Association Management Software: Customer Relationship Management and Business Intelligence for the Not-for-Profit

Reprinted from The Triangle Technical Journal

Today’s associations and membership organizations are working hard to extend their reach and effectiveness, and looking to take advantage of the knowledge in their networks in service to their missions. Even with limited resources, they are actively competing for the attentions of their current and prospective “customers” – be they members, donors, and sponsors, or board members, committee chairs, and chapter officers. Success depends on the ability to understand and react quickly to the customers’ changing needs throughout the lifecycle of the relationship while maximizing the efficiency of available resources. Customer expectations are on the rise as well: members have come to expect the ability to tap the value of the organization in real-time, 24/7, through self-service channels – and receive results tailored to their specific needs.

Accordingly, many not-for-profits are looking to new technologies to help implement a CRM — or Association Management Software (AMS) — strategy focused on improving the customer experience, while at the same time increasing operational efficiency and organizational collaboration.

As fortune (read “opportunity”) would have it, software vendors far and wide are only too happy to help. There are products available for organizations of any size and need, and those integrating technology into their growth plans are achieving positive results. Many successfully run a variety of best-of-breed and custom-developed solutions for everything from contact management and marketing automation to web content management and e-commerce. However, just as enterprises have turned to the likes of Seibel and E.piphany to centralize their CRM, many associations and membership organizations are looking to the latest generation of association management software to help them connect with their constituents and manage every aspect of their organization around a unified view of the customer.

Association management softwares provide business process automation across a variety of roles and tasks typically involved in running an association or membership organization, and merge front-end tasks like membership registration, event management and marketing with back-office accounting and resource planning capabilities. By consolidating management and tracking of customer data and activities into a single system, organizations can streamline operations, reduce costs, and minimize the data integrity problems inherent in replicating customer details from system-to-system. This centralization also means system users can have a complete, up-to-date picture of the customer and his or her interactions with the association at their fingertips when, for example, creating a new marketing campaign or responding to a member request. Customer self-service features implemented on the organization’s web site and integrated with the association management software give an additional boost to ROI (as well as customer satisfaction). Staff involvement in common, repetitious customer service requests can be reduced, while at the same time, immediate, personalized information is made available to the customer on demand.

Next-Generation association management software

If your association doesn’t have association management software or you haven’t upgraded your system for a few years, consider evaluating the options currently available. The association management software market has gone through some major changes and continues to rapidly evolve due to demands for CRM, improved access to data and resource planning capabilities, and increased integration options. Established players like ASI and TMA are re-architecting around Microsoft .NET and web services, and new players like Avectra and ACGI have emerged with products built from the ground up on web technologies. Gone are the days when a vendor or two dominated the space with closed and clunky client-server applications for managing a member database and tracking dues and donations. Today, the market offers well-integrated web-based application suites with broad, modular feature sets that can be customized to accommodate a variety of business processes specific to your organization. Functionality provided often includes:

  • Membership Management and Activity Tracking
  • Donor Management
  • Contact Management and Sales Force Automation
  • Committee and Chapter Management
  • Education and Certification Management
  • Event Management
  • Marketing Campaign Management
  • Web Content Management and E-Commerce
  • Order and Inventory Management
  • Billing and Accounts Receivable
  • Reporting and Business Intelligence

A given vendor may be stronger in some areas than others, but significant improvements have been made across the board in recent years. Employees and members can typically interact with the system in real-time from any location through vastly improved and adaptable web-based user interfaces. Digital communications and an organization’s web presence are no longer just afterthoughts or add-ons. Instead, features supporting email marketing, web content management and member self-service, online communities, and e-commerce are often integral to the systems. Customer data is tracked across a full range of activities, and capabilities for putting that data to use have been enhanced. You’ll find more user-friendly interfaces for running advanced queries to generate targeted marketing lists, as well as integrated third-party solutions like Business Objects and Crystal Reports for advanced analytics. In addition to providing integration points with products like Microsoft Office and general ledger interfaces for back-office accounting software packages, several vendors are providing toolkits, APIs, and web service interfaces to accommodate greater customization, extension, and integration of the systems.

