Is it time to free your data from the shackles of an AMS?

If you’re a non-profit, association, sports organization, union, or any organization that represents or manages a group of people, you likely have (or need) an online tool that helps you manage your members.

The need for member data management has spawned an entire industry of software companies. They’re called Association Management Systems, or AMS for short. Plenty has been written about the value of an AMS and the importance of choosing the right one, often by the vendors that create them.

There are literally hundreds of software companies that have built AMS products, but the core features generally go something like this: member data administration, member “self-service,” onboarding and renewals, committee management, event management, document management, online forums, email communications, e-commerce, continuing education credits… the list could go on, but you get the picture.

On the surface, the AMS promises sound great, really. One software that can do everything? For one price? That’s the AMS sales pitch: “One software to rule them all…” Or, “everything you need in one environment…”

Do these promises sound too good to be true? Yes. Here are some of the problems encountered with AMS software:

  1. They create data silos.All of your data in one software sounds great, but what if another software application needs to access it? AMS’s tend to be built with limited access…They hold your data inside their walls, and you need to come back to them every time another application wants to use it. 
  2. They don’t integrate well with your existing website.Some AMS’s want to host your entire website and bring you within their Others want to create a separate “member website” for your users to “self-service.” But none of them are good at direct integration to your existing website, where you house your core content, and likely already have some type of “member login” functionality. 
  3. They try to do too much.At its core, an AMS is focused on managing and reporting on your member data, and some do deliver. But how can that same software company have the best event management solution, the best online forums, and the best email distribution tool? They can’t. There are software companies that do just one of those things, and are very good at it. One company can’t possibly be the best at everything, and that’s exactly the case with every AMS solution on the market. 
  4. They focus only on the member.That’s not a horrible thing necessarily; after all, members are the key driver of associations and other member-driven organizations. But what about the non-members who are key users and contributors? They could be membership administrators, board members, educators, policy-makers, and so on. The typical AMS focuses only on the member: onboard them, renew them, service them. Forward-thinking organizations think beyond the individual member. They work towards creating associations across all users. 
  5. They don’t understand user experience design.The bigger the AMS, the less focus they have on user experience design. User experience design focuses on reducing friction: how can the user complete the task with the least amount of friction? Most AMS providers focus only on function: make sure I provide this function to the customer so I can check off a box in my feature list. 
  6. They’re expensive.These solutions are big: they take over the core management of your organization’s data and become the touch point for your members with your organization. With that comes a high price tag. Typical deployments easily get into 6-figures, and monthly or annual licensing fees can quickly get unmanageable.

But if an AMS isn’t the answer, what the heck is?

In today’s world, technological advancements move faster than ever, and in the world of websites, mobile apps, databases, and e-commerce, this is as true as ever.

The promise of technology has always been the reduction of remedial tasks, reduced dependence on printed paper, and the creation of efficiencies in our daily lives, to name a few. When done right, technology can achieve these promises and so many more. So what then is the “right” approach to solving “the AMS problem?”

For those of us that have been razor-focused on this question, an answer is becoming more apparent. A more modern approach to managing your member data, and all its related uses, may look something more like this:

  1. Set the data free
    Instead of storing data behind the high walls of an AMS provider, what if your data could be stored in a modern, open-source database application in the cloud?
    Once there, what if you could authorize any other software application, under the strictest of controls and authorization, to access your data? This model of software development is known as “API-first.” What it means is that there is a known and documented method for software developers to create applications (think of your website, another web application, a mobile application, or other) that access your data, without having to pickup the phone and call the company that is hosting your data.
  2. Focus
    Really great software tends to focus on one thing, and do it really well. MailChimp is a great example: they create the worlds best email communication tool, hands down, and that’s all they do. The same should be true for your member database. Why would a company that builds really great membership software also build an email communication tool?
    In order to be the best in the world at managing member data and the key lifecycle and transactions that relate to it, focus is key.
  3. Integrate
    With data that is accessible, and a system that is focused, integration becomes not only a possibility, but an actual reality. In the example above, wouldn’t it make more sense to simply integrate with MailChimp, instead of building an email communication platform?
    This is the power of API’s. MailChimp, like many great software companies, have very well developed and documented API’s. This means that if your data is capable of talking to other API’s, the possibilities are endless. Want to use Eventbrite for events? SurveyMonkey for surveys? Adobe Connect for webinars? The list goes on.

    And the best part? If you’re not happy with one piece of software, you don’t need to throw out your entire AMS… instead, just swap out the piece, remove the integration, and find a better solution.

  4. Embrace open source
    If you could avoid paying licensing fees for software, wouldn’t you choose to do that? The open source software movement is worldwide, and gains more and more momentum with each passing day. It is widely embraced by the educational and government sectors right here in Canada.
    Open source simply means that the software has been developed by a community, and is shared to the world, with no licensing fees.

    Open source software most always requires technical expertise for initial deployment (like most software applications), but you never pay a licensing fee – a huge benefit.

Sound too good to be true? Until recently, the answer was yes. But a new platform called is looking to disrupt the traditional AMS landscape, and deliver the promises that modern technology can bring. is an open source application being developed by Industrial, a web and mobile application development company located in Ottawa Canada. With 15 years experience working in the non-profit and association sector, they may have figured out the answer to “the AMS problem.”

About Jeff

Jeff Horne is the Founder and CEO at Industrial, a digital workshop located in the heart of Westboro Village in Ottawa, Canada. Industrial plans, designs, and builds websites, web applications, and mobile applications. We love projects that allow us to blend our user experience and technical expertise to deliver user-centric applications on modern, open-source technology platforms. Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffhorne.

Jeff is a staunch believer in co-creation with clients. Don’t give us a spec, run away, and ask us to build it. Instead, come work with us, learn together, build together… the results will be amazing.