If you ask any North Peak consultant or client to share the most important factor to CRM success, they’ll say, “a clear, strategic vision.”

A clear, strategic vision makes the difference between a CRM that becomes outdated in a year and a CRM that jettisons your team to a new level of efficiency and impact. We have seen organizations cut down time spent on board financial reports from weeks to minutes. We have seen teams leverage the system to achieve year-over-year revenue increases in the double digits. These teams had different objectives, challenges, resources, and timelines. What they all had in common were strong ideas for where they wanted to go, why, and how technology could help.

And, they all had a strong Executive Stakeholder. While every role on your project team is essential, this role brings a unique combination of strategic insight and leadership that takes the project to a higher level. An Executive Stakeholder is mission critical to your CRM success. At the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a North Peak client, President and CEO Dr. John J. Hamre serves in this role. CSIS’s CIO Ian Gottesman says, “If I don’t have [his] buy-in for a Salesforce-related project, I usually won’t even proceed.”

So, what exactly does an Executive Stakeholder do, and who qualifies?

It makes a huge difference to have executive buy-in. It’s really immeasurable. If I don’t have our CEO’s buy-in for a Salesforce-related project, I usually won’t even proceed.

Ian Gottesman


Who is an Executive Stakeholder?

As the name suggests, the Executive Stakeholder (ES) role is typically filled by an executive-level employee. The person’s function and background can vary–from a CEO or Executive Director, to a Chief Information Officer, to a Head of Development or Programming. Some organizations successfully transition the role to different people at different phases of the project (for example, it might start with the CEO to scope and build buy-in for the project, then transition to the CIO for the discovery, build, and launch).

Beyond their leadership position within the organization, an ES should have these assets and qualities:

  • A passion for technology: The ES isn’t necessarily especially tech savvy, but they do have an obvious enthusiasm for the ways technology can power impact. And, as we’ll talk about later, they are a visible adopter of the CRM. Dr. Hamre of CSIS had a clear idea of the ways Salesforce would take CSIS to the next level, operationally. He says, “[Salesforce] was a priority for me for three reasons: First, we needed a more modern and versatile tool to help us with our CRM tasks. Second, we needed a tool that was easy to integrate with other business functions, like email generation and business development. Third, we needed better insight into our internal operations.”
  • A visionary outlook: Beyond a deep understanding of your organization’s long-term goals, the ES has expansive ideas for what your organization can accomplish. A CRM can elevate your organization to new heights. To realize that potential, you need someone at the table who’s looking to the sky.
  • Social capital: The ES leverages their influence to build and sustain buy-in for the project. They know the ins and outs of your cultural dynamics, and they are willing to call on this insight to make the project a priority and keep it on track.
  • Decision-making authority: The ES plays a huge role in making difficult decisions throughout the project. They have authority to make final decisions in key areas (summarized below).
  • Time: This requirement is negotiated differently at different organizations. For some, the ES dedicates substantial time to the project. For others, the ES delegates many responsibilities and steps in as the project team needs.

[Salesforce] was a priority for me for three reasons: First, we needed a more modern and versatile tool to help us with our CRM tasks. Second, we needed a tool that was easy to integrate with other business functions, like email generation and business development. Third, we needed better insight into our internal operations.

Dr. John J. Hamre

President and CEO, CSIS

What does an Executive Stakeholder do?

The Executive Stakeholder (ES) is primarily responsible for ensuring two things:

  • The vision is aligned to the organization’s strategic goals
  • The vision is successfully realized through your project

As North Peak CEO Brian Pickett says, the ES keeps the project team “focused on big-picture outcomes through all the challenges that will invariably crop-up.”

Specifically, their time and influence is spent in five areas:

  1. Organizational Alignment
  2. Change Management
  3. Resource Allocation
  4. Decision Making
  5. User Adoption

While some ES’s lead all of these efforts, others successfully share the responsibilities with their team. CSIS is a great example of the latter approach– Dr. Hamre serves as high-level decision maker and strategic leader for the project, and he entrusts his team members to manage other key aspects of the CRM project. He relied on Ian Gottesman to make decisions around the technology, saying, “Ian was instrumental in dealing with functionality issues.” To ensure alignment to CSIS’s business operations and objectives, he depended on now-former employee Mary Beth Weyle: “Mary Beth was the individual who dug into our internal business model and shaped how we would use Salesforce.”

Organizational Alignment

The ES ensures the long-term objectives for your project are clear and tied to the organization’s strategic goals. They act as thought partners for the project, contributing ideas with a visionary lens. They are also proactive in soliciting input from others in the organization who set and drive strategic goals. Ultimately, they’re working to ensure everyone understands and buys into the vision for the CRM and its impact on the organization at large.


Change Management

A large CRM project is a jarring process for most organizations, and successful ones transform the way nonprofits operate. These transformations require large and small, and sometimes difficult, changes in the ways people work. What’s more, for many organizations, these projects bring changes in organizational culture. As your CRM evolves your approach to impact measurement, collaboration, and communication, your team’s culture evolves as well.

The ES must lead the way in managing these changes. It starts with gaining buy-in and soliciting input from other leaders and their teams at the start of the project. North Peak CEO Brian Pickett advises, “It’s important to ensure that all the project stakeholders are engaged and heard so their needs are known to be in the mix.” The ES helps communicate and gather feedback on project goals, milestones, wins, and challenges, engaging team members at all levels of the organization.

CSIS can attest to the value of this approach. As Gottesman says, “[Dr. Hamre has] been engaged from the beginning of the project, which has been great. We’ve also had other key stakeholders in the org involved from the outset, which has been really helpful.”

Resource Allocation

The ES is ultimately responsible for allocating appropriate resources–both time and money–to a CRM project. This includes setting the overall project budget, assigning staff to do the required work, and setting a reasonable timeframe and schedule. 

Decision Making

CRM initiatives require high-level decision making throughout the project. The ES must often step in to resolve conflict and keep a project moving forward, both in the beginning and at major milestones along the way. “They set the tone at the beginning of the project. They also need to review the results at each major step and provide approvals,” says Pickett. 

User Adoption

User adoption is critical to realizing the ROI of your CRM investment. Says Pickett, “If you have challenges with user adoption, not only do you run the risk of having bad data, but you risk undermining the whole project.” If the ES and the project team have done a good job of engaging staff from the beginning, adoption goes more smoothly. People are more apt to dedicate time and energy to use the new system if they feel they’ve had a hand in designing it.

The Executive Stakeholder can also mandate trainings and set appropriate expectations and consequences for staff around system use. Mandates often only go so far, though. “Using the system is probably the biggest thing,” says Pickett. “The more the Executive Stakeholder uses the system, the more others in the org will do so. It’s important for [the ES] to be personally involved by attending trainings, learning the system, and using the system to answer key organizational questions.”

Dr. Hamre models this lead-by-example approach at CSIS. “His time using the system is up there with our Salesforce administrator,” says Gottesman. “When you see him using the system, it makes a huge difference. It shows buy-in at all levels, and shows that he cares. Staff sees him logging into Salesforce, and it means the staff needs to pay attention and log in as well.” 

You can find more insights on effective user adoption strategies in our series on the topic  

We hope this article sets you on the path to identifying, or being, an excellent Executive Stakeholder. And, we’re excited to share more of our thinking on CRM governance in future posts. Stay tuned!

Special thanks to Dean LaTourrette for his incredible work on this article.

Want to Learn More?

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Want to learn more about CSIS’s CRM project? Read their success story.

About North Peak

About North Peak

North Peak helps nonprofits and foundations increase institutional intelligence through healthy CRM (constituent relationship management) and/or GMS (grant management system) systems and practices. Contact Us to learn how we can elevate your organization's impact.