Produced by SmartThoughts LLC.
Produced by SmartThoughts LLC.
We have developed this guide to assist organizations of all -sizes in the process of software selection for membership organizations. It is not intended to be reproduced without consent of SmartThoughts LLC.
Please find the outline below of the content areas that will be covered inside.
We have packed a lot of useful information into this guide. It is not just "fluffy" brochure. Rather, it is an in depth guide for those embarking on this journey to find the "best fit".
This eBook was developed by Chad Stewart.
Chad is the founder and Sr. Software Adviser of SmartThoughts.
SmartThoughts LLC. is a software advice and consulting firm focused on helping membership focused nonprofits and associations make smart software decisions. We specialize in Social CRM, Membership Management, Donor Management, Marketing Automation, and Government Relations Software. We help Nonprofit Executives align with the proper software vendors who provide solutions to solve their business challenges and reduce the risk involved in securing technology today.
Chad is a professional software buyer and software
technology advisor. He has helped hundreds of organizations save time and eliminate risk by making smarter software technology decisions. Chad's passion is helping improve operational success with the technology that is best suited to his client's needs.
The key to procuring a successful membership software purchase is to focus on your needs and know your organization. This is paramount!
A thorough investigation will go a long way to arming you with the right questions and tools to find the best solution.
A full understanding of all the costs involved to have a usable solution will help you avoid nasty cost surprises you may get by only reviewing software program list prices. Selecting the best software for your organization takes some time and effort, but the rewards are great.
We firmly believe that a smoother membership management program can improve not only an organization’s administrative efficiency, but literally increase revenues and improve the public perception of the organization itself.
If you treat the purchase of new membership software as a long-term investment rather than an expense and follow the process outlined in this booklet, you will select a system that has the capabilities you need and a software company that will be a long-term partner in your success.
We realize that this is not an easy project. But, there comes a time when the tipping point is reached for many of us in various aspects of our lives. Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side. And, that may be the case at your association with your existing technology.
However, it’s difficult to sometimes begin the search because perhaps the following dynamics are present:
To put it simply, an AMS stands for Association Management Software. An AMS is a software program designed to help membership nonprofit organizations keep track of items such as members, donors, memberships, collect dues, and register members for events. It’s a record management and engagement system for nonprofit membership organizations. These programs often come with additional features such as: dedicated association websites, government relations advocacy, Social communities, e-commerce, Financials, & payment processing.
What Basic functions do most offer?
AMS software can vary widely depending on what specific needs they were created to handle. Here are three pillars of membership software providers:
Membership management is a way to keep the organization’s members organized. It aids them by keeping their member information and membership status filed in the appropriate areas. Using this function, your members can automatically update their profile information, pay membership dues, and update their current membership status. All this without requiring the hassle of someone picking out the individual file and changing it manually when these things need to be edited or updated.
A membership will host many online e Commerce functions including event registration to streamline the process for your members, in turn increasing revenue. If you have ever purchased event tickets online, you know how much easier online hosted registration is compared to manually filling out a form and mailing in a check. Additionally, there is an integrated payment system which will allow members to easily pay their dues or buy products online via credit card. The seamless integration here is important, because at any given time you will potentially be juggling separate vendors (the AMS software, Payment processors, & Website). Having them work together effortlessly will save you a lot of stress and headaches.
At the core of an Association is community. Besides being a record keeping system, an AMS system needs to help foster participation. Most AMS software will often give members-only access to a forum dedicated to photo sharing, discussions, and other topics related to the association. Just imagine how easy it would be for a planning committee to organize an event if they were able to share files and notes over one centralized system.
Organizations both big and small make use of Association Management Systems. Often, these associations start out by managing their member information and other statistics manually, either on a spreadsheet or using another offline database program such as MS Access or Excel.
In time, associations grow and expand, gaining new members, adding more tasks, collecting dues, planning more events, and forming larger and more complex leadership structures. Add in a few more items such as recruitment and email newsletters, and the processes that once were relatively quick and simple for Association executives to handle manually have become a tremendous undertaking, consuming vast amounts of time.
Of course, each AMS is unique in what features they offer, but these areas are key tenets of what most AMS solution providers offer. You will need to decide what you require from an integrated AMS. Now, let’s dig into other areas.
The Return on Mission
Most nonprofit membership solutions do more than just manage dues revenue. Membership software ultimately pays off in several simple ways: decreasing costs, increasing engagement, & participation.
