Nobody has hard and fast rules about what association management software can do and what it’s essential to outsource. But today there are very, very few AMS options on the market that promise to do everything your association needs. It has been a long time developing, but the trend away from an AMS that functions like a Swiss Army Knife is something most people understand and accept, now.
Ideally, what can association management software do … and what should the other tools in your tech stack handle for your staff and member needs?
A New Way to Think About Your AMS
A few years ago at Cobalt, we started telling our prospective clients that a better way to think of their AMS was to imagine it as a hub. It has some core functionality, but it also allows flexible, agile integration with other software providers, thanks to APIs. As we unpack a specific list of what your association management software can do — and what it shouldn’t do — see how your current processes and tools align with this model.
Real World ‘Hub and Spoke’ Example: Improved Membership Analytics
Let’s work through a slightly more detailed example before getting to a briefer list of core AMS tasks vs those you should use another tool for in your processes.
One of the core functions of your AMS is storing and synthesizing data about critical facets of your members and membership trends. Membership analytics is a great example of the hub-and-spoke model in action.
Cobalt’s AMS system (Engagement Dynamics) can cover an association’s core needs, but it also allows seamless integration with the Microsoft Power Platform. That includes powerful tools like Power BI for some remarkable analytics and data visualization. The integration means you’ll get a singular, impactful dashboard right inside your AMS.
Power Automate is another great example from the Power Platform. It’s a low-code/no-code application that allows you to connect hundreds of popular third-party software solutions to your AMS. And, true to its name, it’s a great way to automate some of the workflows for your association staff and free them up for other tasks.
Each solution in the Power Platform that you use for your business can be thought of as a spoke on your main hub.
Take this example: Imagine your association has an AMS, a website, and a separate marketing software. Staff say they feel they don’t have a holistic view of your customers because the data is in separate systems.
You determine you need a powerful reporting engine to bring the data from all three sources into one dashboard to gain better insights. Which will be compatible with your AMS?
Because you use software that has out of the box integrations with software services like Power BI, which has the capability to do what you need most, it’s an easy decision. And your staff loves the completed dashboard in their day-to-day work.
Not only do they have improved membership analytics at-a-glance thanks to complex formulas in Power BI, they can easily compare data across marketing emails, website visits, and see how impactful their efforts have been in increasing membership.
The native integration with Power BI allowed us to easily enhance our Engagement Dynamics product with Power BI dashboards for membership, events, eCommerce, and member engagement analytics. Now our clients’ staff members can see pertinent insights to performance in seconds or use filtering to drill down into data and glean more granular information. Here’s a quick overview video of those dashboards in action!
What these tools have in common is that they add value to what your AMS already does and you have control over which you decide to add-on based on your needs, allowing you higher flexibility.
Now that we all have a strong understanding of why this offering is beneficial to organizations, let’s talk about what you should be outsourcing via your AMS.
What Can Association Software Do?
Before we look at some of the modules your AMS should provide as a part of your core functionality, let’s tick through some of those areas where you are better off partnering with a third-party vendor.
Accounting and Financial Management
This one is an obvious integration area for associations. Practically no one does all their accounting through their AMS anymore. Whether you’re using Microsoft GP (formerly Great Plains), Quickbooks or Sage 50 (formerly Peachtree), or some other software, those options are going to be much more robust and reliable for this critical area.
Website Content Management or Online Communities
WordPress has spent more than a decade defining the standard for content management and leading the charge with thousands of developers around the world. Even if your AMS provider had a team of 10 people working full-time on this all year — WordPress, Sitecore, and other commercial CMS offerings would clearly be the better option for content management.
Online community platforms can take different forms, but companies like Higher Logic have dialed in the most stable and innovative ways to keep your members talking to one another in the online sphere. This is not something you want your AMS provider to be engineering or maintaining.
Learning Management System (LMS)
Let’s say you want to offer a class for your members, or have them take some kind of assessment quiz. There are fantastic software providers for that. In an ideal situation, your members would be able to sign up, sign in, and even pay through your AMS (integrated with your website) and then be redirected to the LMS software to take the class or quiz.
If your members earn a certification or some other badge that needs verification, then a third-party vendor that specializes in this kind of authentication is a good thing to outsource.
Repetitive website actions, emails, and other tasks that can be automated are probably best addressed by expert providers like Higher Logic, MailChimp, Hubspot, or ClickDimensions.
These can take different forms, but companies like Higher Logic have dialed in the most stable and innovative ways to keep your members talking to one another in the online sphere. This is not something you want your AMS provider to be engineering or maintaining.
What Should Your AMS Include In Its Core Offering?
Okay, if we’re talking those things your AMS absolutely does need to handle — and do exceptionally well, I think these are some nonnegotiable functions.
