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Have You Outgrown Your Membership Database?

In our recent Blog Reader Survey, membership growth/acquisition ranked as the second most important issue facing small membership-based organizations for 2011, just behind member communications and engagement. But before you start brainstorming ideas for member engagement and recruitment strategies, there is an important building block that you need to have in place as a foundation - an effective member/contact database.

Growing Pains?

Growing Pains? - photo by pinprick on flickrLet's face it, even if you create the most persuasive recruitment campaign on the planet, you need a structure in place to help you conduct the initial outreach and then update your contact/member list based on follow-up and/or successful recruitment response. If, like many small associations, clubs or non-profits, you started out using an Access desktop database or Excel spreadsheets for your membership and contact lists, you may have outgrown your current system. You may have found out the hard way, that even your best intentions of updating multiple lists or spreadsheets can lead to inadvertently leaving a member, volunteer or prospect off of an important list, or alternatively, having the same contact receive several reminders or email invitations. Not to mention that it is time-consuming to manually update your spreadsheets - valuable time that resource-strapped organizations don't have.

If you are struggling to manage contacts, members or volunteers using manually updated spreadsheets, it may be time for you to move your list online. Moving to a centralized, web-based membership database (such as Wild Apricot's Membership Management software), will ensure the integrity of your data so that there is no redundancy (e.g., each member/contact would have one record in the database) and makes it easier to develop effective reports that incorporate all of your members, contacts, events, etc.

The Benefits of Centralized Data Management

In his article, Why Should You Have a Centralized System? Wes Trochlil of EDM (Effective Database Management), offers the following reasons why associations and non-profits should combine their membership, events and other processes into a single, centralized database:

  • Benefit #1: Data Integrity - One of the cardinal rules of database design is that no redundancy is allowed. ... A centralized database means that each member has one primary record, with primary contact information. Thus when there is a change required (like a new phone number), there is only one place to look to make these changes.
  • Benefit #2: Valuable broad marketing info/history - With all the information centralized, it is much easier to develop reports that show the broad range of activities that your members are engaged in. With multiple databases, records need to be matched, de-duping needs to occur and the opportunity for duplicate records is greatly increased.
  • Benefit #3: Ease of training (it's the same system for everything) - If all processes (membership, meetings, products, etc.) are in the same database, then users need only learn one system, not multiple systems.
  • Benefit #4: Support - With a centralized system, support is focused on one product. With many databases, even if they are built on the same platform, separate support is required for each.

What Are Your Membership Database Needs?

If you think it's time for your organization to consider consolidating your membership and/or contact database to an online solution, you need to figure out your specific needs. You may want to have a meeting of those who will be working with the database to be sure you identify all of your requirements. You may also want to ask for some support from a member or volunteer with some IT experience. But be sure you don't make any quick selection based solely on one individual's personal preference or vendor claims rather than on whether it meets your needs.

Here are some key questions to get you started in identifying your needs before you start shopping for an online membership database:

  1. Who will need access to this database?
    • one or a number of administrators?
    • volunteers / Board members?
    • members (e.g., to provide & update information)?
  2. What functions does the database need to provide?
    • member & contact management (address, email, phone, address, member status, etc.)?
    • membership tracking, invoicing & reporting?
    • online member directory (public/private)?
  3. How will you populate this database?
    • Importing your existing Excel files? (e.g., with Wild Apricot, you can import your current list using our import wizard via Microsoft Excel.)
    • Online member appliation form for additional/new contacts?

Not Ready Yet?

As Jay (our Noisy Apricot) noted in a blog post last year (Where the #$%! Are My member Records!), "if you're not ready to move to a dedicated system, you can transition toward it by moving what you are doing today online. Why not move that file to an online office suite? Google Docs and Microsoft Office Web Apps both offer free online spreadsheet tools."

If you do decide it's time to take the plunge and start shopping for an online membership database, be sure to stay tuned for upcoming Wild Apricot blog posts on membership database selection in the coming weeks!

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