Finding the best association management system for your staff and members depends mostly on how well you can assess everyone’s true needs. There are plenty of AMS systems on the market but asking the right questions up front will help you narrow the possibilities with confidence.

In this post, we’ll share the best of what we’ve learned about assessing your association management software needs after the last 26 years of working closely with associations. This article is the first part in our 2023 Association Management Software Buying Guide.

In Part Two, we’ve covered everything you need to know about researching AMS software providers. Part Three walks through best practices for final demos and the selection process.

You can download a free PDF of our entire buying guide to share with your team or stakeholders. If you use this as a roadmap for your association management system search, you’ll streamline the process and know exactly what to ask along the way.

Download a complete copy of this 2023 AMS Buying Guide.

The Extra Effort at This Stage Pays Off

Many associations rush or neglect to do a helpful assessment during the association management system buying process. Even if this project has been on hold for a long time and you’re eager to get your hands on that shiny new system, take the time you need at this stage.

Prioritize attention to detail and truly hearing your stakeholders. We have seen how this helps organizations avoid adopting association software that ultimately disappoints your staff and members. Let’s take a look at what you should be looking for and asking at this stage.

Topics We Cover in This Article

Should you hire an association management system consultant?
Designate an internal point person for your AMS search
Build an AMS Task Force
4 key factors to remember in your AMS Task Force selection process
Assess your staff’s association management system needs
Expect these roadblocks with your association staff
Assess your members’ association management system needs
Set a tentative budget for your new AMS implementation
How much does an association management system implementation cost?
Questions to consider in the assessment phase of your AMS search
Read more about assessing your current association management system needs

Should you hire an association management system consultant?

With a software decision this important, many associations decide that it is worth the investment to hire a selection consultant. Cobalt has worked with some truly outstanding AMS consultants over the years and they serve an important role by helping to guide organizations that are not familiar with the AMS system selection process.

Hiring a consultant might be the right move for your organization but there is one thing I strongly encourage teams to avoid at this early stage in the selection process — whether you hire a consultant or not. Don’t dive straight into creating an exhaustive request for proposal (RFP) that is sent out to a large number of vendors. There are two major problems with sending out huge RFPs to a bunch of AMS vendors that don’t actually become clear until much later in the buying process. 

Image with yellowish background and text that reads Big Problem #1 It’s a LOT of work for your team to read and respond to what vendors send back from an RFP like this. 

Problem #2 The overall quality and level of expertise of the vendors who DO reply to RFPs that land on their desk out of the blue.

I talk more about both of these problems later in the research portion of this association management system buying guide. For now, let me summarize by saying that rushing the assessment phase or going the exhaustive RRP route are going to hurt in the end.  

Designate an internal point person for your AMS search

This project needs a point person and a small Task Force to support them. Designating the best candidate for an internal point person is so important.

The ability to build consensus is the most important skill and quality for your ideal point person. 

It’s hard work to move through the assessment, research, and selection process for your new association management system. But it’s even harder to get people on board with the system you choose after the fact — if you haven’t built consensus along the way.

If you have a candidate in mind for this lead role, ask yourself:

  • Do people rally around this person?
  • Do members and co-workers from different departments like this person?
  • Will they be a strong asset in helping people adopt a new system?

Sometimes the best candidate for this role is an unlikely staff member. Your choice might not make sense to everyone immediately. But if you choose a true consensus-building individual to run point on this project it makes a difference in two ways. 

  1. You’ll have more reliable input from stakeholders early in the association management system buying process.
  2. You’ll have a much smoother adoption during the implementation phase.

Here’s a short list of other skills your point person would ideally have:

  • At least a basic working knowledge of your current AMS and technology involved
  • Strong analytical skills for comparing features and platforms
  • Excellent organizational skills
  • Goal-driven
  • They always meet deadlines
  • Strong listening skills
  • Empathetic and kind

As we paint a picture of the ideal point person here — who comes to mind? Are there at least a few possible candidates you can put on a short list to consider?

Build an AMS Task Force

Your point person might be a powerhouse, but they are going to need a Task Force to support them and represent the needs of all the major stakeholders. You can’t carry out this process by consensus, but with the right dedicated team leading the way, you can find a great fit for your organization.