Member Management and Member Portal Website Functionality
Tracking, as well as editing member and membership information are right at the heart of what you need an AMS to do well. This is your core data that everything else is tied to. Secondly, and equally as important, your AMS needs to provide some interface for your members to interact with.
If your organization has any kind of certification programs, then I think that moves a certification module into the “must have” category for the core functions of your AMS. We saw such a benefit and need for this at Cobalt that we spent a lot of R&D time and money to develop one for our clients. Cobalt’s Certification module can be purchased separately or as an add-on to Engagement Dynamics. This module allows organizations to accept and process certification applications, track continuing education requirements and recertifications, and more options that are seamlessly handled through our AMS.
eCommerce, Payments, and Dues Collection
Your members need a seamless, stable payment module to handle credit card payments and refunds in real time, manage tax and shipping costs, and all the financial details, which means this needs to be handled by a core AMS module.
Along with your payments module, your AMS should make paying yearly memberships and other dues a seamless, reliable process.
Committee or Chapter Management
Your association’s committees need a dedicated, customizable way to track their history, manage their rosters, process nominations and volunteer applications, and more. This one is an essential. Chapter-specific applications, communications, and messaging are things your AMS can best handle in a deeply integrated way.
I know I said accounting is something you should trust to a third-party vendor, and when it comes to actually managing the books, it is! But your accounts receivable and some other accounting functions (like tracking the tax and shipping your eCommerce module is processing) must be done through your AMS. For a more detailed breakdown on these functions, see our What Kind of Accounting Data You Need In Your CRM post.
Publication and Subscription Management
Your association’s publications and the contact information, possible subscription fees, and other relevant data should be something your AMS is equipped to handle in its core functions.
Think about those email reminders to members, the hassle of getting approvals sorted, and the never-ending updates to member records—yeah, the tedious stuff. Well, here’s the scoop: when your AMS handles these on autopilot, life gets a whole lot easier and your staff has time for meaningful work.
It’s not just about saving time; it’s about rocking that member engagement. And it needs to be built into your AMS to get the full benefits. So, task automation? No brainer, everyone we come across needs basic task automation.
Basic CRM Functionality
We’ve seen this become one of the latest trends and developments over the past 5-10 years. More and more, this is becoming a new baseline for AMS providers. There is some interesting conversation — and debate — about the lines between what a CRM is and does, and what an AMS is and does. I’ve written more about this in my CRM vs AMS post.
Gray Areas of Your AMS / CRM Functionality
There are a couple of specific areas where we see a lot of divided opinions and disagreement about what’s best.
Should you expect to have that included in your core AMS modules? This one — probably more than any other piece of AMS functionality — has a lot of people on the fence. This is the most helpful rule of thumb I’ve found for helping clients decide how to handle this: if you turnkey your events with a vendor, you might want to let them handle this, especially if it’s included in the fee you’re paying; if you run your own events, you are probably better off using a module that comes with your AMS. Of course, we have customers that handle registration through the Engagement Dynamics and integrate with their onsite logistics vendors. This is really something to tackle on a case-by-case basis.
Fundraising and Donor Management
This is another piece of the puzzle that you can make a strong case for either outsourcing or counting on from your AMS core functionality. I think making the better decision, in this case, is about looking at how heavy your fundraising needs are. If you’re an organization that needs only some very lightweight fundraising, like asking for a donation from your members when they are paying their dues, you should be able to count on that from your AMS. Many associations have legit, heavy duty fundraising engines, though, and for that, you’re probably going to want a dedicated tool. Blackbaud is a solid fundraising vendor for people in our industry.
Bonus Area: Engagement Tracking
Here’s a feature you can probably live without, but should you?
As a vendor, staying ahead of industry needs is crucial. At Cobalt, and among various AMS vendors, there’s a growing emphasis on responding to evolving demands.
One notable advancement of recent years is engagement tracking—a feature at the forefront of increasing member interaction (and revenue!). This functionality assigns scores to contacts within the system, based on diverse engagement factors like event participation, credential attainment, and more.
While the concept of engagement tracking is gaining momentum, finding a seamlessly integrated, out-of-the-box solution for integration with your AMS might pose a challenge, making this a necessity.
As a side note, if you’re in the market for a new AMS, coming across a vendor equipped with robust engagement scoring capabilities signifies a commitment to staying current with industry trends – definitely a big plus!
What About Your Current AMS Functionality?
What do you think? Have I put something in the wrong category? I’d love to hear your feedback or thoughts on that. How does this breakdown compare with your current AMS functionality? Are there things you wish it was doing that it’s not? What about things your AMS is not doing well that you’d like to consider other options for?
Reach out to email@example.com and we’ll put some time on the books to discuss these ideas further. See you next time!