Understanding what you’re getting into with Salesforce

Sam DormanMany of the biggest hurdles organizations face when implementing Salesforce are not about technology at all. In fact, they are much more about the approach the organization takes towards the process overall. Our friend Sam Dorman has created an excellent Getting Ready Playbook that’s available for download and is also part of the’s Power of Us Hub. The entire Playbook is valuable to read, but we’ve found the “Understanding what you’re getting into” section has been especially valuable for potential clients to read. Sam has kindly allowed us to republish that section here.


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. It turns out that having inaccurate expectations can be detrimental to an organization’s chances of success with the adoption of Salesforce — or any system. Here are a few areas worth covering in order to make sure your expectations are accurate:

  1. Salesforce is a platform
  2. Staff participation and key roles
  3. Cost
  4. Timelines and phased implementation

Expectation Area #1: Salesforce is a platform

Salesforce is not a software application. It’s a platform. If that distinction doesn’t make sense to you yet, it’s actually pretty important to understand before you get too much farther. As you probably know from using applications on your phone or computer, an application is pre-built for a specific use. Listen to music. Scan your receipts. Edit your photos. A platform, however, is a toolset that you can use to build your application. It can do pretty much anything you want it to do, but you have to decide exactly 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.

The Salesforce platform is a platform. It is a big powerful toolset. It’s not something that’s been purpose-built around specific set of business processes. –  Consultant

That means that, for the most part, you don’t “switch on” Salesforce and start using it right out of the box. The first step is customizing it to fit your organization and your programs. That’s usually the bulk of what is called an “implementation” process. This flexibility is also one of the great strengths of Salesforce. You can build a system that mirrors and supports your organization exactly, and it’s built on top of a rock-solid, robust, world-class platform. But it takes an ongoing commitment of time and effort to get it right. So if you suspect that your organization is hoping to get your Salesforce licenses, switch it on, and start using it right away like a pre-built application, you may need to adjust some expectations around the office.

Note: Certain practice areas of the nonprofit universe do have pre-built applications built on Salesforce for their specific ‘industry’s’ main use cases. In that case, you may be able to start using the system closer to out-of-the-box. However, chances are that some level of customization will still come into play before long.

Expectation Area #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.

When we get those projects where some program or group within the organization wants it, but it doesn’t have the top-down impetus from leadership? Those projects usually fail. – Consulting Partner

If your organization’s leadership is not strongly aligned behind the strategic value of the project, and ready to back that alignment up with resources, there may be organizational work to do before you dive into anything technical at all.

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.

We always had a couple people with a fraction of their time focused on it. We should have had a primary admin from the get-go. – Nonprofit Staffer

One word of warning: this should not just be your summer intern who is “good with computers”. Again, that would signal a red flag about the level of importance your organization is placing on what should instead be a central strategic priority. Keep in mind that your internal admin is going to need a good level of technical proficiency and good instincts, but she doesn’t necessarily have to be a database superstar. But at any level, this person will need training! This includes both active skills training, as well as investment in professional development on an ongoing basis.

It’s sort of a platform that non-tech people can administer, but truth is the more tech-y you are the better you’ll be. A lot of people end up in these admin roles and say, ‘whoa, I wasn’t trying to be a software designer.’ They’re not trained, and it’s a huge pressure on them. – Consultant


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 significant amounts of 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 Area #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. But with that caveat in mind, let’s take a stab at establishing some ballpark ranges for the different areas you might want to consider, so you at least have a starting point to do some of your own math.

License costs

Salesforce grants 10 free licenses to qualified nonprofits, which is terrific. 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. View pricing for customers here or learn about finding the most cost-effective license type.

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. On the less expensive end, some organizations do a “quick start” with a consulting partner in order to get up and running. On the more expensive end, there is a very substantial customization, development, training, and rollout process here.

We did not realize how involved it was to customize it, and how expensive it would be. We thought we could get going without major customization, but we were wrong. – Quote from Community

VERY ROUGH cost ranges*: $30,000 – $40,000 for smaller projects, $40,000 – $80,000 mid-range projects, and $100k + for complex, large-scale implementations. These ranges are obviously extremely rough since actual costs vary based on countless factors. The hope here is to offer some extremely broad ballparks to help set accurate expectations for the level of resources that may become necessary. Learn more about the key factors that influence the cost of a Salesforce project.

Administrator 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. Most organizations speak highly of the 5-day “Administration Essentials” courses offered at 50% discount to nonprofits. There are also a number of free webinars available from the Salesforce Foundation. Admins also often report major benefit from attending the annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. And some organizations have reported getting a lot of value from the Premium Success support plan from Salesforce. All of the above options are offered at a discount to nonprofits.

I wish someone had told me earlier on: ‘if you’re going to try to do this yourself, you need a 5-day training, and you want to be sure to attend frequent webinars. But also it’s hugely valuable to invest in the Premium Success plan. – Nonprofit Salesforce Admin

Cost ranges: Instructor-led trainings currently around $1800, Dreamforce attendance usually discounted to $400 for nonprofits. Premium Success plan around $1800/year.

Note: Bigger Boat provides administrator coaching to bring staff admins up to speed.

Tool / application costs

Salesforce provides a rock-solid platform on which to track your programs, but it does not include some online tools that nonprofits commonly need such as email-blasting and donation receiving. 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. Cost ranges: Very dependent on the tools, the company, and org-specific factors such as the size of the email list. As a starting point, here is a report on the landscape of Apps for nonprofits from Idealware, and here is a 2012 report comparing email blasting providers that many have found useful. You can also get feedback on various tools in the Power of Us AppExchange Group or Consumer Reports Group.

Ongoing support, development, customization costs

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, and it must be in order to be successful. 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 Area #4: Timelines and Phased Implementation

The truth is that this stuff isn’t easy! If it was, everyone would have it mastered, and you might not be reading this right now. So 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.

I’d start with figuring out what are your key business processes and prioritize. Then start with the first one and only do that one until it’s down cold. That should probably be contact management. Make sure every phone call in office gets logged. Once you’re rocking that a month from now, then take on one additional discrete process. – Nonprofit Salesforce Admin

It’s also a fact that expertise takes time to develop, and often that is measured in years rather than months. While you can get significant value out of the system within a matter of months, it often takes much longer to really get to the point where you’re operating on all cylinders. Even organizations that are seen as leaders and pioneers in the Salesforce space often took years to really become masters of the domain — and they would probably say they still have plenty of room to grow and improve. It’s the nature of the beast, and an indication of the power and flexibility of the system you are adopting. Of course, even with clear expectations, you can still expect plenty of surprises along the road, as with any complex undertaking. 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.

– Sam Dorman, Fall 2013

At Bigger Boat Consulting, we’ve seen first hand the power of organizations who invest in the above. Learn more about us and our clients, or reach out to talk to us about how we can help you get your organization set up for success.


* Note: these prices ranges have been modified to reflect what Bigger Boat has seen with our clients.