Membership Software Tiers: Where Do You Fit?

Membership Software Review of Tiers

In my opinion, we are stepping into 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 not to unlike how we segment membership software options. In this article, we provide a broad description of the various membership software programs Tier levels in order to help categorize your 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, Division IA Football Championship Subdivision, Division II, Division III, and even another authority called NAIA 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, Texas Christian University) that prides itself on having the best athletes. Division IA (eg. Sam Houston State, North Dakota Bison) resides directly underneath Division I. Division II is the middle child of the NCAA (Eg. Pittsburg State, 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 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. Membership Software

The products at this level are usually “All in One” entry-level packaged membership programs designed for small organizations 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 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. They 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 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.

There you have a quick summary of the various Tiers. Again, 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 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 team can beat a Division I team on any given Saturday! And, certainly a Division IA can beat a Division I (Hello Appalachian State vs. Michigan).

Knowing this, where do you fit? Don’t 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

Supercharge Engagement With Mobility in Membership Software

Engagement thru mobility with Membership Software

One of the things that bothers me sometimes is hearing the phrase, “We are a Nonprofit”. As if that fact somehow makes it ok not to conduct your operations like a business. Sorry, nonprofits everywhere, regardless of their size or mission, experience competition for the hearts and minds of members and donors. Naturally, then, the key question is this: what must nonprofits do in order to engage and grow their member and donor base? In this article, I discuss how winning the mobile moment with the use of membership software is so critical in order to achieve higher engagement and participation at your association.

Mobility in Membership Software 

Some time ago, I read an interview with John Graham, the President of the The Center for Association Leadership (ASAE) which sparked my thoughts here. In the interview, Mr. Graham states overtly that he believes the answer to engagement lies in mobile technology.

Per Mr. Graham, “Mobile changes the way members interact with your organization and how they access the information and resources they really want”.

I believe too that in order to engage your members, you must prepare to offer your members ways to collaborate, share, ideas, and educate themselves where they are at any given moment. I can’t tell you how many times I pull out my phone while waiting at a doctor’s appointment, standing in line at the grocery store, or at an airport. Your members are interacting this way too!

The New Normal of Membership Software

In the same interview, Graham urges nonprofit leaders to focus on mobile as “the new normal” for interacting with members—especially younger, potential members who have grown up using technology. The idea is that nonprofit membership organizations who invest in mobile first membership software to attract and retain members and donors, facilitate donations, will consistently help members to feel like they are part of their member family and more likely have a strong and lasting membership experience.

Association Executives purchasing software today have a key role to play in “Setting the tone” in the new normal of membership software. In other words, Executives need to demand nothing less than “always on technology” accessible anywhere, anytime, any place.

Looking Towards the Future of Membership 

Sustainability requires nonprofits to add members and donors continuously. Within that framework, two directions emerge for nonprofit leaders: strategies for expanding their current membership and donors of any age, and strategies that focus on building their future membership and donor base. The intense competition for members and donors—and the attendant barrage of messages that members receive—requires that nonprofits identify ways to keep and attract members and donors by, at the very least, keeping up with best practices and ultimately, finding ways to set themselves apart from their competition.

Mobile First Mentality with Membership Software 

Mobile technologies allow the individual to [proactively] seek the content they really want from the organization and not have it pushed to them. So your organization needs to be nimble and flexible enough to make it easy for the individual to seek content from you in a very efficient way. I believe that the use of mobile today is as much a game changer as any technology enhancement in the last 30 years. If you look at the world of computer sales compared to sales in mobile technology, the trend shows a steady drop in computer sales and a rising trend in mobile technologies.

Dues, Donations, & Orders Simplified with Membership Software Mobility

Donations, Dues, & Orders (transactional items) become simplified with mobile technologies. We all saw the impact of mobile technology on fundraising following the terrible earthquake in Haiti. Scrolling across TV screens across America was a number to text to make a donation. That successful foray into mobile crowdfunding was a foreshadowing of the future for the nonprofit world. Marrying mobile technologies and social media has repercussions for nonprofit sustainability, too.

Mobility and Social Media Integrated in Membership Software 

Younger people demand to access and share information about your organization easily. Marrying mobile technologies with social media empowers younger members and potential members to do so. Women, who currently overshadow men in the use of social media, are likely to easily integrate your messages into their online activities and forums which they participate in today. Engaged members can be your best advocates in marketing efforts. Without mobility, you are likely losing members.

