An association management system can be a huge help in tracking your members, newsletter subscriptions, special gifts, invitations to events and workshops, and discounts on products and services. In this article, which was updated from a 2008 version, we asked a number of different nonprofit experts about the systems that have worked for them.
Your organization serves a large group of members, and in exchange for their membership you offer a free subscription to your newsletter, special gifts, invitations to events and workshops, discounts on products and services, and more. It's a challenge to manage so many varied and complex interactions. From membership levels and renewals to benefits and event schedules, how do you keep track of all the details?
If money's no problem, you can custom build a database. For the majority of nonprofits, it probably makes more sense to invest in one of the existing association management tools on the marketplace. There are many, and each offers a mix of features and customizations to fit your price range. A third choice is the happy medium of customizing the features of an existing platform based on your budget and requirements.
We asked a number of nonprofit technology professionals with similar needs what software has worked for them and created a list of solid tools that might work for you.
Association vs. Membership Management
Software used to track membership tends to fall into one of two categories: standard membership systems or association management systems (AMS). There's no black and white distinction between the two, but AMS tends to imply a system with more support for offering a number of specific benefits to members.
For some organizations, membership is a fundraising strategy that helps achieve goals larger than just serving members. As an example, consider public radio stations — though they raise money through membership drives, you don't have to become a member to listen. This type of organization might need a membership management system to track member “dues” and renewal dates that offers a lot of fundraising abilities. But this group doesn't necessarily need sophisticated functionality to track member benefits or conferences.
In contrast, other organizations have a more direct mandate to serve groups in specific ways. Such organizations offer memberships as a way for their constituents to receive those benefits. A trade association might provide critical services to affordable housing builders, including accreditation, conferences, certification, networking at members-only-events, group insurance rates, discounts on building materials, and more. This set of needs is likely to require a more sophisticated system — usually called an AMS.
While these distinctions won't necessarily dictate which type of software you'll need, understanding the difference will help you choose. Membership management systems tend to start at a lower cost, while AMS software often provides a wider range of tools to help track the various services you offer members — including managing both organizational and individual members.
Considering Your Needs
Like most systems, membership and association management systems range from the simple and inexpensive to the robust, complicated to learn, and expensive to sustain. The cost can begin to climb as you add more features.
Before you choose a system, carefully define your membership processes to ensure you get the best system for your money. In particular, take time to consider the following:
- Membership Benefits and Structure
What services do members get, and what must they do to get them? Match membership pricing to membership levels and to the array of gifts, discounts, access, and services they receive.
- Event Management
If events are a critical part of your organization's work, describe how they function and in what areas they depend upon membership structure.
- What member discounts do you offer?
- Are there multiple days, tracks, or workshops?
- Do you need to manage vendor halls, speakers, sponsors, and volunteers?
- Which member preferences play a role, and how do members register and pay?
- Member Communication
Describe how you communicate with members and how they will communicate with each other.
- Do you need to search a member list by certain profiles to create mailing lists?
- Do you have organizational chapters, and do they need access to manage their own chapter information?
- Do you offer newsletters and other publications?
As a side note, many AMS and membership systems lack the detailed functionality for fundraising provided by packages specifically designed for that purpose. If you're primarily asking for membership fees or donations from members, they may well meet your needs, but if your fundraising operation extends well beyond members and into the realm of major donors, pledges, and other more complex areas, you may want to consider a fundraising system instead of — or in addition to — your membership system.
Using What You Have
Organizations with relatively simple rules for members could get by with their existing constituent relationship management system, like Salesforce or CiviCRM, in conjunction with an event management tool (see Idealware's articles, A Few Good Tools: Low Cost Constituent Databases and A Few Good Event-Registration Tools). These systems won't provide robust support without configuration. However, they can be extensively customized to provide more features, and it's pretty straightforward to add a simple dues-tracking functionality.
Alternatively, some popular donor management systems like The Raiser's Edge by Blackbaud, DonorPerfect (which is available to eligible nonprofits and public libraries through TechSoup), and PledgeMaker support members and associations and are helpful for organizations that need strong support for both fundraising and membership. These options can work well for organizations with a smaller membership base or tighter budget who may not want to purchase an additional database.
Options for Small Organizations
What about smaller organizations with less-complicated membership and benefit structures? Our experts recommended a few systems with lower implementation and annual costs that also tend to provide fewer features and options for customization than more expensive systems. Carefully evaluate the combination of features to see how each stacks up against your needs.
This lightweight, hosted AMS offers strong event- and conference-management functionality, with workshop/track management, session capacity setting, multiple event pricing, custom fields, attendee questionnaires, automatic event calendars and more. Membership management functionality supports organizational members with “flow-down” control, which allows member benefits to be selected for individuals within the organization. One of the more affordable systems, pricing is determined by the number of members, and starts at $50 per month for up to 100 members and an additional 500 non-member contacts, plus transaction fees per event registration.
MemberClicks offers a hosted solution focused on managing a membership community online. Community features include a contact center for members, rosters, discussions, job board, and event calendar. MemberClicks also offers a flexible form-building tool that lets associations develop custom signup forms for events, donations, membership dues, and more. Basic event management is available, but not suitable for more-complex conference scenarios. MemberClicks offers only basic constituent management and segmentation and no association-specific financial management features. Pricing starts at $115 per month plus an $895 setup fee for up to 300 members and 900 non-member contacts.
This hosted service offers a wide range of basic association management features. Focused on member social networking and community management, it includes several tools for web content management, blogs, community calendars, and group and chapter administration. Weaknesses include less-robust event-management functionality, limited subscription, and no financial management features. Pricing is straightforward, at $1,495 for setup and $5,995 annual license fee for unlimited members, multiple users, and all functionality.
