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The Complete Membership Database Selection Guide

Author: Tatiana Morand
April 23, 2020
🕑 18 min read

Member data is at the heart of any association, nonprofit or club. After all, your members, supporters and/or volunteers are the foundation on which your organization was built and the key to its continued success. This means that the care and maintenance of your membership database are critical.

But membership organizations with a small staff and/or volunteer administration often struggle to maintain lists of members, volunteers or supporters.

Many organizations are using desktop tools – like Microsoft Excel, FileMaker and Microsoft Access – to keep track of member records.

However, if more than one person has access to these, you can end up with duplicate or outdated records.

If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you may want to find a solution that reduces staff and/or volunteer time. and optimizes functionality.

Since we realize that changing to a new system can be time-consuming and costly, we’re providing some information, suggestions and tools to help you through this process.

Read More: Why It’s the Perfect Time to Move Past Your Club Membership Excel Template


Is This Guide for You?

We created this Membership Database Selection Guide to help small member-based organizations, associations and nonprofits that are just getting started with formally managing their member data or are realizing the need to switch systems. It is designed to help you:

  • Identify your membership database requirements;
  • Understand the various software/system options available;
  • Help you determine the best solution for your specific needs.

This guide was created to help small organizations and is not designed for organizations that are required to create formal RFPs (Request for Proposal) or prepare for a software tender.

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Part 1: Identifying Your Member Database Needs

In this part, you’ll learn the best way to identify your organization’s needs, which can help you pick the solution most suited for you.

What Are Your Membership Database Requirements?

Before you can shop for new membership database software, you need to figure out your specific needs. In this section, we’re going to outline some of the steps you might want to take to identify your requirements so you can be sure that you find a solution that will fit all of your current and future needs.

Step 1) Gather a Selection Team

It might help to create a “selection team” or committee that can work together to identify your organization’s needs. This selection team should include a representative from each of the groups who will be using the software – staff, board, members, volunteers, etc. Having all users involved should ensure that you identify not only all of the key requirements, but also set realistic expectations of both the software choice and the skills of those who will be using it.

Be sure this team includes the expertise you need to:

  • Fully understand your current database needs and organizational processes
  • Recognize the shortcomings of your current system/process
  • Identify your longer-term needs (over the next 2-3 years)
  • Appreciate all users’ skill levels

Step 2) Review Your Current Situation and Long-term Goals

Before you embark on the time-consuming task of choosing a new membership database system, it is important that your Selection Team takes stock of your existing system or process – its pros and cons – what’s working and what needs to change. In other words, why are you thinking of making the change?

You should also clearly identify your objectives for the search, including your short- and longer-term goals (3-5 years). For example:

  • Do you expect your membership is going to grow exponentially over the next couple of years?
  • Are you planning to create membership levels that will require you to track membership information differently?
  • Will you be launching events or programs for which you will need to cross-reference data or capture different financial data?

Step 3) Identify Your Needs

While you may find the process of capturing all of your requirements a little daunting, don’t be intimidated. You simply need to create a detailed list of what you want the software to help you with. Here are some of the things to consider in creating your list of database requirements:

  • User’s Needs: who will use this database? One staffer? Numerous administrators? Board members? Volunteers?
    • remote access versus in-office access
    • view vs. edit access
    • their technical proficiency
    • their organizational/technical skills
    • Type of Data You Need to Store:
    • What type of records do you need to store:
    • members
    • volunteers (by project /involvement?)
    • contacts (sponsors, speakers, networked organizations, etc.)
    • donors/supporters
    • prospects
  • How many total records will you need to store?
  • What information do you need to capture?
    • basic data for all records (name, email, address, tel number, etc.)
    • data specific for certain types of records
    • membership: renewal date / status / member ID
    • account balance
    • any committees/groups
    • event history, donation history
    • volunteering history
    • relationships (spouse, multiple records under the same corp. membership)
    • communication preferences (send newsletters/not)
    • professional certification
    • continuing education credits
  • What functions do you need:
    • report generation (what kinds of reports?)
    • support for linked/hierarchical records
    • integrated contact database
    • quick search/advanced search
    • automation of renewals
    • mail merge functions for members/contacts (for email and postal, name badges)
    • export for use in any other tools/systems
    • internal workflows (communications, actions, notes)
    • member profile web pages/online member self-service

Step 4) Define and Prioritize Your Requirements

Now that you’ve created an inclusive list of your needs, you’ll need to rank or prioritize these so you can determine which are absolutely essential or “Required” and which are simply “Nice-to have”.  By clearly identifying and ranking your needs and by taking a team approach, you should avoid one of the pitfalls that often occurs – making a quick selection based solely on one individual’s personal preference or vendor pitches rather than on your organization’s specific needs.

And if you already know you’re planning on getting software, check out our Consumer Guide, which compares the top options for membership management software (we did all the research so you don’t have to!). You can download it for free here.


Part 2) Understanding your Software/System Options

Now that you’ve identified your current and future needs and gathered and prioritized your requirements, you can start identifying the type of software that might fit your needs.

What Factors Will Influence the Type of System You Need?

Your specific requirements will determine the type of software or system you should look at. For some organizations, this may mean considering a full Association Management System “that offers database features to run operations, such as member services,  event management, communications, product databases and fundraising”  such as WildApricot. But organizations that focus solely on fundraising and donor database management might want to look at commercial off-the-shelf options.

