How to Run a Successful Nonprofit Membership Program | Donorbox

Membership programs are highly effective in helping you establish a loyal supporter base and, at the same time, a steady flow of income for your nonprofit. But what steps should you follow to create and run a successful membership program? Read this blog to learn best practices, actionable advice, and expert insights to help you build a membership program that works.

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How to Run a Successful Nonprofit Membership Program | Donorbox

Membership programs are an opportunity for organizations to build a base of loyal supporters and count on a chunk of annual income that contributes to sustainable growth.

In simplest terms, a membership program asks individuals to contribute something – usually money or time – to an organization, in return for which they become somehow affiliated with it for a set period of time (usually a year). Membership usually implies an “insider” status, and members often receive benefits, privileges, or other advantages over non-members.

Membership programs also offer plenty of benefits to organizations. A membership program can enable your nonprofit to have a source of predictable income. It can help members to develop a sense of identification with the organization, thus strengthening their support and their advocacy. A successful membership program can also help establish credibility with funders and other stakeholders. Furthermore, once an organization gains a new member, the costs to keep that member decrease drastically.

However, it can be more difficult to build a thriving membership program than many nonprofits expect. To help, we’ve compiled our top tips, insights, and best practices for running a successful membership program!

A group of people part of a nonprofit membership program.

What is a Nonprofit Membership Program?

A nonprofit membership program is a long-term method to gain some extra donations on a regular basis, typically in the form of membership fees. In exchange for a regular donation, members receive exclusive benefits such as members-only events, branded merchandise, a special newsletter, and more.

Membership programs can be tailored to meet any nonprofit’s funding needs and they are often the best way to create engagement opportunities and benefits for donors while forming a sustainable funding source. Members gain better insights into the nonprofit mission, strengthening their trust and involvement in the organization for the long haul.

Benefits of a Nonprofit Membership Program

A nonprofit membership program is mutually beneficial for both the nonprofit and the members. While the organization gets to strengthen its funds and network, the members/supporters make a real difference with their contributions and efforts.

Here is how a membership program can benefit your nonprofit –

  • A membership program creates an additional and reliable revenue stream with monthly, semi-annual, or annual membership fees. These can add up to make a big impact!
  • You can leverage the relationships built through your membership program to discuss your specific campaigns and seek help from members. Give them a detailed overview of the issue and how you’re planning to mitigate it, asking them to help with fundraising efforts.
  • If members are made to feel good and satisfied with the perks and benefits, they tend to renew their membership. You get to retain loyal donors for a long time.
  • Keeping a nonprofit up and running isn’t as easy as it may seem. It needs constant funding, support, and advocacy of the cause. A membership program will get you that.
  • As you build a strong community of supporters and donors, more people will come to know about your brand and its mission. This improves credibility, which will get you more donations.
  • You get to collaborate with influential personalities for your cause. It’s a mutually beneficial settlement and you may have to give them some authority over your decisions. But this can take your nonprofit to great heights!

Nonprofit Membership Models

Knowing the end goal of your nonprofit membership is the most important in strategizing the way it will work. To start with, ask yourself the following questions –

  • Am I looking to raise more money with the membership program?
  • Is it for building a strong network/community around my cause?
  • Am I open to offering some influence to the members over decision-making?
  • Will the membership program exchange benefits for furthering my cause?

Depending upon your answer, choose your nonprofit membership model. We’ve listed five of the most popular models here to help!

1. Members-as-Donors Model

This membership model is the most common among nonprofits. They simply offer their donors a chance to be a part of their mission in exchange for membership fees.

Donors don’t get any rights in the decision-making process. But they can attend fundraising events, volunteer whenever they want, get a bigger picture of the impact, and be an integral part of the overall mission, often receiving exclusive opportunities available only to members.

By offering all these perks, the nonprofit gets a reliable source of income on a monthly, semi-annually, or yearly basis.

Pro tip: Add different membership levels to appeal to donors of various backgrounds, interests, and abilities to give. Analyze donation patterns and use them to help you decide on different membership fees and levels. The perks you offer can be more attractive as the level goes up! Learn how to achieve this with Donorbox in this step-by-step guide.

2. Members-as-Consumers Model

In this model, the focus is not on raising more money but on building a strong network of donors and supporters. Therefore, the membership fees are kept quite low and – sometimes – there’s no cost to join.

The idea is that members will get special benefits such as working closely with the nonprofit or the beneficiaries, access to impact data, etc. In return, they will bring more people to the organization and strengthen its network.

Eventually, the nonprofit gets to receive more donations because of this strong community of supporters. It could be a long-term solution to their funding problems.

3. Members-as-Advocates Model

This membership model is predominantly adopted by nonprofit advocacy groups. Again, the focus is not on fundraising but on furthering their cause. Also, the benefits they offer to their members are abstract in nature.

In this model, the members lend their voices and skills to the nonprofit organization. In return, the organization gives them a platform and ways to use them effectively.

