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Membership Database Selection Part 2 - Understanding Your Choices

Lori Halley  23 March 2011  4 comments

This is Part 2 of our 3-part blog series, created to help small membership and non-profit organizations select a membership database that meets your specific needs. As we noted in our last post, a membership database is the heart of any association, non-profit or club. It serves as your "institutional memory," keeping track of your members, supporters, donors and/or volunteers - the foundation on which your organization was built. It’s therefore important to ensure you have the software, system and processes in place to update, protect and efficiently use this important data.

In Part 1, we recommended that you start the database management selection process by identifying your specific needs or requirements. We also suggested some of the things you need to think about when developing your list of requirements, such as: the type of records you need to store (members, volunteers, donors) and the number of records; the information you need to capture about each of these members/volunteers/donors; what you need to do with these records (e.g., reports, invoicing, etc.); inter-relations between records (e.g., relationship tracking or linking of records); and how many users will use it and how they need to access the system.  

Your requirements will help you determine what options to consider


With this information gathered, you can start to identify the type of tools that are available to fit your needs. For example, if you are currently using a spreadsheet, but need to keep track of financial information for each member (e.g. 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.)

The number of administrators and/or locations in 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 (e.g., 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 (e.g., off-line).

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 package or custom software - that your organization buys and installs on your own computers  - or software-as-a-service (SaaS) - web-based software that is hosted "in the cloud," for which you pay a fee. 

What are your options?


In this post, 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."

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, there are many types of content management systems. 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 customers (or constituents) - emails, letters, phone calls, etc. The biggest and most well known online CRM is SalesForce.com, 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." In a TechSoup article, Chris Peters suggests that "desktop database applications such as FileMaker Pro are intended for small groups of collaborators, usually working in the same office."

Microsoft Access is an example of an online database that allows you to create database applications using a web browser and import data 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 that drag-and-drop interface, business rules and workflow, reporting and collaboration.

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 - 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 - though these two terms might be slightly different) 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, YourMembership.com and Membee) that offer an online member database (including online interactive membership applications and member directories) that link to your website and other tools that can help you organize and communicate with members. These enable 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.

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.

Benefits to a Centralized Membership Database
In his article, Why You Should 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)

What's the difference between desktop software and a web-based membership management system?
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 hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month (e.g. a high end AMS).  But, there may be other costs to consider.  For example, the extra time and energy required setting-up a generic database to meet your needs should be factored in.  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 such as software set-up and installation, 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.

Want more?

New Resource:

In addition, Wild Apricot also offers a Membership Database Selection Guide - that is available in our Membership Knowledge Hub.

Read more:



Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Wednesday, 23 March 2011 at 9:00 AM


  • machwan said:

    Thursday, 24 March 2011 at 11:16 PM

    Its a nice blog about the main things like the database management so keep sharing these type of blogs and be with these blogs .

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Friday, 25 March 2011 at 8:06 AM

    Machwan - glad you find the posts helpful. Don't forget to check back in for Part 3 of this blog series.

  • machwan said:

    Sunday, 27 March 2011 at 11:48 PM

    Nice blog . sufficient information is given for the appropriate thing . keep sharing these things.

  • michaelmoody84 said:

    Thursday, 03 November 2011 at 2:54 AM
    Very Nice Blog..Thanks for Sharing it!!!!Hope it will be useful for all!!!
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