They should help the entire office. Functions offered often help manage member information, including contribution history, financial records, personal details and CRM tracking. These products usually help generate and track member communications and “get a member” campaigns.
While there are a variety a products on the market with different features and focus, some of the common ways that a membership management system can increase efficiency and reduce costs are:
Existing information about your constituents and members can help to generate more successful campaigns and, ultimately, more income. Examples include:
A key first step in your organizational evaluation is to take a good look at all your revenue generating programs.
Once you answer these questions, you will need to Identify and rank your program goals, needs and wants.
Obtain features which support your strategy for ROI. Using your ranked inventory, begin to develop a function list to use in your software search. The activities that you engage in hourly or daily, or that you spend too much money or time on currently will dictate which feature areas have higher priority than others.
For example, if you rely on dues rather than events for a large percent of your funds, detailed event management features will fall lower on your features list. It may help to prioritize features in terms of categories such as: “must have,” “not critical, but don’t want to live without” and “helpful extra, not necessary.”
If you need a starting point, consider the list of features and functionality, or build one from features suggested by vendor literature or other nonprofit organizations.
Next, spend some time considering the type of information you want to capture as well as the level of detail required. What detail is needed to build and maximize relationships, analyze dues trends and develop effective reports?
Consider each entity you report to (e.g., board of directors, grant and funding sources, donors, service recipients, national organization, auditors, etc.) and consider the type of detail they demand. These activities will help you compare costs and benefits of different software packages based on essentials, and quickly factor in additional costs for desired but non-critical features.
What is currently eating up your staff’s time? You may need to go back to your analysis or ROI review to answer this question. You need to focus on the ROI of Features rather than getting bogged down on minutia. As stated the core features should be about CRM, e Commerce (Financials), participation and engagement. Users may use this basic list as a guideline to consider and rank features. Please know that there are likely 40 plus functional areas that may constitute the makeup of what you define as the best fit AMS.
By now, you should begin to understand your organizational needs. Understanding your existing technology assets helps you determine if you can run a new membership package on the system you already have, or whether other hardware or peripherals are required to support it.
A comprehensive list of hardware, operating systems, networking information and other critical software can help you to determine technical compatibility (API requirements) when speaking to a software vendor. While Software as a Service (SaaS) is common today, still be sure to review your technology assets on several different levels.
Network: Understand your computing environment so you can communicate it to vendors—is it made up of stand-alone workstations, or a network? A network is necessary if more than one person will need to access the same data at the same time. Networks vary considerably in complexity, type and capacity.
Hardware. Know your desktops’ capacity for adding software—list their RAM, CPU speed and storage capacity. Are they Macs or PCs? If your desktops are older, they may require an upgrade of at least the browser application (Ex. Internet Explorer, Chrome etc.) to accommodate even the most basic database solution. Find out the type of servers your organization uses and their capacity level.
Software. Review the software that you use every day. Consider your standard word processing software, accounting software, etc. What will need to work directly with your membership solution? While there are exceptions, most fundraising software currently on the market runs on a PC with Microsoft Windows. Be sure to know your version of Windows or other operating system.
Nobody buys the code that goes into a software program. You buy to solve problems and ultimately need a complete solution to address your organizational needs. A real solution includes considerations beyond just the computer program you purchase: your staff must be able to use the program effectively and your organization should be supported technically if your network changes or programs are added, or if you have questions or issues. Consider your wider organization to determine what additional services may be required so that you have a real solution. It's important to consider items such as the following:
Once you have decided that your organization could profit from a new database software program, have assessed your organization and are familiar with the roll-out process, it’s time to start product evaluation. If your organization is small, has only a few programs and campaigns and a small donor base, you will probably be looking at the low-end market, and can evaluate the available systems and make the choices yourself. Depending on your own experience with software, you may want the help of an experienced consultant to help in the evaluation at the mid-range level. Both low- and mid-range products may come with a limited-time purchase guarantee to reduce the risk associated with purchasing a software package. Be sure to ask about them in the evaluation process.
Before purchasing any software or system, you first need to form a team to research and evaluate products in the marketplace. The key players in your team should include: CEO/COO or Senior Management Member, IT Manager, Finance Manager, Marketing Manager, Events Manager, Other business unit managers and volunteers, Once the team is established, distinct goals and timeframes need to be set, and team members need to be regularly updated. If the project starts to fall behind or lose direction, this needs to be addressed straight away to avoid increased costs and extended timeframes.