Options truly abound across the association management software market, and within the particular products. While association management software will not be a trivial investment, vendors are providing ways to scale features, implementation times, and costs to accommodate a range of association sizes and needs. Many now offer hosted or Application Service Provider (ASP) models to reduce the upfront infrastructure and ongoing system maintenance costs, as well as time associated with an onsite installation. Should you choose the ASP route, be sure to investigate the options offered by the vendors for placing source code in escrow to help protect against market fluctuations.

Thoughts on Selecting Association Management Software

Implementing association management software for your organization represents a significant investment before, during, and after implementation, so it is important to carefully evaluate your options and be sure you are selecting both a system and a vendor that you will be able to work and grow with.

We’ve recently been helping one of our customers through the selection process for association management software, and here are a few specific recommendations and ideas that have worked well:

  • Establish a representative selection committee. I can hear the groans now, but it’s all about the customer, remember? Association management software touches nearly every part of your organization, so at a minimum you’ll want representatives from sales, marketing, customer service, finance, and IT, an executive user, and even a member or two to collaborate on the project from defining and prioritizing requirements to attending vendor presentations. This is also a great way to start early on building buy-in and excitement for the implementation/migration.
  • Do your homework. Even while in the requirements-gathering phase, it’s a good idea to start exploring your options and building a list of products you are interested in learning more about. Having an idea of what’s possible can help shape and group your requirements. Compare feature sets, look for vendors with customers similar to your organization, etc. We established a matrix early on that mapped features to requirements, compared pricing options, customers, first-year vs. five-year costs, and other comparison points that we’ve continued to expand and fill in throughout the selection process.
  • Maintain control of the process. For the remainder of the selection process, your goal will be to ask all of the questions necessary to be able to truly compare apples-to-apples (and this will be more challenging that you may think). Structure your Request for Proposal (RFP) with this in mind, and be sure to clearly direct how you expect vendors to respond – the more similar in form the responses are, the easier the comparison. Direct the vendor presentations as well by having the committee prepare specific scenarios that will help them visualize working with the system on a day-to-day basis, and ask each of the vendors to demonstrate the same scenarios. For example, ask the vendor to demonstrate managing an event from start-to-finish: creating the event within the system; building targeted marketing lists and personalized emails to promote the event; registering for an event; processing payment; and building a follow-up survey.
  • Sort out the costs. There are many different licensing models available. From modules to application hosting vs. onsite install, each vendor will likely present costs differently, and their proposals will not necessarily cover all of the costs you need to consider. Be sure to have the vendor address training, support and maintenance, consulting, implementation, travel, hardware, third-party software and other less-than-obvious costs. We found it helpful to work with the vendors to establish first-year, second-year, and expected five-year costs in order to address variables like upgrades, expected customizations, waived support costs for the first year, etc. Also be sure to account for the costs of your staff’s expected involvement during the implementation process.
  • Talk to other customers. Actually follow up on the customer references provided by the vendor. If the organizations are close by, try to arrange an onsite visit to see and discuss the system from their perspective. Focus on how well both the system and the vendor adapted to their needs. Did the implementation go smoothly? On time? On budget? What other vendors did they consider and why did they rule them out? Do the same due-diligence for the vendor’s implementation partner if you will be working with one.

Choosing to implement association management software and making a selection from the vast array of available products and vendors are big decisions for most organizations. However, when a certain size and process maturity are reached, the well integrated, centralized framework provided by association management software can help your growing organization gain operational efficiency across the back office, while more effectively leveraging business intelligence to communicate and meet the new demands of your customer base. It’s important to recognize that a commitment to a successful CRM strategy goes beyond the technology – take the time to establish the business case, processes, and metrics, and study the research available on why CRM implementations succeed and fail. Be prepared to make investments before, during, and after the implementation to ensure the successful selection, rollout, and adoption of the new system and strategy. Then, don’t be surprised if your customers thank you, your employees thank you, and you find yourself bragging in circles of association executives about your improved customer-centricity…


Association Management Software

Association Anywhere
from ACGI
from Advanced Solutions International


from Avectra

Community Enterprise
from CitySoft


from Doceus

from Euclid Technology


from gomembers

Membership Manager
from IRM Systems


Kintera Sphere
from Kintera


from Morant

CRM for Members

from TCS Software

from TMA Resources