Neighbourhood Community Association Membership Management

Sales Pitch

Have you agreed to help a local organization register, renew, and keep track of members -- and then realized it's more work than you expected? Me too! This system can be run for free on Google App Engine and uses Google Spreadsheets as its database. It's easy for organization managers and members, mostly self-maintaining (for your sanity), and pretty flexible and powerful (for when you inevitably get asked to add new features).


This is a Google App Engine application (and web interface) written for my neighbourhood community association to help register and keep track of its few hundred members. It's largely bespoke -- it could certainly be adapted to a different organization, but it's not (yet) cleanly parameterized. It uses Google Spreadsheets as the database, which might be somewhat novel, and might be of use to someone.


The demo management site is located at:

The demo form-embedded-in-organization-website page is located at:

The spreadsheets acting as the "database" for this demo are:


The Danforth East Community Association asked me to help update their/our membership management system. They had been using pieces of paper with new member info, an Excel spreadsheet on someone's computer, and manual responses to PayPal notification email.

The requirements were/are something like:

And some self-imposed requirements:

I looked into existing solutions and didn't find much. CiviCRM is very interesting, but it seemed like overkill, and it seemed like a lot of learning and training. (Of course, in retrospect, it would have been less work to do the learning and training.)

I decided early on that a Google Spreadsheets-centric approach would be good. The spreadsheet could be shared among the association manager and people are pretty comfortable with spreadsheets. I fooled around with Google Apps Script-based approaches, but I found them frustrating and limiting: because of the Caja sandboxing, debugging and developing are painful and slow, and deployment options are limited, and there are limitations in what you can get done in it. Google Apps Script is very cool and easy for small tasks, but creating a multi-faceted web-based UI with future flexibility seemed like it wasn't going to work out.

So I settled on using Google App Engine (GAE), with Google Spreadsheets as the database.

How it works

From the user side, there are two aspects to the system: there is the publicly accessible self-registration form and there is the authorized access to direct member joining, renewal, mapping, etc.

On the back end, there's some fairly simple CRUD-ish code made more complicated by the fact that instead of a local database it's talking to the Google Spreadsheets API. There's also application logic around processing PayPal IPNs, emailing new member and volunteeer managers, culling defunct members, and so on.


I wanted the "database" to be human readable/understandable/exportable/manipulable. People seem pretty comfortable with spreadsheets (the old membership list was kept in one). Some experimentation showed that the speed of accessing spreadsheet data with every request was acceptable (for the size of data in question), and I figured I could add caching of the data (on either or both of the server or client) if needed.

So here is a rough flow of what happens when a member is directly registered by an association manager:

  1. Manager requests the /new-member page.
  2. Server fetches authorization spreadsheet and checks that the manager's email address is in it.
  3. Server fetches the "volunteer interest areas" spreadsheet and templates those values into the form.
  4. Server returns the page to the manager.
  5. Manager fills in the form and submits it.
  6. Server again fetches and checks authorization against spreadsheet.
  7. Server checks to see if the new member's email address matches any already existing member. (Triggering a renewal flow if it does.)
  8. Server writes a new row to the spreadsheet with the new member information.

Loading the /new-member page takes about 420ms. The creation of a user takes about 440ms. These aren't blazing fast numbers, but they're acceptable for this website, and that's without any caching or other optimization efforts.

Retrieving a JSON'd list of all member data (for 200 members) takes about 1000ms. This isn't great, but it's done via AJAX and it's tolerable.

(In the GAE test environment, there are pretty frequent invalid certificate errors when trying to access the Spreadsheets API. In the real GAE environment I'm not sure I've ever seen them.)

iframeing the self-serve registration

Registration of new members needed to be done on the website, but I didn't (and don't) have edit access to the organization's website. And... I don't really want access. So I decided that the form would have to be able to live in an iframe. That way I could just provide a few lines of code/HTML to the webmaster who could then embed it. I would still be able to fix/improve the form without touching the website.

This has worked pretty well, but there are some shortcomings:


Please file and issue or pull request if encounter a problem with these steps (or even if you don't and it just goes smoothly).

Get the code

Clone this repo (or fork, which you'll want to do eventually). Install the Google App Engine SDK for Python.

Open a terminal in the repo root directory and run:

pip install -r requirements.txt -t lib/

Rename config/ to config/ (Henceforth referred to as Leave that file open, since you'll be editing it.

