Ask The Nth Factor … About Membership Programs

membership-card1In direct response fundraising, “membership” in an organization is often a symbolic donor status, but a highly effective means of articulating and cultivating donor relationships. A donor is someone who makes a gift, but a member is someone who belongs.

Membership conveys a sense of community, a basis for annual renewal and a framework for upgrading via membership levels. So depending on the type of organization you are, talking to your donors as “members” can make good fundraising sense.

But starting a membership program isn’t simple, and definitely shouldn’t be rushed. Consider this question I recently received:

“At our Board meeting yesterday there was some significant hesitation concerning our organization starting a new membership campaign. The issues raised were mainly about the amount of time it takes to administer the member program, and what percentage of funds is actually raised through members. The Board suggested instead that we print a donor form.”

Though I believe that a membership program would be a good strategy for this particular organization, the Board was right to be hesitant. They didn’t have enough information to make an informed decision. And no matter how urgent your deadline may be to create a new giving form (as was the case with this organization), creating your membership brochure before you’ve created your program is like putting the cart before the horse – it doesn’t work.  

So here’s what I wrote back:

“Once you’ve mapped out your program structure, it shouldn’t take more time to administer a good membership program than a good donor program. (The idea of “membership” in a nonprofit organization is often mainly a fundraising strategy.) Though I think this particular strategy would be a good fit for your organization, it does take time to plan a program well. That is, it’s more than just how you word and design your brochure. So if you’re really rushed to get a brochure ready, and if your Board isn’t fully on board yet, my suggestion would be to keep it general for now. But I’d suggest you continue to work on bringing your Board and membership program structure along for possible launch in the future.”

Which raises an important point when it comes to developing membership programs:

Every good membership program starts with a well thought-out plan – a formal document that articulates the program’s purpose, objective, goals and operating details. But a membership program only becomes reality – and succeeds – with organizational understanding of and buy-in to the program.

So thanks for a great question Jane! Have an experience with membership program development to share, or a question of your own? We want to hear from you! Email topics@nthfactor.com.

Have a great Labor Day weekend!


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