Membership programs are an opportunity for organizations to build a base of loyal supporters, draw on a large pool of individuals to help with planning, fundraising, public speaking, and other organizational tasks, and count on a chunk of annual income that comes with no strings attached.
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).
Members may or may not receive benefits, privileges, or other advantages over non-members; and they usually do. Membership usually implies an “insider” status.
Membership programs 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.
A nonprofit membership program is the best way for nonprofits to create engagement opportunities and benefits for their donors in exchange for membership fees. This ensures a sustainable funding source for nonprofits. At the same time, it strengthens the trust and involvement of their supporters in the organization.
A membership program can be tailored to meet a nonprofit’s funding needs. It is a long-term method to gain some extra donations on a regular basis in the form of membership fees. In return, the members/ donors get better insights into the nonprofit mission, access to events, and rights in some decision-making processes.
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 –
Depending upon your answer, go through the nonprofit membership models in the next section and find out what works the best for you.
This membership model is the most common among nonprofits. They 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. It is more of a matter of satisfaction for them. 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.
By offering all these perks, the nonprofit gets a reliable source of income on a monthly or yearly basis.
Pro tip: Add different membership levels. Not every donor will be willing to pay a fixed amount on a regular basis. Analyze their donation patterns and depending on that, decide different membership fees and levels. The perks can be more attractive as the level goes up. Know how to achieve this with Donorbox in this step-by-step guide.
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, completely free.
The idea is that members will get special benefits such as working closely with the nonprofit for 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.
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.
This membership model targets large corporations and wealthy individuals for raising funds for the nonprofit’s cause. Naturally, the membership fees are high and benefits are bigger than usual.
Members, in return for their big 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.
Establish or refresh your organization’s mission, vision, goals, values, and branding. Understand how a membership program fits in with your aims and plans.
Get clear on what your value is, as an organization, and what benefits you will provide to your members.
Brainstorm benefits you want your nonprofit membership program to have at different levels. Write them all down.
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 membership fees, as well as and your nonprofit’s available time and other resources.
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, if led to a lengthy and complicated application page, can easily get pulled away, distracted, or discouraged.
Limit the amount of information you require on a membership application (membership form) to the very minimum you need to manage the membership program well.
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.
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 who’s 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 a link leading to the sign-up page).
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 guidestar.org:
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.
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, like they’re part of a tribe.
To help achieve that, focus on transformational 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.
Such benefits focus on member experiences. Think about what kind of experiences you could offer to your members that pertain to your brand.
What can you offer to your members that will intrigue them and motivate them to join or upgrade? Which unique experiences can you offer? For example, could you offer a ‘day’ observing or joining in one of your programs or a short mentoring session with one of your executives (depending on the membership level/tier)?
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 the membership program coordination. 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, in addition to a coordinator or a coordinating team, clear timelines and 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, and more.
While it can be tempting to develop levels upon 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 organization, you might even consider using a flat rate (one membership level). This method is most often used by smaller 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:
While it might feel natural to heavily focus on acquiring new members, successfully leading a membership program also requires paying attention to the already existing members and how you can move them up levels/tiers.
Review your current membership program to ensure that the existing levels at each additional tier provide 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.
Map out a strategy for moving members up tiers, making sure you’re not coming off too strong too frequently.
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.
Through 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 lapsed members. Understand why they left so that you can make internal improvements and do better. Send out a survey to those who can’t make it to an interview.
It goes without saying that when members have signed up for your program, the communication shouldn’t stop there.
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.
While online communication can simply and efficiently engage your members, nothing makes members feel more appreciated and exclusive than a member-only event.
Holding members-only 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.
All organizations can organize events. 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.
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 –
Many nonprofits are using nonprofit membership programs to secure funding. Here’s a list of nonprofits using membership programs to raise donations:
On clicking the respective buttons for donating as a ‘sustainer’ member, the Donorbox donation form pops up to make the process fast and easy.
Yimby Action aims at creating a society where every person at every level has access to affordable homes. With their monthly and yearly membership programs, they offer multiple donation options for people to choose from.
Their membership program is well-explained, easy to grasp, and affordable for all. It is primarily based on the members-as-donors model.
In addition, they have a volunteer membership program. It’s suitable for those who want to get involved at minimal/zero cost. This is a good example of a combination of the members-as-consumers model and the members-as-advocates model.
By giving donors a dedicated account, the nonprofit gets to retain them for a long time and create engagement opportunities.
The membership page has a simple and straightforward structure with multiple donation levels to choose from. Additional features like employer donation matching and in-honor donations only make their program more attractive for donors.
From the examples, you can see that some nonprofits prefer to blend the good of one membership model into that of another. It helps them reap the benefits of both.
Choose what works best for you. But remember your nonprofit membership program should also revolve around the members and the benefits they get out of 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.