When it comes to association management systems (AMS), there is no shortage of options. Associations can choose to purchase hosted solutions “off the shelf,” build entirely customized “homegrown” solutions, or implement hosted systems that include customizing the software to an association’s unique needs. In other words, these different systems vary significantly in cost, features and customization ability. And, just when you thought it could not get any more complicated, you are presented with tempting (yet costly) add-on features through product demonstrations. Internally, you are balancing volunteer leader and member needs with your association’s limited budget and core administrative functions. Without a crystal ball, how are you expected to choose the best AMS for your association?
In this blog post, I am calling a “time out” to encourage anyone who is going through an AMS overhaul or upgrade to slow down, take a deep breath and first look inside your association to clarify your basic needs. Once you know what you need, navigating the marketplace becomes much less stressful. To help you do this, I have outlined several key “dos and don’ts” for successfully selecting and implementing an association management system. These tried and true guidelines will help to simplify the process, and keep you on track.
1) DO educate yourself: Regardless of your experience with association management systems and/or other database software, being an informed consumer is a critical first step in the AMS selection process. The technology is constantly evolving — take the time to read up on the latest vendor trends and issues in the marketplace before you map out your AMS plan.
2) DO lead with your needs: Before going out to the marketplace to explore your options, prioritize your association’s needs. Understanding what your association must have, what your association would like to have and what your association does not need will significantly increase the likelihood of AMS success. It will also save you time and money down the road. In order to develop a prioritized list of features, you must carefully weigh the type of information that is most important for your association to track and store, and understand how you plan to access and use that information. Engage key staff to document the kinds of forms and reports that your database will need to accommodate. Facilitate discussions to understand how information is currently stored and tracked, and identify “pain points” or areas that a new system should address. Determine who on staff will be using the database and note their training needs. Although it was published in 2001, CompuMentor’s Database Planning Guide offers some helpful worksheets your association can use to assess its top needs with key staff.
3) DO involve a cross-section of organizational staff: Key staff should be strategically engaged throughout the AMS selection process. This can include a handful of staffers from various levels of the association – department heads, support/administrative staff, membership experts, etc. Staffing the AMS selection and implementation effort is a critical step in ensuring that an AMS is effectively used past implementation. Additionally, it is important to involve someone at the executive level of your association to serve as a champion for the project. If the project is not communicated as a priority and given the time, money and resources needed for success, the effort will likely lead to internal frustration and an ill-fitting solution. Commitment across all levels of the organization is a requirement for success.
4) DO NOT bite off more than you can chew: Many times, associations buy more than they need in an AMS. Product demonstrations will often showcase add-on features and modules that seem easy to implement. In reality, many of these extra features require additional cost and staff time to use and maintain. Again, a prioritized list of what your association does and does not need will help you filter through some of the shiny bells and whistles. In the case of association management systems, sometimes less is more.
5) DO NOT underestimate the implementation process: Once you have selected an AMS, the temptation is to assume that things will easily fall into place and the database will essentially install itself. However, migrating from your old database to your new AMS requires dedicated staff and an organizational commitment to allow for the time and funding needed to clean up your current data, map it to the new system, configure new reports and forms, train staff to use the new system and more. Be sure to understand your internal capacity and ability to implement the new system and budget for support. Many times, you can purchase more hands on support from your AMS vendor during the implementation process. Planning and budgeting for the implementation is a critical step to ensuring a smooth transition to your new system.
Do you have any tips for AMS selection and implementation? Share your stories of success (or stumbles) with us!