Present vs. Future Return on CRM Selection: Lessons from the Pallas Theatre Collective

When adopting a CRM system, especially as a young organization, it is often better to enter the process with a view that focuses less on the expectation of immediate business returns and more on making an investment in the future. Indeed, even the implementation of a user-friendly system like or PatronManager will likely involve significant staff-hours to clean data, transfer files, and train users. During a recent series of interviews conducted with nano-nonprofit administrators either on the verge or in the midst of CRM implementation, ensuring that this huge productivity drain is a one-time occurrence and not a recurring nightmare emerged as a common concern.

Pallas Theatre Collective, based in Washington, D.C., serves as an excellent example of this type of long-term focus. Founded in 2011, Pallas quickly gained a reputation for its work developing both artists and musicals. A classic nano-nonprofit in a startup mode, the Pallas budget increased by a factor of 20 over the course of its first four years. Frustrated by the separation of its numerous data streams, including ticket sales through Eventbrite, marketing through Mailchimp, and post donation campaign spreadsheet provided by Indiegogo, Pallas began to search and evaluate potential CRM solutions.

With a relatively tech-adept staff and board, change-friendly organizational culture, and a long-term strategic mindset, Pallas was better equipped than many organizations to take on the significant challenges associated with CRM selection. In particular, having a production manager with a dual background in stage management and information systems management was indispensable and  provided a level of IT professionalism uncommon in organizations of Pallas’s size. No matter what it chose, Pallas accepted early on that it was going to take time to fully utilize the selected system.

While it weighed its CRM options, Pallas performed some initial data consolidation using Podio. (AMT Lab reviewed this highly customizable cloud-based project management system last fall.) For Pallas, it served as a transitional system—an opportunity to reap some of the data-sharing and organizational benefits associated with CRM software before committing to a full system. Though Podio did not meet the organization’s long-term desires of integrated ticket sales, donations, and higher level analytics, it provided a strong foundation and immediate day-to-day improvements.

For most nano-nonprofit organizations, PatronManager and are among the top CRM options. Sharing many characteristics of functionality and usability, they both emphasize ease of use over broad feature sets, making them an easier first CRM. However, Pallas chose to forego PatronManager and instead evaluate Salesforce, one of the top CRM providers across sectors and widely lauded for its customizability— a true enterprise level system. Built with national corporations in mind more so than small nonprofits, Salesforce has tremendous built-in power and an impressive array of extension apps. Happily for Pallas, armed with its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, both Salesforce and were completely free to explore. is always free to users (besides ticket fees) while Salesforce provides 10 Enterprise licenses to qualified nonprofits, as well as free access to the Nonprofit Starter Pack, a default set of customizations designed with nonprofits in mind.

Several factors stuck out to Pallas as it evaluated the two systems. A major issue was the power. is characterized by its artist-focused, community-driven development, but as a young CRM suite many of its features were not yet released or were still in development when Pallas was making its decision in early 2013. Ticketing fees were another sticking point. Eventbrite syncs with Salesforce and charges 2.5% plus a flat $.99 per ticket in fees, as well as Paypal’s 3% processing charge. charges a flat $2 and a 3.5% credit card charge. For a $15 ticket, these charges and fees translate to $16.82 to the consumer through Eventbrite compared to $17.53 through A small difference, but since it also meant that Pallas would have to change ticketing systems, it was another mark in Salesforce’s favor. Similarly, the fees assessed on donations by gave Pallas pause. Regular donations processed through the system incur a 3.5% processing charge, however as the recipient of fiscal sponsorship through Fractured Atlas, Pallas Theatre would incur a higher 7% fee. Though overall Pallas liked the design of, the organization’s biggest fear was that the system just wouldn’t be able to keep up with its needs.

In the end, Pallas chose Salesforce as its CRM system. Tracey Chessum, managing artistic director, explained, “We made the decision to think long term. If we’re really going to do this we’ve got to jump in with both feet. So we did it. I know it’s the right decision, but it takes forever to get going, whereas if we’d gone with, we would probably be up and running by now.” Furthermore, Tracey felt strongly that such a jump was inevitable in the long term. appeared to be unable to meet the development needs outlined in the organization’s five-year strategic plan. The fees were too steep, and the feature set was too shallow; for example,  no functionality for memberships, reserved seating, or recognition of households was available at the time Pallas was making its decision. With so many systems to unify Tracey argued, “If I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it once,” going on to say, “It’s not easy. We would have benefitted from going with something like as far as getting that information together all in the same place a little bit faster and being able to make decisions based on that data. I’m thankful that I have a board and staff that sees the future and that everyone seems to be on the same page. We know that we’re sacrificing a year of using that data well, but I think it’s a good trade off. We’ll see if I’m right.” Indeed, six months into  implementation, the database is still not fully functional, though Pallas hopes to integrate it with daily business no later than the end of the summer.

When it chose to implement Salesforce, Pallas knew it was taking a difficult path. For some organizations, it may be preferable to make the harder, long-term decision, while other organizations may never need the expansive features of an enterprise level system, or will benefit from a higher up-front level of usability. Pallas, whether due to its tech-friendly culture, aptitude, or sheer willpower, ultimately decided to trust in the proven abilities of Salesforce rather than risk the chance that’s development process would be unable to keep up with the organization’s needs. No one correct choice exists, however; rather, the unifying lesson is that it’s not always enough just to understand your organization’s current needs. As Pallas realized, a successful CRM adoption is a forward-looking strategic process that, ideally, engages all levels of the organization.

What CRM has your organization adopted? Was it your first system, or did you have intermediate systems along the way? In your experience, is it better to make a huge jump all at once, or to start with a more modest implementation at the risk of having to do it over again down the line? Let us know what you think in the comments below!