• Photo of Gretchen Steenstra
    Gretchen Steenstra
  • Photo of Ata Akhlaghi
    Ata Akhlaghi

A common question that surfaces when we’re working with clients on system selection projects is whether they need an association management system (AMS) or an enterprise-level customer relationship management (CRM) system to serve as a critical element in their business system ecosystem. With the growth of enterprise CRM systems and related applications, some associations are finding enterprise CRM solutions as a viable alternative to an AMS. 

While there are advantages to using an enterprise CRM platform instead of an AMS, there are good reasons why your organization may need an AMS. So, as you go into AMS Fest, here are some tips to consider as you deliberate on the right system for your organization.  

What is the Difference Between AMSs and Enterprise-Level CRM Platforms? 

Enterprise-level CRM platforms and AMSs have comparable functionality when it comes to tracking standard customer data and allowing organizations to manage customer profiles. The difference between the two lies in what else they bring to the table.  

An AMS is tailored specifically to the unique set of needs common to associations and nonprofits. For example, most associations’ business revolves around a core member base. That business model presents a unique set of business requirements that AMSs have specifically been designed to satisfy. As a result, while there are differences in each AMS, most will have the modules to handle the common functions found within associations, which includes general CRM functionality. 

Enterprise CRM solutions provide greater functionality in managing customer information like allowing you to track the full journey from the recruitment of new organizations or individuals to interactions. They also have options to integrate with specialized systems such as an event management system or product management system to provide further functionality as needed. 

How Do I Figure Out Which One I Need? 

Figuring out which route you should take may seem daunting, but it really comes down to matching your needs with the capabilities offered by each type of solution. To do that you need to identify your organization’s functions and learn about the offerings in the market. Once you know your must-haves, you’ll be able to eliminate any options that don’t have the capabilities to meet your needs.  

For instance, many associations need to handle memberships or committees, or provide services related to education, events, and product sales. For those needs, an AMS is a great tool to include in your business ecosystem. However, it may not be practical to implement an AMS with very specialized capabilities if your organization doesn’t have many of the usual functions.  

We’re also seeing many organizations move toward more distributed ecosystems that include an enterprise CRM and a collection of specialized software to support their organization. In this model, the association technical team is responsible for defining and managing the collection of systems. This gives them the benefit of a wider variety of features and support for their ecosystem.  

That being said, there are CRM/AMS blends that use an enterprise CRM platform as the base with proprietary AMS apps designed to function on that platform. This type of solution is developed by a vendor that includes both the core CRM functions as well as ‘classic’ AMS functionality. Essentially, these blended systems try to provide all the benefits of the enterprise CRM platforms with the functionality required by associations.  

However, as they are proprietary systems built and provided by specific vendors, you find yourself dealing with some of the same limitations as the typical, pure-bred AMSs. You will only be able to receive support from that vendor and a smaller set of specialists who work with that system as you grow and evolve.  

We’ve created a chart to capture these differences and help you compare the options available to your organization.  


As you can see, there are many ways to establish the business ecosystem to support your organization’s needs. You can achieve similar functionality with each path. The key is to identify the best path for your particular organization.  

How Do I Make the Right Decision For My Organization? 

You should make sure you’ve started to have conversations internally about what aspects of your organization’s business aren’t adequately supported by your current system. You need to have a clear idea about wha’s working well with your current system and what’s not. Ask yourself the following questions:  

  • What are the goals and initiatives of your organization? 
  • What are the functions of your organization? 
  • How does your current system support those functions?  
  • What are the needs of your customers and members?  
  • What aspects of your current system have you been happy with and where have you had to develop workarounds? 

After understanding what you need, you can look at what’s available in the market. As you look at your options, it can be overwhelming. But remember to focus on the goals and criteria for a new solution. A few wow features can be an added bonus, but those shouldn’t lead the selection criteria. As you align the needs of the member, organization and business areas, a few contenders will rise to the top of the list.  

We’ve helped many organizations through their selection journey, and we’d be happy to discuss how we can be of value to you and your organization. If you have any questions or want to learn more about system selection, feel free to reach out! In the meantime, check out these additional resources, including some quick tips on the system selection process.


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