If raising funds is still a concern for the nonprofit, they can mix and match this and the members-as-consumers model. For a nominal membership fee, people would love to lend their skills to a good cause.

4. Trade Associations Model

This membership model targets large corporations and wealthy individuals to help raise funds for a nonprofit’s cause. Naturally, the membership fees are higher and benefits are bigger than usual.

Members, in return for their large donations/membership fees, receive partial rights in the decision-making processes of the organization. With an influential position in the nonprofit comes many other benefits for them on the professional level.

Steps to Running a Successful Nonprofit Membership Program

Ready to get started with your nonprofit membership program? Follow these steps!

1. Define your membership program

First up – define your membership program. Establish or refresh your organization’s mission, vision, goals, values, and branding. Understand how a membership program fits in with your aims and plans. Be sure that you are clear on what your value is as an organization!

Then, determine what benefits you will provide as part of your membership experience, brainstorming which benefits you will offer at different levels. Membership fees are also an integral aspect of membership programs, so you’ll brainstorm those at this stage, too.

Compare the value of the benefits you offer with the proposed membership fees, as well as your nonprofit’s available time and other resources, and make sure everything aligns before moving forward.

2. Make it easy to sign up

Like with all experiences on the web, if the sign-up process isn’t user-friendly, you’ll lose potential members. Even an enthusiastic and well-meaning supporter can easily get pulled away, distracted, or discouraged from completing a lengthy and complicated application!

Limit the amount of information you require on a membership form to the very minimum you need to manage the membership program well.

Also, use the right platform to facilitate the sign-up process, and make sure this platform has a recurring donation/membership renewal option. Making as much of the process as you possibly can automatic will make the entire experience easier and simpler for your donors.

Donorbox Memberships makes the sign-up process simple and quick for you and your members! With unlimited membership tiers, you can use this tool to appeal to all levels of members interested in supporting your organization.

Get started with Donorbox

3. Market your membership program

To successfully manage your membership program, you first have to build one. Make your nonprofit membership program known by using effective marketing strategies.

Start with audience targeting and analysis. Understand your average donor and build a campaign around their personal beliefs, interests, and values. Consider promoting the membership program to donors who regularly volunteer, attend events, and participate in advocacy.

Have staff members, board members, and volunteers come up with a list of people they know who could be solicited. When people know that someone familiar vouches for and believes in an organization, they’re much more likely to join your membership program!

Use a multi-channel marketing approach to get the word out on all platforms, from direct mail to e-newsletters. Clearly state the value proposition(s) of your membership program and always include a call to action (usually with a link leading to the sign-up page).

Learn more about multi-channel fundraising in this episode of The Nonprofit Podcast.

4. Treat members as donors/customers

Nonprofits that excel at running membership programs usually treat their members as donors/customers.

Here are eight specific stages of member experience as defined by

  • Discovery – The prospect has a problem (or a social concern) that deeply troubles them.
  • Contemplation – The prospect considers whether your membership offers a viable solution to the problem.
  • Activation – The prospect completes the buying action. They join your membership.
  • Onboarding – The new member looks for validation of their buying decision.
  • First 30 Days – The new member assesses early experiences to determine if promises of value will be kept.
  • Beyond 30 Days – The member continues to assess whether their investment has been worthwhile.
  • Pre-Renewal – The member faces the renewal decision.
  • Post-Renewal – The member assesses whether their loyalty is appreciated.

A successful membership program will develop ways to nurture and engage members at each of these stages.

For example, it’s essential that you recognize that first-time members are a specific group within your membership profile and that they need to be approached with specific strategies. Unless you can show them the value of their membership right away, they can slip through the cracks.

5. Form a member community

While treating members like any donor or customer goes a long way in ensuring a systematic approach that covers all the bases, members generally want to feel like they belong to a community.

To help achieve that, focus on unique experiences. In addition to offering a ‘transactional experience’ (offering a percentage discount on admission, free admission, guest passes, and so on), try to also offer transformational membership benefits.

What can you offer to your members that will intrigue them and motivate them to join or upgrade? Which unique experiences can you offer that align with your mission? For example, could you offer a day observing or joining one of your programs or a short mentoring session with one of your executives (depending on the membership level/tier)?

6. Develop a system for overseeing the program

Developing and managing a thriving nonprofit membership program takes time and effort. If you want to make it work, it’s vital that you develop a system for overseeing it.

Larger nonprofit organizations might appoint a full-time staff member (or even an entire team) to coordinate a membership program. In a smaller nonprofit organization, membership program coordination might be only a part of the responsibilities of a full-time staff member or even a volunteer role.

Whatever the system, it should include dedicated timelines and a clear assignment of responsibilities. Some of the responsibilities of a coordinator or a coordinating team could include crafting marketing appeals, organizing events, designing and sending out reports, sending out thank-you cards, calling members (especially those close to renewal), and more.

7. Create mindful membership levels

While it can be tempting to develop several levels of membership, it’s generally considered a best practice to streamline your membership program, reducing the number of levels, and making the benefits more consistent and easy to understand.

