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Membership Site Software - Build or Buy?

Lori Halley 20 February 2012 2 comments

As I suggested in a post last month, many organizations are coming to terms with their reliance on technology in 2012. If you are reviewing your membership site software or shopping for an association management system (AMS), you may want to listen to Wes Trochlil’s (Effective Database Management) 2012 podcast series with AMS providers.

As part of this series, Wes interviewed Chief Apricot, Dmitry Buterin about Wild Apricot membership management software. And when I listened to the podcast, some of the issues they discussed brought back memories of my earlier days as an association staff member.

Multiple users and priorities?

Dmitry noted that there are often many individuals involved when associations and other membership organizations undertake a technology review or begin the systems selection process. This can include staff, consultants and numerous volunteers – often with competing requirements and varying levels of technical expertise. He suggested that’s one of the reasons why Wild Apricot encourages organizations to sign up for a free trial, so that all of the staff and volunteers involved can try out the system to see if it meets their combined needs.

This resonated with me, since I can still clearly recall (even after many years) a chaotic association website re-launch. I was brought in to manage the content re-development, so not a decision-maker about the membership site software. But I was soon drawn into the general mayhem that ensued when we realized that key requirements clearly hadn’t been met. I saw firsthand that it didn’t matter how wonderful our member content was if members were unable to access the site due to system incompatibility issues!

Identifying a selection team

So while the first step in any technology review or new system purchase is identifying your needs, it is important for membership organizations to ensure that you consider your requirements across the entire organization, especially if you are looking for an integrated system for a growing association. In our Membership Database Selection Guide,  we suggest that organizations consider creating a "selection team" or committee that includes representation from each of the groups who will be using the software – e.g., staff, board members, volunteers, etc. This should ensure that you have feedback on needs from every angle or function. And a representative group can offer perspective during all phases of the review or purchase process – including the planning, short-listing, evaluating and system selection. 

Do you need custom-built?

Another discussion topic in the interview with Dmitry was whether organizations would be satisfied if a majority of their “wishlist” of requirements could be met through an “off-the-shelf” integrated, web-based system. Again it was suggested that conducting a trial would be the true test.

In my experience at a number of membership groups, the disparate needs across the organization often led to a “build or buy” discussion. And while it often appears as if custom-built might be the only option to satisfy these requirements, taking the custom route can create other obstacles down the road. That's why many non-profit tech experts caution that having custom software developed should be your last resort. In an article, Robert L. Weiner  (non-profit technology consultant) identifies some of the problems with custom software:

"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."

Custom can be costly:

One of the key drawbacks to custom software is its cost. An Idealware article, A Few Good Association Management Tools,  suggests that if money's no problem, you can custom build a database. For the majority of nonprofits, it probably makes more sense to invest in one of the existing association management tools on the marketplace.”  So unless your requirements are entirely unique you should be able to work within existing desktop or web-based solutions.

Ability to test is key

As mentioned earlier, being able to test and try a new software or system is also key. In fact, Wes Trochlil advises organizations to “Conduct Product Demonstrations” and product testing as one of the Seven Steps for Selecting a New Association Management System.  After all, it’s one thing to have a vendor check off all of the items on your requirements list, and another to actually see how the system truly works. That can be one of the challenges of custom-built software, since you need to make a commitment for its development before you are able to test its applicability to your unique needs. As Wes noted in his podcast, “the proof is in the pudding” when potential users – including an entire selection committee – can sign up for a trial and test using their own custom scenarios. 

Ease of use across the organization – now and in future!

Another caution I’d include – based on my experiences in choosing and implementing new software or systems at associations –  is ensuring that it is user-friendly and easy to learn. This is especially important for small organizations where volunteers are involved with administrative tasks. If a system is custom-developed to meet the needs of the current group of staff and volunteers, there could be challenges when it comes to volunteer or staff turnover.  Will it be easy to teach newcomers how to use the system?

This was an issue raised by a customer who offered a recommendation on Wild Apricot’s LinkedIn page. He noted:

I used Wild Apricot to create the website for my local triathlon club ... I could have written something myself, but I wanted a solution that could be passed on to someone without technical experience, and could be managed on a day to day basis by other members of the committee. …There is a bit of a learning curve with WA, but it's not a technical one, more about becoming familiar with the menu structure.

Rare cases when custom might make sense

So if your organization is going through a membership site software selection process, you need to recognize that custom-built systems can involve:
  • Higher costs
  • Reduced opportunity to test or evaluate
  • Possible issues around maintenance, support and training
  • Frustration with process for revisions based on changing needs.

In his post Sometimes you HAVE to Customize,  Wes Trochlil suggests that there are some very rare times when customizing actually makes sense,” such as when:

  • you need to integrate multiple systems and  the software doesn’t enable the integration 
  • an organization has truly unique processes

If you’d like more information on steps to consider when selecting an AMS, you can check out our Software Selection Guide available in our Membership Knowledge Hub

Note: we've also created a list of the Top 10 Most Downloaded WordPress Membership Plugins of all time.

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

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 20 February 2012 at 4:38 PM


  • Adam Blodgett said:

    Tuesday, 21 February 2012 at 4:35 PM
    This is a great run down of the pitfalls of custom databases. I wish you'd posted it last week so I could have included it in the client proposal I sent out!

    I've been on both sides of this argument. A few years ago we had a custom DB built for a small non-profit I worked for. We got it at the non-profit rate, but still paid $60k. The dreams of a perfectly functioning online registration system quickly dissipated in the face of exhaustive meetings, misunderstandings and deadlines that whizzed past. In this case custom was NOT easier by any stretch of the imagination. I ended up leaving before the implementation was complete, so I never go to see the final product, but two years on they were still dealing with issues.

    An off the shelf product like WA would have gone a long way to solving our problems and saving us a lot of money.

    Thanks for the great review!

  • Lori said:

    Tuesday, 21 February 2012 at 4:51 PM
    Adam: Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for sharing your experience with custom database development. In the rare cases where custom is required, it sure is imperative that requirements and timelines are clearly identified at the outset!
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