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Association Management Software Tiers: Where Do You Fit?

Updated: May 3, 2021

Membership Software Review of Tiers

In my opinion, the fall season is the best time of the year. And, College Football is one of the reasons for making it so special!

This time of the year made me think about how the various divisions of College Football are similar to how we segment membership software options. In this article, we provide a broad description of the various membership software programs into various tier levels in order to help categorize the options in the membership software search.  

In addition, introduce a full comparison report to download for Nonprofit Executives.

Tiers, Levels, and Divisions of Membership Software

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the organization that is responsible for almost all inter-collegiate athletic competition. For some of you not as familiar with College Football, there are quite a few divisions, tiers, & levels which differentiate who plays who set by the NCAA. Now, without going into too much detail, there is Division I FBS, Division IA (FCS) Football Championship Subdivision, NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, and even another college authority called NAIA for the smallest colleges with their own segments.

Within the NCAA, Division I is the big leagues of college athletics. It is a heavily funded, scholarship dense, and usually publicly well-known organization (eg. Alabama, Notre Dame, Clemson, & Oklahoma) that prides itself on having the best athletes. 

Division IA FCS (eg. Delaware, Sam Houston State, North Dakota State Bison) resides directly underneath Division I. Division II is the middle child of the NCAA (Eg. Pittsburg State, West Texas A&M, Northwest Missouri State). 

Division III (eg. University of Wisconsin–Whitewater or Mount Union Purple Raiders) is the lowest division that falls under the NCAA. It is considered by most people to be the most relaxed competitive experience of the three divisions, with a focus on the student aspect of a student-athlete.

What the heck does this have to do with Membership Software?

Well, just like College Football, it’s often helpful to categorize the hundreds of membership database software platforms into their respective segments. This is done in our effort to properly narrow down the software options. And, ultimately help align our association executive clients with the best suited fit from the various membership software options.

Now, before going into the descriptions. It’s important to note that the following are “rules of thumb” and like almost everything in life and especially software, there is nothing etched in stone. Rather, just a basis to put some sanity around the process of narrowing down the field of players. With that said, here we go:

Tier III. AMS Membership Software

The products at this level are usually “All in One” entry-level packaged membership programs designed for small organizations (less than 2.5 million in operating budget) who need an integrated membership program to manage all facets of the organization. They tend to satisfy many with limited budgets. In most cases they have good enough out of the box membership management capabilities (Database, WebSite, Communications etc.). However, in this category, you will likely experience a feeling of living “In A Software Box”.

Today, almost all Tier III systems are Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions. In other words, they are cloud hosted online membership software services. These work very well for most small state and local associations. And, they do not require hardware, network costs, and usually charge for a license based on a very attractive monthly subscription fee (which includes start up costs). Your staff and members will access it via a web browser.

Tier III databases are a category above what we refer to as “Micro Membership Software” packaged programs designed for volunteer led organizations up to roughly 3 on staff. And, usually find a good match in organizations with more than 5 staff (sweet spot is in about the 6-15 staff range).

While the Tier III database software options can and do provide strong value propositions, you are living in the confines of the walls provided with limited capabilities in features areas such as accounting, customizing of the system, and/or advanced reporting. Further, an open API is usually limited to pulling data in rather than accepting back into the database.

Tier II. Membership Software 

If you think of the College Football analogy above, these software programs would likely be more like Division IA Football Championship Subdivision teams. Again, in a broad stroke, they tend to open up and become more configurable, and have features required for mid-sized associations & membership operations. You tend to see richer CRM features, activity tracking and reporting capabilities.

Tier II options include advanced searching capabilities, along with a broad array of pre-designed reports. They tend to have some additional features to facilitate a more advanced use cases such as conference management abilities.

Professional Services (paid consulting engagements) are required for training and setup costs. The lines become a bit blurry in terms of functionality in the middle of the pack solutions in contrast to the Tier I brethren but more pronounced than Tier III. An open API is more open here which allows for 3rd party integrations to extend in needs required. Oddly enough, they drop some of the “all in one” aspects of the Tier III solutions and take a more “best of need” approach to solving more sophisticated needs (eg. Many do not provide a proprietary Content Management solution). Thus, are more expensive.

Tier I. Enterprise Membership Software 

These are the Division I notables. These legacy programs tend to have all the elements previously mentioned but they tend to include a broader array of information capture and data management capabilities, as well as more comprehensive tracking and analysis for specialized membership & development operations.

Most of the programs in this range offer an assortment of equally comprehensive add-on modules (generally for an additional cost) to address specialized needs like advocacy, learning management systems, volunteer management, special event management or social advanced networking community features.

At this price range you will find fully customized capable, proprietary systems or built on top of platform solutions for large national institutions or organizations. These membership platforms are designed to work with large communities of members, often in multiple geographic sites, that can manage massive amounts of data. These solutions often have very advanced functionality in CRM, data Mining, integrations, & customization capabilities.

These membership systems tend to integrate directly with other specialized systems used at the organization or institution. Again, they all require a consultant to install. There are usually many options for support partners including many professional service firms which specialize in one or more solutions.

Final Thoughts on Tier Levels

I can’t stress enough that these are very general descriptions and simply should be used as a frame of reference. But, hopefully you get the point.

In order to make sense of all the AMS software options, it’s important to narrow down the list to the best possible options based on your needs and requirements. No doubt, not everyone falls into a nice little box.

Remember, even a Division II college team can beat a FCS Division I team on any given Saturday! And, certainly a Division IA FCS can beat a Division I FBS (Hello Appalachian State vs. Michigan).

Knowing this, it's important to figure out where you fit before spending time on the wrong field! You don’t want to waste time playing in the wrong division!

Give us a call and we can help you narrow down the CRM Membership software options. Until next time, keep SmartThoughts in mind.

Nonprofit Executives: For even more granular details on the various Tier Levels, please request our full comparison report with valuable details including specific software examples by clicking below.

Membership Software Comparisons of Tier Levels


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