10 Things to Consider When Choosing an AMS

Ah, the age-old association question--- “How do I choose a new Association Management System?” 

Tough question, important decision.  Here are 10 things to consider in making this decision.

1. Why are you moving to a new AMS?

Is the old one out of date in terms of functionality?  Has your business process changed, and it can’t be adjusted to support that?  Do you have a vendor support issue?  Has technology improved since you last had an AMS upgrade, and you want to take advantage of that?  Has maintenance of your current AMS become costly and inefficient?  

2. What does the AMS need to do?

I’ve preached to the choir in previous blog posts about the first step in any technology selection:  Understand what you are trying to do with it.  And this step applies in deciding to change your AMS.  What do you need your new AMS to do?  More specifically, what do you need your new AMS to do that your old one is not managing well?

Understanding the business rules and goals before moving into any technology is important. An AMS--- or any technology---- is a tool to assist in productivity and strategy. It is not an end in itself.  

3. Are your requirements cataloged?

Clearly, the AMS is the first touchpoint in the member or constituent journey, both on the member-facing side and the back-office where staff will be working.  It’s a given that it has to contain your critical contact information.  It’s probably also a given that you want to be able to track engagement--- what committees is a member involved with, who’s sponsored something, who has bought something, who shows up at your events?  But what else?

Do you offer certifications? Do you have an LMS? Do you have journals and abstracts?  A community? What pain points are you experiencing that should be solved by technology? So many items can affect the decision about an AMS and knowing as many of those as humanly possible is a key to success.  A thorough requirements catalog makes it easier to remember what is important to the association and it helps potential vendors understand what is important, too.

4. What does your old AMS do that you want to keep?

There are things your current AMS does well that you will need to ensure are replicated in the new AMS in addition to new features and functionality.  Don’t lose sight of those; make sure they are cataloged.  BUT--- also don’t fall into the sand trap of trying to replicate your current system in a new platform.  Pick the things that are helpful and make sure a new system will continue to do those well.

5. How much can you spend?

A new AMS is a very big budget item for an association.  Understanding realistically how much you have available to spend and how much a system will cost is vital.  If you have a limited budget, you may end up with a limited system.  Do some market research, contact peers with systems that you might be interested in, or hire a consultant to help you shift through systems within your budget range that fit your requirements.  Advice here--- it will cost more than you think, and you will do well to bake that into your budget up front.  If you come in under budget, that’s a win!

6. How’s your data?

The AMS is traditionally blamed for bad data, and most often it is not entirely the fault of the technology.  Data integrity and quality are critical to a successful AMS selection.  What you migrate out of the old system that you are blaming for bad data will follow into the new system which then gets blamed for bad data.  Doing a data quality review and improvement is something that you can do now before any decision about choosing a new technology is considered.  

7. What do you want to come out of your new system?

Data-related, yes, but frequently where AMSs get a bad rep is when the nice, clean data is then not easily extracted from the system.  Understanding what your needs are for reporting, dashboards, ease of querying, etc., is important.  Do you have a data analyst on staff that can help with that, or are non-technical staff going to be pulling their own information?  How detailed are your data research needs? 

8. What do you want from your new vendor?

Setting expectations--- from both sides--- is key to a healthy vendor/association relationship.  How will that relationship work and who is involved?  Do you expect to meet regularly? What kind of communications do you require and what can they provide?  It goes beyond the details of the important Service Level Agreement to being comfortable with your new vendor.  If you encounter issues in the sales process, what does that say about your future relationship with the support team?  It may say nothing, or it may speak to the culture of the vendor.  Being comfortable with your vendor and establishing trust on both sides is the best way to go.

9. What is the impact on staff with a new AMS?

It can be a good initial task to do a RACI exercise before the AMS selection about who will be Accountable, Responsible, Consulted, and Informed in both the selection process and after installation.  Who will be doing the data entry? Who will be responsible for what functional area?  How much time can staff expect to be engaged in the selection process and after?  And--- do you have the right skill sets in-house to support the new system you’re thinking about?  Does it require a dedicated Database Administrator or Community Manager?  Does it require a developer to help with changes and customizations?  How will staff time be redistributed with new efficiencies gained?  

10. What else needs to work with the AMS?

The AMS has been the central powerhouse of association data for a long time, but there is no single AMS that can do everything you need it to do. There will be other systems in play that do a better job of something specific, such as a grassroots platform or your financial management system. What integrations do you require?  Should the data flow in one direction, either into or out of the AMS, or should it be bi-directional?  How will integrations be accomplished and what are the associated costs?  Frequently you may have to pay two vendors, the AMS vendor and the other application vendor, to get this set up, though many vendors offer free connections (APIs).  Knowing this sets you up for success.

Bonus question: Do you need the perfect system?

Trick question. The answer here is, it doesn’t exist.  Understanding that and being realistic about what functionality is absolutely a requirement for your organization and what you might be able to live without or workaround is helpful.  Establishing that your goal is to get the system that is the closest fit to your critical needs, not the “perfect” system, will alleviate some of the stress of the big decision to select a new AMS.

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