Checklist: Evaluate Your Association Management System

The fact is 93% of associations use membership management software, but is it meeting their needs? Or does it have so many manual processes, band-aids and add-ons that it looks like Frankenstein’s monster? Your Association Management System (AMS) is the lifeblood of your organization. How do you evaluate its ability to nourish and sustain all the different body parts?

Having shepherded several clients through AMS selection, implementation and migration, I’ve assembled this checklist of what to consider and how. The process doesn’t have to be a subjective, go-with-your-gut whirlwind. In fact, for best results it really shouldn’t be. Here’s how to impose order on an overwhelming process by objectively weighing your needs against the existing options.

Know Your Membership Structure

You have to start with core function. Your association may do a million different things, and your AMS can help with pretty much all of them, but its primary purpose is membership management. The first step is getting clear about your most basic needs.

I’ve been working with associations and nonprofits for decades, and I still occasionally run across clients whose membership structure is so complex, it initially boggles my mind. Organization-level membership vs. individual-level. National vs. state chapters. (Which states require sales tax on dues?) Professional vs. student membership. Calendar year vs. rolling membership renewal. Which members are entitled to which benefits? There’s a lot to sort through. Map it all out before you shop, so you know exactly what your system needs to support at this most fundamental level.

Weight What Matters Most to You 

There are so many different AMS software products because there are so many different associations. Some are focused on continuing education and certifications, others on lobbying for their industry. Some emphasize in-person events, while others have robust online communities. What’s most important to you and your members?

For software platform selection, I am a strong advocate of objective scoring rubrics. Establish a list of criteria and determine how important each is to your operation. Weighted scoring is the only way to fly. It’s how you figure out which functions are adequately handled by a built-in module, and which ones might need a best-of-breed solution.

Identify Platforms & Channels for Integration

A few years back, ASAE canvassed AMS vendors about the state of the industry. The prevailing concern: Integration. They talked about the “explosion of channels” and how your Association Management System must be the calm eye of the storm, orchestrating the swirling chaos all around it.

Your AMS should help you work smarter. To do that, it must streamline your business processes by connecting all your tools. Make a list of what you need to integrate. Likely integration candidates include:

  • Your CRM
  • Website/member portal
  • Email marketing tool
  • Event management platform
  • Accounting software
  • Learning management system
  • Online community forum
  • Social media channels

Prioritize Member Engagement & Experience

There are a lot of ways an AMS can help you improve member experience. I’m a big fan of member self-service. The more you can put in the hands of your members, the better. They are increasingly tech savvy, and they want to be in control of their involvement with your association. Give them what they want.

Explore single sign-on capabilities that easily and instantly connect members with all your content and their online community. Allowing members to update their own info, register and check-in for events is the easiest way to free your staff up for more value-added interactions (and curb data-entry errors).

Keep Your Data Clean & Moving

Oof. I know. This is the worst, but you’re not alone. Data conversion is everybody’s biggest pain point. A good tech partner can help you figure out which AMS options will be friendly for your data, what you want to bring over, and how best to do it. I always recommend extensive mapping and multiple mock conversions. It’s an iterative process that takes time and people power.

But when you’re selecting an AMS product, it’s important to look beyond getting the data in to how easily you’ll be able to get it out. Again, your tech partner can research and publish your data extraction requirements to measure against contenders’ capabilities and the strength of their APIs.

Look for Robust, Configurable Reporting

Remember, your Association Management System ties everything together. One person may appear as a member account, a contact and a sales receipt. But just because an AMS holds all that info, doesn’t mean everybody wants to see it. Can you customize dashboard views? Search for data that isn’t readily visible? Analyze churn and visualize trends in your membership base? As Associations Now’s Ernie Smith so aptly puts it, “You want surface-level simplicity and seemingly limitless depth.”

Rely on Your Industry Friends

If you followed the six steps above, you understand your organization and what’s most important to it. You’ve considered member engagement, integration, data and reporting needs. You’re armed with a weighted scoring rubric and ready to make an objective decision. But there’s one more level of due diligence required. Even if one Association Management System is checking all your boxes and racking up big points, make sure you investigate vendor support and responsiveness. Evaluate all offered service level agreements. Reach out to colleagues who are using (or have used) the same AMS and get their feedback.

Lucky for you, the association space is a tight-knit community, and you guys are organized to boot. Longtime association executive Teri Carden has made it easy to check up on your top picks with Now in its fifth year, Review My AMS lets you search hundreds of reviews of 68 different AMS products.

Of course, you can always drop me a line too. I’m happy to talk association management software and how best to quantify your AMS requirements.

Looking for More? 

This white paper provides further guidance on how to assess and improve your association’s technology platforms. It’s a human-centric roadmap to optimizing your tech for your staff and members.

About Brian

Brian Bailey is a problem solver who caught this whole computer thing on its way up. While studying economics at the University of Virginia, he took a summer internship in Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Lab, where he was wowed by business information systems at work. Brian thought, “Maybe I could make a career out of this.” And that’s exactly what he proceeded to do.

Over the last two decades, Brian has worked mostly with associations and nonprofits. Not only has he helped them revolutionize their processes, he’s created new, custom products that enable them to work smarter. “I’m drawn to the infectious passion of the people I get to work with,” Brian explains. “I may not be curing cancer, but I’m working with someone who is.”

When he’s not empowering people to change the world, Brian is just dopey enough to take Walt Disney World’s Dopey Challenge: 48.6 miles in 4 consecutive days. That’s a 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon, back to back. It will be his 5th full marathon and 12th half. His son, daughter, and wife of 26 years will all be cheering him on!