From museums and other cultural entities to animal protection groups to a wide range of public policy/advocacy organizations, we are all familiar with nonprofits that develop their support through memberships. This avenue may primarily serve as a way to engage first-level donors, although it can also be directly linked to delivering service.
Small nonprofits in their founding stages may want to consider whether a membership program is a viable way to establish themselves; it could also be a way for an aging nonprofit to rebuild itself after a decline in its life cycle. The Society for Nonprofit Organizations (www.snpo.org) offers some baseline considerations, which we have expanded upon here.
— Membership dues provide immediate and unrestricted funds.
— Memberships can serve as a predictable and ongoing funding base.
— Memberships give people a way to have an intimate, ongoing relationship with your organization.
— Depending on your mission and how people identify with it (whether it be social, medical, environmental, cultural, etc.), there may be an immediate appeal for people to identify with your cause, and proudly help promote it.
— Not every organization’s by-laws allow memberships. You may have to work with your board’s legal or governance committee to make the appropriate changes. Make sure your board is completely committed to the membership approach, too, since you will need their help in recruitment and retention.
— You must give members some form of benefit or access in return for their dues. Don’t assume this won’t represent some cost to you. Simple examples include developing an e-newsletter or adjusting your software to limit access on the web to some of your data.
— Building a member base is one thing, while maintaining it is quite another. Most memberships are for one year, although you may be able to price and structure yours to be 24 months. Either way, the cycle of how people commit to you and then are encouraged to re-commit is very important. It is usually easier to retain an existing member than it is to find a new one.
— Members may want a higher decision-making role in your organization than you originally intended to provide. This is as much a philosophical shift as it is a practical one; some membership organizations’ by-laws include voting by the members each year on issues such as leadership (board chair, chair-elect) elections.
TIPS TO REMEMBER
1. Your fundraising approach will be forever altered by a decision to create memberships. It essentially replaces the low end of your donor pyramid. Memberships do not, however, replace larger gifts and planned giving—although they can start relationships that you then nurture over time.
2. Sustaining a strong membership base is a great way to demonstrate to a prospective funder/foundation that you are integrated and connected to the population you serve.
3. Reinforce members’ “pride of association.” This may be as simple as providing logo coffee cups, T-shirts and tote bags. Your devoted fans will literally provide PR for you.
4. Memberships may be divided by level (i.e., bronze, silver, gold) with benefits that differ by dollar investment. Some nonprofits have individual, family, and even corporate memberships. (If you’re thinking of a member base composed entirely of businesses, you’re not forming a 501(c)(3) but a 501(c)(6), and you’ll need to re-submit your application to the IRS.)
5. Be sure your membership fee is reasonably priced for the marketplace. You may need to do a market survey (including your competitors and the other nonprofits that your community already supports) to discover the best rate.
6. To manage your membership base, you will want to upgrade your data management in order to properly track membership numbers, status for renewal, levels of membership, participation, and so on.
7. Provide members with an easy mechanism (dedicated email, toll-free number, etc.) to give you input about their concerns. An annual survey is a good idea. And make sure you have dedicated the resources to listen/respond.
8. One of the expectations of membership may be stepping up your public policy and advocacy work on your stakeholders’ behalf. Many smaller nonprofits shy away from this activity, which is unfortunate, because they don’t understand the law and/or believe their voice won’t make a difference. This could be a missed opportunity for your nonprofit to enact lasting change, with ensuring a strong fan base of members being a side benefit.