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Blackbaud CRM vs Salesforce NPSP What's the difference?

Since 2017 we’ve been reviewing Nonprofit Software Solutions like Blackbaud CRM™, The Raiser’s Edge™, Salesforce’s Nonprofit Success Pack™, and more. Purchasing new software is a significant investment for nonprofit organizations.

To prepare for this year’s post, I interviewed 40 different organizations, including Higher Education Foundations, Alumni Associations, global NGOs, Hospital Foundations, and other cause-related nonprofits. I interviewed a mix of organizations using Blackbaud CRM™, Salesforce NPSP™, or the Salesforce platform with solutions like Ascend by UCInnovation or Affinaquest. I also spoke to several organizations that had moved (or are in the process of moving) from one of these solutions to another in the last 12 months. To round out the research, I interviewed 2 Salesforce Implementation Partners.

BrightVine is a member of the Blackbaud Partner network, and we work closely with Salesforce Marketing Cloud partnering directly with Salesforce Marketing Cloud partners. These partnerships do not drive our recommendations, nor do we receive commissions. We assist our customers in choosing the solution that works best for their needs. Sometimes that’s a Blackbaud Solutions, sometimes that’s a Salesforce Solution or other vendor’s solution, and most often, it’s a mix of software from multiple vendors.

This year, we looked at many solutions, including those listed above along with ROI Solutions' Revolution Online, Neon CRM, The Raiser’s Edge NXT, and Bloomerang. In this post, I will focus on Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™. In my next post, I will focus on the emerging solutions of ROI Solutions' Revolution Online, Neon CRM, The Raiser’s Edge NXT, and Bloomerang. There was simply too much information for one post.

Some of the tools we’ve evaluated in the past have been sunset, including NGO Connect & Advance Connect (acquired by Salesforce in Jan 2019), Blackbaud Direct Marketing (a standalone tool that worked with The Raiser’s Edge), along with others, so the technology we compare varies from year to year.

As noted above, this post only focuses on Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™. Blackbaud CRM™ is not the same product as Blackbaud's The Raiser's Edge. This article does not relate to The Raiser's Edge.

Understanding The Landscape

Purchasing new software is a significant investment for nonprofit organizations. Amid a Pandemic and its aftermath, it’s even more critical to ensure you’re making the best decision for your organization. Understanding what’s available and how it can work for your organization is the first step in selecting the right software solution.

As part of my interviews, the most significant and consistent feedback I received was how important it is to understand what’s what. “One’s a platform; the other is a product.” That comment summed up a good deal of the feedback I received across the board. Blackbaud CRM™ was frequently deemed “a tried and tested product,” and Salesforce NPSP™ was called “an open-ended platform with unlimited options.”

Said in another way, “you can buy some Hot Wheels and put some stickers on the sides to make it feel like your own, or you can buy a model car set and build something from scratch.” Salesforce NPSP™ gives you what you need to build a car; it’s up to you to find the right mechanic to ensure that the engine assembled and functioning and all the wires are connected to the right things. Blackbaud CRM™ gives you a car, the engine is already installed, and you can choose accessories to add on.

Comparing Fundraising Solutions

Blackbaud’s most robust platform, Blackbaud CRM™, is also the most comprehensive fundraising product on the market. Like Salesforce NPSP™, it’s highly customizable and configurable and provides the capability for large to enterprise-sized organizations to integrate with 3rd party software, external data sources, and so forth.

Salesforce NPSP™ is built on an enterprise-worthy platform but requires much more customization and configuration and lacks some of the nonprofit-specific functionality you might need. Choosing a product like UCInnovation or Affinaquest certainly adds far more fundraising-specific functionality. However, the organizations I interviewed said they still found the need for customization.

One University CIO said, “We evaluated Salesforce solutions and ended up selecting Blackbaud CRM™ over seven years ago. Last year, we took another look, and UCInnovation was the furthest along, but the Salesforce salesperson was pushing another vendor with a less mature offering.” She continued to say, “Nonprofit Success Pack™ is like a toddler, UCInnovation is an adolescent, and Blackbaud CRM™ is an adult. We feel Blackbaud CRM™ is still the best solution for our organization.”

