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Association Management Systems

Over the past 10 years The Association Specialists has been involved with some 100+ associations.  During this time, we have witnessed many different methodologies and approaches undertaken by these associations in regard to Association Management Systems.  We thought it might be both of interest and useful to highlight our major considerations and the potential pitfalls to avoid when selecting the right Association Management System for your organisation.  Please note there are no right or wrong answers but the chances of being right are greatly enhanced by following the right process!

In summary a quality Association Management System allows you to:

  1. Improve efficiency
  2. Maintain data quality
  3. Keep track of member interactions
  4. Market to members using professional looking emails
  5. Stay connected
  6. Have access to good reporting and organizational tools

The best choice for your organisation is where functionality, price and intangibles (customer service, training, vendor reputation, development) intersect.  Remembering any association management system is only as good as the information it houses and that what works for one person may not work for another.

The ideal selection process might follow the suggested path below:

  1. Appoint a team from within the organisation and who represent all the key stakeholders to manage the process. This group should have a clearly defined leader and key measurables to achieve
  2. Identify the business objectives – what are the key business objectives of the organisation and therefore what are the key requirements of the system to help meet these objectives. A typical association will operate in one or more of four key areas:
    1. Credibility Professional standards? (accreditation, CPD, etc.)
    2. Information Education? (provision of strategic and current learning for members)
    3. Networks (to deliver engage? contacts for learning and business purposes)
    4. Power Advocacy? (to deliver benefits to members due to collective strength)

It is important to understand where your organisation operates to understand best how to manage your data

3. Needs Analysis – this is probably the most important element in the process of “getting the best system” – what do you actually want it to do?  There are potentially two good starting points for this:

  • Stakeholders – talk to all the current stakeholders to understand the current pain points, needs and functionality
  • Members – consult members to understand what they want out of the system. This can be done relatively easily through surveys

The answers to three questions can greatly assist a move to greater efficiency:

  • What is the most challenging / time consuming of your activities?
  • What is the important information we need to gather / retain?
  • What information do we need to provide?

Based on this work and objectives, produce a line-by-line listing of requirements, including a complete assessment of the functionality needs.  The needs assessment should also importantly give due consideration to areas such as security and future potential development needs.  Ensure you have clearly identified the type of data that needs to be collected.  It is likely you may have to compromise on everything you want so if possible prioritise the must-haves before the nice-to-haves.

4. Price Setting – make sure you have worked out a clear budget that you can afford for systems acquisition, maintenance, design and development / upgrades. Many systems operate on very different pricing structures (e.g. by number of contacts or per user) so you need to closely review any quotes to ensure you fully understand the pricing implications

5. Develop your requirements into a document which may if required be used as an RFP but as a minimum is able to be used to assess the systems you may be considering

6. Identify potential vendors who can meet your specifications and budget

7. Conduct product demonstrations which have ideally been customized to meet your requirements in principle. It is easy to say something does something it is another thing to show it can do it!

8. Check closely what terms the prospective vendors will be contracting, including areas such as training and support. You need to make sure the vendor is credible

9. Select and negotiate the contract with the preferred vendor

It is our view that any consideration of the most appropriate system needs to consider three main areas:

  • Features of the system
  • Technical specifications of the system
  • Professionalism of the vendor

We have noted below our thoughts on these three main areas:

Features – there are a myriad of different features that have been developed for association management systems. As a guide we have attached a checklist (attached) which has been derived from two such systems and which show features you may wish to consider for your organisation.  This list is not exhaustive and should be used for reference purposes only.  It may well be that you do not need to go into such detail so below we have highlighted to main areas you may wish to consider for your association:

  1. Website – do you need a customized, user-friendly, mobile responsive website. Most association management software systems incorporate a ready-made website – is that your preference.  If so make sure to check the functionality and design capability to suit your needs
  2. Database – this will house all your member and prospect records. It needs to suit your organisation’s membership structure, segmentation and any future flexibility requirements
  3. Online Forms (membership, event registration etc) with secure credit card processing and easy invoicing options
  4. Event Calendar / Management – how easy is it to set-up events and registration for events. Can they be found easily on the site
  5. Searchable membership directory – this is important for administration purposes and related efficiency
  6. Integrated marketing tools – needs to consider the various platforms today – email, newsletters, social interaction / media space, mail merges, surveys etc.
  7. Member / Committee Portals – does the system allow for areas of member / committee only access for social networking and information storage and access?
  8. Continuing Professional Education – is there a need to record CPD information or store supporting documentation for credibility purposes (i.e. insurance forms or licences)
  9. Donations / Fund-Raising – is there a requirement for this type of revenue collection
  10. Retail – does the association sell goods or services requiring a shopping capability
  11. Conference Management – does the organisation run complex events requiring additional registration functionality such as abstracts and paper submission and review, exhibition and sponsorship sales or accommodation and travel management
  12. Reporting / Enquiring – what information is required for reporting purposes or enquiry purposes and how swiftly can it be accessed?
  13. Activity Management / Analysis – what information is tracked for reporting purposes – i.e. website analytics, marketing analytics, membership analytics etc.
  14. API (Application Programming Interface) capability – this is important as it is often better to integrate the “best of breed” approach into your systems. This will involve using other systems which integrate ideally through a single-touch login to give you the best functionality from other systems, such as:
    • Accounting
    • Learning Management
    • Event Management
    • Government Relations
    • Website