If you’re a smaller operation, you might even consider using a flat rate (one membership level). This method is most often used by organizations that offer similar value to all their members. Benefits, in that case, could include advanced notice of upcoming events, special member offers, or a free listing in the member directory.

There are many different approaches to naming membership levels. Here are some more examples:

  • Basic, Regular, Special
  • Silver, Gold, Platinum
  • Junior, Associate, Partner
  • Friend, Member, Sponsor
  • Friend, Supporter, Sustainer
  • Individual, Couple, Family, Group
  • Lifetime

nonprofit membership planning

8. Don’t forget about upgrades!

While it might feel natural to heavily focus on acquiring new members, successfully leading a membership program also requires paying attention to your existing members. Consider how you can keep them involved as well as move them up a level or tier.

Review your current membership program to ensure that each additional tier provides a more valuable experience than the level below it. The higher level needs to be different enough to motivate an upgrade! A single difference does not offer enough of an incentive to move to the next tier of membership.

Most often, the level above has an increased number of transactional items and an experience that the level below doesn’t include.

Then, map out a strategy for moving members up tiers, making sure you’re not coming off too strong or reaching out too frequently. A great time to contact a member about an ugrade is within a month or so of their renewal.

9. Track your program’s success

You can only keep improving your nonprofit membership program if you track it, evaluate it, and take appropriate action based on when your organization needs to step up.

By tracking your members’ interactions with your nonprofit, their interests, and preferences, you’ll be able to provide them with the opportunities that will appeal to them the most.

Tracking member engagement, gathering feedback, and understanding how well your nonprofit membership program is doing will help you strengthen it. The better you know your members, the more you can tailor the program to them – increasing the chances of them staying members and/or giving more.

If you can, interview some of your current and lapsed members. Understand why they have stayed or why they left so that you can make appropriate improvements. Send out a survey to those who can’t make it to an interview.

10. Communicate frequently with your members

It goes without saying that communication shouldn’t stop after a member signs up. In fact, it’s essential that you communicate with your members regularly and frequently. Stay at the forefront of their minds, while paying attention that you don’t spam them.

Keep all your members updated by sending out regular newsletters with photos, videos, progress updates, event information, and more.

Get your members engaged by frequently sharing content on your social media profiles. Consider creating a Facebook group for your members (depending on the size of your membership) to create a space where your members can interact. If you have a larger membership program, launching a membership website can simplify the process of encouraging interaction within your member community, distributing members-only content, and managing the memberships themselves.

Resources allowing, you can also create an app that members would have exclusive access to and could, perhaps, contact you directly through it.

Make sure your members feel like your outreach is tailored just for them, so personalize your communication as much as possible. For example, use the member’s preferred communication channel and mention previous campaigns they’ve donated to or volunteered for.

11. Host members-only events

While online communication can simply and efficiently engage your members, nothing makes members feel more appreciated and exclusive than a members-only event.

Holding appreciation events may require additional work and coordination by your team, but the sense of community you can foster with an in-person event is worth the planning time.

Your resources will determine how elaborate your events will be. You might host a simple luncheon, a networking cocktail night, a tour of your facilities, or a big weekend getaway – anything that demonstrates the value of a membership to your participants and makes them feel appreciated.

Engage members in the planning process, and don’t forget to ask for feedback after the event!

Image of a nonprofit membership appreciation event

Example of a Successful Nonprofit Membership Program

Many nonprofits are using nonprofit membership programs to secure funding. Here’s a nonprofit that is successfully using a membership program to raise donations!

Assata’s Daughters

Assata’s Daughters is a black woman-led nonprofit that helps and fights for its community. They have implemented a membership program for their supporters based on the members-as-donors model.

Nonprofit Membership Program

On clicking the respective buttons for donating as a ‘sustainer’ member, a Donorbox donation form pops up to make the process fast and easy.


Choose what method works best for you. But remember, your nonprofit membership program should also revolve around the members and the benefits they get from it. If you can keep them happy for a long time, you will attract more people and donations.


If you want to build up a membership program, it’s essential that you make sure that you have the resources to kick-start it, as well as sustain it over time.

Managing and continuing to build a membership program can be time-consuming and overwhelming at times.

Program management demands commitment, attention to detail, time, enthusiasm, and persistence. It also takes dedicated work, coordination, and some investment. If you’re not able to do this, you might want to rethink whether a nonprofit membership program is right for you at the moment.

Despite the challenges, from synagogues to shelters to sports clubs, lots of nonprofit organizations are able to plan and execute large, long-term programs because they have sizable membership programs. The efforts and resources needed to set up and manage a membership program are well worth the potential benefits.

At Donorbox, we strive to make your nonprofit experience as productive as possible, whether through our online donation system or through resources on our nonprofit blog.

Ilma Ibrisevic is a content creator and nonprofit writer. She’s passionate about meaningful work, sustainability, and social movements. If she’s not working, she’s obsessing over coffee or cooking. You can connect with her on Linkedin.

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