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CiviCRM Product Review

CiviCRM is constituent relationship management (CRM) software that is aimed specifically toward nonprofits and civic-sector organizations.  It is used world-wide by many high-profile clients, such as the New York senate and Amnesty International.  The software is free, web-based, and open-source.  

The product itself has been designed to go beyond simply managing data in order to develop strong relationships between the nonprofit and its constituents.  Because of the open-source nature of the CRM, it is responsive to needs of the sector and is intended to be highly customizable.  Additional modules are built and released as new capabilities are identified for development.  Available in 20 languages, a variety of concerns are addressed by the product in order to create one CRM that manages a number of integral functions, such as:

  • Case Management
  • Contact Management
  • E-Mail Marketing
  • Event Management
  • Fundraising
  • Member management
  • Peer-to-Peer Campaigns

In Use

CiviCRM was developed specifically to provide a free, open-source CRM that could be used by civic-sector organizations around the world, including:

  • Advocacy
  • Nonprofits
  • NGOs
  • Educational Institutions
  • Membership Associations
  • Government Agencies
  • Political Campaigns

CiviCRM works with organizations to choose the right technology.  To that end, the user experience begins with evaluation of the nonprofit’s actual needs.  While organizations may choose to have an outside evaluation performed, the company itself offers good guidance for those who are not ready to outsource this task.  From functions to budgeting, there is direction for determining whether this is the right solution for a given organization.

For further evaluation, there are a number of demos available, with at least one for each supported CMS (Drupal, Joombla!, and WordPress).  These can be performed online, or you may download a version to your own computer for more private exploration of the system (the online versions are public).

The CRM can be installed as a component in a number of content management systems, such as Drupal, Joomla!, and WordPress.  This allows for constituents to interact directly with the CRM through your web site when appropriate.  For example, they can register for classes, camps, and other events.  The system also allows for online donations through your web site.

Staff members are also able to interact with CiviCRM through the dashboard.  This is a fairly intuitive process that mimics the experience they are already familiar with in using your organization’s chosen CMS.  Access is limited through Access Control Lists that allow the organization to assign “roles” to individuals and then provide access based on that person’s role.

Technology Employed

The product itself is billed as being web-based and open-source, but it must be hosted.  That said, organizations do have the ability to host the CiviCRM internally.  In those cases, it is necessary to have a dedicated server with an uninterrupted power supply and either a stable internet connection or a static IP address and a service level agreement for high availability.  Security should be enhanced by partitioning the web server.  There are multiple options for organizations that wish to host the CRM externally, and the company does a good job of outlining the options, including working with someone considered an “expert” within the CiviCRM community.

Ease of Use, Configuration, and Deployment

Setup of the system isn’t entirely straightforward for the lay person, so it is generally recommended to have an IT technician involved.  The CRM needs to be installed on a computer configured with a web server, and the organization should choose the CRM that is compatible with the CMS they already use.  New versions are released two or three times a year and will take some resources to apply and test.  The software itself includes an administration console that provides a configuration checklist to walk the administrator through the configuration process.

Information from the company regarding requirements, setup, and running the software:

  • CiviCRM is resource-intensive. We encourage users to consider Virtual Private Servers (VPS) OR (semi) dedicated hosting OR shared hosting from a host with experience hosting CiviCRM. Please review our Hosting provider information page for hosting options.
  • Apache 2.0+
  • PHP 5.2.1+ (PHP 5.3 is supported starting with CiviCRM 3.2)
  • MySQL 5.0.x+ with InnoDB support
  • Drupal 6.x / Joomla 1.5.x
  • Server cronjobs
  • 128mb PHP memory limit recommended
  • Multi-lingual features of CiviCRM require SUPER privileges in MySQL 5.0.x (to allow the use of TRIGGERS)


CiviCRM has a lot of functionality, and is really well targeted in on the needs of nonprofits and other civic-minded organizations.  It allows for the ability to define and manage a variety of different relationships and offers flexibility among them.  For example, you are able to associate contacts with different aspects of their involvement with the organization, such as grants, memberships, and so on.  You are also able to reach out to them through customized email marketing that is also quite flexible, with the ability to schedule blasts, define audiences, etc.

A nice aspect of the product is the ability for constituents to access it in ways that are appropriate, as determined by the organization.  This allows for users to sign themselves up for events and to make contributions on their own.  The organization can even make various data available, such as membership lists, at their own discretion.  Still, the system has built in security systems to restrict access to the appropriate parties, even in-house.

Forms and tables within the software are customizable, as well, and custom fields and groups are maintained through upgrades, so they don’t need to be reconfigured when new versions are released.  Because of the integration with a nonprofit’s existing CMS, the environment is already familiar to in-house users.  There are a number of “extras” that can be used with the system, too, such as the ability to create email petitions and to utilize outside tools such as Google Maps.


  • Responsive to the real needs of organizations
  • Not proprietary
  • Strong community of developers
  • Free


  • Steep learning curve
  • Functionality is still being developed

My Opinion

CiviCRM is one of those products that was developed because someone with a passion saw a need and wanted to use their skills to fill it.  The creators really do seem to have the best of intentions for developing a tool that serves nonprofits now and stays nimble enough through their model to be able to keep responding to developments in the sector and in technology.  Of course, one of the major points to the product is that it is free.  While there is a learning curve and not as much direct support as with a purchased product, those with some knowhow could benefit from what is really a very powerful CRM.

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