Nonprofit memberships aren’t what they used to be. 

Is your organization struggling with its nonprofit membership program? Are you having a tough time keeping your membership numbers up? You’re not alone. 

Membership has always been a cornerstone of the nonprofit model: any society or association is by definition a group of like-minded people—members, official or not— working together. And while some organizations keep their membership roster tiny by design (did you know you can actually have your board of directors as the organization’s only members if you want?) most organizations try to keep their nonprofit membership numbers as high as possible, for strategic reasons. 

Why have nonprofit membership programs?

With the organizations I work with, those reasons are usually something like:

  1. We want to have a communications channel and a working relationship with our constituents and supporters.
  2. We want to build a ladder of support that starts with membership, then escalates over time to repeat visitors, ambassadors, advocates, volunteers, donors, major donors, etc.
  3. We want to be able to show our funders that we have numerical support; high nonprofit membership numbers look good on grant applications.
  4. We want a source of revenue through membership fees

Looking at it like that, nonprofit membership programs are a no-brainer. Why on earth wouldn’t you have a program like that? 

Why join, anyway?

Well, let’s look at it from the potential member’s point of view. Generally, surveys tell us that people purchase memberships for the following reasons:

  1. I want the feeling of belonging to something I believe in
  2. I want to get updates and news about a thing I’m passionate about
  3. I want to demonstrate my support for the organization
  4. I want the tangible benefits of membership: special offers, discounts, exclusive newsletters, etc

Here’s why I think membership programs are less appealing than they used to be, particularly with younger people: in an age of Facebook groups, free email lists, forums and the like, people can expect to get most of those benefits without paying for them, and without going through the administrative hassle of renewing a membership annually.

Social media gives you the feeling of nonprofit membership without paying for it.

An example: I am interested in gardening—like, fanatically interested in gardening. So I joined my local garden club a few years ago: I paid my fees and I started getting their emails and invitations to events. But here’s the thing: all of those people in the garden club are in my local Facebook group. I have forums and social media feeds for my most niche, obscure gardening interests (hello Himalayan poppy nerds). I don’t need that club, honestly. And, though my membership expired three years ago, they’re still sending me their emails anyway. I’m getting all the benefits I need without the cost and hassle of renewing a membership. 

Let’s look at the value formula that I have mentioned in past posts:

Value = benefits – (price+hassle)

Nonprofit membership programs in the cultural and natural history sector are hurting because the benefits aren’t what they used to be; they don’t outweigh the price and hassle. (And by price and hassle I mean mostly hassle; price isn’t a huge barrier for most memberships in our sector. I can’t tell you how many heritage organizations expect me to go to their website, download a PDF, print it, fill it out, and send in a cheque. Still. Seriously. Why not just spray membership repellent all over your site?)

So where does this leave us? Should we just give up on membership programs? We can’t, really, as long as grant applications keep asking us how many members we have. So we need to crack this problem.

A Proposal for a New Kind of Nonprofit Membership

The more I work with memberships, the more I believe we have to lower the barriers first. If I were setting up a membership program for a nonprofit today, here’s what I’d do.

  1. Make them free of charge. Think about it: the money we make on membership programs for a typical nonprofit doesn’t even pay the administrative cost of processing them (unless it’s a $200, Zoo-style membership-plus-annual-pass.)
  2. Give them the feeling of supporting you financially through an annual donor campaign, not through paltry membership fees. I honestly think it hurts your donations to charge money for membership; people feel they’ve supported you financially through their $10 fee. Bad idea. Give them the membership for free, and in November or December, ask for a donation that starts at the $50 mark (without shaming anybody who can’t afford that much, of course.) 
  3. Abolish paper memberships. No paper forms, no paper newsletters, no paper correspondence. They are a giant, wasteful time suck for everyone. If they don’t have an email address, they can’t be a member. Put that in the bylaws. It’s 2022. (Warning: your boomer board members will spew green bile over this one. Stand fast.)
  4. Make memberships automatically self-renewing: the members signs up once for free, and their membership renews annually until they (or you) choose to end it. Your roster will build on itself annually, and you won’t go through the heartbreak of seeing your painstakingly-build membership roster plunge every January 1st. 
  5. Be clear on what the tangible benefits of membership are (exclusive newsletters, offers, discounts.) Stop giving them away to non-members. 
  6. Separate the signup process from the physical visit. Many people tell us they will will renew their membership next time they visit; they shouldn’t have to. Make it dead easy online. (Where I live, the average age is over 60, and the number of members who are willing to renew online has skyrocketed during the pandemic. People are learning—even my fellow boomers.)
  7. Consider doing all of the above administration through an online utility like Memberpress; plugins like this are really good at taking care of the renewals and restricting access to member content on your website.
  8. Work hard on nurturing your relationship with members. Each email should come from a human with a name (the Executive Director, say) and be addressed to a human with a name (Dear Don: I want to tell you about what’s been happening since our last email…) Members should hear from you monthly—as members, not as a generic faceless audience. 
  9. Feed them the content they love. If you’re a nature park, feed your members nature content. If you’re a historic park, feed them content about the history they love. Content-based (subject matter) communication is by far your best way to build affinity for your mission and make a case for financial support among your members. Nobody in our sector seems to have a grasp of the power of content marketing; I will write more about this in a future article.
  10. Don’t send PDFs to anybody, ever. Just don’t. Send HTML newsletters that link to webpages where they can interact with video, sound, live links—and live donation forms. PDF is print layout in digital form and as such is the worst of both worlds (and if you’re like most organizations now, over half of your readership will be on mobile or tablet. In these formats, PDF is torture.)

I believe that the above guidelines will get you what you need from your membership program:

  1. A good channel of communication
  2. A stepladder of increasing engagement and support over time
  3. Higher membership numbers
  4. Revenue through donations, not membership fees. 

I also believe it will give your members what they’re seeking:

  1. A feeling of belonging 
  2. News and updates they crave
  3. Ways of demonstrating support through donations, volunteering, etc
  4. Access to tangible benefits

Most importantly, with these suggestions, both you and your members should get all these benefits with dramatically reduced cost and hassle. 

Let me know how this sits with you; please feel free to comment. 

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  1. Mike Mayer

    Don — these are great ideas that I am going to share with others.

  2. Yes, making people feel like they belong may be the most important. Perhaps NGOs invest too much in the other benefits farther down the list. Thanks for the article.

    And I am a dedicated gardener too, mostly edibles, though.

  3. Thanks Don. Very timely article. Super helpful for my discussion with a non-profit board to which I belong, about changes to our membership model.

  4. Mark Bellamy

    Don! This is great! I’m currently working on a contract with the Calgary Stampede, and the construction of a new year-round interpretive centre call the Sam Centre. We want to build a free membership program, with alot of the features you talk about so I may reach out to pick your brain sometime. Hope you are well my friend!

    • Don Enright

      Mark- how utterly swell to hear from you. I have recently been chatting with one of your colleagues there. Cool project. Call me up any ol’ time.

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