Managing Data at an Association is NOT the Same as For-Profit Businesses

One of the more common lamentations I hear from my association clients is that associations need to manage their database and website more like a for-profit business. This is often characterized as: “We should be more like Amazon!”

Setting aside the issue of Amazon’s budget (in the billions) and profitability (very often not at all!) I sympathize with this perspective. I’ve written about it in the past. (See here, here, and here for just a few examples.)

But there’s something to keep in mind when associations compare their operations to other for-profit entities: very few for-profit businesses manage as broad an array of data as a typical association does. And it’s this broad array of data that makes managing association data particularly challenging, especially compared to most for-profits.

Consider the following:

A “typical” association will track an array of data, including membership, event registration, committee service, product sales, exhibit sales, and sponsorship. Associations may also track CEUs, certification programs, grants, and a wide variety of non-transactional activities as well. I’ve worked with associations as small as three staff that were managing all this data and more.

On the other hand, a typical small business will track things like customers, potential customers, products and services ordered. Even a large company like Amazon tracks only a very narrow set of data like membership, product sales, and inventory. That’s not nearly the number of data channels that a typical association will manage.

Charting it out looks like this:

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 8.24.12 AM

Associations may handle far less total data, but they handle far more different types of transactions. And an increase in the types of transactions means that there are more processes that must be designed and used. For example, the process for managing data for an exhibit order is different than the process for handling a membership join or renewal. By contrast, most for-profits are focused on only a few processes.

This doesn’t mean associations should lower their standards or not expect to manage data as well as for-profits. What this means for associations is that they must be very diligent about designing and documenting their processes, and ensuring that staff are adequately trained to manage these processes.

Many associations can and do manage their data effectively and successfully. But comparing your data management effectiveness to for-profits is not an appropriate measure for success.

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