Organize Your Data with NPSP

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Define object, field, and record.
  • Name six standard Salesforce objects.
  • Describe the relationships between contacts and accounts.
  • Distinguish between household and organization accounts in NPSP.

Everything Depends on the Data Structure

Now that Michael has completed the critical task of logging in to Nonprofit Success Pack (NPSP) for the very first time, he needs to understand the underlying data structure before going any further—and so do you. 

The data structure determines how your data is stored and organized in NPSP. Being familiar with the data structure will help you understand how to use Salesforce and get the most out of the tools you interact with every day. If you finish this unit with glassy eyes, that’s ok. Take a break and come back when you’re ready. We’ll still be here. 

There’s an App for That

If you use a smartphone or a tablet, you probably already have a pretty good idea of what an app is. Apps are made for specific uses and independent from one another even when they’re installed on a single device—you don’t play games on the same app you use to check your bank account (or at least you shouldn’t).

Apps are also the primary way you interact with the Salesforce platform. Some apps are ready to use as soon as they’re installed, others need significant set up, and some are custom built. No matter the level of customization, you can access all the apps you need from the same place in Salesforce, and they work together to connect all of your data across departments. 

NPSP is the primary Salesforce app for organizing, managing, and working with nonprofit data. But depending on which of the many hats you wear at your organization, you might also work with other apps. If you work with clients, you might use a Case Management app for managing those interactions, and if you organize volunteer events, you might use Volunteers for Salesforce. In each of these apps, you see and work with the same set of contacts and related data that you have in NPSP, but the specific tools help you better focus on the task at hand.

Gorav, the No More Homelessness Salesforce admin, wears many hats.

Objects, Fields, and Records

Apps are the main touchpoints for your data, and no matter your organization’s mission, you undoubtedly work with a lot of data—about people, community events, physical resources and inventories, partner organizations, funding sources, political boundaries or voting districts, and more. Once you learn the fundamental principles that govern how data is organized, you can apply that knowledge to just about anything new you encounter. Anything in Salesforce, that is. We can’t help with all of your encounters. 

Gorav in a space ship with an alien; a close encounter, indeed!

In Salesforce, data is organized primarily by objects, fields, and records. They each contain a different type of data but are closely related and intersect with each other. Let’s use a spreadsheet as an analogy for thinking about objects, fields, and records, and how they all work together in Salesforce. 

Let’s say you want to keep track of all your contacts. Without Salesforce, you might start a new spreadsheet and have a tab for people and another tab for organizations. Within the people tab, you might have columns for names, addresses, and phone numbers. In each individual row, you’d fill in specific information for each contact you have. 

A spreadsheet mapped to Salesforce: tabs are like objects, rows like records, and columns like fields.

In Salesforce, an object is like the spreadsheet tab, fields are like columns, and records are like rows. Each object is a data table that can contain many different types of records and field data that interact and relate within that table as well as to data stored in other objects. How all of the objects, fields, and records relate to one another is the data model.    

The Key Objects 

There are several important objects you’ll use a lot as a nonprofit: accounts, contacts, opportunities, campaigns, cases, and (possibly) leads. Each one is designed to store and organize a specific type of data but they’re all related in the real world and in Salesforce. 

This is how nonprofits typically use these objects to track and organize data:

Object Description
Individual people with whom your organization has a relationship. This could be donors, volunteers, clients, or anyone else.
Households, foundations, companies, or other organizations and agencies with whom your organization has a relationship. Accounts are used to organize contacts.
Potential and actual revenue, like donations, grants, or membership fees that fund your organization.
An event or activity (like a park cleanup, workshop, or mailing) for which you track RSVPs, attendance, donations received, etc.
A contact’s question, feedback, or issue. Support agents, like internal help desks or external client support teams, can use cases to track an issue to resolution.
A person who has expressed interest in your organization, but hasn’t committed further. When they offer more information or become more engaged, the lead can be converted to a contact.

To get a sense of how all of these objects might work at a nonprofit, let’s take a look at how No More Homelessness (NMH) uses them to organize their data.

