How to Maximize your Association’s Information Systems

You make it an annual habit to review other business systems, be sure to add your tech to the list.

By Paul Plasterer

Bussiness man using technology on tablet

The start of the calendar year is a good time to review your business and what is needed to achieve the association’s goals for the next year. This process generally includes reviewing by-laws, financial updates, and personnel reviews, but often leaves out one key part of any association or non-profit community: information systems.

Adding information systems to your review process can help maximize the association’s IT spend and may lead to a more efficient and focused service offering.

In order to spend less time and money on managing a complex web of applications, services, and platforms, take the opportunity at the beginning of the calendar year to analyze your association information systems.

10 Recommended Steps to Maximize Association Technology:

1. Annual Review

Annual IT reviews are similar to an annual employee review or a financial audit. Take stock in what is there, what is missing, and develop a plan to bridge the gap and increase opportunities for growth.  This may also be an opportunity to ask yourself what you don’t need anymore. Is there an opportunity to streamline and save money?

2. Business Goals

The business needs of the association may change. While personnel can be redeployed, trained, or transitioned into other roles, technology is more or less static. It works, it doesn’t work, or it comes somewhere in the middle.

First align the technology with the association’s business goals. Knowing how well it works helps in deciding whether to keep using it or go to market for a different solution.

Even for SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) applications, the application does not change nearly as quickly as the business needs of an association. Running an annual review of the association’s IT sets the baseline for reviewing and possibly changing to better match the business needs of the program or overall association mission.

3. IT Inventory

Each application should be tracked in a table with the following components:

  • Cost – include licensing, support, hosting or other additional costs. Can be separated into annual/recurring costs and one-time costs.
  • Business Use – the key departments or programs that depend on the application: events, marketing, membership, industry information, government relations, communications, and so on.
  • Personnel – association staff who manage the application or know the most about it. Include backup personnel as well.
  • Log In information – the links to get into the system.
  • Integrations – the connections with other applications, servers, and databases.
  • Length of Contract – knowing how long the contact is in place helps to determine when to review the applications performance.
  • Support – understand the support process, including how to contact the vendor, how issues are tracked, resolved, and so on.
  • Documentation – documents, workflows, or training for how to use the system. If this is only in the memory of those who use the systems(s), this knowledge will leave when they do.
  • Vendor Contact Info – the key personnel to contact for each application: sales, account management, customer delivery, consultants, and so on.
  • Vendor Value Prop – what is the main value the vendor provides to your association by the use of their software. If they are not able to articulate this, then define it based on how the application should be used.

Software vendors should justify their spend with your organization each year. Whether it is in defining the value proposition – what you get for what you pay, or in engaging with you as the customer, vendors who pay attention to their customers retain their customers.

4. TCO – Total Cost of Ownership

The total cost of ownership for technology is the basic application cost combined with all of the ways in which the technology platform are used.

Applications can have hidden fees; software companies often require add-ons, support agreements, percentages of transactions run through their system, seat licenses, and a whole range of other costs. These, plus the need for third party services can significantly increase the basic cost of the software.

What often appears to be a simple annual bill may in fact be much larger once you’ve had a chance to review its full costs. For example, many systems take a percentage of the financial transactions run through the application. Is this revenue number known? Both as a percentage and as a full amount?

5. Hidden Costs

How much time is needed to a maintain and support an application is often unknown. Applications require significant labor time to manage, update, and configure. Valuable staff time can be spent on duplicative tasks, especially when comes to maintaining member records.

  • Member Records

For example, there may be an email system within the AMS, however the staff prefers to use Outlook or other applications to get the job done. This adds time and cost and may create additional problems with member records down the line.

Manual processes can take up considerable time; a workaround may solve a temporary problem however these can lead to additional unforeseen costs and inefficiencies. Spreadsheets and email distribution lists may provide a degree of flexibility, however depending on too many manual interventions can greatly add to inefficiencies and labor costs.

  • Integrations are another hidden cost.

Systems need to communicate with each other. Whether it’s an SSO, API, or a custom application, knowing how all these parts work together can make for a better member experience and helps to reduce cost and staff time.

Connection’s break, updates happen that can interrupt service and connections, and before the association has a challenge, make sure to detail how each application works with the corresponding connection/integration.

Application Examples

Now that we’ve covered the general concepts of reviewing the performance and cost of the key information systems, listed below are some application specific recommendations for your association’s annual IT review:

6. Standard Business Software

Office systems are no different from association-specific technology. Whether your group is using MS Office, Google, Office 365, custom applications, SharePoint, and so on, understanding the cost and  hidden inefficiencies is an important task. Transitioning internal systems takes time and how the existing systems are used, and what these cost, should be planned out in detail before pulling the trigger.

Accounting systems like QBO, Sage, Dynamics, Great Plains, and so on require a greater deal of coordination. Make sure to include these in the annual review, even if it’s unlikely that these systems change.

7. Communication and Social Media software

The rapid increase in choices to keep members and staff connected virtually comes with its own pros and challenges.

One small example is in video conferencing licenses. Understanding how many Zoom, GoTo Webinar, WebEx licenses are needed, and how all these systems work with your existing AMS, LMS, CMS platforms is a task in itself.

Add in Teams, Skype, Slack and outward facing social media apps (WhatsApp, Instagram, FB, Twitter, LinkedIn) and the annual review becomes even more challenging. Keep track of the contracts, log ins, personnel who manage it, uses, and other key considerations to better manage these ever-expanding options. Just because it may appear ‘free’ doesn’t mean it’s free.

8. AMS

Association Management Systems (AMS) are the key database that makes an association run. As these are often the most complex and costly systems, it’s important to run these systems through an annual review for cost, performance, and skill gap assessments. If the person tasked with managing this system leaves or takes on another role, is the association prepared to back up the application and its core business processes?

9. LMS

Learning Management Systems (LMS) are a key revenue source and can greatly enhance the association. If the education or marketing role changes, can these systems keep up with the change, or is something else required to keep these up to date? The LMS connects to many core parts of an association and are often challenging to change on the fly.

10. CMS and Event Software

Content Management Software (CMS) and Event applications are a whole other level of complexity.

These often require specialized skill sets and require a fair amount of set up, maintenance, and planning to get the most out of the application. As the association looks to a new calendar year, its best to get started on reviewing the applications that make the online presence or event really work.

Take the time in advance to optimize these systems to enhance the member experience and drive the right mix of marketing and revenue generation. Websites and event platforms may need significant lead time to enhance or adapt before being put to use.

Next Steps

If an annual review is too much, take the key applications, such as an event app through a targeted exercise. Is it sufficient for what the association needs, or does the team need to go to market to find another solution?

If the association is stuck with an application for a longer time, say 3 to 5 years, start this process early to reduce the chance of depending on an out-of-date application when it comes time to renew.

Now is a great time to reflect on the previous year and plan for success in the new calendar year. Reviewing where the association’s technology is and where you would like to be as a business takes some planning and time but is well worth it. Start with the IT Inventory and Good Luck!

About the Author

Paul Plasterer is a Strategic Consultant at Starkweather Association Services and a member of Association Forum's Content Working Group. |

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