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Advancement Technology: Using the Power of CRM

ERP has it substantial merits, but may not be the answer for your Advancement folks. It's time to think about CRM.

AS WITH EVERY other facet of life in higher education, staff responsible for donor/alumni relations rely on technology to conduct their activities. It’s almost unimaginable to consider maintaining contact with and keeping track of alumni, donors, friends, prospects, and others without the benefit of e-mail and various database tools.

Mark Drozdowski, Corporate, Foundation, and Government Relations director at Franklin Pierce College (NH), acknowledges the advantages that have been realized through technology, but he also points out that technology can create problems as well. In his world, there is a critical need to communicate appropriately with donors and alumni, yet “appropriately” means different things to different people. Advancement and development professionals will tell you: Donors and alumni do not want too much contact, and they don’t want too little either. They want just the right amount. Of course, that varies from individual to individual, and w'e to the Development or Alumni office that can’t get it right. Provide too much information, and the prospect or alumnus is turned off, resulting in no financial support. But if not enough communication is provided, the campus may miss out on gifts that the individual actually is willing and able to provide.

Portals and CRM

To avoid such problems, campuses are turning to various solutions, including portals and constituency (aka “customer”) relationship management (CRM) tools. Portals are particularly useful because they allow customization by those relying on them, while also providing campuses with tremendous amounts of information about constituents and their portal usage, patterns, and preferences.

For some institutions, CRM tools provide the link between their ERP application and the portal. For instance, at Florida State University, Director of Student Information Management Rick Burnette has been the driving force behind FSU’s adoption of Talisma ( as a CRM solution. Although currently used primarily for student recruitment, he sees tremendous potential for its use by development/alumni staff. From his perspective, Talisma—and by extension, other CRM products which include those from Peoplesoft/Oracle (, Datatel (, and even Seibel (—creates the potential to have a single comprehensive tool to track all aspects of communication and interaction with anindividual throughout his/her lifetime as a prospective student, current student, alumnus, prospective donor, and donor.

Some of the product’s features include functionality designed to manage highly personalized and proactive marketing programs to produce improved donor and alumni support; the capability for multichannel communication activities, including phone, e-mail, chat, Web, print, etc.; and the ability to efficiently manage prospecting and fundraising programs—all of which can be customized to address the unique business processes of individual departments at FSU.

Gift Records Management

In addition to more generic office automation tools and newer, highly sophisticated applications to support and manage interaction with constituents, donor/alumni relations units require specialized applications to support other specific responsibilities. For instance, the gift records management systems employed by independent colleges and universities, and the foundations supporting their public counterparts, have become increasingly sophisticated.

Part of this is nothing more than routine evolution as new features are added to existing applications, but some of it is in direct response to the complexity of the world in which advancement operates. Gifts are no longer limited to cash, marketable securities, and the occasional antique or piece of fine art. Increasingly complex financial instruments are being contributed to colleges and universities, and such gifts require special management. Examples include intellectual property such as patents, copyrights, and other forms of leveragable assets; interests in limited partnerships; bargain entry options for joint ventures; and many other arrangements that provide the potential for substantial financial returns to the institution. The technology challenges presented by these gifts are significant, both in terms of stewardship of the gift itself and the need to manage more complex relationships with demanding donors.

What If ERP Is Inadequate?

The above needs highlight one of the more significant challenges faced by donor/alumni relations staff. Too often, the staff is given a suboptimal application that comes with an ERP system. Such applications may be perfectly acceptable for some institutions, but for others, they may pose a major problem. As suggested above, the need to keep up with increasingly more sophisticated donors, and the vehicles they use to support institutions, suggests that a fairly generic module packaged with an ERP system may be inadequate.

Development operations are incredibly complex, in many ways no less so than finance, HR, or student records. Yet, when ERP decisions are made, it’s common to opt for a single-solution ERP package because the vendor’s Big Three applications (finance, HR, and student) are deemed to be optimal. Even when only one of the three is truly outstanding, as long as the other two will do the job, it’s likely that the institution will go with that vendor.

And if the ERP solution works for the Big Three, but is totally inadequate for advancement needs, rarely will this ever result in the vendor solution being rejected. According to John Taylor of the Burdenski & Taylor Consulting Group (, this is a common problem plaguing some colleges. It’s understandable that advancement isn’t the driver for an ERP decision, but failing to meet Advancement’s needs can have serious financial impacts on the organization. Taylor suggests that campuses make informed decisions about technology purchases, to support advancement. If the solution available through the ERP is capable to meet the needs of the unit, fine. If not, it’s highly likely that the best financial decision for the institution is to invest in a standalone solution to meet its needs. Even though it may appear to be more costly, the institution will be better off in the long run

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