Technology for digital was rarely perceived to be a problem – be it digital fundraising, email marketing, web analytics etc. Over 90% of those I interviewed explained that they could almost always find a particular solution to meet the needs of the organisation.

Many of the solutions were acknowledged to be badly designed and with poor user experience, but they were still adequate for the functions of the organisation – they just caused frustration due to their inefficiencies. Furthermore, most complained about cost, but few said that was a long-term problem, it just meant waiting for next year’s budget.

However… Integration is a massive problem

Whilst the individual vendor offerings are suitable and in many cases optimized for the specific use cases, technology integration remains a monumentally challenging task. CRMs remain a point of huge frustration, due to the largely antiquated interfaces, a lack of cloud/mobile capability, and most importantly, their poor interoperability with other systems. But the problem goes beyond CRMs, and right into the heart of the question of data.

To run a direct marketing campaign, and institution essentially needs to start with a list of some sort. And that list has to live somewhere. Typically, that list has lived in the CRM. In the digital world, however, that list might also live on social media. Or it might live in a donation platform. The challenge that the institutions are facing is that the days where the CRM could be perceived as the “authority” data source are gone. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn contain far more accurate information about alumni than the CRM ever will, and so for all intents and purposes, they should be the “authority”. Donation platforms are likely to secure donations faster than they can be imported into the CRM. Mailing software is aware of open rates and click throughs at a greater level of granularity than any CRM could ever know or store, and the same for web analytics.

We now live in an era where data is being created and consumed in multiple different places at the same time, and there simply is no single point of authority for every piece of data. There are two solutions to this: to “fix it”, by building an ever more complex series of integrations connecting up each of the disparate systems and attempting to synchronize data between them, or to embrace the reality – that storing this data is ultimately futile.

I am clear on the way I see this: an institution’s capacity to engage someone – and make them care – “next time” is worth 10x what it stores in its database.


  • Acknowledge that there is no single point of authority and reference for all alumni data, and develop a strategy to accommodate this;
  • Shift away from a batch-processing to a real-time interaction mode, reducing the need for “databases” and “list-building”;
  • Focus on people and interactions not technology and process;
  • Re-specify your CRM for the digital age: work out what you actually need to store, and why, and if there is somewhere else where the data is accessible, updated in real-time, and accurate, consider using that other authority as the point of record.

Read on for Recommendations.