Selecting the Right AMS for Your Association – Part 1

By Julie King

Adoption of software technologies like an association management system (AMS) can have a significant impact on the association’s triple bottom line, affecting your strategic, operational and financial results. Yet according to a study by Lehman Associates, almost 40 per cent of associations with revenues under $5 million still rely on custom systems, spreadsheets, or worse a combination of paper and email[1].

The timing to upgrade an AMS is ideal, because many market solutions have matured and previous problems related to a lack of web connectivity and limited or costly upgrade paths are being resolved. There has been considerable change in the functionality, availability and costing of AMS solutions.

A successful upgrade requires proper scoping, product selection and implementation. Too often associations end up with a solution that does not fully meet their needs due to failure in one of these three areas.

This article will address the selection process and will highlight key considerations for Canadian associations.

Understanding the key elements of an AMS purchase

Many associations will take a budget-driven approach to their AMS solution, merging functional requirements like the ability to do online registrations and renewals with practicalities stemming from available staff and financial resources.

It helps to understand that at a high level there are four essential stages to an AMS conversion project:

  1. AMS software installation and configuration: A common pitfall occurs when associations fail to recognize a critical requirement until the implementation is being finalized, at which time the cost and complexity of back-building in the feature can be significant. Success during this stage of the project depends on proper scoping and identification of unperceived components of a project.
  2. Data migration: The greatest challenge in this stage stems from the integrity of the association’s current data and recognition of any place where data may have been entered in an anomalous fashion, such as using a field to store different information. Getting the data into a structure that can be imported into the new AMS, with as little duplication or data variations as possible, is critical.
  3. Cloud integration: A robust online integration with the association’s website and the ability to access the AMS online can be a significant benefit of an AMS upgrade. The ability to publish online forms and have the data and transaction information automatically flow back into your AMS, which may also be connected with your accounting software, can significantly reduce administrative costs and the ability to access your member database while hosting events is a great convenience.
  4. Staff training and support: This is perhaps the most important stage of an AMS integration, as staff must use the solution as intended in order for the vision of the project to be realized. It is important for leaders to understand that staff who typically handle administrative duties will likely have a thinking style that resists change and as such will require the most support through the transition.

We know from neuroscience that when tasked with making complex decisions, there is a natural tendency to overemphasize certain items in the decision making process. In terms of AMS selection, this could be choosing a product based on the proximity of a vendor or by doing side-by-side comparisons of feature lists.

To get the best possible results, it is more relevant to prioritize your selection criteria based on your association’s short- and long-term strategic goals. Given how quickly technology is changing, it is also important to consider the upgrade path and scalability of the solution you select. For example, one association might prioritize the ability to centralize as many datasets as possible for future behavioural profiling and data mining capabilities. Another might align their decision making with the association’s strategic goals around continuing education offerings to members.

Equally important is getting staff buy in from the outset at all levels of the organization, to ensure that adoption meshes with your organization’s procedures and team workflows. Staff should be engaged in the entire process and should understand the key linkages between the AMS and the strategic, operational, and financial goals of the association.  It is important for all levels of staff to understand the reasoning behind the implementation of the AMS, so that it is seen as a necessary tool in the success of the association and not just another process change that requires more work.  Engaging staff as change champions will lead to a smoother implementation and long-term buy in.

Canadian AMS-selection considerations

When selecting an AMS, it is important to ensure that your solution can accommodate several considerations that are uniquely Canadian that include:

  • Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL): With fines up to $10 million for organizations, most Canadian associations have taken CASL compliance seriously. There are several AMS solutions that provide opt-in / opt-out management tools that can be used to track the CASL settings for each contact in your database (and there are several external marketing solutions that also do this but do not connect with your database thus leaving room for error) . However, this misses out on the broader application of CASL, which has complex rules based on implied and explicit consent, something that is difficult to track using the standard opt-in / opt-out toggle. You may want an AMS that can correctly infer consent based on both explicit opt-ins and implied transactions, with the transaction period being set in compliance with the legislation (a 3-year window for transactions before July 1, 2014 and a 2-year window for transactions after that date.) The CASL module should also take into account rules around inquiries and written contracts.
  • Canadian taxes: For not for profit associations, there are some significant differences between how taxes are levied in Canada and the US, particularly when a transaction could have a national and provincial chapter component. Things can get particularly complicated when you have a mix of fees, for example when the membership renewal and a national conference registration are included together. Make sure that the solutions you are considering can be configured to charge the taxes your association will need.
  • Bilingualism: This is particularly important as AMS solutions more extensively integrate with the association website or in some cases are used to create that website. If your association provides bilingual service to members, you will need to ensure that the solutions you are considering have robust bilingual options that go beyond saving each member’s language preference.
  • Canadian soil hosting: Most membership databases are either fully or partially hosted online. Many solutions, especially the SaaS options, are hosted on web server located in the United States. This can be a concern to Canadian associations, due to the extensive powers the US government has under the Patriot Act. If this is a concern, you will need to ensure that your AMS will be hosted at a Canadian data centre.

