ChMs For Dummies (count me as a dummy)

 

Who knew there were so many choices?

Recently, a pastor asked for a little help Old Recordswith some software. She serves at a small local church and wants to move from a paper-based membership roster to a more robust electronic system. Due to budget constraints, the pastor wanted to know if there were any low-cost or even free options out there.

At the Media Center, we are always happy to help with research like this. Once I do the research, I can make it available to other churches. In the future, I can quickly answer inquiries about the topic. And really, how hard could this research project be? How many platforms for church membership management could there be?

The answer to that question, about 144.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 2.47.46 PM.png

 

I say “about” because, while Capterra, the business software research site, is remarkably good about their research, I imagine there are some packages out there that they haven’t heard of.

 

When it comes to the big players in the market, the number shrinks a bit. For larger churches with larger budgets, there are some serious products from companies like Shelby, ACS, Logos, Fellowship One and others. A lot of these products have features lists that are pages long. Newer products feature things like cloud-based access, member portals, and social media integration. A number of them are scalable making them more affordable for smaller churches. However, small churches still face a significant budget impact getting started and maintaining these systems. Not to mention the fact that, the more complex the system, the more labor necessary to make it work well. Many churches are just never going to have the time or manpower to take advantage of advanced features.

So, out of these 144, how many are cost effective and user-friendly enough for small membership churches?  That is still a complicated question. I would love to have the time and resources to “bench test” some of these products. Instead, I am going to share what I know about some of the low-cost players. Perhaps some readers have some experience with one or more and would be willing to share their experiences for the good of the body.

I am going to look at some free options in this post and post, at a later date, with some of the lower-cost options. A note about my focus: Some of these options have financial packages to track giving and process donations. Some even go deeper with options for things like payroll. I am not going to be looking at that aspect. If you are looking for an integrated solution, some of these options might help but you will need to do some more research. Here we go.

Free Church Membership Management Software

ChurchInfo – www.churchdb.org

Price: Free
Core Features: Membership Management, Member Profiles, Attendance Tracking
Additional Features: Calendar Management, Child Check-in, Donation Management, Pledge Management, Event Management, Group Management, Newsletter Management, Volunteer Management
Pros: Totally free. A lot of features.
Cons: Setup takes some technical know-how. No training available and limited customer support.

Screen Shot 2015-11-18 at 3.10.55 PMChurchInfo is a truly free, open-source database program supported by a community of volunteers. Its feature checklist covers all the core needs of keeping track of members plus a number of additional features that churches might find useful. It is powerful in that it can be based on a local network or even hosted in the cloud, meaning multiple people can work on it from multiple locations.

What is missing from ChurchInfo is the slick interface that you find with more expensive programs. That means the learning curve is a little steeper. However, like most ChMS, it is basically a database and a database is what you really need. There is always a cost for free. The cost here is the difficulty of setup. Without going too in depth, it needs to be set up on a server. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need a large computer network. You can actually do it with one computer. It can also be hosted on a cheap or even free hosting site. However, if you are not a techie, you will need to find someone who understands words like PHP, Apache and SQL. Or, if you are someone who is good at figuring stuff out, they have articles and videos to help you get it done. If I were looking into something like this for my own church, I would be tempted to try something another user has figured out. Someone installed the software on a Rasberry Pi mini computer. For about $50 you could have a powerful membership management server in your church that uses hardly any power and can be accessed by any computer with WiFi.

ChurchTrac – www.churchtrac.com

Price: Free up to 100 members. $79.00 up to 250 members
Core Features: Membership Management, Member Profiles, Attendance Tracking, Member Directory
Additional Features: Calendar Management, Accounting, Child Check-in, Donation Management, Pledge Management, Event Management, Group Management, Newsletter Management, Volunteer Management
Pros: Free up to 100 members. Still inexpensive after that. Decent customer support
Cons: Without testing it myself, it is hard to see anything wrong with this software. It is likely not as powerful or easy to use as some of the expensive packages but for free, it looks pretty amazing.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 5.09.32 AM.pngIf your church has less than 100 members, this is a very good deal. This software gets decent reviews from people who pay for it so getting it free is a bonus. The other good news is that, if your church grows past the 100 member mark, it is still relatively inexpensive compared to other programs.

The customer service gives ChurchTrac a huge advantage over anything open source. They offer customer service via email and over the phone.

Note: ChurchTrac also offers a new cloud-based option. It is not free, but it is only $90 a year for 100 members or less.

CahabaWorks – www.cahabacreek.com

Price: Free for the unsupported version. $300 and up for support.
Core Features: Membership Management, Member Profiles, Attendance Tracking. Member Directory
Additional Features: Calendar Management, Accounting, Child Check-in, Donation Management, Pledge Management, Group Management
Pros: Completely free with no limitations on congregation size.
Cons: If you are not comfortable flying without a net, the price jumps to $300 to add customer support. That is still a decent price for software like this but it takes it out of the “free” category.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 5.35.45 AM.pngCabanaWorks has an interesting business model. They basically give the software away for free and only charge for support. (They also charge for a networked version and, for that, the price jumps significantly to $1500.) It is fairly simple to evaluate whether or not this solution could work for you. Are you the type who tends to call technical support when you run into a problem or, are you one to read through documentation and FAQs and try to figure it out yourself? If you are a “figure it out yourself” sort of person, or have one handy, this might be a good deal for you. The software appears to have decent functionality and features and it doesn’t cost anything to try it.

And that’s not all!

There are some other free options that didn’t make the list. Mostly because their free package cuts off at 25 members. I realize there are plenty of 25 member or less churches out there but it wouldn’t take a whole lot of growth to need to move to a paid version. Some of those may make my list of low-cost options.

If you are still reading this post, you are probably seriously interested in church management software. So, stay tuned, I am already working on my list of low-cost options and will post it as soon as it is done. Free is always tempting when budgets are tight but it is good to count the costs. Sometimes spending a little money upfront can save hours of pain down the road.

In the meantime, I would love to hear what your church is using and how it is working. Feel free to share any experience you have had with software in the past. The comments are open.

 

 

 

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