Read More: 4 Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Donor Data

Single spreadsheet or multiple data tables/relational database?

For example, if you are currently using a spreadsheet, but need to keep track of financial information for each member (membership fees), or you need to sort events by people and people by events – you’d need multiple data tables that could be cross-referenced. (For these more complex requirements, you’ll need a system based on a relational database in which multiple data tables are related to one another through a common identifier.)

Online or off-Line?

The number of administrators, locations or computers on which you’ll use the system will also impact the type of option to consider. For example, if you know you’ll have multiple users (staff and/or volunteers) that will need to access the software from a number of computers, you should probably consider an online or web-based system that all users can access easily via any web browser. If, on the other hand, you have one administrator in one location, you could look at desktop software that runs on a sole computer (off-line).

Off-The-Shelf or custom?

While your situation will determine whether online or off-line applications make the most sense, there is another factor to consider in making your choice: whether you want software that your organization buys and installs on your own computers (and for which you may need to pay for updates), or software-as-a-service (SaaS), web-based software that is hosted “in the cloud,” for which you pay a fee, but receive automatic updates.

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 nonprofit/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 (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.

Additionally, on Quora, users were asked to identify the pros and cons of using online databases, like WildApricot versus desktop software like Excel to manage members / donors. One user noted:

“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 (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.”

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. This removes the issues around access, but still doesn’t provide the needed functionality for many users.

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, you may simply want to use a platform like Hubspot (which has a free version) or Pipedrive, which allow you to see which contacts are in your system and to reach out to them easily.

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, such as the emails, letters, and phone calls you exchange.

Read More: The Ultimate Guide To Picking a Nonprofit CRM + 10 Amazing Options

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.

Another example is Zoho Creator, 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. They can also be difficult to maintain if the person who originally set them up leaves your organization.

4) Membership/Association Management Systems (AMS)

AMS systems are specialized for nonprofits and membership organizations:

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

Along with WildApricot, there are a number of providers of membership software (such as MemberClicks) 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 like WildApricot, you can also integrate your member database with your website; use automated communication tools and an integrated event management module.

If that sounds like it would be of use to your organization, you can start your free trial now.

Another closely related type of software worth mentioning is Donor Management Software. There are web-based solutions (such as Blackbaud’s eTapestry or DonorSnap) that combine donor database management, with online fundraising and other web tools.

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 member database. The cost of the software is of course one. The options we’ve listed here range from free (like Google Sheets) to $40 or even hundreds or  thousands of dollars per month for a high-end AMS.

But, there may be other costs to consider. For example, while some systems (like WildApricot) 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.

Additionally, 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.

Part 3) Making Your Association 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 Shortlist
  • Developing a Process for Evaluating Vendors
  • Evaluating Vendors and Testing Software

Creating a Shortlist

Once you’ve determined the type of software/system you’re looking for (spreadsheet, database, contact management, fundraising/donor management or an integrated AMS (Association [or membership] Management System), you can develop a shortlist 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:

  • Ask 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: Capterra, for example, 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

First, a word of caution about what 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.

The best things to do are:

  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 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.

Software Evaluation Tool:

If you’re looking to compare different software solutions, our free Consumer Guide might come in handy. Download it now to quickly understand how different features will be applicable to your organization and what resources and bonuses you should expect from your Membership Management Software provider.

Download our Membership Management Software Consumer Guide now. 

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 Ease of Use; Support & Service and Vendor Reliability.

1) Ease of Use

While every software vendor (including WildApricot) 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 (you can start one of WildApricot now). 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 ongoing 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 a web-based association database, 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 ongoing problems. Find out what resources are available to orient/train you on using the system (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. We’ve also included this as a point of comparison in our Consumer Guide so you don’t have to look it up yourself.

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 provider’s customer testimonials. You can easily search review sites like Capterra and read through hundreds of reviews (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to get a feel for what current customers think of the software.
    • 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?

Secure member data banner

Reviewing Association Database Costs

Key Cost Components:

It is not always easy to compare pricing between different vendors. But here is a list of the most common cost components that apply to web-based membership management software:

  • Initial setup cost
  • (Main) ongoing charge — monthly or annual (might depend on specific modules)
  • Per-member surcharge
  • Per-transaction charges (% or $)
  • Technical support fees
  • Update charges

Of course, this list will not cover all situations — you need to ask the vendor explicitly if they have any other potential surcharges, such as:

  • Bandwidth charges
  • Storage space charges
  • Per-event-registration charges
  • Per-email-sent charges

Potential Additional Costs:

Keep in mind that in addition to the software, there are other costs involved in your project. These costs may not be critical from a software selection perspective, since they are likely to be similar among different vendors. These costs will also depend on who will be doing each particular task — your staff or volunteers, or an external service provider:

  • Initial setup of the system — all the system settings
  • Contact/member database transfer
  • Functionality customization and tweaks. (Be careful here! Of course you want the system to be tailored to your needs, but the costs can easily spiral out of control. Also, think about whether these customizations will be compatible with future versions of the software.)

If you want to compare some of the top costs for membership management software, you can check out our Consumer Guide

Or, if you’ve selected a membership database and you’re ready to pitch it to your board, check out this post for some tips

We understand the importance of this selection process.

After all, your membership database is the foundation on which your organization was created as well as the tool that will enable future growth. We hope this Guide has helped you identify and prioritize your requirements; understand your software/system options and figure out the right solution for your specific needs.

Additional Resources

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!