Membership Database Selection Guide

What are your Options?

In this section of the Guide, we'll look at the various tools and options available, as well as some of their pros and cons in terms of meeting non-profit/membership needs. As you weigh the various options against your requirements, it's important to remember that you want to identify a system that works for you and what you need to do. But keep in mind that realistically, you'll also need to balance efficiency and cost when making your ultimate choice.
The following is an overview of the types of software applications (off-line) and online or web-based association/membership management systems that are available to help you manage your membership database, including:

  1. Spreadsheets
  2. Contact Management Databases/Systems
  3. Generic Databases
  4. Membership/Association Management Systems
  5. Custom Software

1. Spreadsheets:

Many organizations may have started out keeping their member, volunteer or donor lists on spreadsheet software, such as Microsoft Excel.  But as Robert L. Weiner suggests in Back Away from the Spreadsheet: Why Excel Isn't a Donor Database

"Excel is great with numbers, and can track small groups of prospects or activities.  But it has some critical limitations.  Most notably, Excel stores information in what’s called a “flat file” database.  This means it’s not designed to handle relationships between data, such as when one record (like a donor) needs to link to several other records (like gifts). And it doesn’t provide a wide variety of features that make tracking efficient and less error prone."

As noted earlier, spreadsheets might be a consideration if you’ll have only one key person managing your membership database at a time (e.g., no need for sharing) and don’t need to have inter-relational data tables. In this case, you might be able to consider spreadsheet software or online versions.

Online Spreadsheets (such as Google docs or Zoho - are very similar to desktop spreadsheet software, but can be accessed by multiple users due to their online connectivity. 

2. Contact Management Databases/Systems:

If your key requirement is managing contacts (as opposed to tracking members, member dues and information), there are many types of content management systems you might want to consider.
For example, Microsoft Outlook is a basic contact management software. As Wikipedia suggests,

"although often used mainly as an e-mail application, it also includes a calendar,task manager, contact manager, note taking, a journal and web browsing. It can be used as a stand-alone application, or can work with Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft SharePoint Server for multiple users in an organization."

Another type of software closely related to contact management application is CRM (customer relationship management) software. These systems focus on automating and tracking interactions with your constituents, e.g., emails, letters, phone calls, etc. The biggest and most well known online CRM is, which offers a special non-profit version.

3. Generic databases:

There are a number of relational database software programs - both online and off-line. Filemaker Pro, is an example of a generic database application, described in Wikipedia as

"a cross-platform database program that integrates a database engine with a GUI (graphic user interface)-based interface, allowing users to modify the database by dragging new elements into layouts, screens, or forms."

However, according to Chris Peters in a TechSoup article,

"desktop database applications such as FileMaker Pro are intended for small groups of collaborators, usually working in the same office."
So this may not be the best option if you need file sharing capabilities.

Microsoft Access is an example of an online database that allows you to create database applications using a web browser and import and export data in a variety of formats using its graphical user interface and software-development tools. Zoho Creator is a cloud-computing database platform with drag-and-drop interface, business rules and workflow, reporting and collaboration.

Please note that while generic database programs can be very flexible, they often require a lot of initial setup and customization in order to meet your organization's specific needs.

4. Membership/Association Management Systems (AMS)

Specialized for Non-profits / Membership Organizations:

There are a number of web-based or online membership databases (sometimes also referred to as AMS - Association Management Systems) that are specifically designed with non-profits or membership-based organizations in mind. 

Along with Wild Apricot, there are a number of providers of membership software (e.g., MemberClicks, and Membee) that offer an online member database (including online interactive membership applications and member directories) that links to your website, as well as other tools that can help you organize and communicate with members. 

This type of online system enables you to move your current membership list into a single online master database with no hardware or software installation required. With a web-based system, volunteers can sign up and update the master list whenever and wherever they choose, with no duplication. With providers, such as Wild Apricot, you can also integrate your member database with your website; use automated communication tools and an integrated event management module.

Donor Management Software/Systems: Another closely related type of software is donor management database. There are web-based solutions (such as Blackbaud's eTapestry or Raiser's Edge) that combine donor database management, with online fundraising and other web tools.

Is a Centralized Membership Database Right For You?

In his article, Why Should You Have a Centralized System?, Wes Trochlil notes that there are four benefits to a centralized database:

  1. Data Integrity (e.g., no redundancy);
  2. Valuable broad marketing info/history (centralized information enables easier report development)
  3. Ease of training (it's the same system for everything);
  4. Support (support is focused on one product)

On Quora, users were asked to identify the pros and cons of using online databases, like Wild Apricot versus desktop software like Excel to manage members / donors. One user noted that

"the biggest and most immediate advantage over Excel that I've seen is the ability to generate specific queries and reports about our donors. Some of the additional immediate benefits I've enjoyed include the ability to generate correspondence (e.g. thank you letters) quickly, using the system's customizable templates; to process credit card donations directly through the service; and to create a searchable and sortable record all in one place of the donor's history with our agency and relationships with other donors in our system."

5. Custom Software: desktop or web-based

In Finding the Perfect Fundraising Software in an Imperfect World (PDF), Robert Weiner cautions that having custom software developed should be your last resort. He notes that having custom software developed is a risky and usually costly endeavor. Some of the problems with custom software, he suggests can include:

"requirements that weren’t clearly understood or articulated by the organization or were constantly changing; bugs are never fixed; or reports and documentation that never got written. In addition to this being an often very costly process, there can also be issues around the ability to update or revise based on changing needs, not to mention problems around on-going maintenance, support and training."

Unless your requirements are entirely unique you should be able to work within existing desktop or web-based solutions.

Cost Considerations

There are a number of considerations when thinking about the cost of a database system.  The cost of the software is of course one.  The options we've listed here range from free (e.g. Google spreadsheet) to $25 or even hundreds or  thousands of dollars per month (e.g. a high end AMS). 

But, there may be other costs to consider.  For example, while some systems (like Wild Apricot) enable you to move your current membership list into a single master list online within a few hours, others require extra time and energy  or even fees to set-up a generic database to meet your needs.  Be sure you ask if there set-up fees or per member surcharges. Also be sure to find out the process and timelines for the transfer of data.

Also, if you have existing records in older formats, there may be costs associated with data conversion.  And on top of direct software costs, you might find there are additional fees for, hosting and technical support agreements that will add to the total bill.

Once you’ve had a chance to carefully review all of the various software and systems based on your specific needs, you can narrow down your options and begin to create a list of potential candidates.

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Wild Apricot Software Selection Guide by Wild Apricot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at

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