Thoughts on technology and innovation
Sig VanDamme, Founder
With an in-house developer, there is always the temptation for an association to build a custom Association Management System (AMS). This temptation has grown stronger with the advent of powerful declarative development platforms, such as Salesforce and Force.com, that can empower the business analyst-turned-developer to try his/her hand at building software to run their association.
However, experience and observation show it is usually far better, cheaper and faster to buy than to build. After all, if a problem has been adequately solved in a commercial product, why solve it again? Why not focus on a new and more interesting problem?
Before Rolling Out Your Own Association Management Software Ask Yourself These 6 Critical Questions:
#1 - Look Inward. Do You Have the Resources?
Software development is not easy - it is both an art and a craft. You should honestly assess your resources before heading down a potentially disastrous path.
How Deep Is Your Team? Your association may have a developer or two, but does it have a product manager, product owner, business analyst, release engineer, scrum manager, quality assurance engineer, technical writers, and the myriad of other critical roles that are necessary to create, launch, deploy and support a piece of software that is central to the success of your organization?
Do You Have the Right Tools? How about tools? Does your association have load testing tools to measure and optimize performance? How about tools to look for security issues? These are expensive tools that typically require specialized knowledge to operate.
Note on Outsourcing: There are plenty of outsourcing organizations that would be glad to help your association with providing resources and/or tools. Unfortunately, these firms do not have the association specific subject matter expertise that is required to develop an AMS. Sure, members of your team could provide some/all of the expertise required, but it would be more than a full time job to adequately document and detail all of the nuances of this effort. At NimbleUser, we have a 5-person product management team that works full time day in and day out researching and building requirements for our team.
#2 - Do You Have The Vision?
When custom-built, software is built once to meet a current need without the vision for what your organization may face in the future. With established AMS software, you get the benefit of decades of experience with deep knowledge of associations and software development best practices and comprehension of scalability, security, platform idiosyncrasies and even mastering things like storage usage.
#3 - Do You Have The Time?
Building a custom AMS can take years to complete. Even with our large, dedicated team, Nimble AMS took 6 years and tens of thousands of hours to develop. We had the huge advantage of being built on the Salesforce platform which freed us from having to develop our own proprietary infrastructure.
Be realistic - can you wait 3 years? 5 years? Even if it could be completed in a year or two, could your association wait that long? And, remember, by the time you are done, the commercial AMS’s will be that much farther ahead.
#4 - Who Will Monitor and Maintain the Software?
Once this software is complete, who will be there to maintain and enhance it long term? Remember you are now running software that only one organization - yours - is using. It will be up to your association to keep it running and, perhaps just as importantly, enhance it to meet unforeseen new requirements. Do you want IT to have a strategic role or that of break-fix?
#5 - What Will it Cost?
Do a deep dive on the actual cost. Perhaps you have 3 developers with a fully loaded salary of $90,000 - that is $270,000/year and it will likely take multiple years to build and launch. If it took 2 years to launch (very optimistic), labor alone would be $540,000. Now factor in tools, training, the likely need to involve other staff labor for requirements, testing, documentation and the INITIAL development cost could easily be north of a million dollars. That is likely significantly more than a modern AMS, and the features and functionality will be far behind what they offer today.
#6 - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
A lot. Your developer(s) could quit. It could take way longer and cost much more than expected. It could not work correctly or at all. If (more likely when) this happens, the board will call you to the table and probably ask you the first 5 questions of this blog. You could get fired. Given how critical the AMS function is, you could also have a negative effect on the mission of your organization.
This could be a RCE (Resume Creating Event) for you personally
Why Build When You Can Buy?
The major reason for taking on the huge undertaking of customer developing software is that there is no existing package that meets your association’s requirements. In today’s market, this is simply not the case.
If your organization has a unique need not offered by a commercial AMS, customize a point solution for that need versus taking on the gargantuan task of building an AMS from the ground up.
At the enterprise level, there may be some requirements that are not met in an ‘out of the box’ fashion but there are extension points that are available to meet a custom need. A classic example we see is when a customer has a very complex or non-standard dues structure. Nimble AMS has very elaborate and flexible dues setup options. That being said, these options may not meet virtually every association's needs. For those edge cases, we offer the ability to call a custom set of code to model the required needs. This is, indeed, customization and it does cost the customer more to have this coded but that cost pales in comparison to writing an entire AMS for a few edge case requirements.
Is a Franken-AMS an Option?
With the advent of enterprise platforms like Salesforce that feature an app-store with thousands of apps, associations may be tempted roll their own AMS by amalgamating a bunch of apps. For example, payment processor applications, subscription management applications, donation applications and events registration applications are all available on the Salesforce AppExchange. This is not a viable solution because it results in a disparate set of systems that don’t really work together in any cohesive way and will cause staff and member confusion.
A CRM, event registration app and credit card form processor doth not an AMS Make.
For example, if a member wants to register for a conference and make a donation - how would that get accomplished? Where would the money go? What if the event registration income needs to be deferred? You get the picture.
The Franken-AMS is just that - a monster.
Look Before You Leap
Before heading down the custom path, it is worth taking a look at the new modern AMS solutions on the market first. Better yet, engage an experienced association technology consultant to help. These firms are experts at this and can point you to a solution that will help you move your organization’s technology in the right direction.
This will enable your association to focus on its mission (what it does best) and the AMS Partner to focus on building the best association software (what they do best).