Meet the Salesforce Platform

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:
  • Sign up for a trial and begin working in Salesforce.
  • Describe what comes in Salesforce with NPSP.
  • Compare and contrast the Salesforce and NPSP data models.
  • Define the Salesforce platform.

Sign Up for a Trial and Verify Login

Before you can start working in Salesforce, you need access to a Salesforce organization. As a qualifying nonprofit or higher education institution, you’re eligible for up to 10 no-cost subscriptions to Salesforce, through the Power of Us program. A subscription provides a single user with access (a login) to Salesforce.

This module introduces you to the Nonprofit Success Pack (NPSP)—the “move-in ready” version of Salesforce that offers nonprofits. We recommend that you sign up for a new NPSP trial, even if your nonprofit already has a trial or a permanent Salesforce organization. Using a new NPSP trial ensures that your learning experience here on Trailhead is consistent with what we’re presenting, and lets you explore freely with the test data you create.

  1. Go to the trials page at
  2. Fill out the form and click Submit.


    The username you enter must be in email address format. It does not, however, need to be an active email address. For example, you could use as your username. You can also use your work email address, if that’s easier to remember. Keep in mind that you cannot reuse your username in a different Salesforce org—each username must be unique.

  3. Check your email and look for a message from
  4. Click the login link in the email, set a new password, and log in.
You now have your very own key to Salesforce. As we said, NPSP is customized for your nonprofit, so you can move right in and start unpacking. But before we tour your new home in the cloud, let’s take a look at the base model of Salesforce—what we’re calling “the Salesforce”—for comparison.


Don’t forget to complete the Power of Us Application at some point during your 30-day trial. Completing the application converts your trial version of Salesforce into a permanent Salesforce organization. If you don’t complete the application within 30 days, you lose access to your trial.

Welcome to “the Salesforce”

Before we talk specifics about NPSP, it’s important to understand what comes with the base model of Salesforce. While any nonprofit can use Salesforce as is, the product is not particularly built for nonprofits. If we think about “the Salesforce” as the most basic house Salesforce provides, it would look something like this:

A floor plan view of the Salesforce.

At a fundamental level, “the Salesforce” is:

  • Cloud-based, so there is low impact on your internal IT systems. Salesforce is responsible for storing your data on our servers and keeping it secure so that you can focus more on your mission than on your computer hardware.
  • Tiered, offering different “editions” or levels of functionality, to accommodate all organizations. Our nonprofit users (regardless of size) tend to opt for the Enterprise Edition, which is what you get when you sign up for the Nonprofit Success Pack.
  • Subscription-based. Qualifying nonprofits and higher education institutions can get up to 10 no-cost subscriptions, but you may need more than that. Our subscription-based system is flexible, so you can easily add more subscriptions as your organization grows.
  • Customizable. Salesforce comes packed with countless great features, entities, and layouts, but we know that one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. Because Salesforce is a platform, you can easily customize it to meet your needs.

That’s “vanilla” or basic Salesforce, in a nutshell. It was initially built for salespeople. But let’s take a look and see how over time Salesforce evolved from a sales product to do so much more.

The Evolution of Salesforce to Support Nonprofits

Salesforce started out as software for automating sales processes, and by extension, maximizing sales revenue. The “Sales” in Salesforce gives you a hint that the product was designed for businesses selling to other companies or business accounts.

Everything in Salesforce revolves around the account. Salespeople sell to the individuals (contacts) who work at the account and influence the purchase decision. The sales pitches themselves, such as 500 cases of product, are known as opportunities. These too, are connected to the account.

Account-centric data model diagram

Because of our sales-focused approach to customer relationship management (CRM), some might think that Salesforce is only for for-profit companies. That used to be true. In the early days of Salesforce, nonprofits found it challenging to adapt to the account-based model.