At the end of the day once you have assessed your feature needs, the most important considerations will be:

Is it:

  1. Flexible
  2. Easy to use
  3. Quickly and easily accessible (mobile)
  4. Reliable – particularly for reporting purposes
  5. Compatible – easy to integrate with other systems

Technical – whilst we would not expect every association to understand fully the technical specifications of a system, having some basic knowledge when making systems selections is important.

Technical considerations should include the basic knowledge of the platform on which the system is based – has it been designed / written on a platform that can be easily supported if there are problems with developers or the vendor?  This becomes increasingly important with systems that now sit on the cloud and which in reality we have limited control over but are probably vital to the well-being of the organisation.  Will you know what the implications are for your business if your system supplier fails for some reason?

There are two main types of association management system on the market today.  In almost all cases the solution will be cloud-based meaning you are dependent upon the delivery of the platform by someone else, probably somewhere else:

  1. Customised Solution – this is a system which has been created by a developer to your specifications usually from scratch. This will typically be the most expensive of the two options and usually the most risky.  The biggest concern is that generally it will require the assistance of your developer to make any changes which can prove cumbersome and expensive on an ongoing basis
  2. Configured Solution – this is typically a system which is freely available to an unlimited number of clients but which has a limitation on features as it needs to suit all. It will generally allow you to make updates without technical assistance.  Ongoing development is constrained by the willingness of the developer to make changes which only suit the majority.  These systems are generally less expensive, less risky but less able to be tailored to suit the exact requirements of your organisation.

In regard to configured solutions it is worth asking the following questions:

  • What platform / ecosystem benefits are available – App store, user groups, third-party integrations – platform based association management systems have huge benefits over legacy systems
  • Is it really a true enterprise cloud application? It will need speed, mobility and security and be a multi-tenanted system with unlimited scalability
  • Is every customer on the same version – you do not want the developer stifled supporting old versions and you want to be able to maximally leverage the network effect
  • How often is the association management system upgraded – you need to be able to access the latest technology updates – ideally at least every six months
  • How much do upgrades cost – should be zero

Security and privacy relating to your data and the system are now of paramount importance.  This includes compliance with new laws such as GDPR in Europe and ongoing PCI compliance rules relating to credit cards.  You need to ask the following questions to help you ascertain the security of the system you will be using:

  • Can the system be setup to enforce complex passwords, such as a mix of capitals and numericals and a minimum length?
  • Can the system be setup to enforce regular password changes and prevent prior password re-use?
  • Does you system perform one-way encryption on passwords using an SHA-256 algorithm or higher?
  • Does the system support SAQ-A level PCI compliance for all of your supported payment gateways?
  • Have you had a third party organisation recently run a penetration test on your hosting environment?
  • Is your hosting environment protected by a Firewall with a content filtering service?
  • Are your web servers locked down to just the TLS 1.1 and 1.2 protocols?
  • Are you using compromising your security by using too many individual systems? (Using many individual systems rather than a single integrated system can make it harder to ensure the security of the data and spot breaches)

Professional – having assessed the functionality of the system and the technical aspects you need to also make sure of the ongoing support and viability of the system provider. Some simple checks should assist you with this:

  • Who is the company behind the software? Are the reliable and do they have a solid track record
  • Can you get references from current users of the system?
  • What is the background of the development team, where are they based and how many are there?
  • Does the system prioritize integrating with Australian preferred platforms? (For example, if they are an American system they might not integrate with Xero or SecurePay as instances of two major Australian software systems).
  • What are the customer service support performance criteria – response times etc.
  • What ongoing training tools are available – webinars etc.

As noted previously a failure to check the viability of your software provider could cause serious harm to your business in the future.

The most common mistakes that we see associations make is that they either go to their website provider and ask them to build membership functionality for them, or they attempt to build it themselves. What you end up with is a solution that will not meet all your needs, it will be expensive, and at some point your provider will no longer want to support it or your developers will have moved on leaving you high-and-dry. To follow good governance, you need to find a true Association Management System and there are a variety of companies serving the Australian marketplace with such systems.

The Association Specialists has close contacts with experienced independent consultants to help you find the best system suited to your needs and budget, and also knows of reputable systems providers in the Australian marketplace. So please contact us if you have any questions regarding which software might be most suitable for your organisation. We are always happy to help guide your process and assist in finding effective and lasting solutions to your needs.

© The Association Specialists 2018