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A review of CiviCRM, a free open source CRM and donor management platform.

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CiviCRM free open source Customer Relationship Management software designed primarily for use by non-profit organizations, to assist in maintaining relationships between their supporters and constituents. 

The design and approach of how CiviCRM works is designed more for the non-profit realm, however with a little bit of hacking it can be modified for use by any marketing operations.  Given its open source nature and that it has detailed documentation from pretty much every perspective (end-user, office user, techie admin, developer) makes this entirely possible.

CiviCRM includes modules for case management, event management, contact management, member management, and fundraising (or similar) campaigns.   It has robust bulk-mailing functionality which can make it a useful center for starting a direct mail campaign. With some modification, fundraising campaigns can be converted to sales campaigns since in a transactional sense, they are essentially the same.    CiviCRM also provides integrations with several payment gateways, which are typically used for events and memberships but could work with any sales-oriented activity as well.

Advantages of CiviCRM include the ability not only to keep a record of contacts or customers, but also enables keeping track of interactions between them.   The fact that it is free open source means that there are no licensing costs or fees for modification; many plugins and modifications exist.

CiviCRM is designed specifically to integrate with existing content management systems, and includes modules which have been built and tested in WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla.


CiviCRM boasts a wide range of different features that can be invaluable for fundraising and marketing organizations.


CiviCRM provides a customizable dashboard providing the ability to create quick links and/or include content about donors or customers on the main page.  Below is a basic default configuration (out of the box) using Drupal.

Here’s another configuration example:


Contact Management 

If you have a large list of donors, CiviCRM provides a basic database for keeping records in one place. 

For each individual contact or “constituent” (in CiviCRMS lingo), you can store a wide range of information including interactions, mailings, event attendance and more for each individual record.



You can see information about relationships between your donors.  From a direct marketing perspective, this can potentially save some expense, such as not sending two mailings to the same household.  In direct interactions, this can be helpful in establishing rapport between you and your customers.



Email Marketing

One of the major features in CiviCRM which is directly related to the goals of direct marketers, is the ability to send bulk mails directly from your contact lists. You can construct emails in HTML and in text (providing options for different mail readers) and can create various personalizing features into a set of templates. A/B testing is particularly useful for identifying whether one marketing method works better than another.

Your lists can be segmented into groups, such as those with specific interests, and emails can be scheduled to run at specific times.



Email tracking 

Emails can be tracked to identify which ones are opened as well click through rates for links contained within your messages.   You can also monitor your bounce rates and unsubscribe events.

Here is a view of an interface for setting specific messages within responses.


Here’s a view of a tracking screen.



Tracked activity will then show in a grid, so you can see how a particular person has responded to a mailing or event or any other activity.

Activity tracking



CiviCrm has over 40 built in reports and is easily modifiable to create more.   Below are some examples used for contributions. These could easily be modified to track sales.   Files can be printed in PDF or HTML formats and can be exported as CSV.    

One of the more useful features is that reports can be integrated back into the application to create new groups or segments, which can then be acted upon later, such as for a targeted mailing. 

Data can be displayed as a table or in a pie or bar chart.


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Summary: Key Takeaway

CiviCRM can be a valuable alternative for non-profit organizations wishing to make use of a flexible and free open source framework for managing donor relationships.   It boasts many features which can be of great use for fundraising and marketing purposes.

Overall, CiviCRM can be an excellent tool for organizations and fundraisers with limited physical capital but robust human capital, willing to spend the time to modify it to their needs.    Once built, it can be extremely useful, and a considerable amount of money could be saved down the line. Its strong support makes this possible.



  • WordPress
  • Drupal
  • Joomla!


Payment systems:

  • Stripe
  • Paypal
  • iATS
  • TSYS


Bulk email:

  • CiviSMTP
  • Mailchimp

Xperra Star Ratings

Overall functionality useful to a non-profit
4 /5

While it is designed for non-profit organizations, CiviCRM has a number of features that make it potentially very appealing for many marketers.   The ability to track individual records, and behavior of clientele, and the fact that it provides access to create targeted mass mailings to constituents or customers with no charge alone should make it worth exploration.   

CiviCRM can handle financial transactions, and integrates well with several payment gateways, and since it is open source, it is eminently possible to configure it to work with others.    

CiviCRM’s  drawbacks are that, as free software, the interface is not as mature as commercially available tools.  However, partners such as Xperra offer updated interfaces with a more user friendly, modern look and feel, including a contemporary mobile device interface. Another possible problem, at least for large organizations, is that CiviCRM has no SaaS option, so integrating into the cloud can be problematic.   While its open source nature means that anyone can modify the code, this will likely require some human capital to achieve an ideal configuration. Again, leveraging CiviCRM’s extensive partner network solves this issue.


Intuitive User Experience
3.5 /5

There has been some variation in reports of usability; ease of use is largely dependent on the individual, and while some claim that it is very intuitive, others find that it is confusing. See comment above. Third party interfaces are available to solve this issue.

Forms are relatively easy to create, as is setting up events (both paid and unpaid).   For technical users, getting started should not be terribly difficult as it provides easy integrations with all major CMS options.    That said, for business users, it will require some time to train people in its use.

Drawbacks also exist in the difficulty of importing large amounts of data from other applications.    While there are some solid reports, the ability to perform queries against data is reportedly difficult. Integrating a database access and acceleration tool such as Dremio can address this drawback.

Active Support Community
5 /5

CiviCRM boasts an extremely robust and cooperative community  (this may be a positive side effect of it being closely tied to the non-profit mission), so much so that it has its own Stackexchange channel:

Support on the website provides chat, which can be extremely helpful for working through problems.


Issue Tracker:


Commits: 34,466
Contributors: 323
Releases: 227
Watch: 60
Star: 342
Fork: 688



Minimal Technical Skill Required
4 /5

Getting CiviCRM installed will require some understanding of PHP and working with various CMS’s and some training of staff is required to get used to using, however the nature of the environment is that it is designed to be used specifically by non-technical professionals.

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