Tendenci focuses on online transactions with members, such as signups, registrations, dues and member rosters, but offers less-robust support for building a member community. It has a wide variety of features, including web content management, jobs board, press release management, photo albums, online discussion rooms, built-in RSS feeds, and a continuing education module. However, many of these features are not deep in functionality. It may not be particularly well-equipped for more complex conference management. And membership functionality offers only basic support for different membership types (such as individual and corporate). Pricing starts at $2,000 setup for web template ($3,000 to use your own) plus $195 per month for up to 500 members, $295 per month for 1,000 members, or $395 for 2,500 members, with options to expand up from these levels.
Wild Apricot is a compelling, intuitive system focused on membership, events, and site-management functionality for smaller membership-based organizations. The core of the system is aimed at controlling web pages and quickly integrating membership and event-signup forms. The platform is highly specialized in some areas and very basic in others. Wild Apricot offers a bare-bones, ad-supported free version providing web and membership integration for up to 50 members. The monthly fees scale up from there, beginning at $25 a month up to $200 a month for a maximum of 15,000 member records.
Options for Mid-Sized Associations
In general, solutions with mid-range pricing offer deeper functionality and greater ability to configure the application to meet the individual association's needs. Many of these solutions integrate key accounting functions for associations, offer more robust subscription- and event-signup management, and support divisions of members into chapters or other groups. General constituent management is typically strong, with more fields to track information and more flexible ways to filter and segment the information according to your own criteria.
Note that these are all hosted solutions, which offer advantages over installed software packages for smaller organizations, such as lower startup costs and shorter implementation times. When reviewing these systems, be sure to identify where additional configuration or customization may be necessary to meet your needs.
This system offers strong features for a good price, including website content management, an online form builder, conference management, accounts receivable and batch processing, and a query-building tool for filtering and segmenting constituent information. Strong chapter management functionality allows chapter officials to access and manage their own data. Pricing includes a $1,500 startup fee plus $99 per administrator per month. More advanced pricing options include additional features, such as an online store, survey builder, and discussion forums.
JL Systems provides a large and refined set of features particularly strong in back-end membership relationship management and website integration. With the launch of NOAH in January 2008, the vendor shifted its focus from an installed version to a hosted service with all the same features. The system offers granular control over member groups, including the ability to let each group manage its own pages online. NOAH starts at $99 per month per user, with a minimum of five users, plus hosting at $50 per month per 1,000 contact records, with a total minimum cost of $200 per month.
Avectra has long offered an enterprise-level solution and has more recently focused on hosted products. netFORUM Team and Pro are stripped-down versions of the company's other offerings, but still packed with features and frequently updated with new functionality. Both Team and Pro offer some website integration, recently improved to allow for custom page creation, but the focus is more on back-end member relationship management. Since it offers no customization and limited configuration options, be sure this works well for your needs out of the box. Avectra license costs depend on the product chosen and user roles and range from $125 to $175 per user per month.
More Customizable Solutions
These products mix core functionality with custom consulting services to more closely match the individual association's needs. They tend to require longer planning-and-implementation times, and costs can vary widely depending on specific requirements. Associations who put the time in with vendors can craft a custom solution that rivals less-configurable hosted solutions.
Affiniscape offers a focused back-end association management solution called Members360, which is hosted and custom-implemented by Affiniscape consultants to align with client requirements. This model makes pricing variable based on the needs of the individual organization. Expect a minimum of $9,500 per year plus $7,000 for consulting, with costs rising for advanced needs.
The ClearVantage approach is more of a custom engagement. The system has strong member relationship management functionality, including support for project and association process management. As an example, its exhibit hall support includes floor plan design tools helpful for larger conference engagements. Custom pricing depends on the features and services required, but expect costs in the same range as the other solution in this class or higher.
These solutions target larger professional or trade associations who have the technical staff in place to adopt and sustain enterprise software. They offer complex association features, customized tool sets, and stronger vendor support partnerships. Pricing for the software alone ranges from $15,000 to more than $100,000 in annual costs, and implementation generally ranges from $30,000 up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Example solutions in this space include Computility, gomembers, iMIS, Association Server, TCS Software Prevail, Aptify, and Personify/TIMSS. Designed as comprehensive association management systems for big organizations, these systems require internal training and support and can therefore be unwieldy for organizations lacking strong departmental resources. Vendors provide custom pricing and implementation services depending on specific service and feature requirements.
Selecting the Right System
Many of these packages offer very different feature sets. When considering them, first make sure you've properly identified your needs by documenting membership rules, benefits structure, events, and online community needs.
Features that seem similar in vendors' product and services descriptions often compare differently in real-world applications. Explore them thoroughly and put them through realistic scenarios in order to eliminate surprises.
Beyond the basic features, an AMS can grow quite expensive. Consider hiring a skilled database consultant with experience implementing such applications to help make sense of all the information. That can help you focus on the task at hand — finding the system with the right features and the right price for your organization, your members, and your needs.
For More Information
- AMS Vendors: A listing of association management vendors from effective database management. EDM also provides additional resources on its blog.
- American Society of Association Executives: A resource for all areas of association management, including articles covering associated management systems.
- AMC Institute: A resource for finding “association management companies” that provide outsourced services for managing associations' information.
Thanks to the following nonprofit technology professionals for providing recommendations, advice, and other help for the original article and the update:
- Eric Leland, FivePaths (2008 and 2011)
- Jill Kurtz, Balance Interactive (2011)
- Dan Shenk-Evans, Community IT Innovators (CITI) (2008)
- Robert Weiner, Robert L. Weiner Consulting (2008 and 2011)
- Wes Trochlil, Effective Database Management (2008 and 2011)
*This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.