use of CiviCRM
  • Helyx Chase Scearce Horwitz of the Media Mobilizing Project will talk about their use of CiviCRM and previous experience with Salesforce
  • Chris Doten of the National Democratic Institute will talk about how their partners use Civi (a CiviCRM distribution)
  • Lisa Jervis of iEcology will share the lessons she has learned while helping groups implement CRMs


What is a CRM and why would a human rights organisation want one?

CRM stands for client/constituent/customer/contact (pick your favorite “c”) relationship management. This term refers broadly to an approach for managing contacts and relationships, but in this context, we’re referring to technology platforms that can help to manage this data.

Human rights organizations use CRMs for:

  • Targeted and efficient communications for mobilizing, organizing, and advocacy efforts
  • Understanding relationships between your org and peers, allies, clients, donors, etc; gain new insights.
  • Programmatic tasks: organize events, interviews, offline activities; send mass emails.
  • An online rolodex: keep track of contacts, their updated information, and recent interactions.

Laying the groundwork for a successful CRM

As Chris Doten eloquently puts it, “CRMs suck”. They are hard. But, as Chris also points out: “Virtually every group we work would be better off being able to manage their contacts appropriately.” So how can you approach your contact management goals in a realistic and thoughtful way so you can implement the system without too much pain and ultimately improve the work of your team? Below is a collection of advice and tips shared by the presenters on how to lay the ground for a successful CRM implementation.

What the organisation will need to have in place

Consider these three key components that your organisation will need to have in place: (go to 42:30 in the video)

  1. Culture of use: The database is central to the organisation, everyone knows about it and values value it as a central piece of infrastructure
  2. Strategy: You know what you’re collecting and why – and it’s aligned with your mission, strategy, and daily work.
  3. Implementation: Your CRM has the fields and data structure necessary for you to store and report on your data that supports your organisational strategy.

If any one of these legs is missing, it will be a struggle for your organisation to successfully use a CRM.

Things to keep in mind during your CRM planning

Good practices for a successful CRM implementation: (go to 43:45 in the video)

  • Make sure the CRM activities are in the workplans of your team. If you don’t plan for it, it will always get put on the back burner.
  • Create space for people to talk about their challenges using the CRM. Include it in team meetings.
  • Provide support to fix bugs in the database. Make sure people know what to do when a problem arises.
  • Provide training – both introductory training as well as ongoing support as you add new features. This doesn’t have to be formal – get creative! Have your CRM champions train others.
  • Document and share protocols of usage so that you can refer to this when questions arise.
  • Establish a feedback loop so your users know how to provide ideas for improvement or request changes to the system to reflect changes in their workflow. It’s important that the system reflect the processes of your team’s day to day work.
  • Assign a CRM “shepherd”. This person is the glue that holds the human parts of this system together and make sure people have the information and support that they need. This person doesn’t have to be a technical person, but they need access to technical support when they need it. (more discussion on this point at 54:04 in the video) This person asks staff about their CRM needs.
  • It’s also helpful to have people whose role it is to help shift the culture of the organisation towards consistent CRM use.
  • One big challenge you are sure to run into is getting your team to change their day-to-day work to include CRM processes. Explore change management strategies so you can find the best way to get your team to actually use the system you’ve designed.
  • Give yourself plenty of time to collect and clean up your organisation’s contact data. You don’t need to have a CRM selected in order to start this process.

Define the purpose of your CRM

Tip: Don’t get too aspirational. Focus on what you can achieve now, and build on that. Many organisations think that they want to use a CRM to hold their process, but they don’t have the resources or capacity to make it successful. Be realistic and start small to ensure that your tools get used.

As you think about the goals for your CRM, it might be helpful to consider the following two CRM approaches: (go to 48:35 in the video)

  • Results-based approach: This is a container for results, allowing you to track the number of people you contacted, who came to an event, who gave money, etc.
  • Process-based approach: This is a way for you to track people as they move along a ladder of engagement. This approach takes more time and effort, but also provides deeper understanding of the impact of your work.

For example, if you are organising an event, a results-based approach to prioritising what information to capture in your CRM would be to enter each person that attended the event. A process-based approach on the other hand would help you track activities throughout the invitation process. Using this approach you could track who was invited and how they responded, who showed up and who didn’t, and follow up with people. Both approaches are valuable, and both require different configurations to your CRM. Which approach is right for your organisation?

To begin to understand the CRM needs of your team, you’ll want to ask questions like: (go to 1:10:15 in the video)

  • What are the daily tasks that you need to to do with this info?
  • How does this information come to you?
  • Who else needs this information?
  • What kind of report do you need about it afterwards?
  • What are the processes that involve this information?

This information will guide you to select the right system, and to configure it to meet organisational needs.

Selecting the right CRM platform

Insight on what the CRM selection process was like for our presenters: (go to 1:02:48 in the video)

  • Helyx: It helped us to work with someone outside of the organisation who provided another perspective and kept us focused on user needs.
  • Neil: It helped us to look at how our peers were using their CRMs. All CRMs have pros and cons, so weighing them out didn’t help very much. What helped was seeing how a similar team used their CRM, and talk about what worked and what didn’t.
  • Chris: It was important to our organisation that we select a free and open source platform so that weknew that any development we commissioned for our projects would also benefit the larger human rights and civil society community. (go to 1:08:06 in the video)

What CRMs are out there?

