How To Build a Membership Organisation Website On a Shoestring Budget

16 February 2017
Membership website on a budget

We frequently get approached by nonprofit membership organisations facing significant administrative challenges.  

If you are part of a membership charity, you may identify with the dream of an all-in-one system that will lighten the admin load, attracts new members, engages existing members through emails, events and resources and processes renewals efficiently.

For small membership organisations and charities these issues can be really challenging. It’s rarely as simple as it sounds.

This post explores the common challenges and offers solutions to help small membership organisations automate their processes to save time without spending lots of money on expensive and complicated software. Thankfully the range of simple to use and affordable web apps available continues to improve.

Why it often gets expensive

We hear a lot of frustration from membership organisations:

  • Why is it so complicated to get systems to talk to each other?
  • How do we avoid running multiple conflicting systems?
  • Why does it cost so much?

Here are a few reasons why it often gets complicated (and expensive).

Offline & online together

Many organisations have members who are still not comfortable with a fully online system. This means that any online system must also have the capacity for processing membership administration manually. Organisations happy to take the plunge and go entirely digital often have an easier ride.

Legacy accounting systems

Often membership organisations are not starting from a blank slate. It’s always painful to move accounting systems so change happens slowly. You may be running quite old software that cannot make the most of modern integrations.

Database lock-in

Similar to accounting systems, once you get all your membership info into a database system it can be very painful to move. This has been great for the old guard of software providers working with membership organisations because they’ve been able to continue making lots of money from old software and been insulated from the need to build cheaper, faster, more modern software. Other sectors have seen much more competition. Only now are you starting to see more start ups entering the sector and offering innovative solutions to membership organisations.

Website - database integration

The two really big systems to get right are the website (your main marketing tool) and your database / CRM (your people management tool). These two tools do very different tasks and historically have functioned in isolation. These days users expect to be able to carry out transaction tasks (like becoming a member) online and this demands more and more communication between these two systems.

Raised expectations

Email marketing tools like Mailchimp that focus on only one thing (in their case email marketing) have really raised people’s expectations about user friendly systems. Large scale all-in-one systems are often much harder to use because they are more complex.

Boiling down what membership organisations need to do

Based on the conversations we’ve had over the years and the needs of our clients, these are the common requirements:

  • Promote the benefits of membership
  • Accept applications
  • Process membership fees
  • Promote events
  • Email updates to members
  • Administer membership renewals
  • Provide access to restricted resources

In the next section we’ll describe how with a bit of lateral thinking it’s possible to tackle each of these requirements using mainstream software that is not solely focused on membership organisations and as a result is developed to a higher standard and available for dramatically lower cost.

Keeping it simple: tools and web apps for membership organisations

Assuming you have a modern and flexible website then all of the tools listed below should allow you to add quite powerful membership functionality without any development costs on the website itself. Often the real power comes from how easily these different applications connect to each other.

Applications & payment

Wufoo

Wufoo is a simple form building tool but it’s real power is that you can tie up these forms to a payment processing gateway and also use its range of integrations to pass the data submitted into other useful pieces of software.

Key strengths:

  • Applying for membership and paying initial subscription
  • Renewing membership and paying annual subscription

Notable integrations

  • Stripe
  • Chargify
  • Freshbooks

Best for:

  • Small membership organisations wanting to make it easy for people to sign up online but not afraid of a bit of manual admin to link up payments with people in a separate database (perhaps just a spreadsheet).

Chargify

Chargify is an online subscription management portal. It will manage all of the payment practicalities for monthly or yearly memberships. Users sign up and add a credit or debit card to a secure online portal where membership fees will be debited as they fall due. The system will automatically notify members if their card payments fail for some reason.

Key strengths:

  • Managing lots of different subscriptions automatically
  • Chargify integrates with a range of payment providers, accounting systems and databases.

Donorfy

Donorfy is a full fundraising database but it’s a pretty new entrant to the market. It has some great features that mean it can integrate with your existing website and be tweaked to support small membership organisations. While it doesn’t have comprehensive membership management functionality you can do a lot through two key features:

  • Recurring donations (can be used in place of membership fees)
  • Tags (used to categorise people’s membership status)

Notable integrations

  • JustGiving
  • Mailchimp
  • EventBrite

Best for:

  • Organisations that do lots of fundraising alongside running a small membership base.

Modern accounting systems

You may not have flexibility in this area but there are a bunch of reasons why it’s worth a look at the following two systems if you are an open minded small membership organisation.

Xero

Xero is a powerful accounting system used by business and charities across the globe, but particularly favoured by smaller organisations.

  • Useful for:
  • Ability to automate recurring invoices and facilitate online payment.
  • Automatically reconcile payments with invoices
  • Avoiding the challenges of integrating separate accounting and membership management systems.

Notable integrations:

  • Chargify
  • Stripe
  • Paypal

Freshbooks

Freshbooks is a similar modern accounting system to Xero but has an integration with Wufoo so the combination of Freshbooks and Wufoo is a great way to get to first base quickly when building an online membership management system.

Communication

Mailchimp

Mailchimp is a simple email marketing system that integrates easily with your website and other services. Most of our readers are already familiar with this system so we won’t go over the details again.

Google groups

For small membership organisations Google groups can be particularly powerful because of it’s integration across the whole suite of Google tools. You can set up a Google group to send automatic welcome emails and to automatically grant the new member access to a whole range of restricted resources, whether files or even websites (though note that the Google Sites system is one of the less well developed features in Google’s range of tools).

Useful for:

  • Managing group communication
  • Managing access to restricted resources

Conclusion

While there are undoubtedly cases where a larger and more specialised membership management system is appropriate, there are loads of resources for smaller organisations that want to start moving membership functions online without the cost and hassle of finding a dedicated membership management platform.

The key to success is to experiment with the systems we’ve listed (which all have free trials), try out the integrations and see if you can piece together a network of applications that achieve what you need. If you want any input from us feel free to get in touch.

Subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest tips straight to your inbox.