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.
1. 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.
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.
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, 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.
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 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).
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 guidestar.org:
- 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. Treat Members As 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, 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)?
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 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.
7. Get the Benefits Right
Member benefits and perks vary from one nonprofit organization to another, but all generally serve as an incentive for individuals to join the membership program.
It’s crucial that you offer benefits and perks that are of interest to your audience. For example, if your nonprofit is a museum or a gallery, you could offer member-only visit times or free parking. You could offer free classes or lectures to your members.
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:
- Basic, Regular, Special
- Silver, Gold, Platinum
- Junior, Associate, Partner
- Friend, Member, Sponsor
- Friend, Supporter, Sustainer
- Individual, Couple, Family, Group
8. Don’t Forget About the Upgrades
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.
9. Track Your Membership Program
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.
10. Communicate Frequently With Your Members Online
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. 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 Member-Only Events
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.
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 about 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.