Shop for Nonprofit and Membership Software Like a Pro: 17 Experts Give Their Best Advice

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Shopping is stressful.

There are always so many choices, your budget is limited, and you want to make sure you get the right fit.

Membership software expert advice

Shopping for software isn’t that different from shopping for your summer wardrobe – except that the stakes are raised because the price tag might be higher, the product has to fit well with multiple users like members or volunteers, and you definitely want it to last you for more than one season.

We reached out to industry experts about how to make the most of your software shopping experience, whether it’s for membership management or your nonprofit organization.

Our question: What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone in the industry as they’re looking to purchase software?

Here’s what they had to say:

Adam Kearney, vice president of marketing for MemberClicks:

“The most important piece of advice I’d give to someone who is evaluating a software company is to look at what their customers are saying. Do they have strong advocates? How’s their customer service? The relationship a company has with its customers can speak volumes about that company’s culture and values. In today’s world, it’s easy to broadcast a brand. But there’s no shortcut to customer loyalty.”

Membership software expert advice

Amanda Miller, marketing manager of Agilon:

“Don’t short change your training and implementation time. You’re better off to have the training up front, so you can update and improve your processes rather than struggle down the road.”

Andi Conti, digital marketing specialist at ACTIVE Network:

“The most important piece of advice I can give to someone researching software today is to understand the benefits of the cloud. I recommend this “Guide To The Cloud” for those looking to clear up any cloudiness about the differences in community recreation software choices (pun intended!).”

Membership software expert advice

Asaf Darash, founder of Regpack:

“When looking for a membership management software or a non-profit management software, if I had one [piece of] advice I could give it would be [to] seek solutions not features.

As someone in the software business for the last 25 years I am very familiar with the ‘features’ talk and trend. This trend is basically the endless search for features! Just look at software reviews on CNET and you will see that there is a table comparing features of different software. Apple loves to boast about thousands of new features in their latest operating system release as does Microsoft. Everyone is obsessed with features!

But if you stop for a second and really think if you need all those features you will understand that it is just the wrong question. You should frame your question in the following way: “I have problem A, does this product solve the problem?”

The idea is to look at the problems you are trying to solve and not look at the abilities of the system you are inspecting. A software can offer HUNDREDS of features, none of which are useful to you or your organization, so is it worth using it just because of a long list of features? Always start with your problem and then work your way to finding the solution you need, not the feature that the software offers.”

Becky A. Cole, chief capacity builder at more-opportunities.com:

“The most important thing to do is to look at your processes first and straighten that out. If your processes and data collection methods are crap to begin with, without this step, all you will be doing is automating crap. Another reason for doing this is so you won’t be entirely at the mercy of sales people. You want software that works for you, and you need to know what features will work best, what you can live with, and what you will never use. If there are more things in that last category, move on to the next vendor.

Most technology companies don’t know how to speak nonprofit. They will slap ‘nonprofit’ on the name of something, but they don’t use nonprofit language. And most people in nonprofits (unless they have a technology department) don’t speak geek. Questions to ask someone include: How will this help us map to our outcomes, what reporting can we do for our funding requirements, what kinds of reports can we get out of this? If they don’t know or start to speak at you in geek, stop the conversation and ask to talk to someone else.”

Membership software expert advice

Brendan Noone, chief operating officer of NeonCRM by Z2 Systems, Inc.:

“When considering purchasing nonprofit and/or membership software, it is important to understand how the software will simplify processes. But more importantly, investigate how the software will help your organization to better manage and build the most important piece to any organization — the relationships you establish with your constituents. Purchasing a system that in its core is simply transaction-based misses the fact that it’s about people! 

Understanding how donations, membership dues, and event registrations are handled is crucial since they are not all the same with respect to tax implications. Ask software providers how they separate these transactions to ensure backend reporting and accounting will fit your organizations needs in the long run.

With respect to tracking the relationships that your organization has with individuals (and that your constituents have with each other), inquire how the software will deepen your organization’s understanding of what your donors and members expect through their involvement. Good software should help your organization and staff connect with constituents more personally, reach beyond tracking transactions to better understand their core values, and grow your constituent base by retaining the members and donors who believe so strongly in your organization’s mission.

Dan Ehrmann, president of ClubExpress:

“Find out how the vendor supports their software. AMS software can be complex, with hundreds of screens, many configuration settings, and tricky interactions between modules. When admins have a question, how will they get support?

  • Is it by forum, email or telephone?
  • Are there limits in who can submit support requests or questions?
  • Are there limits in the number of support ‘incidents’ that an association can submit?
  • Are there fees for support and, if so, when do they kick in?
  • Is the support team in the US or ‘off-shore’?
  • Are there limits as to when support requests can be filed (i.e. during the initial setup period only or at any time)?
  • Is member support available? If members have a problem using the system, do they call the association office or board members, or can they also call the AMS vendor?

The best companies provide unlimited telephone support for any admins or coordinators and even for members. This allows staff and volunteers to quickly get their questions answered, and it ensures that members can get their simpler questions answered without bothering staff or volunteers, allowing them to focus on more strategic tasks like strengthening and growing the association.”

Membership software expert advice

Don Souhrada, vice president of fundraising consulting firm Ter Molen Watkins & Brandt:

“Most nonprofits won’t need all the bells whistles of a full-featured database and shouldn’t overpay for the industry standard. The many cloud-based systems available today provide options that are scalable to the needs of the organization and can be much more cost-effective.”