Google account stuff

I created a brand new Google/Gmail account to the be owner of the GAE project and spreadsheets. Any of the organization managers might move or quit, so I figured it would be best to have an account that separate from any one person.

You probably want to set up mail forwarding from that new account to your own, at least for now.

Henceforth I'll be assuming that you're logged in with and using that account. However, you can do stuff like adding your personal account as an admin of the GAE project, which allows you to do a lot without logging in as the other account.

In set MASTER_EMAIL_ADDRESS to the account email address. Also add the email to the ALLOWED_EMAIL_TO_ADDRESSES list.

App Engine project

Create your new GAE project. Probably via here. Edit app.yaml and replace the application value with whatever you picked as your GAE project name.

When that is complete, click on the "Enable an API" button, or "APIs & Auth/APIs" in the left sidebar. Then enable Drive API, Drive SDK, Geocoding API, and Google Maps JavaScript API v3. [Note: Not sure Drive SDK is necessary.]

Click on "Credentials" in the left sidebar. Click on "Create new Client ID", then "Service account", then "Create Client ID". A JSON file with the new credentials and key will download. Save the contents of the private_key field to a file named privatekey.pem in the root of your source directory (replacing \n with actual newlines). Copy the client_email value and set as SERVICE_ACCOUNT_EMAIL in

[Note: I think there's a default service account for the GAE project, but I couldn't figure out how to get the key for it. Maybe instead you generate and upload its key?]

Under "Public API access" click on "Create new Key". Click on "Server key". Leave the IP address field blank (for now). Copy the new "API Key" and set as GOOGLE_SERVER_API_KEY in

Under "Public API access" click on "Create new Key". Click on "Browser key". Leave the referrers field blank (for now). Copy the new "API Key" and set as GOOGLE_BROWSER_API_KEY in

Google Drive

In that account, go to Google Drive and create a new folder. Share that folder with edit permissions with:

In that folder you will be creating the "database" spreadsheets. Open config/ to see what fields they should have. Create these spreadsheets (the name isn't actually important, but it'll be easier if you follow what's here):

In the "Authorized users" sheet, add your personal email address and Also add a few entries to "Volunteer Interest Areas".

For each spreadsheet, copy the big random-looking value from the URL and paste that value into the appropriate *_SPREADSHEET_KEY.

To get the keys for the first worksheet of each of those spreadsheets, run this command:


Put the values it prints into the appropriate *_WORKSHEET_KEY. (For brand new spreadsheets they will probably be all the same value, and the same as the values already in and you'll think this step is silly. But if you mess around with creating and deleting sheets the values will change.)

Try out the management site

We're not done configuring stuff yet, but you can try out some of the functionality now.

Run the Google App Engine Launcher that got installed with the GAE SDK. (Or use the command line interface.) Add the root of your source directory as an "existing application". Run the application and open the logs viewer.

In your web browser, go to http://localhost:8080/. You should see the management site main page. You'll be prompted to share your location with the site -- agree.

Click on "Register New Member". You'll be prompted to enter an email to log in as -- just leave it as for now. Click Login. (Later you'll want to check the "Sign in as Administrator" box so you can manually trigger cron jobs and the like.)

You'll now be on the "Create New Member" page. Note that values you put in the "Volunteer Interest Areas" sheet appear. Fill in the form and submit it. It should be successful.

Check the "Members" spreadsheet to see that your new member has been added. Be sure to scroll all the way to the right to see everything that's getting filled in.

Take a look at the GAE launcher logs to get acquainted with them.

Fool around with creating more members, renewing them, authorizing new managers, and viewing the members map.


To try out the self-serve interface we're going to get PayPal ready.

PayPal makes it pretty easy to set up a testing sandbox -- you can probably get started here. Also create a purchaser account or two (it doesn't matter what email you use for them, but it's handy if you use another address you own, for a more realistic workflow).

Log into with the sandbox facilitator/merchant account. Create a button for a subscription. Set the subscription period to a day, so it's easier to see the effects of automatic PayPal subscription payments. Set the price to whatever you want. The value you give to the button's "item name" must be copied to PAYPAL_TXN_item_name in In "Step 3" of the button interface add to the "advanced variables" field notify_url= (replacing myproject with whatever you named your project, of course).

Save the button. Copy its "Email" URL and set it as PAYPAL_PAYMENT_URL in Also set your sandbox facilitator email address to PAYPAL_TXN_receiver_email. (Note that PAYPAL_IPN_VALIDATION_URL in config/ is already set the sandbox.)

