Eight Strategic Mistakes with Memberships

If you have members (whether those members fit the legal definition of member or not), chances are you're making at least one of these strategic mistakes identified by Ellis Robinson. With striking clarity she points the way not only to building your membership rolls, but to understanding your membership as your constituency:

There's always someone who says, "We need to increase our membership from 5,000 to 10,000 in the next three years." But too often nobody really knows what our target membership should be, and nobody really knows how to do "smart growth" in membership. Here are the eight strategic errors I see all the time in clients and the organizations to which I myself belong:

Strategic Mistake #1: Encouraging people to become members. This is a mistake because it's based on the idea that people who are involved with your organization will join on their own, or in the week or so after they've left your fundraising event. Instead of encouraging people to join (presumably at some later time): Ask people to join right now, and give them a reason to join right now. For instance, if your regular membership rate is $35, tell them they can join at a discount if they join right now at this event. (Even if your bylaws specify the membership amount you should be able to give "early bird" and other kinds of discounts.) You could offer them 5% off at the next event, or 16 months of membership for the usual annual amount. The size of their first donation is not as important as capturing them while they are right in front of you.

Mistake #2: Over-using membership numbers in public. Unless they're really big (like a million paid members), we tend to talk about membership numbers too much, usually to people who are unimpressed by them. Say you're an NAACP or an environmental organization in a metropolitan community. You may have 2,500 members and only you know how hard it was to get this many of your supporters to join. But the City Council or a foundation is unlikely to be awed by the number 2,500, since they hear big numbers all the time. Instead: if you're the NAACP, talk about how you represent the 300,000 African Americans in the community; if you're an environmental organization talk about how you represent the 150,000 people who use the park each year. Remember, your work doesn't just benefit your members, it benefits your community!

Mistake #3: Thinking membership benefits are important. Except for a zoo or museum where people join to get discounted admission, most people don't join community-based membership organizations for discounts to Disneyland or a local boutique. Every organization is different, but most people join because:

  • They appreciate what you do (a neighborhood center, a cause).
  • Out of guilt (I know I should write a letter to my congressperson, but I'll send this group money instead.) They're glad you're speaking out and they're willing to pay for you to do it. (They do want to know what their money has been doing.)
  • Joining is a way for them to feel part of a specific community (like their neighborhood, their ethnic group, their fellow anti-toxics people, like-minded arts devotees).
  • You give them a chance to dream. Most of the people who join adventure cycling groups never travel across country on a bike, but they all dream about it.

So when you ask people to join, focus on these reasons as benefits, not on key chains, magnets and other gewgaws.

Mistake #4: Not asking people to renew several times. The most common reason people don't renew is because they think they're still a member. You're still sending them the newsletter so they figure they're still a member, or they think maybe someone else in their household renewed. Instead of asking once, follow this schedule: First renewal: Two months ahead of expiration date. Second renewal: month when their membership expires. Third renewal: Remind them the next month with a phone call or a hand-addressed envelope. Keep asking until your renewal campaigns fail to break even. Then, include your lapsed members in your prospecting campaigns and consider mailing them your year-end appeal.

Mistake #5: Boring members by telling them what your organization does. Instead: tell them how the value you provide makes a difference in their lives or in the lives of people they care about. And tell this through personal stories. Instead of a staff-written article about what happened at the city council meeting, have a short interview with a member who went to the same meeting and was inspired by what happened. Instead of telling them about your support programs, tell them about a young intern who signed up to work with you because of her experience with breast cancer.

Mistake #6: Relying too much on electronic communication. That says it all.

Mistake #7: Thinking that all members are equally valuable. All members are important, but some members are more important than others because they also bring you access, influence, special skills or other resources. First, it's crucial to have certain constituents among your members. For instance, an Alaska marine fisheries organization has to have Alaskan fishermen in their membership to be credible (and there's not a more independent, less-likely-to-join-anything group of people!). Second, your organization might need members from a certain small town or area, to serve as your "eyes and ears" near a project you are tackling. Program success may also require your membership to include constituents who are in the district of an influential state senator. Rather than just trying to "increase membership" be strategic about what kind of members you need for what, and develop focused campaigns for each.

Mistake #8: Announcing a membership drive. It's not necessarily interesting or beneficial to current members that you're out to get more members. It may be perceived that the current members aren't good enough -- and will lose their "insider" status. After the fact you can (and should) say you've doubled (orincreased) your membership -- and thereby your influence, resources, and effectiveness.

Ellis Robinson authored The Nonprofit Membership Toolkit (available at josseybass.com or amazon.com). She lives and works on Sanibel Island, Florida, enjoying home-grown bananas and citrus, visits from red-bellied woodpeckers and ibis, errands by bicycle, and vacations with her four beautiful, charming and brilliant granddaughters.

