Every association department competes against yours for limited funds you need to purchase new technology. If your membership department (and association) requires a new membership management system, you must build a business case to justify allocating money and staff time to select and implement new membership software.
Examine your software’s checkered past.
Before developing a case for new membership management software, take time to understand the history behind your existing system. If you weren’t around back then, find out who was involved in its selection and implementation.
- Who drove the project?
- Who approved the budget?
- Who was involved in its selection? Who made the final decision?
- Who was involved in its implementation?
- Which departments should have been involved, but weren’t?
Hunt down the original request for proposal (RFP) and any other requirements documentation. If you can’t find these documents (or they never existed), talk to those involved in the selection process about their expectations and reasons for selecting the current system. Make sure you include the IT staff in these discussions. Find out to what extent the system has met the original requirements.
You also want to get answers to these questions:
- Did your association implement all the desired functionality at the start, or did it implement functionality in phases?
- Did everything go as planned? If some functionality never did get implemented, find out why.
- Was the system customized before implementation? Looking back, was this customization necessary or was there another way to address those issues?
Learn how the system evolved over the years.
- Has your association taken advantage of all available upgrades? If not, why?
- Have any customizations (or fixes) been done since implementation? If so, why and by whom?
Assess your relationship with the system developer and other vendor partners.
- Are you receiving the level of support you desire?
- How responsive are they to requests for bug fixes or new functionality?
- Are they providing sufficient training for new and veteran users? For example, do they have a user conference, user group and online resources?
And finally, evaluate whether the system has been able to evolve with your association’s changing needs. Where is it falling short?
Study your software’s impact on association staff.
Now that you have a sense of the system’s past, it’s time to dig into the present by talking to system users and should-be users. For practice, start with your own department.
- How does the existing system hinder you and your colleagues from achieving departmental goals and the association’s strategic goals?
- What regularly causes frustration when using the system?
- What do you and your colleagues wish the system could do, but doesn’t?
- What actions can’t you take because of the system’s limitations?
- What questions does your department have about members, prospects and customers that can’t be answered due to the system’s limitations?
Ask these same questions to the system’s regular users. Talk to them also about the times they enter data or create workarounds because the system doesn’t have the functionality they need.
- What processes would they like to automate or streamline?
- What reports would they find useful?
- How could technology free up their time so they can spend more time on more strategic or useful work?
Later, when presenting your business case, numbers will make an impact on listeners. Ask staff to translate their experiences into data you can share. For example:
- How much extra time does it take to run a process because of system limitations? How many times does this happen per week/month?
- How many errors are made per week/month due to system issues? How much time does it take to fix those errors?
Now, think about departments or staff who could be using the system, but aren’t. Talk to them about why they don’t use the system. What are the consequences of them choosing not to use the system and/or choosing to use another system? How does that impact members, staff or association goals?
Assess inefficiencies and problems caused by your software.
General lamenting about a system isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But, you will change minds if you document system issues and accompany documentation with data and scenarios illustrating issues in these five areas:
- Loss of staff time. Emphasize areas related to strategic goals.
- Data integrity issues.
- Reporting limitations.
- Integration issues.
- Impact on staff morale.
- System adoption rate.
- Effect on departmental collaboration/cooperation.
- Data security issues.
- Compliance issues.
- Lost staff time translated into dollars and budget percentages.
- Overtime or temporary staff costs for data entry or other tasks.
- Money spent on fixes, workarounds and issues related to the system’s age and/or limitations.
- Unknowns due to missing data or reporting limitations.
- Projects put off because of system limitations.
- Decisions not made or made with insufficient information.
- Opportunities missed.
- Existing technology’s impact on ability to attract staff talent.
- Ability to respond to new market needs.
- Competitive posture.
Be ready to provide examples about the system’s shortcomings in these five areas, and back up your argument with supporting data in the appendix of your business case.
Learn about possible solutions from other associations.
After painting such a dark picture of your existing situation, you want to offer possible solutions to decision-makers. Look to your professional community for advice. Many people in your position have gone down this same path and would love to share their experience with you. And, believe it or not, many membership professionals like their database. These are the folks you want to contact so you can find out how they ended up in such an enviable position.
Search ASAE or state SAE online forums for discussions about association management software (AMS) selection initiated by association staff in comparable situations and associations—the same type of membership structure, staff size and/or budget. Ask your professional network, using LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and/or emails, to see if anyone knows someone who’s been through a recent AMS implementation. Check out reviews found online.
Once you’ve developed a short-list of vendors, ask them for introductions to association clients with some of the same needs as yours. Ask other technology professionals (vendors and consultants) about solutions they would recommend and issues you should consider.
When you talk to staff at other associations, tell them about your situation. Find out if they can do what you wish you could. Ask specific questions about functionality. Talk about the time involved for implementation and any unexpected costs.
And here’s a pro tip: Find out where your decision-maker’s peers work. For example, if your CEO has a good friend at an association like yours, see if you can get any good advice (or arguments for change) from your counterpart at the association. Let’s hope your CEO wants to “keep up with the Joneses.”
And here’s a pro tip: Find out where your decision-maker’s peers work.
Build a convincing business case for new software.
After you’ve gathered all the information you need, it’s time to build your business case for new membership software.
Describe the risks and challenges for staying with the status quo, including the impact on staff productivity (and, therefore, the budget), technical inefficiencies and risks, missed opportunities, and limitations the existing software imposes on your association’s ability to deliver value to members and achieve its goals.
When you explain the benefits of moving to a new solution, speak to the concerns of the decision-makers, and speak in their language. The CFO may want to know how this change will impact the bottom line. While others on the executive team may be more interested in how new software will help increase member engagement or improve decision-making. Focus on the impact of a new solution, not so much the functionality, unless you can tie it directly to an operational or strategic goal.
Let the decision-makers know whom you consulted to prepare your presentation. Identify the members of the selection team and describe the vendor selection process and the criteria the team will use to decide.
Discuss the budget in the context of the expected ROI of a new system. Allude to the data you’ve collected in the appendix of your business case to back up your argument for making a switch. Refer to case studies of associations like yours that overcame similar challenges by investing in a new database.
Discuss the timeline and basic implementation plan, including your change management strategy and the project’s impact on operations.
Finally, have someone with a good eye for detail, as well as the strategic big picture, review your oral and written presentation. If you can’t convince this audience, buttress your argument with more impact statements and data.
Focus on the impact of a new solution, not so much the functionality, unless you can tie it directly to an operational or strategic goal.
Now, you’re on your way to a happy new year.