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Membership Database Selection Part 3 - Making Your Choice

Lori Halley  04 April 2011  0 comments

This is the final post in our 3-part Membership Database Selection blog series.

In Part 1 we suggested you start the process by creating a selection team and offered some things to consider in identifying and prioritizing your specific needs or requirements.

We followed this in Part 2 by offering an overview of the various membership database software and system choices, along with some guidance on how to figure out which option best suits your needs.

So now that you’ve defined your requirements and identified the type of software/system you're after, in this final series post, 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.

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by options, so one easy filter for shortlisting 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 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 take a close look at whether/how these providers meet your requirements. 

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

Evaluation tool: We created a Membership Software Comparison Matrix (Excel file) as part of our Software Selection Guide.  While this was designed to compare AMS programs (like Wild Apricot) that offer full website, membership management, event and fundraising capabilities, you could use this as a guide or simply use the fields that make sense for your needs.

Evaluating Vendors and Testing Software

While you need to check against your specific requirements, we’ve compiled a list of some other aspects that we believe you should also consider during your review: 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. 

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

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

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 SaaS 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 GetApp  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: You might want to check to see if the product/service has a viable roadmap for ongoing development and improvement. It can also be important to see how open the vendor has been to feedback from their user community in terms of their product updates.

Reviewing 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.)

As part of our Software Selection Guide, we prepared a spreadsheet calculator to estimate and compare the total cost for a number of systems. While this is designed to compare AMS providers, have a look and see if it is helpful.  You’ll find the link to our Price Comparison Spreadsheet at https://www.wildapricot.com/guide.

Making Your Selection:

If your selection committee has carefully defined your requirements and you have evaluated your short-listed vendors’ features, ease-of-use, service abilities and reviewed the total costs involved, you should be able to make an effective membership database software/system choice.  Just be sure you don’t fall prey to any of the common mistakes that Robert Weiner identifies in his Ten Common Mistakes In Selecting Donor Database, such as:

  • letting techies make the decision [alone];
  • prioritizing price above everything else;
  • falling in love with cool features (or with the salesperson);
  • confusing highly functional software with highly trained staff.

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 our blog series has helped you identify and prioritize your requirements (Part 1); understand your software/system options (Part 2 ) and figure out the right choice to meet your specific needs (Part 3).

*New Resource:

Wild Apricot now offers a Membership Database Selection Guide - available as a free download in our Membership Knowledge Hub.

Photo credit: anemoneprojectors

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

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 04 April 2011 at 8:30 AM
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