Comments (29)

  • Can you expand on mistake number six? I definitely know what you mean, and I know I'm guilty of that mistake. Can you suggest other ways to communicate? We can't afford to print/mail things to our members (they don't pay dues).

    Apr 06, 2010
  • There is nothing to expand on. If you rely too much on electronic communication, your organization is doomed to fail. It's just too easy to ignore email. It's time to charge dues to your membership, or fundraise money for mailings.

    Apr 09, 2010
  • Call them! It may not be feasible if you have 2,000 members, but having a membership committee of individuals to help call to retain members is key!
    Also, I think this means to not constantly send out emails, unless it is for a very important upcoming event or issue that needs to be addressed. People are busy and they are more likely to hit the delete button than read your message if they are getting them all the time.

    Apr 16, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I recently signed up as a trial member of a new enewsletter service (vertical response), and 5 days later a guy who works there called me to say welcome. I was blown away, impressed. There is a lot of room for this, though it will get super-annoying if too many of us do it!

    Dec 29, 2010
  • Thanks! very excellent and concise points!

    Apr 06, 2010
  • One of the most informative articles I have read in a very long time. Thanks for sharing.

    Apr 06, 2010
  • This is really helpful, thanks!

    Apr 06, 2010
  • Thanks all for your good words. Re: #6, email is so easy to delete and, even now, most folks receive their email at work, when their minds are not usually on their personal causes. Yes, email is a great tool (as is Facebook and your website and all), but it is even more powerful when it is used in tandem with other media. For example, mail out your renewal letters and then send out an email saying something like, "Watch your mail for your renewal reminder. And if you'd like to renew now with your credit card, click this link here and renew on our website." Other examples folks are using?

    Apr 06, 2010
  • We've been using email to send out membership renewals and receipts. Seems to work for us and we save so much on postage and letterhead.

    Apr 13, 2010
  • Does anyone have successful ideas for obtaining or building e-mail lists of your donors? We have put notes in our newsletter and included the e-mail address as a line on our pledge cards and donor forms but the response has been poor. We don't have the money to purchase lists.

    Apr 07, 2010
  • We're just beginning to try this approach (so no historic data for you)... on our event ticket order forms, we say:
    "We will confirm your reservation by email upon receipt. Email to: ________________ (addresses are never shared)"
    This should encourage folks to fill in the line. If they don't, we can always mail their confirmation/ticket/directions to them. And, it reminds them of our privacy policy.
    - history museum E.D.

    Apr 09, 2010
  • This seems like an excellent idea, History Museum ED. Seems perfect in many ways.

    May 16, 2010
  • Enter-to-win forms can be useful for this, esp. if you are a performing arts organization or something similar, where you can give people a chance to win a free pair of tickets. But even others can find something to give away. Everyone likes getting something for nothing (in their minds), and an outgoing staff person circulating in a lobby encouraging people to fill out an enter-to-win form that includes the e-mail address can bring in a lot of new names for your list.

    Apr 29, 2010
  • I echo the enter-to-win concept for encouraging your members to give you thier email addresses. If you don't have a lobby filled with members on a regular basis (i.e. you're not a museum or performing arts group) you could send out a cheap, no frills postcard to your members, asking them to email you (thus opting in to your email communications) in exchange for a chance to win something.

    May 07, 2010
  • Anonymous

    A low-tech way to gather email addresses is to hunt for specific ones on the web. I've been able to find many email addresses of presenters and potential donors by simply searching for the person online. Company web sites and community board lists often have email addresses, and if it's published, I think it's fair game for capture. I also often guess at email addresses using a company protocol; so many are first initial last name@company.com. If you know one, you can guess the others at the same organization. And I also poach addresses from the folks who don't use BCC when they send me a blast--I'm sure you know you can typically right-click on an address to add it to your own address book. Then I mark those as "Potential Speaker" or "Send application" in the category list so I can filter them for use. However, you must be absolutely diligent about providing an "unsubscribe" option and deleting email addresses on request.

    Jan 05, 2011
  • Ellis, brilliant advice as usual. Maybe a #9 - thinking members think like us? Or just, making assumptions about what our members think? I can't tell you how many times board members/staff have told me things like (a) our members don't like getting multiple renewal letters or (b) our members demand not to have their names shared or (c) our members don't want to get calls/emails/etc. based on either that individual's own preferences, or the one complaint they got from someone 10 years ago, or just inertia... always eye opening to actually ASK folks what they think. Usually depressing (they know a TON less about our organization than we think, and may not even know they ARE members) but nevertheless important reality check.
    Best,
    Jeff Allen

    Apr 07, 2010
  • Do you have any data to back up #3? I really haven't found that to be the case with membership benefits at all- in fact the feedback we've got when asking about non-renewals is just the opposite - people want more benefits to justify the cost of membership.

