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. If that doesn’t make sense to you, I tackle this directly in our Why Your AMS Shouldn’t Do Everything post. In this article I want to extend some of the ideas from my previous post, and take a serious look at this question:

Well, what should my AMS / CRM do for me, then?

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. These days, that’s how most of our competitors frame their offering, too.

I might have found an even better way to describe how your AMS should function. I think the idea of a farmer’s market is an interesting metaphor to describe what’s actually happening. Promotions and marketing, facilities, parking — all the core services that a market needs to be successful, are like the core functions in a solid AMS.

Also, and critically — it creates a reliable, accessible space for the many people who provide their specialized goods for the people in the neighborhood’s market (your staff and your organization’s members).

I like that this way of thinking about your AMS includes a focus on the people involved. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to just get caught up in processes, programs, technology, and business needs and forget that ultimately, your AMS needs to be good for your people, your neighborhood.

I also like that it highlights one of the greatest strengths of the newer open model — you should let the people who have the software equivalent of the best honey or eggs or small-batch kimchi operation be providing that service to your neighborhood because they are much better at it than you are!

What You Should Be Outsourcing Through Your AMS

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

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.

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 web site) 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.

Marketing Automation

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.

Online Communities

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.

(Almost) Finally: 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 non-negotiables.

Member Management

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.

eCommerce and Payments

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.

Dues Collection

Along with your payments module, your AMS should make paying yearly memberships and other dues a seamless, reliable process.

Committee 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 Management

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.


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.

Member Portal Website Functionality

Your AMS needs to provide some interface for your members to interact with.

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.

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. That’s an article I hope to tackle soon, but in the meantime maybe this will help you learn more about this growing trend in our industry.

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.

Event Management

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.

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?

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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.