The Next Step for Nonprofit Associations 

Graham points out, associations’ next step is to invest in “technology and messaging platforms.” He goes even further, saying: “they should at least be on the cutting edge if they want to remain relevant with their members,” and adding: “it’s critically important — especially for trade associations — to invest wisely in their messaging platforms.”

At SmartThoughts, we understand that winning the mobile moment is a significant investment. You want to get it right the first time. So, when exploring membership software today responsive design (or event adaptive design) needs to be a primary element present in all solutions today. And, if your nonprofit software does not have it, “Get Rid of It”!

With all the options available, it can be a challenge to find the right fit. Please contact us to see how we can assist you in making a smarter software decision.

Free CRM Membership Database Software Guide

The Architecture Decision in Nonprofit Software

Software for Nonprofit Organizations Discussion on Proprietary vs. Built Within

By now you know that there are so many nonprofit software options on the market today. So, when reviewing different software for nonprofits, a key starting point is narrowing down the field of options. One criteria which may help to do just that is making the distinction in what I refer to as “Built on Top of Software” vs. “Proprietary Operating Software”. In this article, I outline the nitty-gritty details on both options which may help you align appropriately your options.

The Architecture Decision In Nonprofit Software

I believe that most CIO’s (Chief Information Officers) would agree that it is imperative to discuss what constitutes success in terms of the technology architecture of your organization before embarking to find the “Best Fit”. And, in many regards the core software for nonprofit database will set the tone for the technology direction in most nonprofit organizations. In other words, your technology strategy is likely tied to the master database (whether it’s called CRM Software, Membership Software or Fundraising Software).

In terms of architecture options, the core database software may come in several architecture flavors; Open Source, Built on Top Software (Platform), and Proprietary Software (Closed Source). In a previous article, I went into the consideration with regards to “Open Source” architecture, so let’s carry on with the other two architecture philosophy’s and their respective approaches below.

Built on Top Software (Platform) for Nonprofits

Built on Top (BOT) Software, often referred to as Platform based software, is software that leverages an existing base platform to develop within the system customizations that address the needs of a specific vertical such as nonprofit organizations. For example, a software company will develop their code “within” existing platforms such as, NetSuite, Sage or Microsoft CRM.

In the Membership Management Software subvertical examples would be Fonteva, NimbleAMS, ProTech, & Altai.

And, in the Donor Centric subvertical examples of Donor Database or Fundraising Software would be Patron ManagerLuminate CRM, & Causeview.

Pros of Built on Top Software (Platform Based)

  • Proven platform that typically provides a robust foundation of features. Eg. Customer Relationship Management (CRM), integration with many popular solutions such as native integration to Outlook, Gmail, or Microsoft Productivity applications.
  • Ecosystem with many add-on solutions available for particular needs or challenges, potentially minimizing development time.  Ex. App store, User groups, 3rd party integrations, etc. This is a big advantage which can’t be overstated today. In fact, in my opinion, it is the reason I personally don’t have a Microsoft phone anymore (despite it being free). I enjoyed the Microsoft Phone but it didn’t have all of the platform benefits of an Apple or Android ecosystem. This is a good argument for platform choices in the membership and donor database circles.
  • Massive technical support capabilities. In short, with a large platform provider you will have a much larger pool of developers which understand the underlying architecture and can help address issues. It’s easier to learn the industry than the underlying platform it’s written within.
  • Some proponents purport that larger platform providers have fewer bugs due to the large pool of developers and clients testing, reviewing, and resolving issues.
  • With platform options like Microsoft,, & NetSuite etc., there is simply much more money to spend on continually updating the system. I encourage you to check out the financials for Microsoft and Each spent millions and millions on improving the platform of each respectively. This is disproportionate advantage in the R&D area.
  • The mere agility of the platform to continually be driven to incorporate more mainstream features will ensure that the platform will accommodate the needs of parties who use it. The point here is extensibility, security, scalability and innovation along with industry uniqueness.

Cons of Built on Top Software (Platform Based)

  • Many pundits of proprietary software make the claim that “Built On Top” platforms offer limited flexibility to develop outside the constraints of the underlying static platform. In other words, there are governors placed on what a provider can and cannot do within the confines of their license agreements alone.
  • Software licensing also tends to escalate the software costs (typically there is a cost associated with each user license). Many platform providers provide NP discounts but still something to factor in.
  • Software platform at the core not specific to a specific industry (e.g. nonprofits), instead trying to meet the needs of many verticals without largely focusing on any single one which inherently makes for less focused features.
  • With this arrangement, platform providers may have fewer capabilities to address technical issues with their product due to the fact they must work with a third-party (eg. Microsoft CRM). Therefore, finger-pointing of issues and technical support leverage may be reduced as the platform serves many, versus just one, companies.