Jason Haloossim, cofounder and CEO of Brilliant Directories:

“The most important thing to do is to take your time. Each organization’s reasons for wanting to use a membership software are unique, and each membership software available on the market today includes slightly different features and offerings which may or may not be in line with what your organization needs.

The first thing to do is to make note of the current way your organization manages memberships, bottlenecks and pain-points that you would like to alleviate, then potential wishlist items that would enhance your current membership management.

It’s also important to note that you may not find a silver-bullet solution that includes features for all your wishlist items. Compromises may be required in order to help you move forward with selecting a membership software – but that’s ok. Your wishlist items may change after operating on the new software because as new efficiencies arise from utilization of the membership software, your needs and wishlist items may change as well.

So do your homework, find a solution that checks off the most items on your list, and be realistic in knowing that certain compromises may be needed.”

Jessica Bernstein, marketing manager for MobileCause:

Membership software expert advice

“The most important piece of advice we would give a nonprofit looking to purchase fundraising and communication software is to take your organization’s goals and budget into consideration. The biggest return on investment will come from a software suite that is fully integrated and mobile responsive. Mobile-friendly forms and donation landing pages increase ROI while making it easy and fast for supporters to give anywhere at any time. It may surprise you that 84% of the top 100 nonprofits do not have mobile friendly sites or donation pages [as of Feb. 2014, in a study of 151 charity organizations which included 100 from the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s “Philanthropy 400”]. All of these important factors create a dynamic user and donor experience, which has proven to double revenue. Mobile fundraising software is an investment in your cause that will more than pay for itself.”

John Keelin, president and CEO of MemberMax:

“In addition to reviewing features that meet the organization’s requirements, make sure that the services provided by the vendor will ensure a successful implementation.  With robust relational databases, there is a need for vendor guidance on the database configuration, data migration, web site branding and integration and training.  Does the vendor provide programming assistance for migration or just some standard spreadsheet formats?  To retain history and insure a quality migration, there is almost always a need for specially programmed imports.  Many organizations take the ‘bargain’ path and wind up with an unsatisfactory result.  A professional implementation process costs more but produces the best results.”

Jon Biedermann, vice president of DonorPerfect:

“Our advice is to buy a system you won’t outgrow. Software should scale in features and price based on your needs, so as you grow, it grows with you. You won’t have to purchase, implement and learn new software every few years. It’s also important to work with a trusted company that won’t take your money and run. Make sure they’re in good financial shape, not looking to make a few bucks and sell out, have lots of happy clients with proven ROI, and show a record of continuing to invest in improving their products and services.”

Kathy Wertheim, fundraising consultant of Werth-It:

“First, include in your budget to train new staff members in the software. I find that a lot of nonprofits have frequent turnover, and then find that they can’t hire new people who know the software, or they have to pay more for that expertise. So, please budget for those new hires to get the training.

Second, plan to increase the salary of the person who gets trained on the software, even if it’s a small amount. You don’t want to lose someone because another nonprofit pays 50 cents more an hour for people who are trained.”

Rob Hammond, founder and CEO of MemberPlanet:

“Don’t restrict yourself to only evaluating platforms that will fit your current workflow process or ‘way of doing things.’  There are a number of SAAS based platforms, currently revolutionizing how organizations communicate, manage their members, customers and constituents while integrating critical functions such as dues, fundraising and event management. While some of these may require changes to the current way of doing things, the organizations who are making those changes are finding they are becoming more efficient and in many ways have simplified complicated and time consuming tasks.”

Membership software expert advice

Roderick Campbell, CEO and cofounder of CommitChange:

“I would emphasize the importance of design and user experience. You can have the most powerful software in the world, but it’s useless if the interface requires a graduate degree. Every system has a different look, feel, and workflow. Emphasizing design isn’t just about looks either! Great design can save you immense amounts of time by optimizing your workflow.

Data integration is also critical, unless you enjoy manual data entry. Older systems don’t communicate with each other and require lots of data management, which can quickly add up to a full-time job at many nonprofits. Save yourself a lot of headache by choosing a fully integrated system where all of your fundraising tools, mail/email campaigns, and donor records sync automatically or with minimal human interaction.”

Ryan Felps, president of StarChapter:

“Go beyond the basic needs and functionality. Does the software make goals of increased member participation and value more attainable? And don’t forget to consider what the next group of leaders will need for support. Successful board transition is the key to achieve a successful chapter so you need to make sure that the software you use offers tools that support this goal.”

Shiv Narayanan, head of marketing and sales at Wild Apricot:

“I think the number one issue facing membership organizations is the hassle of using multiple apps and programs to run their organization. They rarely fit together and take lots of time to run and coordinate. So, any software that you consider must be an all-in-one solution. It should be able to build a website, house a membership database, let members register for events, process payments, send out email blasts, and more – all under one roof. Also, I feel that nowadays just having software isn’t really enough to grow membership of an organization. I’ve found that many of our clients are comfortable using our software to create an event listing, but still need best practices, peer insights, and expert opinions, on how exactly to run a successful event. So, having a provider that offers free additional resources, like live expert webinars, how-to articles, and in-depth guides is a huge bonus.”

Membership software expert advice

What’s your advice?

We’d love to hear your two cents about the membership and nonprofit software shopping process. Leave a comment below!

Header by Abby Kahler

Looking for Nonprofit software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Nonprofit software solutions.

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About the Author

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Hannah S. Ostroff

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Hannah S. Ostroff is a writer for Capterra, a free resource that matches buyers and sellers of business software. A graduate of the College of William & Mary, she spends her free time cooking, singing, reading, and watching videos of baby animals.

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