CiviCRM boasts a lot of features and has a tremendous amount of flexibility to offer. For some, this is one of the primary reasons for selecting CiviCRM as their tool of choice. It’s freedom and total control to modify, bend and make it do exactly what they want it to do. This is the open source way. For others, it can lead them down dead-ends and poorly executed implementations or new features. What makes these 2 outcomes occur and how can you ensure the best outcome? In this post, we’ll take a look at the different types of CiviCRM administrators and what kind of CiviCRM support model works best depending on who you are.
What should a CiviCRM administrator do?
You have a CiviCRM user base to support and a system to oversee. And as someone who is in charge of the centerpiece of your data in your nonprofit, you should at minimum have a general understanding of how your CRM works. Generating contribution pages, event pages, reporting, list segmentation, email marketing, user management and data imports are just some of the routine tasks to expect. Without this foundational training and knowledge, CiviCRM will look like a fancy car without a driver. Lots of bells and whistles but no go behind it.
When should a group be created versus a report? Can my users rely on the data quality? Is the data model setup capturing important information in a way that easy to report and analyze?
We commonly see the “point person” for the CRM boil down to 3 profiles:
- Technical CiviCRM Administrator – Experienced and highly capable in-house CiviCRM Administrator.
- Standard CiviCRM Administrator – Accidental techies that juggle doing a little CviCRM work in addition to their primary role. They know the basic functionality and are sound project managers.
- End User – They just want it to work and focus on outcomes and their job.e.g. the “Development Director”.
We’ll focus on the first 2 CiviCRM admins in detail here. In some instances, the end user may end up the defacto owner in guiding the ultimate success of the system. This is often the case if there isn’t a dedicated person explicitly in charge of the CRM. Many a times, this occurs for a smaller nonprofit.
Regardless of the situation, creating and selecting the right support system is an essential aspect of successfully running a well-functioning CiviCRM. It’s one that will fit with the type of staff and volunteers you have.
Technical CiviCRM administrator
A technical admin can do just about any configuration change. They know the system inside and out, and they can adjust settings with confidence. They clearly know how to leverage the tool for all it’s worth and understand what various plugins/modules and extensions are changing the behavior of the site.
They consult the CiviCRM docs when they are unsure and may even engage in the CiviCRM community on StackExchange or Mattermost. They know when certain functionality already exists or could exist, if CiviCRM is configured correctly. They don’t go making redundant user roles, reports, groups and they keep the system well-organized.
How about errors? When there is unexpected “bad behavior” occurring, they have an uncanny sense to debug. They isolate the factors that could be causing the problem. From there, they determine if it is a CiviCRM configuration issue they can be resolve straight away or a deeper technical problem that can be escalated to a CiviCRM partner. Of course, this also means they have the time to track issues down and shepherd them to a resolution.
A good technical admin is a valuable resource to have in your organization. No one will understand your CRM better. Why? Because they effectively operate as a technology translator; to make CiviCRM align with the organization’s goals.
But, what are some cautions?
On the downside, if someone is put into the technical admin role and is in over their head, it can lead to data integrity, system wide issues and end-user frustration. In these cases, sometimes systems end up with a “how did it get to this point” kind of feeling. Tip: It was probably due to short-term solutions without an overall strategy or mastery of how CiviCRM is meant to work and be modified.
It can also be hard to find and retain the right type for this position, especially in volunteer-centric organizations.
A technical admin should always have a backup person and keep documentation for smooth staff transitions. One area that can be difficult is when external support is needed. If a technical admin makes substantial changes to the system it can take extra time for an external consultant to get up to speed.
External CiviCRM consulting route
So you didn’t hear server maintenance or custom coding in the above description, did you? That means there’s still a gap to fill.
You’ll need to outsource your CiviCRM hosting and development. At iXiam, we provide support to organizations like these where they prefer to manage CiviCRM in-house. These nonprofits must find suitable hosting that meets the minimum requirements of CiviCRM and be prepared to manage updates and technical developments. In these cases, our support typically comes in the form of a pack of hours that can be used whenever an issue arises.
It’s recommended to keep a communication cadence with your external CiviCRM partner. This keeps both sides on the same page and can come in the form of a monthly check-in call. If something is a miss or wasn’t advised, it can be headed off before it can becomes a bigger problem. On the positive side, this time is helpful to discuss targeted improvements, analyze their potential impact and what amount of effort would be involved.
The key differentiator in this plan? The organization carries significantly more responsibility and risk.
This can work great when a technical admin has a longer history with the nonprofit and the organization can justify a budget for the role. With that said, a technical admin in-house isn’t for every nonprofit, so let’s proceed to what a standard admin looks like.
Standard CiviCRM administrator
A standard admin doesn’t concern themselves about plugins, modules or extensions. They prefer to do the routine tasks and not debug issues or touch system settings. They have a mission to do each day, and becoming a CiviCRM whiz isn’t within their job description! They take care of user management, reporting, segmenting data with groups, batch updating contacts and more.
This route is not to say they don’t master certain aspects of CiviCRM. But, these will align with using the data versus managing the system. They should be able to reproduce and potentially resolve the issues. You’ll often find this person in the Operations department or an assistant on the Fundraising team.
A big benefit here is this role is much easier to fill and train.
CiviCRM SaaS solution route
At iXiam, we provide CiviCRM as a Service (SaaS) with Civi-Go. This model works out well for these types of admins because they can rely on a team of experts from time to time. They don’t have to worry about going it alone or knowing what new Civi development or extension can improve their operations. The technical aspects are left to a team who do CiviCRM every day.
But what about understanding your organization as a technical in-house admin would? This is where a dedicated CiviCRM consultant is your ally. They work through issues and can resolve them quickly. When approaching new features they’ll help you evaluate whether a prospective change will actually make a difference to your nonprofit’s membership growth and engagement or back office processes. Or perhaps there was a way you didn’t initially envision it to be rolled out.
The goal is to get results, not just tinker or make a whiz bang feature. Remember, CiviCRM offers a lot of ways to make a solution. Sometimes, having a CiviCRM partner to get you on the right track is worth all the time saved. As the famous UCLA Basketball coach said:
If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?John Wooden
What’s more? The biggest differentiator is this model puts stability and planning at the forefront. This combines what many expect from a support perspective from commercial systems such as Salesforce, HubSpot or Neon.
In the end, nonprofits can retain the open source benefit of being able to own their system and modify it as they wish. Together, they do this in close collaboration with us. We work together to achieve their goals while removing a lot of the risk that can come from in-house technical admins.
Selecting your CiviCRM support model
Having your CiviCRM work as you intended is mission critical. The path to getting there will always involve having a CiviCRM champion in your corner. Their role? Owning the success of the system. That person may not have all the answers but they can delegate when they’ve gotten stuck and know where to turn.
For organizations wanting full control, having an in-house technical admin is essential. For others, full control can be a burden and leaving that to a service provider like Civi-Go can make life a whole lot easier. In either scenario, investing in your CRM will be required; being on an “island” without any support is no fun at all. And firefighting emergencies prevents you from planning for the future.
Ultimately, the route to choose is a matter of personnel availability, budget and risk tolerance. And frankly, some organizations choose neither to their own detriment down the line. Just the fact that you know you need a support model is a solid starting point. At iXiam, we’ve found the SaaS model to be a proven model for many organizations. And for those new to CiviCRM, it can be an excellent place to start an implementation off right.
Regardless, having a full picture of responsibility before diving in essential.
Remember, you decided to invest in a CRM to make a larger impact in clear and measurable ways. Proper care for the tool with a support model is one key aspect you need to think about in your overall CRM strategy.