You need to appoint an internal Project Manager. This may be obvious for most organizations but may require some evaluation and determination by the group.
A project manager is responsible for driving the project and ensuring all objectives are met and the project remains on track. Who is the most organised person in your business, with great communication skills and the confidence to ask the tough questions? They need to have a handle on all sections of the organization to ensure the software meets the individual requirements and expectations of all stakeholders.
One of the major risks in appointing a staff member for this role can be the focus. They still have their own job to perform and if anything is going to lag, it will be the project, as the staff member will naturally gravitate toward the familiar territory—what they know best. This can have a negative impact on the overall project, causing time slippage and increased implementation costs. The ideal candidate for this role, then, would be someone familiar with project management, and the
organisation should be willing to provide flexibility and support for the staff member’s usual role.
Where do you begin the process?
The search for software begins with you rather than software options. The key to a successful search is a careful analysis of your organizational infrastructure and the business issues you face and the outcomes you desire.
This should include an assessment of your current programs, an inventory of your existing technology, your staff’s computer skills, and an examination of your budget. In each of these areas, consider where you may be three to five years down the road.
For a software implementation to be effective, you need staff ‘buy in’. If your staff do not see the benefits of using a new system, the task of deployment will be very difficult. Talk to staff members
and ask them what they desire, require, and would find most useful if the choice was up to them.
You will find the staff members beginning to take ownership and it will become the topic of conversation around the office, which
in turn promotes interesting new ideas. One staff member should be responsible for collating this information. Using a score card is a good way of forming a ‘wish list’ based on specific questions. The score card may contain a list of fixed questions, and a free field for comments and additional requests. When compiling your score card, ensure that you cover the basic requirements for each business unit, while keeping them high-level as you do not need too much information at this point. More information can be added later when the project team is established.
So, the first step is always to determine your needs. Examining your people, processes, and technology will lead to a great list of requirements that can be used throughout the evaluation journey.
When deciding on what your business requires, you must think outside the box, outside of what you already know; move past the “But that’s how we have always done it” and instead ask, “What if we...?” You will be pleasantly surprised by what systems can provide in terms of automation—the efficient completion of many repetitive tasks—saving time and sanity!
Now it is time to form a plan, or a ‘Situational Analysis’ document, and the main task for the Project Manager or consultant at this point is to push the boundaries and think creatively, as this is the critical point in deciding the best system for your organization.
There are two main lists you will need to begin with:
"Must Haves’ - the processes and features critical to your business "Nice to Haves’– a wish list of features that improve the user’s job and offer additional benefits, such as additional member benefits or time-saving. You need to start at the top and move to the more nitty gritty. In the end, this should be a story about you, where you are at now and where you would like to be "future state".
The main tasks you need to deploy to achieve the above include: Stakeholder/Management meetings, Surveys, both internal and member, Interviews with staff, Focus/working groups broken down into departments, collaborative document for all team members to comment on and gain alignment on before any communication with vendors. This is critical!
There are over 130 purported membership software options on the market today. You can't demo everyone in order to find the best fit for your organization.
The process of choosing a vendor may seem daunting but if you put the right processes in place, you will quickly identify your ‘Must Haves’.
A common way for most organizations to start is at the most basic: Googling it. While searching online for an initial list of providers may be logical, it can be quite overwhelming. But, if you are going to do this, some of the most popular search terms include: Membership management software, Association software, Cloud-based membership software, AMS, & Member management systems. In order to help expedite this process, we have a complete list of options and you may go to the link here.
The simple answer is: ‘Have you gathered enough information in order to pass a request for proposal document to potential vendors, which they will fully understand and be able to respond to?’
The reply will most likely be ‘no’, and the main reason for this is that you may still have more questions than answers; if this is the case, you either need to conduct further research or speak with two or more vendors to collect further information, organize a demo, and then
An RFP is quite personal and may not always allow a vendor to ask questions or highlight certain areas that you may not have thought of. Many organizations tend to choose something between the two—a high-level list of questions and ‘Must Haves’.
We prefer developing a story of your situation rather than the traditional RFP. In this manner, it's more of "giving" of information to be sure that the vendors understand what business issues you are facing and hope to solve.
You relationship with a vendor is important. You don't want to waste your time or theirs. So, aligning with your provider will make the process so much easier.
Who are you dealing with? Are they stable? How long have they been in the business? What infrastructure do they have in place? These are just some of the points you will want covered.