Proprietary Operating Software for Nonprofit Technology

Proprietary Software, also known as Closed Source Software, is software that is developed and owned by a single person or company (typically the one that developed it). Usage of the software is largely, if not solely, limited to a certain company or group of individuals, and its source code is kept confidential for competitive reasons.

Examples of Proprietary Software solutions found in the membership subvertical of nonprofits would be Abila, Noah, iMIS, & Impexium to name several. The majority of solutions on our membership management software list are Proprietary Software solutions.

Examples of the Proprietary Software solutions found in the donor database and fundraising subvertical of nonprofit software would be Blackbaud, Boomerang, NeonCRM or The DataBank CRM.

Pros of Proprietary Software

  • Developed entirely for a specific subvertical (e.g. software for associations, museums, theatres, charities type of non-profit organizations), resulting in increased focus on industry nuances.
  • Proprietary Software is usually “right” fitted to the needs of the nonprofit market. Eg. Many nonprofits place a high value on having all of their staff using one main database (an all in one). They simply don’t need specific and focused features to perform their mission well.
  • While merely a rule of thumb with regards to software for nonprofits, proprietary systems tend to be lower-priced than the alternative.
  • Allows the ability for Nonprofits to work with only a single vendor for both development and support of the software solution.
  • Greater control over features and options that are developed specifically for the industry from the ground up all the way to continual updates from the community.
  • No license constraints (unlimited users may leverage the platform with purchase of the software).
  • Technical development support is immersed in one code base, resulting in increased leverage and opportunity to make changes as needed to everything in its control.
  • In most cases, there are usually a much larger pool of customers (thousands vs. hundreds in some cases) who use the more prevalent proprietary operating systems which have been around for years in the market. This translates into a tried and true customer base to gain feedback.

Cons of Proprietary Software

  • Smaller group of product developers may result in a slower speed to market for new and cutting edge features (such as innovative CRM or Marketing features).
  • Due to being closed software, it tends to be more difficult to bring in support replacements who “already know” the platform. In other words, it is harder to fill the shoes of others who leave due to the uniqueness of the solution. Smaller proprietary software players must get support professionals who often times must be trained on the lesser known proprietary software.
  • To piggyback on this point, “Top Talent” are often drawn to larger software platform providers because of the ability to have skills which are transferred more easily to other job opportunities. The argument is that impacts ability for proprietary providers to keep up.
  • Further, there tends to be a “Sole dependency” on a relatively smaller single vendor for ongoing support, upgrades, and software product vision.
  • Wrapping up all of this, is the mere fact that the “Ecosystem” is limited. Smaller pool of 3rd party software providers & customers may limit “Add On” development partners from making the investment to build innovative solutions. Therefore, it may be more difficult to find “Hot” new applications available in the larger commercial market.

For the record, the pros and cons outlined above are not coming from a prejudice or bias on my part. Rather, pulling together insights from others and years of experience in the software industry. To be clear, I believe that both can and do offer solid options for the right nonprofit organization which has been “fitted” correctly.

The key is determining what is the right fit for your organization. Ultimately, the decision on which type of software architecture is right will depend on the specific organization’s strategy, size, budget, functionality, support requirements, usability and need for flexibility. In other words, all the normal and customary areas of alignment. But, it’s important to realize the merits and demerits of each options. And, ultimately “Buy Into” one or the other approach as you concentrate on your current needs now and long-term with regards to database options.

In any software search, there are important and often difficult decisions to make. True, it’s never one thing which determines the correct path for an organization. The platform decision is one of those tough decisions an organization should make early on in the evaluation process. No doubt, this one decision will aid in narrowing down your list of software options.

Our strength is helping you make sense in the cloud of marketing noise. We can become a part of your team in your search process. And, we can help advise you on the best fit for your nonprofit’s needs; please contact us to learn more. Until next time, please keep SmartThoughts in mind.

Articles of Interest related to this topic:

  • Don’t Build Products. Build Platforms.  by Phil Simon, Inc. Magazine.
  • Is the AMS Dead? Chad Stewart, SmartThoughts Blog