Membership Database Selection Guide

SECTION 3 – Making Your Database Selection

So now that you’ve defined your requirements and identified the type of software/system you're after, in this section we’re suggesting the steps you can follow to choose the right solution.

Creating a Short List

Once you’ve determined the type of software/system you're looking for (e.g., spreadsheet, database, contact management, fundraising/donor management or an integrated AMS (Association [or membership] Management System), you can develop a short list of vendors to evaluate.

You may already have a list of potential providers, but if you're just getting started, you can identify candidates by:

  • Asking around. Talk to people in similar organizations about what software they are using, and what they like or dislike about it.
  • Do a Google search --- for example on "membership management software" — and browse through the first 20-30 results to see if anything looks interesting.
  • Check a software directory --- for example Capterra (, that presents an overview of software options so you can compare solutions and make the right decision.

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by options, so one easy filter for short listing candidates might be looking at a ballpark pricing level. Another is to check to see if the provider offers a video, detailed tour or ideally a free trial account so you can check out their product first hand on your own.

Once you’ve identified 5-10 potential candidates, your Selection Committee can evaluate your short-listed vendors. 

Developing a Process for Evaluating Vendors:

Analyzing Against Your Requirements

First – a word of caution about what NOT TO DO: DO NOT send your list of requirements to vendors and ask them to fill it out. This can be a pointless exercise for two reasons:

  1. High-level requirements are hard to interpret.
  2. Salespeople are eager to please and will tend to mark "Yes" for all requirements... even if they have no idea what you meant.

What SHOULD you do?

  1. As best you can, review each of the short-listed providers against the requirements you identified.
  2. If you have signed up for a trial account, choose several (e.g., 3) common scenarios for your typical data-processing tasks and evaluate how complete the software is and how easy the tasks are to accomplish. You'll also be able to evaluate the system for ease of use, tech support and documentation if you are able to test through an actual trial account.

For example:

  • Have a member register
  • Find a membership record and make updates
  • Run a specific report

Do You Need a Request for Proposal (RFP)?

As we noted in the section on custom solutions, unless your needs are completely unique, you shouldn’t need a custom solution, and therefore, shouldn’t need a formal RFP (request for proposal). However, if your organization’s policies and practices dictate that you prepare a formal RFP or tender process, be sure that you clearly define your objectives as well as your technical requirements.

Comparison Matrix Evaluation Tool:

Our Membership Database Selection Workbook (Excel) includes a Comparison Matrix worksheet that you can use to compare your short-listed vendors. Simply edit or add to the list of features/capabilities that we’ve included in our sample list. We’ve created this spreadsheet to enable you to compare three different systems/software, but you can add more by simply creating additional columns.

Download the Membership Database Selection Worksheet Here (.xls format)

Evaluating Vendors and Testing Software

While you first need to check against your specific requirements to ensure that your short-list can meet your “must-have” or required criteria, we’ve compiled a list of some other aspects that we believe you should also consider during your review, including:  East of Use; Support & Service and Vendor Reliability.

1. Ease of Use – Test it:

While every software vendor (including Wild Apricot) will tell you that their software is easy to use, everyone has different levels of technical skill, knowledge, and prior experience that will impact how easy it is for them to use a piece of software. When evaluating systems for ease-of-use consider:

  • Getting access to a full trial version of the software. Canned demos are no substitute for trying out the software yourself.
  • Choose several volunteers from your team to test the trial version and select several typical tasks you want to do in your software.  Ask your volunteers to rate the ease of use for each system for each task.

2. Support and Service: 

If you are looking at desktop or packaged software, you install it, run it and often never come in contact with the software vendor.  But while you may not be concerned about an on-going service relationship, you should ensure that there is adequate in-package and/or online orientation and training so that current and future users can effectively use the software. Especially if your staff and/or volunteers turn-over quite frequently.

If you are selecting web-based software, also known as Software as a Service (SaaS), there are a number of other aspects to consider, besides system functionality – and they are all about service!

If you sign up for a free trial, especially for an online or SaaS system, you will see first-hand how approachable the organization is and the type of information, tools and support available to help you get started and solve any on-going problems. Find out what resources are available to orient/train you on using the system (e.g., do they have tutorials, webinars, help guides, etc.).

Find out which of the following the provider offers in terms of support options:

  • Phone
  • Email
  • Online support (via the website)
  • Online chat

Also be sure to ask what their tech support covers, and what it doesn't cover: Costs? Availability? (work days, 24/7, etc.). Check out the support for yourself - ask specific questions and rate the answers and the response timelines.

3. Vendor Reliability:

Evaluating vendor reliability is a difficult, but important exercise in due diligence. This is especially important for web software, since it lives on the vendor's servers. Review the following information for each potential provider:

  • Check user Testimonials and Reviews: Honest feedback from existing software users can be an extremely important factor in your decision-making process. But the key word is “honest.” Take a look at: 
    • Each potential provider’s customer testimonials and client references. Some vendors, like Wild Apricot for example, publish a full list of raw comments from our regular customer reviews -- the good, the bad (grammar), and the ugly!
    • Conduct a Google search. Look for "XX software user reviews" or even "software XX sucks." You may have to wade through many pages of search results to find useful and unbiased user feedback.
    • Reviews on third-party sites such as LinkedIn can be insightful
    • Software discussion forums: Even if these are hosted by the vendor, take some time to read the comments to see what people are asking and complaining about — and how the vendor responds.
  • Company image/reputation:
    • Is it clear who is behind the company? Who and how big is the team?
    • How long has it been in business? This doesn’t mean you should exclude young companies — but evaluate them carefully and weigh their reliability with all other aspects.
  • Security: This is a big issue for online providers. Some security questions to consider:
    • Are there individual passwords for each user (administrator and member)?
    • Are the passwords stored in the database encrypted?
    • Upgrades & Product Roadmap:  
      • Does the product/service have a viable roadmap for ongoing development and improvement?
      • How open the vendor has been to feedback from their user community in terms of their product updates?

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