There are a lot. But these are some of the more popular CRMs being used by human rights groups and other nonprofits:

PlatformLicensing and feeOption to self-host?
CiviCRMFree and open sourceYes
RedHen CRM (native Drupal)Free and open sourceYes
Presspoint (native WordPress)Open source, but not free. Discount for nonprofitsYes
Dynamics CRMProprietaryYes

Case studies: CRMs in practice

Case study: Using CiviCRM to manage contact info, small grants, and participation of events

DefendDefenders has been providing support to human rights defenders in the East African region since 2009. They provide small grants, trainings, and other support to defenders at risk. With their CRM, they needed to be able to:

  • Track the small grants they provide to defenders (amount, to whom, when, for what, etc).
  • Manage and track activities connected to the kinds of support to defenders.
  • Track the contact info for defenders, government officials, diplomatic contacts, donors, service providers, etc so that they can share this information across their team.
  • Manage participation of events that they organise, such as trainings, conferences and programs.
  • Self-host the platform so they could control the security of their data.

They started out by hiring someone to build something just for them, but when they lost track of the developer they needed a different approach. From 2012 to 2016 they used OpenEvsys but found it was just too big and cumbersome for their use-case. Then in 2016 they decided to move to CiviCRM.

How they are using CiviCRM (go to 13:48 in the video to see screenshots):

  • They use the Grants module to keep track of the individual grants they provide to defenders. Fairly easy to build and configure the forms for their needs.
  • They use the Activities module to add miscellaneous information about interventions the have offered to defenders.
  • They created a taxonomy shared across the team and integrated that into CiviCRM using tags so they can easily find the people they are looking for.

What is working well (go to 15:23 in the video):

  • Improved transparency across their team: Anyone on the team can see the bigger inter-departmental picture of our work.
  • Reports and analysis: They are able to create useful analysis of our work. With CiviCRM, they can get summaries of grants, events and activities.
  • Organisational memory: This CRM helps them to store and track historical interactions, which aides in decision-making.

Challenges (go to 17:00 in the video):

  • No dedicated staff to manage the contact data. They have an onslaught of contacts but no streamlined process for entering data, managing conflicts, and updated details (e.g. changing jobs).
  • They have a complex information structure and struggle to reflect it in a consistent and useful way in their CRM.
  • Administration and maintenance of the platform is hard and time-consuming.
  • They still have information in their old database (600+ records!) and migration is not easy – how do they deal with this?
  • How can this info connect to contacts in other systems (like mailing lists)?
  • Feature creep: It might be working well, but they always want it to do more!
  • CiviCRM has its quirks.

Advice (go to 20:26 in the video):

  • You are going to iterate, many times. That’s the only way you’ll get it right. So build this into your plan and expectations.
  • Assign clear responsibilities, and coordinate between departments so you have focal points on the technical side and the users.
  • Dedicate staff time and money.
  • Give proper training and standards for usage.
  • Have a quality control process.
  • It’s going to be hard – don’t give up!

<h3id=”casestudy2″>Case study: Using CiviCRM to link grassroots fundraising strategy with organising efforts

The Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) uses strategic media, arts and communications to intervene in critical human rights struggles from public education to healthcare, media reform and public services. When Helyx started at MMP, they were using the Salesforce Nonprofit Starter Pack (now called the Nonprofit Success Pack) to address their grassroots fundraising needs. As their organisational needs shifted, they realised they needed a database that could help them manage their organising and mobilising relationships as well as their grassroots fundraising needs – and link all of this information together. They decided to move from Salesforce to CiviCRM, a system built with a focus on organising and fundraising needs of nonprofit.

How CiviCRM has benefited their work:

  • A place to track information about the people we work with
  • Ability to store institutional memory and reflect relationships
  • Track information about our grassroots and foundation fundraising, and connect it to the people we work with which strengthens our fundraising
  • If something happens to one of our staff members, others could pick up their work and relationships quickly and easily

Why they moved from Salesforce to CiviCRM:

  • Salesforce nonprofit interface was clunky
  • Language is around sales and fundraising, not organising, which rubbed our staff the wrong way
  • We didn’t want to buy into a business model that felt incongruous to our values as an organisation. We outgrew what the Nonprofit Starter Pack offered so we knew we had to invest in something – and it was at this point that we knew we wanted to invest in something more in line with our values.

How they are using CiviCRM:

  • They work with an organisation for the maintenance.
  • Hosting on a Linode
  • Runs with their website
  • CiviCRM has been a lot easier to learn the maintenance so we can do a lot more in-house

CiviCRM features that work well: (go to 26:16 in the video)

  • They can easily set up custom fields. For example, they can track city council districts for people in Philadelphia so that we can target our allies in specific districts.
  • They gain a lot of insight from the relationships feature in CiviCRM. Knowing the relationships that surround a contact, such as who cultivated that relationship for the organisation, and when is especially helpful when building trust and rapport.
  • They can track a contact’s history of events they have attended.
  • CiviCRM integrates directly into their website. They collect event registration information straight from their website and the information is stored in the database. Donation forms that live on their website are also connected to the CiviCRM database. They recently started to use individual fundraising pages.
  • They are able to track all donations using CiviCRM.

Watch the entire webinar recording:

Posted in: