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Automating tasks

If you find yourself making the same set of decisions regularly, more often than not, CiviCRM can free you from having to make them again. Automating administrative or routine tasks, more commonly referred to as workflows, take quite a bit of work to set up, but save a tremendous amount of time in the long run. To get started, realize that every decision, no matter how arbitrary it may feel, can be made based on a set of criteria and information that satisfies that criteria. We'll help you think through what criteria you might be using to make decisions that CiviCRM could easily make for you. The second step will be to find places for information that corresponds with your criteria in CiviCRM and then teach CiviCRM which action to take in response. Here is an example:

Goal: Automatically personalize acknowledgment letters.

Focus Questions: What letters do I edit and what information do I add? Where do I find information that needs to be added? What CiviCRM features can help accomplish this task?

Strategy: Create custom tokens and Print/Merge Document function in CiviCRM.

Custom Fields: Fund Name, Tag “Works with Organization,” Tax Receipt Pull-Down (No Tax Receipt, Extra Tax Receipt to Soft Credit, Tax Receipt to Hard Credit), Relationship “Known by Organization Staff”.

Existing Fields: Thank You Letter Sent, Soft Credit.

Custom Tokens: First Gift Date, Financial Type, Soft Credit Address and Main Contact.

Variations in Template Language:

  • Include/Exclude Fund Name - based on the fact that the money was donated to the fund or as a generic donation.
  • Include/Exclude Tax Receipt - based on information if this contribution is eligible for tax receipt.
  • Include/Exclude Invitation for Sponsorship - based on the fact that the organization receiving this email was a sponsor in the past.
  • Include/Exclude Invitation to Visit Office - based on the address of the recipient; if constituent is located close by, include the invitation.

The goal refers to which routine task you would like to automate. It can be: email me a report of major donations the organization receives each day, send a reminder email to anyone who has registered for an upcoming event, remind me when it's time to follow up with a donor about an outstanding invitation to meet for lunch, send a renewal notice to anyone whose membership is about to expire, or send a reminder email to anyone who has promised to make 4 more donations to your organization. CiviCRM has the capability of doing all these things out-of-the box. To learn more about how you can set these tasks up, visit the chapters that discuss functionality of CiviCRM components (chapters like Events, Membership, Contributions, Scheduled Jobs, Reporting etc.).

But there are probably a number of other, more complicated tasks, that with a little customization, CiviCRM could do for you as well. These might include sending personalized acknowledgment letters to certain donors or giving members access to member-only content, discounts, mailings and other benefits on your site.

Answering focus questions will require reflection and research. As an expert in what you do, try to articulate what piece of information helps you realize that this person, donation or organization deserves different treatment. Maybe this individual is personally known by someone at your organization, maybe this donation requests a unique language in their acknowledgment letter, maybe this volunteer only wants to hear about opportunities to support a particular program.

When you make the decision to give someone or something different treatment, do you have to hunt down any additional information? For example, do you have to find a spouse's name or the address of someone's company? Write out what pieces of information you add or what language you change. If you are familiar with writing conditional statements, try explaining your decision making process in the following format:

If the Spouse Name field is not empty, include spouse name in the line address.

If last contribution amount is greater than $10,000 and City is within the Zip Code Range 94110 to 94114, include as the last line in the opening paragraph: "It looks like you're in the neighborhood. Would you enjoy stopping by the office to speak more about our work and meet the staff?"

CiviCRM has myriad features that can be used to help you automate simple tasks. Sometimes the hardest part is finding them. The case studies available on can introduce you to how other organizations are using CiviCRM and subsequent chapters in this book describe what features are available and how you can start using them. If you are poking around the CiviCRM interface, the small speech bubbles can also be a great source for more information on the capabilities each field offers. To create a complicated workflow, you will ultimately want to tie several of these features together.

You will most likely have to create custom fields and custom tokens in order to accomplish your goal. Once you have planned what task you want to automate and how, create custom fields from the Administrator Console. Create custom fields carefully. It's always easy to choose a text field, but they can be impossible to use later in reports or searches because everyone enters information differently. It's better to create fields that have pre-defined answers so spelling mistakes are not an issue. CiviCRM along with any computer program is great at executing on the basis of well defined facts. They aren't as good at comparing two facts that look the same, even if the difference is only one letter in a differently spelled word. You might also be tempted to create several Yes/No radio buttons to capture a set of facts that might work better as a drop down menu.

To be a good database manager, you don't have to understand everything about relational databases. It can, however, be helpful to understand your system's underlying structure in order to understand some of the consequences related to that structure.

For example, you might wonder why you can't create a friend relationship between two organizations. The organizations might be partners, but if the database was told to only recognize the relationship type "friend" between two individuals, that constraint on the database will not let you freely use relationship "friend" for organizations. A fix to that relationship definition will fix the problem but people are often tempted to find a workaround for a problem rather then actually fix the problem. We strongly recommend looking into the reasons why something doesn't work for you and addressing the problem at its root instead of applying a "patch".

CiviCRM comes with multiple pre-defined reports that should cover most of your needs, but more complicated searches may require creating custom reports. You may hesitate to hire a professional to create a proper report to search your specific criteria, but if you are currently copying/pasting information to spreadsheets, you may consider this one time expense worthwhile in the long run.

In general, our advice is to have high expectations of your CiviCRM (and other software) and automate as much of your manual work into the system as you can to free yourself from daunting administrative activities that computers can do faster and more accurately.