Narrowing down the list of possibilities

With over 100 member database products available, the task of creating a shortlist of possible AMS solutions can be daunting. Here are four things you can do to narrow down the list of possibilities.

  1. Identify your AMS category fit: AMS solutions can be grouped into three broad categories:Know your must-haves: Many associations have specific requirements in an AMS. We have already highlighted key Canadian considerations. Professional associations tend to have an individual membership model and often require tracking of continuing education credits, including the ability to track session attendance at events and possibly provide grades or track a certification path as well. Trade associations tend to follow a company model, where the ability to manage people within each member company, track roles and provide a robust trade directory are important features. Associations will often have must-have workflow features as well, which could include things like having special registration pricing available to staff administrators only or a “login as” feature that can be a useful tool for assisting members. Your list of must-have features will help you narrow down the list of possible AMS solutions.
    • Software-as-service (SaaS) solutions: in the “cloud” solutions are typically offered on a subscription basis for a monthly fee, costs can range from free to an annual cost of up to $7,500 including training and support. Price is often tied to size, which could be the number of members, storage size or total number of transactions. A SaaS AMS can be a good solution for small associations on a tight budget, but keep in mind that should your associations outgrow your SaaS solution, the transition to a more robust system can be costly.
    • Installed AMS solutions: Installed solutions are available as desktop-only, web-only and a combination of desktop and web installations. The advantage of using an installed solution compared to a SaaS product is that it offers more opportunity to customize the software to meet your association’s needs. The ideal scenario is to have a solution that is standard at its core, but can have components like workflows and the addition of custom modules, added to match your association’s needs. When evaluating highly custom systems, be aware that they can be time consuming to upgrade and the developer may not add new innovations at the same pace of companies that offer a primarily standardized product. Pricing is often offered at either a single price with few customization options, or a scaling cost that increases based on the number of customizations needed.
    • Highly customized AMS solutions: Typically sold as an off-the-shelf of custom installed product, a highly customized AMS solution includes an extensive integration component where workflows and custom modules are implemented to meet the needs of the association. Examples would include creating a single database that is shared by national and provincial chapters, with customizations for each provincial installation, or a solution that provides online software tools members can use to update the AMS, like certification workflows or logging course registrations.
  1. Make a shortlist: Once you have identified your ballpark budget and must-have feature list, it is time to create a shortlist of options. There are a number of online resources that can help you identify possible solutions. This is also time to start thinking about your request for proposals (RFP) requirements.  To ensure that you have a firm understanding of all the needed components of your future system, it is recommended that you either get assistance from a consultant or see demos of several products before developing your final RFP,. Too often we see association RFPs that direct the selection process in a way that may miss important elements, leading vendors to submit proposals that meet the request, but may in the long term not be in the best interests of the association.
  2. Do your research and develop your RFP: With your shortlist in hand, it is now time to look at the products being considered. Again, it is important to involve key stakeholders who will use the product. Schedule demos, interview potential vendors and finalize your RFP. Take the time to dig a little into the organization culture, the people, and who will be working with you, because the relationship with the AMS provider is almost more important than the features of their product. Another key thing to dig into at this stage is how well your data and association model “fits” with each software solution. What will be involved in transitioning your current data and workflows to the new solution? What will you be gaining with the new product? What changes will your organization have to make in terms of how the new product functions? This is particularly important when dealing with administrative staff. For example, if the association has used a web developer to do up conference registration forms in the past, the flow of online registrations may change as you shift to a new system. While this could reduce costs and empower the association, the period of change can be very stressful for administrative staff who have been used to a different workflow.

In this article we have covered a broad spectrum of considerations that will help you select the best AMS for your association. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will look at ten key considerations that will help make your project a success.


Julie King is the CEO of BizZone, a company whose AMS solution, Association DNA, stands apart for its unique features that include the worlds’ only CASL smart filter and data model built to Privacy by Design standards.