One CRM to rule them all

I don’t agree with Unitarian Universalist blogger and minister Tom Schade on his call for a common UUA-wide CRM (customer relationship management) tool on practical grounds.

In short, I think it isn’t any real kind of reorganization, but rather he conflates a tool with a creative and productive culture, and so would disappoint those hoping for a meaningful solution to our lack of evangelization. Such a CRM would necessarily disappoint some people who might want to use it, and it’s implementation will take vast resources of time and money that would likely be used more productively in local activity.

That’s the short version of my objection. I worried that I have written for too long and too much. I may add another post if it is needed.

The suggestion that technology is itself an organizational change misunderstands the relationship between technology and its user. The old saying “use the right tool for the job” implies you know what the job is, and I think Unitarian Universalists have too little practical experience with evangelism to make adequate use of this or any tool. A vision comes before planning, which comes before provisioning. (And, besides, if one’s going to claim that this was the most important changing polity-tool in a hundred years, other more radical but simple technologies, like the mimeograph or telephone would make a better case.)

I’m concerned that there will be fond interest, born out of desperation, and that the investment of thought, labor and money that might be better used building skills or developing an evangelism strategy will be frittered away in an experiment which would bear nothing like its promises in a few years’ time. (Programatically, the UUA seems a shadow of itself ten or twenty years ago.) The promises will then changed to fit the new reality, but the bills will keep coming at the old rate. And the feeling that the UUA is in a death spiral increases.

I’m glad to see some commentators at Tom’s blog mention privacy. Securing the amount of data his idea suggests takes professional help, and such a CRM will certainly be white-labeled. No complaint there, if you trust the expertise of your suppliers. But we are talking about literally thousands of data users and suppliers… Pretty easy to make an error in permissions or judgment. And more than that: consider privileged information, say between pastor and parishioner, or among staff. Or on a pledge committee. Would you want everything on a common, cloud-based, UUA-managed CRM. I wouldn’t; I bet  many others wouldn’t either, which invites a database fragmentation within a congregation. That limits its utility. And that’s not even considering that personal privacy concerns of people who never signed up for a religious community that collects such a large volume of data centrally.

And how many UUA-member congregations have to not participate — after all, guessing by the UUA ChurchMgmtSoftware mailing list  traffic, many already have their own CRM and others way simply be suspicious of the quality of service — before its utility as an association-wide tool is compromized? But say your congregation has opted it: what do you get?  The creation of CRM suggests use cases which conditions what kind of information is gathered, by whom, and how often and to what detail. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution, which means that a common CRM is going to fit much better for some congregations than others. And I suspect the use-case in mind will be large congregations rather than small ones. Meaning that the small congregations, the ones least likely to adopt their own CRM, would be the ones least well served by a common UUA CRM.  Once you’re in, you’re locked in, and that changes the power relationship between congregations and the UUA.  Central databases are meant to be used for coordinated efforts. What’s to keep a development officer for the Friends of the UUA (or what-have-you) from running reports on your big donors for central development purposes? Is that really wrong? But is that really what a congregation agrees to?

And I haven’t gotten to the polity considerations, service quality, ongoing cost (including staff time in Boston and at home) or real or perceived overreach.

So we have a good, well-intentioned thought that needs the clear eye of review. Plainly, though, there are so many other programmatic and policy changes that would do more good with fewer resources that I think there’s little to debate.

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