For associations, finding the right software solution is critical for efficient and effective management of their operations.
Over the years, there has been a debate on the best type of software solution, from the Association Management System (AMS) to Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and now, Engagement Management System (EMS) such as iMIS. But the big question remains, is your association software fit for purpose?
The expectation from all systems is to have comprehensive CRM features, solid financial processes, member engagement support, marketing, communication, query, and reporting.
While the best systems offer these features, the most critical things are often not mentioned by salespeople. In this article, we will discuss what it is that makes association software fit for purpose and what to look out for in key principals to ensure that your software remains fit for purpose as long as possible.
What is “Fit for Purpose?”
This generally means that the software is designed and developed to meet the specific needs and requirements of the organization or industry it is intended for. It implies that the software has the necessary features, functions, and capabilities to effectively support and enhance the organization's operations, processes, and objectives. In other words, the software solution must be able to deliver the expected outcomes and benefits to the organization, as well as be reliable, secure, and cost-effective.
Choosing software that is “fit for purpose" in relation to your overall goals and strategic needs is perhaps the most difficult and critical project an association undertakes and getting it wrong can lead to high costs and unforeseen issues.
Recognizing the Trends
Those of you who follow industry thought leaders, such as The MemberWise Network, will recognize how much thinking has changed and will have followed many of those strategic changes in recent years.
Treating the website and the database as one, the need to personalize the user experience, and using the database as a 360-degree view are all subjects that have been extensively aired, with those features (and more) found in software that is fit for purpose.
Over ten years ago, there was a trend towards single self-contained database systems, but some associations then found the need to deploy different solutions in different functional areas. Eventually, the complexity and cost of maintaining multiple systems became overwhelming, making it challenging to obtain a uniform 360-degree view of member data and a single source of truth.
Generic CRM-Based Platforms Enter the Association Software Space
More recently, large platforms like Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics have entered the association software space, and some vendors have created their own proprietary systems using these platforms. For example, look at the proliferation of these providers in the MemberWise supplier directory – each has developed their own system. However, these systems can be expensive to buy, deploy, and maintain — there can be extensive hidden “usage” fees that are not obvious at the start.
If the relationship with the vendor happens to go bad, or the solution is acquired and/or discontinued, it could result in a total loss situation because the proprietary system will belong to the vendor, as it is their IP (intellectual property). It will be impossible to transfer to another vendor since no two vendors use the same software code.
It is important to note that some of these solutions are essentially “consulting ware” in nature with programming still being done as part of the overall solution delivery. If the vendor relationship falls apart, there is no guarantee of continued support. A good question to ask at the start is to see the overall software version documentation (and, if possible, prior release documentation, too) and a list of changes and improvements with each release.
What Makes Association Software Fit for Purpose?
It is a little amorphous since some aspects are tangible and verifiable and others can be subjective. Clearly, features and functions are the most obvious since they can be verified in a software demonstration. However, there are other aspects that are often overlooked by review committees since they are more difficult to focus on, verify, and ask questions about.
Let's take the easy bit first. For association software to be fit for purpose, it needs to provide an all-in-one solution that includes certain capabilities.
An all-in-one solution that includes:
Membership Management: This includes membership recruitment and retention, dues processing, member engagement, and member self-service.
Events Management: A robust event management system that includes registration, ticketing, payment processing, and marketing.
Website Management: An easy-to-use content management system that allows the association to manage their website, online communities, and other online assets such as microsites.
eCommerce: A fully integrated eCommerce system that includes a shopping cart, payment processing, and order fulfillment.
Reporting and Analytics: A system that provides accurate and real-time reporting and analytics.
Integration: A system that integrates with other solutions, such as email marketing, social media, and accounting.
Consider these factors:
When reviewing software for an association, it is important to consider several factors in addition to features and functions.
Integration Capabilities: Associations often use multiple software solutions for different purposes, so it is essential to ensure that the new software can integrate with the existing systems. Look for software solutions that have well-documented Restful APIs, or that provide integration with popular tools such as Zappier, through app stores or integration partners.
Ease of use: The software should be user-friendly and intuitive, making it easy for staff members to learn and use. Consider the user interface, navigation, and workflow to ensure that the software is easy to use and understand. Ideally all configuration possibilities should be able to be undertaken by user/supervisor level staff and all configurations done by the supplier should be editable and changeable. Tools used for this should not be ‘hidden’ by the supplier.
Support and Training: Adequate training and support are crucial for successful software implementation and ongoing usage. Look for software vendors that provide comprehensive training resources, such as online training, access to a dedicated LMS, video tutorials, user manuals, and a knowledge base. It's also important to consider the quality, location, and availability of customer support, including phone and email support and ticket systems. Ask where support is provided from.
Security: Associations deal with sensitive data, including personal information, financial data, and other confidential information. The software should comply with standards for protecting data such as GDPR (in the UK) Software should also comply with ISO and have robust security features and protocols in place to protect information from unauthorized access, data breaches, and other security threats. One to specifically look for is full PCI compliance. Ask how much the vendor spends annually on security specifically.
Scalability: Associations often grow and evolve over time, so the software should be able to accommodate future growth and changing needs. Look for software solutions that are scalable and customizable, with the ability to add or remove features as needed. It is wise to ensure that you are not reliant on the vendor and can do work yourselves via the features of the software to make data changes, adding and removing data fields or panels.