Fortunately, most companies will be able to offer you a corporate profile document that covers all these topics and more, and should provide you with all the information you require, including:
There is a wide variety of purchase prices for different levels of software. However, it’s important to remember that the purchase price is not always the complete cost of the solution. Organizational software can have additional costs in the form of additional user licenses, data conversion, additional staff training and annual technical support, or even additional hardware to support the solution. It’s important to understand all the associated expenses beyond the software price tag to know your true costs. We categorize the various levels below.
While budget is a primary driver of the actual deliverables, you should not be too concerned initially, as long as you have a realistic budget based on the ‘Must Haves’, which is the most important factor.
If you are expecting to furnish all your ‘Must Haves’ as well as you ‘Nice to Haves’ with a restrictive budget, then you need to rethink your strategy. Pricing for member management software varies greatly because the solutions also vary in what they deliver. Remember there are 4 Tiers!
Also bear in mind that there are quite a few systems on the market that are stock-standard, which means you will have to take what you are given (which does not suit most organizations).
If you are a small organization and do not employ staff, then you may find the basic ‘off-the-shelf’ solution offers enough features for you, and most of these usually have small set-up costs and ongoing monthly fees at a low rate. If your organization employs staff and has departments, then this type of solution will not improve your organizations, workflows, or processes. You may need a solution that can be tailored to better fit your needs. Just because a solution is tailored to fit your needs doesn’t mean it will have an expensive price tag, either. It is all about compromise.
Understand the difference between ‘Must Haves’ and ‘Nice to Haves’ and draw a clean line in the sand. Prioritize your ‘Must Haves’ and work through it with the vendor. You will find that some things are standard and others can be provided with a small amount of customization.
The initial demonstration should involve the project team and include all stakeholders but the Project Manager (or consultant) should be the primary voice during the demo and the other team members should have their questions written down, ready to ask when appropriate. Remember, this should be a live demonstration and you should be able to ask the questions and request further information at anytime, stopping when further clarification is required on a particular feature.
For most associations, you should plan on having more detailed "use case" scenario demonstrations as well. This will allow everyone on the staff get more a more tailored review of the system.
You may even consider "hands on" or "click around sessions". These are very useful for most organizations.
Professional Sales people are an asset. They should be experts in their products. However, you should take control of the sale and use your organizational evaluation to guide you on the types of questions to ask & areas to focus on. However, here are general sample questions to get you started to put together for your RFI:
Sample Technical Questions:
Membership, Dues, Events, Financial Sample Questions:
Support and Maintenance Questions:
Now that you have gone to the trouble of researching the systems and narrowing down a shortlist of potential vendors, it’s a good idea to make a final decision criteria to use in your final choice. As mentioned previously, any reputable vendor will gladly provide you with some reference sites, but you need to be able to put a framework together to make that final determination some times. You may consider a few of these questions when it's not exactly clear. And, remember that the final two options should be close, or you may have done something wrong in the process.
In your search for that perfect technology fit, you will need to draw upon many sources of information. A critical aspect before you begin the search and at the end is feedback from your peers. And, as we know, everyone has an opinion on their Association Membership Software (AMS), right?
Once you have narrowed down your selection (2 to 3), and you feel that a product is in the range of your needs, don’t hesitate to ask the sales representative for customer references, especially a local one, if possible. Ask for the names of clients in organizations of similar size that you can contact, or even possibly visit. Even a short conversation can provide some key information which could add in your evaluation. Several sample questions may be found below:
O.K., it’s decision time. You have the budget approved, the board’s approval, and now you just need a start date. If you haven’t already, ask about start dates and timeframes for each stage of the project and lock in a main start date. Once you have signed off your chosen proposal, the vendor will start the ball rolling and should begin organizing the first steps. This is where the hard work really starts for the Project Manager, as they will need to ensure the project is delivered on time and within budget.
There is a considerable amount of coordination and effort that goes into a successful software selection project. However, if you do this right, it will greatly improve member value proposition by delivering increased functionality and improved opportunities to reach your mission. Further, your staff now will have more time to focus on members and attend to their inquiries/needs.
You should take some time to celebrate and then "Kick Off" your project with great anticipation and excitement. It's worth it!
Thank you for taking time to read through this guide. If we may be of service to you in your search, please book at call with me here.
Top reasons executives will call me to assist them with software technology advice & their enterprise software purchases: