From the Front Lines

Solving the Trade Association Software Dilemma

By James Meyer • December 2, 2016


James Meyer
James Meyer, Maner Costerisan

The heart and soul of every trade association is its Association Management System or AMS. Whether it’s a CRM system tailored for associations, an industry specific AMS or a homegrown Microsoft Access Database, it’s critical you have a good system for tracking your members, managing your conferences, events, training classes, certifications, membership dues and collections, and other day-to-day membership related activities.

It’s also critical you have a good financial accounting software solution for tracking expenses, paying bills, managing against your budgets, and reporting on your financial condition. And, in the event that your accounting software doesn’t include payroll, you also need a good payroll and HR solution, whether it’s in-house or outsourced.

The dilemma for most trade associations is that there is no one system that handles all of this sufficiently. A good AMS solution, for example, typically does not have a back office accounting component and, even if it does, it’s typically not going to be very strong because that’s not what the AMS vendor focus is.

The reality is most trade associations are forced by default into what the software industry calls a Best-in-Class software environment. In other words, instead of having one system or a suite of software that tries to do everything, but does nothing great, you have separate software solutions that are each strong in their own functional areas.

In today’s fast paced world, Best-in-Class environments can offer huge advantages. Because Best-in-Class software vendors, for example, are focused on only one functional area or industry niche, they can typically innovate faster, provide better functionality and be more responsive to user needs. This in turn allows associations to be more flexible and better leverage new technologies.

Examples of Best-in-Class solutions include:

  • Timberlake AMS Solutions
  • Accounting / ERP solutions – Intacct and Dynamics GP
  • Payroll/HR solutions – ADP and Paychex

If Best-in-Class solutions are so great, though, you may be asking the question “Why is this a dilemma?” The dilemma is that in many trade associations these disparate systems are not integrated. As a result, the ability to get a timely and accurate financial picture of your organization is challenging at best. While some AMS systems offer revenue intake capabilities and revenue reporting through a financial software suite, many associations don’t even bother trying to get the information on a more-timely basis because it’s too time consuming to manually combine the data from each system.


In today’s competitive environment where associations are struggling to stay relevant while controlling costs, timely information is essential. How powerful would it be if you could have a daily financial dashboard showing:

  • Available cash balances and reserves
  • MTD revenues and/or expenses by type
  • Membership trends and renewal rates by type
  • MTD Revenues & Expenses vs. budget
  • Profitability by Event, Class, Conference
  • Cost per Square foot / Cost per member / Cost per employee
  • Revenues / Expenses / Profitability per Program or Department
  • Budgeted expenses that are in jeopardy of being exceeded

Fortunately, with today’s technologies, integrating systems and making all of this information available in the financial accounting system is very doable. Many AMS systems offer financial reporting through an application program interface (API), which specifies how software components should interact. This is particularly true if your systems are cloud based and/or if you are using an integration tool like ManerLink1, Scribe2 or Workato2. In many cases, the entire process can be automated to run on a scheduled basis with no operator intervention.

The benefits of integrating your systems are many:

  • Time savings through increased efficiencies and the elimination of duplicate entry.
  • More accurate data. Fewer opportunities for human error.
  • More timely data. Real-time or daily updates from your AMS into your financial accounting solution.
  • Real-time budget monitoring to identify if your actual and committed costs are about to exceed the budget.
  • One source of truth for data. No need to check multiple systems.
  • Less dependence on supplemental databases and spreadsheets.

Don’t be caught in the trade association software dilemma. If your systems are not integrated, they need to be. Do it today, and you’ll wonder why you ever waited.

1 ManerLink™ is a specialized integration tool for integrating AMS systems to either Dynamics GP or Intacct. 2 Workato and Scribe are general purpose integration tools that can be configured to work with many of today’s leading AMS and Accounting systems.

About The Author

James Meyer is a Principal and the Director of Business Solutions & Technology at Maner Costerisan, a regional accounting firm focused on providing traditional CPA services as well as technology consulting and software solutions to Trade Associations. James has an MBA from the University of Michigan and over 30 years of experience helping small and mid-sized organizations leverage technology and get maximum value from their financial accounting (ERP) systems.