Small Associations—Cut Through the Clutter to Find the Right AMS

There’s low-fat, chipotle-spiked, lime-laced, dairy-free, and enriched with avocado. Mayonnaise isn’t alone in its overwhelming diversity. An explosion of products can make selection, especially something as significant as a new association management system, a black hole that drains organizational resources. For small associations (10 employees or less) that don’t have the bandwidth or the budget to spend on power shopping, the array of choices can be especially frustrating.

Back in the olden days, say ten years ago, choice wasn’t a problem because the options were limited. Much of the software designed for associations was high-ticket (think at least five figures and more often six) and required a significant investment of staff time for data conversion, platform implementation, and training.

Software as a Service

Large-scale platforms still exist. But with the rise of software as a service (SaaS), a new world of options has opened for smaller groups who were previously either priced out or forced to scale-back on expectations. SaaS is the natural offshoot of cloud computing. It is distinguished by these characteristics:

Available Anytime, Anywhere

The software typically resides on the internet and can be accessed by multiple customers from any location. This avoids a lengthy process of installation and configuration, making many platforms ready to go almost as soon as a purchase is complete.

Easier on the Checkbook

SaaS is licensed as a monthly rental. Prices are often tiered based on the number of records in the database. No additional equipment needs to be purchased.

Flexibility Within Limits

SaaS is like renting an apartment instead of building a house.

This is an important point that I’m going to labor a bit. When you purchase SaaS, you must be ready to live within the software’s existing framework. Although you may not be able to perfectly mimic your organization’s workflows, there is definitely room for flexibility. It’s like renting an apartment instead of building a house. You can decorate to suit your taste, but you’ll have the same two bedrooms as every other tenant.

Users can generally add and rename fields and files and create a variety of reports. But if maintaining multiple addresses for each member, or similar complexities that are essential to your business is critical, you may need to look elsewhere.

These “restrictions” can impose healthy discipline. Teams, with limited experience purchasing new systems, can become overly focused on replicating every organizational process. When this happens, they lose sight of efficiencies that will come from automating key functions. Instead of bending business rules to accommodate a system that cranks out membership renewals and event registrations in a few clicks, they become stuck searching for a new platform that will preserve old ways of doing business. The imagination to envision improved operational strategies is essential to any successful software purchase.

Automatic Upgrades and Maintenance

Upgrades, which for traditional software owners were sometimes more hassle than help, occur seamlessly because along with maintenance they are platform-wide activities. With everyone experiencing the system in the same manner, the benefits, requests, and recommendations from many different clients are even more powerful than support from traditional user groups.  

Which Package is Right for You?

Today most AMS systems are built on the SaaS model. However, some are more plug and play than others. These are several recommendations for small associations that can help make a successful match.

Evaluate Resources

Be clear-eyed about the financial and human resources available to support an AMS. Your budget is the dealmaker or breaker. But people are equally important. After you’ve Identified a team to lead the initiative, adjust their workloads so that they can give the project adequate attention.

If you don’t have dedicated IT staff, identify employees with interest or ability who could assume this responsibility. Hiring temporary specialists to provide oversite can be a helpful option. Make the most of precious resources by selecting an intuitive, user-friendly system that doesn’t require extensive training or configuration.

Create Buy-in

Attitude makes or breaks a project. When teams are enthusiastic work proceeds smoothly. Resentment and unwillingness to change are hurdles that are exhausting to jump on a daily basis. Don’t let information about the new AMS filter through the grapevine. Communicate clearly, honestly, and often about the need for change, the steps involved, and the impact on employees. If board approval is required, make your case with data, and avoid letting individual opinions micromanage or direct decision-making.

Put Users First

Listen to what members want and need.

Listen to what members want and need. This is where the board can be an invaluable source of information. If possible, conduct a short survey. Ask questions to discover how members use your current system and identify their pain points. Is it easy to pay dues, register for events, and find the information they need? From this data, develop several personas (fictional profiles of the primary member types) to help you identify must-have features.

Take a thorough assessment of the staff’s IT requirements. Ask what will make their jobs easier? Listen to their recommendations as well as their reservations, and address issues head-on. 

Focus on the Prize

Don’t get lost in a wish list that is a maze of unnecessary “requirements”. Consider the challenges that are driving change and make efficient solutions a goal. Every platform presents trade-offs; so be clear about your bottom line. Too often I see clients attracted to a system that offers endless bells and whistles but subpar functionality in the areas where they need robust performance most.

Simplicity Rules

This post was inspired by, .orgCommunity, our networking and professional development organization’s recent transition to Member365 as our new AMS platform. Following the concepts outlined above, we found an intuitive system that maximizes our resources and is a workhorse for the important jobs we need to automate. These are reasons why we chose Member365:

  • The economical price point was right for our budget.
  • We were able to set the system up ourselves. This keeps costs low, but you must know how you want the software to perform.
  • Our membership universe is small.
  • We did not require integrations.
  • The platform supports our online community.

We had been using Hubspot as our CRM. This product is great for sales and marketing but doesn’t  provide the e-commerce and community features we desired.  Every platform has strengths; the key is understanding what you need to accomplish.

If I could only make one recommendation, I would advise eliminating the clutter. Don’t be confounded by more kinds of mayonnaise than a sandwich ever needed. Keeping it simple doesn’t mean cutting corners, it’s about focusing on what matters most. When you have a clear understanding of your requirements, goals, and priorities finding this sweet spot is easy.

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