At BrightVine, a University Foundation hired me to evaluate Salesforce and had a similar experience. The account executive from Salesforce favored one vendor, and I contacted UCInnovation directly on behalf of my client. Ultimately, the University Foundation I was working with decided that Blackbaud CRM™ was the right solution for them but was impressed with the progress UCInnovation has made on the Salesforce platform.

Another organization evaluated Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™ (at that time, it was Nonprofit Starter Pack) 5-6 years ago and selected an Ellucian solution. The same organization undertook another evaluation in 2019 and selected Blackbaud CRM™ as their new fundraising solution. “There were far more institutions like our using Blackbaud CRM™ successfully, and the peers we talked to using Salesforce NPSP™ were nowhere close to a maintenance phase even after having NPSP for years.”

Most Salesforce Implementation Partners and consultants I spoke with saw the open-ended nature of Salesforce’s platform as a positive feature. “You’re buying a platform that you will continue to change and build over time.”

One Salesforce Partner’s Blog compared Salesforce to Animal Crossing, the game from Nintendo. “There is no end game in Animal Crossing or Salesforce,” they say. “ In Animal Crossing, there is no endpoint for the game, no main boss to defeat, and no puzzle to solve. As a platform simulation-style game, you continue to build and make, and create as you see fit, have time for, and continue to enjoy doing so. Salesforce implementations are much the same.” That post, “How Animal Crossing Reminded Me of Salesforce Implementations,” by Arkus Inc., did a great job explaining the platform vs. product idea.

Do you want an open-ended platform or a fundraising product? The answer won’t be the same for every organization. And there’s no one-size-fits-all solution out there.

During the pandemic, I found myself watching an HGTV show called “Island Hunters.” Like its counterpart, “House Hunters,” people go on the search for their own private island. That’s what I want, my own private island! But as the show goes on, you see some islands have no electricity, and some don’t have any utilities at all. The price tag starts to skyrocket as they explain all of the work that needs to be done. I think we’d all love to live on a private island, but is that realistic? The same can be said for software. One University Foundation Director of Advancement IT shared, “Sometimes it’s not about what you want, but about what you need.” Looking at the features and functionality side by side can help an organization decide what’s right for them. Evaluating gaps and what customization will be required will also assist in the decision-making process.

The number one item that organizations discussed when evaluating Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce Solutions were associated costs. Large volumes of data make Salesforce a much more expensive option for some organizations. Several enterprise-sized organizations said they had to make hard decisions about what data to leave behind or archive to purchase Salesforce NPSP™. Likewise, API calls’ cost can add up quickly for large organizations, which resulted in several of the largest we talked to exporting flat files via a third-party app they purchased instead of directly integrating with another solution. Several of the organizations interviewed selected Salesforce because of its flexibility and ability to integrate but ultimately found it too costly and felt they weren’t using Salesforce NPSP™ most efficiently or missing out on what Salesforce could do of the costs associated with it.

The need for multiple apps or customizations of Salesforce NPSP™ can be challenging for some organizations. Deciding between the two options can be challenging. When evaluating software, ask if NPSP already does what you want. If not, how much customization would it take to make it function in a way that your organization needs vs. finding an app that might fill the gap(s) and the costs associated with those? Introducing apps also means more vendors to manage - one or two additional vendors might not be hard to manage. Still, I was unable to find any enterprise-sized organizations using only a handful of apps and vendors, so that’s a consideration for many organizations.

Why do organizations using Salesforce NPSP™ need so many apps? Because that is the basic premise of Salesforce, it’s a platform. That also means that some of the differentiating factors between Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™ often come down to functionality.

Let’s compare a few things you might evaluate as part of your selection process

(Authors note: We did not make a direct comparison of functionality in UCInnovation Ascend or Affinaquest. This comparison relates to Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™.)

Within Blackbaud CRM™, you’ll find advanced audit functionality (not archive functionality) that will allow you to track when/how data was added or edited and by whom. You can see the before and after values, without archiving, and use the information for data integrity and training when you find users making frequent mistakes. There are several apps in the Salesforce AppExchange that provide different levels of auditing.

Data maintenance and hygiene are some of the most essential and fundamental components of operating a fundraising system. Blackbaud CRM™ offers duplicate management functionality to assist in maintaining accurate records (note: duplicate management does not refer to one-off merges, duplicate management is a system to deal with duplicates in bulk and one-off.) With Salesforce NPSP™, you’ll want to consider an app like Cloudingo for bulk and advanced duplication management or CleanCRM by ActivePrime for data maintenance.

Organizations using Salesforce NPSP™ said they found their data became challenging to manage overtime, struggled to maintain the data model, and took a large amount of their staff’s time. Organizations using Salesforce NPSP™ that could avoid this problem had extensive IT departments with several experienced Salesforce administrators whose full-time job was to manage their data.

Database backups and the ability to restore from a backup copy of the database a feature of Blackbaud CRM™ that you can’t beat. Salesforce NPSP™ customers can create exports of their data using Salesforce’s export tools. Exporting ALL of your data is more complicated. Salesforce’s Data Loader tool allows you to export entire objects of data into multiple CSV files, and you can use reports to export selected fields. There is also a feature that will allow you to export all of the associated metadata. There are many apps that you can also purchase that will help with exporting your data.

All of the organizations we interviewed who migrated from Salesforce NPSP™ to another solution noted how hard it was to “get their data extracted” from Salesforce in a meaningful way at the time of migration. (Update 3/13 - since the writing of this post, I was contacted about an organization moving from Salesforce to a non-Blackbaud, non-Salesforce fundraising solution that has spent the last 3 months working with a Salesforce Partner trying to export their data successfully for migration. The challenge is not unique to only organizations I interviewed.)

If you rely on direct marketing, you’ll need to find a solution outside of Salesforce NPSP™. Many organizations use marketing vendors or rely on a data management solutions (DMS) team like BrightVine to provide segmentation in a third-party tool like Heroku. Blackbaud CRM™ offers sophisticated direct marketing segmentation features.

Both Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™ offer configuration and customization options. Blackbaud CRM™ offers far more standard features. For example, constituency, contact types, non-primary name formats, communication preferences, and attributes are all custom objects you can add to Salesforce NPSP™.

Most enterprise-sized organizations using Salesforce that I interviewed reported using between 30-100 apps. Perhaps 100 is extreme, but 30 was common. The downside of third-party apps is that technology changes quickly and requires vendors to keep up with Salesforce. With more than 3000 apps in the exchange, you need to make sure you pick a vendor that will be around to support that app. We recommend selecting apps from well-known vendors with reliable support mechanisms.

Other apps the organizations we interviewed relied on included:

  • CVENT or EventBrite for event management

  • Clarity Gift Aid by GiveClarity for UK Gift Aid management.

  • 360 Match Pro by Double the Donation for matching gifts functionality

  • Omatic Cloud by Omatic Software for integration

  • Fonteva Membership by Fonteva for membership program management

  • Engaging Networks, Classy or iDonate for online donations, SMS and text, and more

  • Exponent Partners Case Management for case management

  • Patron Manager for ticketing and events

With both Salesforce NPSP™ and Blackbaud CRM™, many organizations turn to tools like CVENT for complex event management. Likewise, for specialized giving, like Giving Day or Giving Tuesday, many organizations use Engage, Scalefunder, Mobile Cause, OneCause, or Fundraise Up. For standard donation pages, Blackbaud Internet Solutions was more than sufficient for most organizations.

Many of the organizations I interviewed found themselves looking for email and online solutions to replace Blackbaud Internet Solutions™, and those using Salesforce NPSP™ had to choose between different vendors with competing offers. There were at least a dozen organizations we interviewed using both Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce Marketing Cloud™. This has been a trend we’ve seen grow, and as a result, we built a standard integration between the two. Organizations using both Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™ looking for advanced email marketing and automation tools consider Engaging Networks™ or Salesforce Marketing Cloud™. Blackbaud Internet Solutions™ will provide a much more basic email solution.

One organization that had used both Blackbaud CRM™ and Salesforce NPSP™ said it’s “far easier to overcomplicate NPSP. You can design and design and design and never end up with what you need. One consultant led us down a rabbit hole of customization that required a high level of technical oversight. The next consultant we worked with made completely different recommendations with an even higher price tag and lengthy timeline. We’re still not where we want to be with our Salesforce NPSP™ implementation, and as long as we have money to throw at it, I suspect we’ll never be done. We started with Blackbaud CRM™ and gave up pretty quickly. We thought we’d be saving money with Salesforce NPSP™, and that hasn’t been our experience. I’m sure we would have continued to spend money with Blackbaud, but some of the things we’re spending the most on now we wouldn't have touched with Blackbaud.”

Another organization evaluated five solutions, ultimately finding that “if you can pay for it, Salesforce can do it. We had to marry what Salesforce NPSP™ is with what we wanted it to be.” Another healthcare organization said, “we want to be on the bleeding edge of technology, and that’s Salesforce. We’re willing to pay a premium to build out a bespoke solution.”

There’s a reason that it takes a lot of money to implement Salesforce for a nonprofit properly. You’re adopting software built for businesses working with customers, not software made for nonprofits working with donors. NPSP creates a starting point for nonprofits who want to use Salesforce’s platform.

Finding The Right Partner

One University I spoke with said, “you can do so much; it’s extremely easy to overcomplicate things.” An NGO said, “If you don’t have the right Salesforce Partner, you’ll go down a rabbit hole.” Implementation partners was a common theme that started to emerge in conversations about Salesforce implementations. As I mentioned, I also interviewed a few Salesforce implementation partners and their consultants. As one Salesforce partner put it, “your project will fail or succeed with that single decision.”

Picking the right implementation partner for your Salesforce project is critical.

Organizations from all verticals said that Salesforce pitched a partner that the organization didn’t select as their first choice indicating that Salesforce made it extremely difficult to pick another partner in some cases. One of the Implementation Partners I spoke with said that they felt Salesforce’s sales team “doesn’t understand their partner’s strengths and weaknesses in the nonprofit & higher education sector.”

On the flip side, several organizations using Blackbaud CRM™ said that until very recently Blackbaud, “shunned partners and made it hard for organizations like theirs to use implementation partners.” Further sharing that, “only within the last year have we seen Blackbaud embrace partners, and that’s a very welcome change.” A University Foundation Advancement Services Manager said, “it’s exciting to see Blackbaud adopting some of the same partnerships that previously you could only find at Salesforce.”

Blackbaud has a smaller number of Blackbaud CRM™ Partners, and there are very few non-Partner firms that implement Blackbaud CRM™. Therefore it’s easier to understand the choices and feel confident that you’ll have a successful implementation. On the other hand, there are dozens of Salesforce partners, and non-partner consultants choose from, and that can be overwhelming. Some firms have excellent reputations, but others are less well-known, have less experience, and can be more of a risk to partner with. One of the organizations I spoke with that had implemented both Salesforce NPSP™, and Blackbaud CRM™ said, “the fees charged by Salesforce partners range from one extreme to the other. Do you go for a firm that wows you but has the highest rates, or do you go for a mid-ranged firm that wasn't as impressive?.” Fee structures were a common concern among those who had implemented a Salesforce solution.

At BrightVine, we frequently refer organizations looking to implement Salesforce to Huron Consulting, Cloud for Good, or Traction on Demand. For case management, we refer organizations to Exponent Partners. For Implementation of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, we often refer to OffPrem Technology. We do not receive any compensation from any of these providers; we recommend them based on customer feedback or first-hand experience working with them.

All of the organizations we talked to were enterprise-sized organizations with sophisticated and varied fundraising requirements. The majority found that Blackbaud CRM™ was the better fundraising product and Salesforce Marketing Cloud™ the better email solution as of the date of this publication. Many said they would continue to reevaluate and want to see the nonprofit software market changes over the next several years before deciding.

The decision about what software to select for your organization is one that you should take time to consider. Think about the organization’s long and short-term objectives and how the solutions will help meet those needs. In summary, I found that Blackbaud CRM™ still the most advanced fundraising solution and Salesforce Marketing Clouds the most advanced Marketing solution. We’ll look forward to doing another analysis next year to see what changes have been made by all software vendors in the market.


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