As you noticed, the PayPal IPN URL is pointing to your GAE instance. So we'd better set it up.


The membership system includes optional MailChimp integration, so it can be used for emailing Members and Volunteers.

MailChimp integration can be disabled by setting MAILCHIMP_ENABLED to False (in config/ Or configure MailChimp like so:

  1. Get your API key: Click on your name in the upper right, then "Account", then "Extras/API Keys". Click the "Create a key" button. Copy the value into config.MAILCHIMP_API_KEY.

  2. Create a new List. "List", then "Create List".

  3. For that list, add these merge fields/tags (these values are specified in the field info in config/

    • Leave the default "First Name (FNAME)", "Last Name (LNAME)"
    • Label: "Volunteer Interests". Merge tag: "VOLUNTEER". Type: text.
    • "Skills", "SKILLS", text
    • "Member Type", "MMBR_TYPE", radio buttons with values "Member" and "Volunteer"
  4. For the list, go to "Settings/List Name and Defaults". Copy the "List ID" into config.MAILCHIMP_MEMBERS_LIST_ID.

  5. You may wish to create "Segments" for the list. For example, you could create a segment for "'Volunteer Interests' contains 'Arts Fair'", so you can easily email everyone interested in volunteering for the arts fair.

Deploy to App Engine

In Google App Engine Launcher click the deploy button (or use the command line stuff). You can authenticate with the credentials of the account that owns the project, or with any account added as an admin (like your personal account).

Test out the deployed project at

You should also "deploy" iframe-test.html. You can put it anywhere that's publicly accessible on the net (I used S3).

Run the self-serve page and use PayPal

First, take a look at the source for iframe-test.html. There's an iframe tag and a script tag and that's it. It's really just giving us the cross-origin restrictions we're going to face in the actual production deployment.

Go to your publicly hosted iframe-test.html. Fill in the form and submit it. You'll be redirected to the PAYPAL_PAYMENT_URL. Log in with the sandbox purchaser account your created. Pay for the subscription.

Your new member won't show up in the spreadsheet immediately. The member data has been staged by the server, waiting for confirmation from PayPal that the payment went through.

Take a look the logs for your GAE server: (replace "myproject"). Look for errors, and watch for the /self-serve/paypal-ipn request to arrive (there might be one or two preliminary requests before the one we're looking for). After that you should see the new member record show up in the Members spreadsheet.

Note that if you test the entire self-serve workflow -- including PayPal -- locally, the IPN will still go to your GAE instance. (Well, unless you point a domain at your home IP and port-forward to your local server.)

Finishing steps

There are occurences of branding in files that aren't yet properly parameterized, so you should search for "deca" or "danforth" in source files for strings you should change for your own organization.

Production steps

First of all, after changing your config to production values you're going to have to be careful about further development and testing and about not deploying debug settings. You can probably use GAE's support for multiple application versions to help.

Instructions to Organization Managers

This system is designed to be easy for the organization managers to use. That being said, there are some things that need to known by them:

Instructions to organization admins

This is for the webmaster and/or the controller of the PayPal account.


Things you need to give me for initial setup:

Site modifications

The new membership form will live in an iframe in the organization site.

You will need to remove the existing form and replace it with these two lines of HTML:

<iframe id="member-form" src="" width="100%" scrolling="no"></iframe>
<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>

...with myproject replaced with the actual name or our project.

If you're curious about the script being included: it's used to help with resizing of the form in the page (without scrollbars) and for figuring out where to position a "please wait" dialog.

Page width check

At maximum width, the "first name" and "last name" fields should be beside each other, not on top of each other. If this isn't the case, please let me know.

(Note to self: in static/vendor/bootstrap/bootstrap-source/less/variables.less change @screen-md to be the actual maximum of the parent page. Then grunt dist and test.)

Other Features

There are a few other features of the system that aren't mentioned above and aren't obvious from playing with the demo.

Membership archiving

At the start of every year a copy of the Members spreadsheet is made with the name "Members 2013" (e.g.). So there's always a historical record of what the membership looked like in the past. (And we could use that for mapping or whatever.)

Automatic defunct member culling

When a member's last renewal is two years in the past (that is, they're a year expired) they get removed from the Members spreadsheet. This helps us prevent the members list getting cluttered with people who have moved away, etc.

(Technical note: the amount of time before a defunct member is culled is not well parameterized. See gapps.cull_members_sheet().)

And more!

Rather than making this README longer than it already is, I'm going to document some features and details in the wiki.

Future work