Total Cost of Ownership: The cost of the software is not just the initial purchase price, but also includes ongoing maintenance, support, upgrades, and training costs. Consider the total cost of ownership when evaluating software solutions to ensure that it is affordable and fits within the association's budget. In particular look in detail at hidden costs relating to storage space, API calls and other variable aspects of the vendors pricing. Ask the vendor for specific clarity on all additional costs.
Strategic Partnership: Your software partner is going to be with you as a trusted adviser for many years and it is wise to choose a partner where the “Sales” staff are not separate from the PM or Deployment teams. Meet the people who will advise you and guide you on what may be a long journey and ensure that they understand best practice and the specific strategic journey that you are making.
Roadmap: Good software costs many millions of pounds to build and maintain. As trends come and go there will be vendor winners and losers. Winners may only win for a short period and losers may not have the development capital to keep pace with changes and market needs. It is important to gain an understanding of these market dynamics. Look for software that has been around for the longest time and where the vendors have guided customers along a path through a number of changes in software technology. Ask about what is coming in the future. Is the vendor open and participative when it comes to the software development process? Ask how much the vendor spends annually on R&D and be specific as you do not want the R&D budget of Microsoft or Salesforce overall as that would be irrelevant.
User Groups: For the software buyer, user groups offer many great benefits. They can foster a sense of community and engagement among users, provide a platform for peer-to-peer support, extend access to training, and help users identify creative solutions.
By considering these factors, in addition to the more usual features and functions, association managers can make a more informed decision when selecting software solutions that are fit for purpose and will support their organization's needs and objectives.
Selecting a Partner That is “Fit for Purpose”
When considering a partnership with the provider of your next engagement management system, there are several factors that you should consider. These include:
Customer-Focused Approach: The provider should have a customer-focused approach and be committed to understanding your unique needs and challenges. They should be willing to work closely with you and your association to develop tailored solutions that meet your specific needs and requirements.
Open Communication: The provider should be open and transparent in their communication with you, providing regular project updates and an insight into other important topics that could affect your strategic future. They should also be responsive to your questions and feedback.
Collaborative Partnership: The provider should view their relationship with you as a collaborative partnership, rather than a one-way vendor-client relationship. They should be willing to listen to your association's input and feedback and work together to achieve shared goals.
Flexibility and Adaptability: The provider should be flexible and adaptable, able to respond to your changing needs and requirements. They should also be open to new ideas and be willing to innovate and explore new approaches.
Proven Track Record: The provider should have a proven track record of success in delivering engagement management systems to other associations or organizations. This includes providing references and case studies that demonstrate their ability to meet the needs and requirements of similar organizations.
Cultural Fit: The provider should have a cultural fit with you, sharing similar values and goals. This can help to ensure a strong working relationship and a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the association.
Expertise and Support: The provider should have a deep understanding of your chosen EMS (engagement management system), for example, iMIS EMS, and be able to provide expert support and guidance to you. This includes providing training, documentation, and ongoing support to ensure the successful adoption and use of the system.
What Can We Conclude?
Clearly, associations and other non-profits need to work with software and with partners that are totally “fit for purpose.” This means regularly reviewing how aligned your software is with your business strategic direction and goals. By all means, ask for software demonstrations and explore how suppliers can meet your feature and function present needs but at the same time recognise that over a 5-10 year period, there is likely to be a significant amount of technology change and that you need to select a partner, and even a friend, who can really get to know you and guide you through a path of digital evolution.
There are a great many very important aspects to consider when choosing a partner and that partner needs to stay close and consistent over many years.
Recognise that both you and your vendor will have needs and expectations that must be met for this to work. Great relationships will lead to great success, but they do not happen overnight they need working on.
How to Maximise Your Association Software Partnership
Here are a few things you can practically do to maximise your chance of partnership success:
Make the partnership work at all levels: Create a CEO-to-CEO relationship with the CEO of your chosen vendor.
Be open about budget and budget restraints: Recognise that you have costs and constraints but so does your vendor. Be as open as possible about the type of relationship you would like and that which you expect back.
Create and action a plan annually (with broad goals for 2 and 3 years): It is good practice to create and then regularly review and priorities all the things large and small you would like to do to derive benefits from IT within the organisation. Discuss and agree these things and ask for counsel from your chosen vendor once or twice a year.
Diary in advance customer to vendor touch points: Most vendors provide a customer management contact whose job it is to reach out to you and make sure the relationship is healthy and positive. Contact points should include regular on-line or face-to-face meetings and if your exec or manager contacts change there should be a particular effort to bring new contacts up to speed as soon as possible.
Partner to openly create performance enhancement: A good engagement management system has the power to help you to improve the overall performance of your association in both financial and non-financial terms. It is great practice to work with your chosen partner to assess your performance and to find innovative ways to make those needed performance improvement. ASI has a great performance assessment service, PIAS, which can help an association to know where they are in terms of IT performance and maturity, and this is a great starting point. Check if your vendor has something like this available.
About iFINITY: At iFINITY, we only work with non-profits and through long-term teamwork and a focus via MemberWise on best practice we know what associations, charities and unions need to build to serve members now and in the future. We are the appointed Premier partner for ASI the world leader in association software and are based in the UK covering the UK and Europe. Talk to us now about how iMIS, TopClass LMS, and OpenWater award process software can allow you to engage better.
Since 1994, our cutting-edge products, unparalleled responsiveness, and award-winning services have helped organizations like yours increase their operational and financial performance by leveraging best practices and proven solutions. For more information about iFINITY, please visit the website at www.ifinity.co.uk or call +442089620325.