The first associations that looked to running their operations in the cloud, using a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model were big organizations with an office, staff, and a budget. They wanted a custom solution that handled their specific and unique needs.
So the earliest SaaS-based Association Management Systems were designed for such associations. (See Figure 1) The database sat behind an Application Programming Interface (API). A series of admin screens were built for the association staff to use in the association office, to allow them to manage members, the mailing list, event registrations, and finances.
The API then allowed the association to build a custom website from scratch, with special functions to handle member interactions. Some of these websites allowed members to login and view content for members’ only; their membership status could be verified using API calls. If they needed a document library, or surveys, or online renewals, or registration for upcoming events, or the tracking of CEUs and certifications, it was built as a custom website function, using the API to connect to member data.
An association with hundreds of thousands of members and their own IT department can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and months of development to build a system perfectly tailored to their needs. Even an association with tens of thousands of members and a single IT staff person can often afford to spend similar amounts of money and time to build a custom solution.
But what does a smaller association do? What about the hundreds of thousands of clubs and associations that only have one or two paid staff people, or that are run entirely by volunteers? How do these organizations handle the inevitable turnover when new officers or portfolio board members are elected and need to take over basic functions such as membership, finances, the website, etc.? These associations don’t have the money, time or resources for custom solutions built from the ground up. They need a comprehensive solution that can be configured and launched in as little as a couple of weeks, using limited resources and for reasonable startup and monthly fees.
- The solution needs to be flexible, since every association is different in subtle ways. For example, it needs to be able to handle many options for defining member types.
- It needs to be comprehensive, providing a broad range of functions that associations can tap into. For example, an association may not initially need to survey its membership but a basic function like that should be available, easily activated and configured, for when the need arises.
- It needs to have a consistent interface across functions. For example, when a volunteer graduates from moderating online discussion forums to the VP of Membership, the skills learned in one part of the system need to transfer easily to the new areas of responsibility. One of the problems of a system based on API integrations is that different parts of an association’s solution often have different interfaces, configuration tools, and management screens.
- It needs to be easy to learn for a new volunteer or board member.
- And it needs to be expandable so that truly unique requirements can be handled using custom programming.
The AMS model for a small staff association or one that’s run by volunteers looks like Figure 2.
As with the AMS for larger associations, the core is a powerful database to track members and a non-member mailing list of prospective members and other contacts.
It needs to allow people to join the association online, including selecting a member type, entering their basic contact information as well as specific information that the organization needs to collect, specifying additional people that are part of the membership, joining interest groups and chapters, signing any legal documentation such as a release agreement or a code of ethics, and completing the registration by making an online payment.
It needs to provide a security system that allows members to log in and view member-only content. Members must have access to a personal Profile screen where they can update their contact information and additional data that’s specific to the association. They should be able to renew their memberships and make payments online. They should be able to view a history of their transactions, payments, event registrations, and volunteering assignments.
It needs to provide built-in functions or modules to perform the typical tasks that every association needs, including an event calendar with online registration and payment for events, document libraries, online discussion forums, surveys, perhaps an E-Commerce storefront, committee tracking, member interest groups, member directories, the ability to collect donations online, etc.
And these functions all need to interact with each other. For example, the AMS should make it easy to create a discussion forum whose membership is linked to an interest group. As members sign up for the group, or remove themselves, the forum membership is maintained automatically by the system. And if a folder in the Documents Library module is visible only to the Board of Directors—defined in the Committees module—that folder should only appear to currently active members of that committee. Once someone leaves the board, they can no longer see the folder or access its documents.
The AMS also needs to provide a comprehensive suite of management tools to maintain memberships, the website itself, finances, the organization, and communications, all of which work together with the database and modules. For example, it should be possible to send out a blast email to everyone in a committee or a member interest group and not have to worry about who it’s going to.