The ideal Task Force would pull up to half a dozen staff members together with your point person to conduct the assessment and research phases of this search.

4 key factors to remember in your AMS Task Force selection process

Your entire association staff and all your members will live for years with the work this Task Force does in the association management system buying process. Here are some things we always recommend to associations as they build this team.

Representation. Make sure different departments are represented in the Task Force. Try and include staff with a range of experience in your organization. Choose some veterans who remember where you’ve been, as well as some newer folks who aren’t biased by that history.

Complement your point person’s skill set. If your point person is an excellent consensus builder, they are likely a great people person. But they might not be highly organized. Admin details might not be their strongest skill set. If so, get others on the Task Force who can support them where they need it most.

Choose winsome individuals. There will always be pushback and resistance to change from at least some of your staff. The more your entire Task Force is equipped to naturally create buy-in and enthusiasm within their circles of influence, the better this project will go.

Oriented for change. Only fill positions on the Task Force with staff who are open to change and comfortable challenging the status-quo. This is a big one. Each Task Force member should be primed and ready to reject the answer: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” 

That kind of mindset just isn’t helpful in this process. Time and again, we’ve seen how easily it can lead your company to pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time to have a new vendor basically build a different looking version of the same system you have now. What a huge waste! Note that this is also why we strongly oppose jumping into specific requirements too early in the process.

Assess your staff’s association management system needs

Membership staff, events staff, accounting staff — they all depend on your AMS, everyday. More than any other stakeholders, they will need to live and work with whatever software you choose in the end. We always advise associations to listen long and well to what their staff has to say.

You need a solid answer to one central question:

“Next year, when you’re sitting down to use our new AMS, what does it need to do to help you succeed and serve our members better?”

It is a great question to ask. But we know it might be a really hard question to answer, at least today. 

Even so, stay focused on the goal of assessing your staff’s true needs. At the end of this part of the process, you should have quantitative and qualitative data about specific features and processes for your next membership software solution. 

That data should provide the foundation for comparing AMS feature sets with prospective vendors later. Capturing what you learn now in a project charter is a great plan before you move through the implementation phase. 

Expect these roadblocks with your association staff

If your staff has been using an outdated system, they probably don’t know what’s possible with new technology and processes. 

They might focus mostly on what they can’t do right now, or what their biggest frustrations were with recent projects.

Your association management system shouldn’t do everything for you. This has been one of the most significant shifts in AMS technology in recent years. It’s not a Swiss Army knife, but some staff in member organizations still have those expectations. 

Sometimes we see strong resistance to relying on multiple vendors for support. 

Also, almost every organization has employees that hate change. In many cases, these staff have worked hard to find a way to get their work done even if this includes work-arounds to navigate the deficiencies of your current AMS. These folks want to cling to the way they do things with a death grip. They will likely have allergic reactions to your Task Force’s central question about association management system needs (and this whole process, for that matter).

Trust us when we say that all of these potential roadblocks are okay. 

Just continue to express a sincere desire to help maker their jobs easier. 

Press them to think hard about how and why they do each thing they do with your current AMS. 

This is the best path to get a reliable answer to your Task Force’s central question.

Assess your members’ association management system needs

Look at the places on your website where members interact directly to do things like pay for or renew memberships, purchase services, or register for events. 

Your outdated AMS likely has limitations that the latest consumer apps far outstrip and outshine.

Your members may not fully articulate this for themselves, but your current AMS’s clunky or buggy tech is hurting your organization’s image, ethos, and perceived relevance.

It is so important that your staff be happy with your new AMS, but if you keep putting off an upgrade, you really stand to lose members.

As you assess what your new AMS will need, find a way to survey your members. Make a plan to conduct the most comprehensive survey you can afford. 

These are still some of the most effective ways to understand the AMS needs of your members:

  • Email surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Phone interviews with select members

Your Task Force will need to summarize your members’ input. Then, there is the work to prioritize their needs and wants. It’s time consuming, but the payoff is that now you’ll have a reliable compilation of the most important AMS needs from your most important stakeholders: your staff and members. 

As you move into the research phase of your association management system search, all of this groundwork will be invaluable. But, there’s still one important thing to do in the assessment process.