A friend brings Charlie Gibbons to a public meeting on homeless issues organized by NMH. Charlie is interested in getting involved with NMH, but he’s not sure how. Using a tablet, Charlie fills out a simple online form to join the NMH newsletter list. NMH set up the form in a way that connects to Salesforce, so Charlie’s information automatically becomes a lead. Charlie is added to the NMH newsletter email campaign. After receiving and reading the newsletter, he's inspired and signs up for volunteer training. At this point, Charlie’s lead record is converted to a contact, and his complete personal information and volunteering skills and preferences are added to his record. Charlie also includes information about his partner, who is then also added as a separate contact, but is grouped with Charlie in the same household account record. 

As the volunteer day draws near, Charlie realizes he has a conflict and can’t attend, so he instead makes a one-time donation, logged as an opportunity, to support NMH’s efforts. Uh-oh. After finishing the payment process online through a third-party app, Charlie’s browser crashed. He wants to be absolutely sure that his donation to NMH goes through, so he reopens his browser. Returning to the NMH website, he submits a message through the website, asking to confirm that his donation went through. Charlie’s message from the webform is recorded as a case, so the NMH team can see what happened, look into it, and respond to Charlie. (Turns out the donation went through ok and the issue was with Charlie’s browser, not the NMH donation page. Case closed!)

Close Ties Between Contacts and Accounts

Although most objects can be connected to one another in Salesforce, contacts and accounts have an especially close relationship. 

The contact object is for keeping track of data associated with individuals: clients, volunteers, donors, members, staff, and anyone else. One person = one contact record. Every contact record in NPSP must also be connected to an account record.

The account object is used to group people who live or work together. An account record can have more than one associated contact, but it’s not a requirement. Some accounts don’t have any contacts, like an account for a supplier without dedicated sales representatives, while others may have several contacts, like an account for a family.

There are two types of accounts in NPSP: household and organization. 

Household accounts are for, yep, you guessed it, households. A household is automatically created when you create a new contact in NPSP (which we’ll show you how to do elsewhere, see the link for Constituent Data Management with Nonprofit Success Pack in the Resources section below). In the NMH example, the Gibbons household account was created when Charlie became a contact. When Charlie’s partner was added as a contact, they were added to the existing Gibbons household account record instead of having a new account created separately for them. 

Organization accounts are for representing anything that’s not an individual household, including other nonprofit agencies, government institutions, foundations, corporate donors, volunteer groups, and businesses (and you’ll also learn how to create them when you learn how to create household accounts). 

To see a list of all the accounts in your organization, click the Accounts tab in the navigation bar. Looking at the NMH example, you can see that each row represents a different account record, with a column for Account Name and Account Record Type to help you know at a glance which are households and which are organizations.

The Accounts tab showing Account Names and Account Record Types.

Standard vs. Custom Everything

Well, not everything. Just apps, objects, and fields are either standard or custom. Standard versions are the same across every Salesforce org and can be modified in some ways, but you can also create brand new custom apps, objects, and fields that are totally unique to your organization. 

NMH, for example, has a custom Market & Pantry app to help them manage their food pantry inventory and a custom object for keeping track of visits to the emergency shelter. You might not need a custom app or object like NMH, but maybe you want to add a custom field on the standard contact object to track people’s favorite ice cream flavors. Unlikely. More realistically, you might want to track people’s newsletter subscription preferences.  

In your day-to-day, you probably don’t need to know which parts of your Salesforce instance are standard and which are custom (unless you happen to be the admin at your organization, and in that case, look for a link in the Resources section to help you get started on that). What is important, however, is that you know that Salesforce is highly customizable. If you think a new object or field could help you better understand or engage your constituents, work with the Salesforce admin at your organization to see what you can do to make the technology better fit your needs. Your admin has the power to add, delete, and modify nearly everything you see and interact with—objects, fields, page layouts, menu items, and dessert options. Wait, not that last one. Dessert is always pie. ribbon pie!

Now that you’re familiar with the basic data structure, it’s time to apply your knowledge. In the next unit, we’ll jump back into NPSP and show you how to customize your settings and start using important navigation tools that will get you to the right place with the least amount of clicks.


Keep learning for
Sign up for an account to continue.
What’s in it for you?
  • Get personalized recommendations for your career goals
  • Practice your skills with hands-on challenges and quizzes
  • Track and share your progress with employers
  • Connect to mentorship and career opportunities