An AMS for a small staff or volunteer-based association should handle many previously tedious tasks automatically. It should be trivial to configure the system to send out member renewal notices on a pre-determined schedule, allowing members to click a link to login and renew online in just a couple of minutes. It should also distribute administrative tasks down to members themselves, allowing them to update their own profiles and make payments without having to contact the “office”. The more that members can do on their own, the less that has to be done by limited staff and volunteer resources.
The platform should also allow specific functions to be isolated to volunteers who only need access to part of the system. For example, someone may volunteer to maintain online discussion forums or handle event registrations for an upcoming conference, but the association doesn’t necessarily want that person to be able to modify the website or view financial reports.
It should make it easy for the association to reach out to members using blast emailings, surveys and ad hoc forms and have the built-in tools to make informed decisions based on the responses. The AMS can encourage participation and involvement, helping the association increase retention rates.
The AMS must also fully support a database of non-members and the different ways they interact with the association. It should track non-member event registrations since these are future members and donors. But it should also allow the association to maintain its lists of press, local government and public safety officials, affiliated associations, and other contacts, and it should be possible to send blast emails to any subset of these non-members.
As it should be obvious by now, since ClubExpress is presenting this blog post, our platform was designed based on these principles and specifically for associations run by a very small staff or by volunteers.
With ClubExpress, every association gets one website and the tools needed to build and maintain the website. Public areas can be as large and comprehensive as the association needs, with no limits on the number of pages, modules, photo albums, documents or events.
When members login, they have access to a second area for members only, but it’s the same website with the same tools to build and maintain pages, photo albums, and modules. The system automatically knows what security rights to assign to them, either a member alone or up to six levels of administrative access. And associations can have as many administrators and coordinators as they need; our fees are not based on the number of admin users like the bigger AMS vendors.
With ClubExpress, administering the website, databases, and modules is done from within the website and modules themselves. Unlike other AMSs where admin tasks are performed from a separate website, ClubExpress functions can be maintained directly in the same place where everything happens. Modules and website pages have a “user” side and an “admin” side where changes are made and immediately visible. Managing the member database and non-member mailing lists, reviewing finances, and generating blast emails is done in the same place, using the same interfaces that manage every other aspect of the system.
Because ClubExpress was designed from the ground up for clubs or associations run by volunteers or with a very small staff, we decided to do a few things differently from the rest of the industry. For this category of association, switching to an online AMS like ClubExpress could be a significant change in how the organization is run and we felt that it was important to minimize artificial barriers that might make a board of directors nervous.
- ClubExpress does not require a long-term contract. Where some AMSs lock up an association for 12 or 24 months, our customers sign a Subscription Agreement that is month-to-month. If we’re not meeting their needs, they can cancel at any time and will not owe anything.
- We do not impose limits on disk space, documents, photos, videos, pages, or blast emails. Disk space and bandwidth in the cloud are effectively free so why put artificial limits on these things, especially when it’s basically impossible for an association to calculate these numbers. We also don’t limit the number of admins a club can have.
- We built credit card processing into the platform from day 1, so that clubs did not need to set up their own merchant account (which can be complex.) In order to make this work, we also wrote the code and got setup with the banking system as an ACH originator, so that we can remit collected funds to our customers and collect our fees directly from their bank accounts.
- Instead of different levels, we have one product that includes everything. It’s much simpler for customers who may not initially use all the features but who should be able to whenever they are ready without having to worry about the extra cost.
- We base our pricing on the number of “active” members, since this correlates closely with website usage. We do not charge for expired members or non-member contacts in the database as long as they are reasonably in proportion to the size of the active member database.
- Finally, in perhaps the most radical departure from the crowd, our monthly hosting fee includes unlimited toll-free support for admins and members!If members have a problem logging in, renewing their membership, registering for an event, making a payment, or changing their password, they can call us and we will help them. Associations with a large office will have dedicated staff or even a call center to handle member inquiries. An association run by volunteers or a small staff simply doesn’t have the same resources, so if we can remove the burden of simple inquiries, it frees up the association’s resources to focus on strengthening and growing the organization.