Set a tentative budget for your new AMS implementation

You should determine at least a ballpark budget for your new AMS implementation before launching into research about the latest membership software on the market. 

Here is something critical we’ve witnessed in our experience with clients. They may have some idea of what they can or want to spend for a new system, but when they see what’s possible, they find additional resources for their implementation.

There truly is a solution for every budget, but trying to put a realistic number with the essential needs you’ve identified in the assessment phase gives you a good place to start looking.

How much does an association management system implementation cost?

Assuming you outsource your association management software implementation project, have 100 (or fewer) staff members and your business requirements are relatively straightforward, you can expect to pay around $150k – $350K for the implementation and monthly expenses of $75 – $200 per user.

But the reality is that association membership system implementation projects can range from a few thousand dollars to upwards of a million dollars. Associations with a smaller staff and no legacy systems often spend less. 

Organizations that need extensive customization, complicated or massive data migration and integration, and involve multiple systems that serve hundreds of staff and hundreds of thousands of members, spend the most. 

We’ve done hundreds of AMS and custom software implementation projects. Based on our experience, the three biggest factors that will affect the cost of your new association management system implementation are:

  1. The ratio of your AMS’s customization to its standard functionality
  2. The amount of legacy data you opt to bring over to your new system
  3. The amount of legacy data you opt to bring over to your new system

Hopefully, this helps give you a sense of how widely the final cost of these projects can vary. Here is a much more comprehensive post about AMS implementation costs and considerations

Questions to consider in the assessment phase of your AMS search

Let this one question drive all the others in the assessment phase of this process:

What does a new association management system need to do to make the jobs of our staff easier and offer the best experience for our members?

As you’re building a Task Force, consider these questions:

  • Should we invest resources for hiring an AMS consultant or handle this as an in-house project?
  • Which of our staff members are the best at building consensus? Are they a good fit for leading our Task Force?
    • Have we seen others rally around them?
    • Do staff from other departments like them?      
    • Do they build good rapport quickly with members?
    • Do they understand the basics of our current association management system?
    • How strong are their research, analysis, and synthesis skills?
    • Are they highly organized and meet deadlines (or do they need support for this)?
    • How goal-driven are they?
    • Are they kind, empathetic, and a listener that helps people feel heard and valued?
  • How can we build a diverse, representative Task Force? Who are the best candidates to support this work?
    • How will each Task Force candidate complement our point person?
    • Are they winsome in ways that will help us build consensus for this major software investment?
    • Do they generally uphold the status quo — or are they often open to change and growth?

As you assess the core needs of your association staff, ask:

  • What are the daily tasks that our staff members hate doing?
  • Are there things the staff want to do that our current association management system can’t accommodate?
  • What areas feel the most inefficient for staff members?
  • Are there places where staff still need to do manual data entry?
  • Who is most likely to resist or protest adopting a new system?
  • What are their specific objections likely to be?
  • Are there important projects perpetually on the back burner because they are difficult (or impossible) with our current association software?

As you assess the core needs of your association members, ask:

  • Where do our members interact with our current association management system directly?
  • How attractive and functional are those touch points for members?
  • What do members keep requesting?
  • What do members complain about?
  • How does our current system help members affirm — or question — the value of membership?
  • Are there methods for surveying large groups of our members that have work well in the past?

Before moving on to the research phase, answer these questions:

  • What should our tentative budget for a new AMS be? What can we realistically afford?
  • What is the ideal timeframe to complete our selection process and begin implementation? 

Read more about assessing your current association management system needs

Stay or Go: Why Change Your Association Management Software?

What is an AMS System (vs CRM vs ERP systems)?

Is Your AMS Really a CRM?

How Much Does an Association Management System Implementation Cost?

RFI, RFQ, & RFP: What’s the Difference?

Get a Complete Copy of the 2024 AMS Buying Guide

Take a free PDF of this guide for your team or future reference today. It has 50 insider questions for your association staff and AMS vendor prospects. Use it as a roadmap from assessment to selecting the best association management software for your team.

Send Me a Copy Now
Association Management Software 2023 Buying Guide cover image. It includes a large version of Cobalt's logo, the AMS Buying Guide title, and photograph of Cobalt's Washington, D.C. lobby.