Should your organization build a membership management solution? Or buy one?
If you're a membership manager, you will eventually face this question.
And while building makes sense for some organizations, buying is the best choice for others.
Just to clarify, when I say build or buy, this is what I mean:
I put this post together to help guide you through the process of making the right decision for your organization.
- Build: Use internal resources to build your own membership management solution or hire a developer or vendor to build one for you.
- Buy: Pay for an “off-the-shelf” membership management software. Here is a list of the top 20.
After speaking with hundreds of organizations who have wrestled with the build or buy question, I've identified 10 criteria that most consider beforehand. For each criteria, I'll show you how to assess whether it makes sense to build or buy.
1) Budget Size
Any solution you choose to build yourself is going to be quite pricey upfront — sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. The benefit here is that you can build the exact solution you envision.
But, if you’re working with a smaller budget, most membership management software solutions are based on a low-cost monthly payment which will give you full access to their entire software. For instance, Wild Apricot starts at $40/month. We even have a free, 30-day trial so you can test drive Wild Apricot for your organization at no risk at all.
If you’re looking to buy, we’ve put together this price comparison guide to help you choose the best solution for you.
2) Urgency of Solution Needed
If you need a solution urgently, membership management software is available immediately. Within a matter of hours you can get your whole organization up and running on membership management software.
But, if you’re not looking for a solution right away, building can be an option for you. Just be wary that building may take up to a year or more to perfect a system from scratch.
3) Board Turnover (How often you’ll add new Admins on the platform)
Every time you introduce a new admin (or new board member) to your membership management system, they will need training and time to familiarize themselves with the system. If you have high board turnover, you’ll be introducing new people to your system quite frequently.
If you choose to build, make sure that your system has a full training manual and on-call support from the developers in case a new admin needs help. I’ve talked to a lot of organizations where this wasn’t the case and they had trouble getting new admins set up on their system when the resident “techy” wasn’t available.
On the other hand, most membership management softwares have full support teams and online help to make sure any new admin gets up and running right away and on their own time.
4) Specialized Features
Every organization wants a membership management solution that fits all their specialized needs.
If you choose to build your own solution, you can commission whatever features, no matter how specialized, that you like — taking time and cost into consideration of course.
If you choose to buy, membership management software takes a one-size-fits all approach, so you’ll be limited to the current features of whatever provider you choose. However, we’ve found that most membership management softwares meet roughly 95% of the needs of most organizations.
At Wild Apricot, we’ve even created a Wishlist Forum where customers can request new features from our product.
5) Board Technical Expertise
Often the technical expertise of your board or staff comes into consideration when choosing whether to build or buy.
If you build a solution, keep in mind that the users (your board members) may not be highly technical. They’ll need simple usability, sufficient training and ongoing support for when they get stuck. We’ve often come across organizations with highly specialized systems that are helpless when their “techy” is on vacation.
On the other hand, since membership management software is used by thousands of membership managers every day, it’s built to be simple to learn and use. On top of this, many providers have full support teams and online help to assist any user who gets stuck.
6) Integration with Other Systems
Your organization may already be using a number of separate systems like Excel, Wordpress, Eventbrite, or Mailchimp. Some of the organizations that we talk to want to keep using some of these systems alongside their solutions, while others want an entirely all-in-one system.
When choosing to build, you can customize your solution to integrate with whatever system you like. When choosing to buy, membership management softwares are all-in-one systems that come with their own website, event, database, payments, and email platforms, so they don’t typically integrate with other systems like Eventbrite, or Mailchimp.
Still, there are some providers that offer integration with other systems. Here at Wild Apricot, we have an open API (meaning you can build your own integration), plus we integrate with Wordpress, and have easy exports to Excel and Quickbooks.
7) Long Term Reliability
One thing to consider is how long you need a membership management solution for, since software can quickly become obsolete in today’s world — what works for your organization today, may no longer meet your needs in the next five years.
If you choose to build your own software, consider planning to upgrade it every few years with new features and bug fixes. Every five years or so, organizations that choose to build conduct a full audit of their software to make sure it’s still meeting the evolving needs of their organization, or whether it makes sense to build again.
When buying a solution, long-term reliability is usually very high. Because of high customer standards and market competition, membership management software providers are constantly updating, fixing, and improving their software to be the best on the market.
8) Commitment Risk
You may want to consider what level of risk your organization is comfortable with when selecting a potential solution.
When you build the risk is high, because it takes a considerable amount of time and money to create a highly customized solution from scratch. Plus you won’t truly know how your new system works until it’s finished. But, if your organization is willing to accept this higher risk, the payout can also be large. With highly specialized software you can achieve a greater efficiency with running your organization, saving you more time and money in the long run.
On the other hand, there’s very low risk with choosing a membership management provider. Most offer low-cost, month-by-month payments and can help you get fully set up in about a day. Plus, if you’re not entirely happy with your chosen provider, there are many other providers who may offer greater specialization for your organization type.
Some providers like Wild Apricot even offer a free trial of the full version of their software, so you can test drive it out before implementing it.
9) System Support
When something goes wrong with your system, or when you get stuck, who do you call?
When building a solution, make sure that the developers provide a support contact. Sometimes you will have to negotiate this into the budget, especially if you’re looking for a long-term solution.
Membership management providers have thousands of clients, so they also have full support by phone or email during business hours to help anyone with their product. Wild Apricot for instance offers free, unlimited support to all our clients and we have a full online help wiki.
10) Information Security
As a membership organization, you have access to the data of hundreds, even thousands of members — names, addresses, credit card information. All this information is very sensitive and must be kept safe and secure.
When building a solution, make sure that the developers are maintaining strict security measures (like PCI DSS compliance). This will ensure your member information is kept safe, especially if your solution is accessible online, or will integrate with third party software.
If you choose to buy, membership management providers are accountable to thousands of organizations to keep their data and their members’ data as secure as possible, so they typically follow strict security measures like PCI DSS compliance.
After considering the criteria above, most organizations find the cost of building too high and the flexibility too low. Instead, they choose to buy. As you can probably imagine, there are only rare cases where it makes sense to build.
Database expert Wes Trochlil has written a whole post on why organizations should not build. He says, "If you’re trying to manage a membership organization, do everything you can to avoid building your own membership database. There are too many high-quality, low cost, off-the-shelf solutions already available for your organization to think about recreating the wheel.”
If you think you’re ready to buy, you won’t want to make a decision before you read our guide on how to properly choose membership management software:
Still not sure? Here’s One More Consideration
If you’re still unsure whether to build or buy, try a free trial of the full version of Wild Apricot for 30 days.
We’re the number one membership management software on the market, trusted by over 17,000 organizations — professional associations, clubs, nonprofits, chambers of commerce, chapter organizations and everything in between.
Starting a trial is a risk-free way to see — in just a few hours — if an “out of the box” solution is right for your organization.