In nonprofit CRM, or constituent relationship management, we care about managing constituent data and optimizing fundraising and program activities. We track a different set of entities and their relationships—namely, individual donors, their household affiliations, and donations. is most grateful to those intrepid nonprofits who adopted Salesforce early on and gave us feedback. They helped us think about how to develop a product tailored for nonprofit CRM. That product grew over time and eventually became the Nonprofit Success Pack.

Welcome to “the Salesforce Plus NPSP”

“The Salesforce Plus NPSP” house model looks similar to “the Salesforce,” because the Nonprofit Success Pack is just a pre-built version of the base Salesforce model, that adds and changes a few things while leaving basic Salesforce functionality intact.

A floorplan view of the Salesforce Plus NPSP

Accounts, contacts, and opportunities are still the major building blocks. However, each NPSP account represents a household. Each household can be associated with multiple donors (contacts) and donations (opportunities). And since nonprofits may need to track more than donors, they can use contacts to manage all kinds of people data—members, volunteers, clients, board members. And they can use opportunities to manage grants, in-kind gifts, and memberships—not just donations.

Household Account-centric data model diagram

This model is also move-in ready, which is something that nonprofits have told us they’ve really needed when just starting out. And did we mention that our nonprofit users absolutely love the NPSP “house’s” layout? You can see at a glance so much about a donor’s history of interactions with your nonprofit.

[Alt text: Couple of stacked screenshots of a Contact record, brimming with household info and donation info]

NPSP Is a Fully Powered Version of Salesforce

Earlier we dispelled the myth that Salesforce is only for for-profit companies. Now, we want to make it clear that while NPSP is designed to make Salesforce easier for nonprofits, it’s not a “watered down” version of Salesforce. With NPSP, you not only get the functionality that we built specifically for nonprofits, you also get a fully functioning Salesforce organization. NPSP works in conjunction with Salesforce to offer you all the wonder, power, and functionality that Salesforce also offers to Fortune 500 companies.

Let’s listen to what VP of Product Delivery, Kevin Bromer, as well as some of the nonprofit community members we love and admire, have to say about the Nonprofit Success Pack.

If your organization knows it wants to manage individual donors and donations and households, the Nonprofit Success Pack gives you all that nonprofit functionality right out-of-the-box.

You may be wondering about other critical functions, like payment processing, auction management, or email marketing automation. The “Salesforce Plus NPSP” model doesn’t do any of those things out-of-the-box.

This is usually where we pause to consider what Salesforce really is (besides a cloud-based, subscription-based, database system). You often hear us described as a platform. What does that mean, exactly?

What Is the Platform?

Think of a platform as a “suite” of technologies that provides a core set of features right out-of-the-box, along with the flexibility to customize and add other apps and processes on top of that suite.

NPSP is itself an example of an app on top of the Salesforce platform. Most nonprofits use Salesforce Plus NPSP as the foundation for their implementation, and then customize further to meet their individual needs. While some nonprofits do prefer to use Salesforce without NPSP (usually because they want to do extensive customizations, or don’t need to manage donors, donations, or grants), most nonprofits want Salesforce pre-configured for donor management.

A customizable platform explains how Salesforce can serve nonprofits with vastly different sectors, budgets, missions, and structures. Salesforce is used by one of the largest foundations in the world to manage grantmaking and AIDS prevention programs across Africa . . . and it’s also used by local community-based charities to manage volunteer events and in-kind donation processing. That’s flexibility in action.

With the flexibility to customize comes the responsibility of complex decisions:

  • Which Salesforce products do I use?
  • Which external systems or apps should I integrate with?
  • What should my implementation approach be? (Implement on my own or get help from a consulting partner?)
  • What’s my longer-term maintenance strategy?
  • . . . and the list goes on . . .

The complexity is easy to underestimate—for both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The good news is that there are resources to help you understand your options and strategize your Salesforce implementation. In a later unit, you’ll develop a plan that considers all the important pieces of that implementation. Before you do that, however, you’ll need to understand how your data is organized in Salesforce. We’ll cover that in the next unit.