    Apr 07, 2010
  • #6 - Maybe your organization is not using the correct strategy with digital and maybe you are not in the correct digital media channels. While this is my area of professional expertise, I can't emphasize how many hoops non-profits make average citizens jump through to make an online donation. Just give us the button (with only a step or two) and tell us in as many online places as possible where to find that button and we'll do the rest.
    Put the button prominently on your home page, on your Facebook page, in your emails, on Google AdWords, on partner sites, etc. AND, leverage your fan base in social media to tell others...

    Apr 07, 2010
  • Excellent article, as always. RE #8 - Existing members could be a valuable source for new members if approached in the right way - i.e., letting them know how much you appreciate them, that you are seeking new members in order to broaden the base of support, and that recommending others like themselves, who care about the cause, is another way they can help your organization.

    Apr 08, 2010
  • I wanted to take advantage of your urging to share useful articles with others...I clicked on share and there was no way that I could see to write in an email and have the article sent. Am I just a luddite or did I miss something? I just wanted to send this to my nes Membership chairperson. sandy lentz

    Apr 08, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I had that problem too. I ended up just copying and pasting either the link or the article, depending on the recipient.

    Oct 26, 2010
  • At the end of every article is a little green square with a sideways "V" in it. Click on this and it will open a box that lets you put in the email of anyone you want to send the article to. I'm so sorry this hasn't been clearer! Jan

    Oct 26, 2010
  • Just a personal comment on email vs. mail. I recycle most mail solicitations unopened. I read email but not all. I think if your organization is a nonprofit focused on either environmental or sustainable issues, that attention to wasting natural resources is important, (It's actually important to every organization but especially when you are promoting friendly environmental efforts.)
    re #4 - this has happened to me several times, probably because I recycle without reading. What really gets me is getting solicitations for $$ and not understanding if my membership is current or not or if this includes my membership.... I don't do all my donations at the end of the year, so can never remember what I've given to who... If I don't know, I just don't bother until I have a reason to.
    And also, I'd like to be able to donate to an organization without getting on their mail list. I like making one-time donations to an organization without feeling like I'm going to get tons of mail or even another solicitation.
    The nonprofit I run does not have members, which is probably fortunate given my opinions on all these points!

    Apr 10, 2010
  • I'll add one suggestion about a mistake that can annoy members. Last year, as I was asked to do, I paid my annual membership fee early for a major national organization. Instead of renewing my membership, this organization credited this amount as a gift in the current year. What was even worse, I could find no way to contact the organization to correct this mistake. Their Web site provided no phone number, no email address, or no mailing address. Finally, I emailed the local chapter, which managed to contact national to correct the mistake.
    Robert P. Holley

    Apr 15, 2010
  • Some good points and I learned from this article, thanks.
    However, I disagree with #6. Other commenters have already made some good points in rebuttal. Another I'd offer is that, increasingly, people live online. Especially the 'digital native' generation. This is not hyperbole; they literally LIVE online.
    For a variety of reasons, I would agree that relying 'too heavily' on email for communications is not good. (I've heard again and again that digital natives think email is for old people.) Neither is it good to take a willy-nilly approach and throw up a Facebook page, thinking that will cover electronic communication in the modern world. We have to do our homework.
    I think one of the best points Ellis made was #5. People respond to stories. Digital communication allows stories to be told in unprecedented ways, and people have tapped into that. Coupling the stories with an EASY way for people to make online donations/volunteer/access services (and it was a really important point someone made about minimizing hoops for potential donors) - and doing that in as many digital media outlets as possible - is the direction our nonprofit is moving toward, asap.
    A totally unsolicited and non-affiliated plug - http://www.diosacommunications.com/ They've been extremely helpful in developing an informed approach to digital communications for nonprofits.
    Finally, I am in no way suggesting that digital communications completely supplant paper-based and in-person communications. Those are still the only way to reach many people. And, personally, I hope and pray we never get to the point where in-person contact is 'obsolete.'

    May 03, 2010
  • I work as a volunteer with several organizations. Regarding emails, it appears that most people delete organization emails unless the subject line contains "upcoming event" or "new benefit for members" or anything that indicates the organization is asking for more money when the member is current.
    I have also found that with call ID, most people do not answer when the organization ID shows up, or an ID of an unknown person appears. Most people do not answer if the ID indicates "Private". [Lately the Democratic and Republican parties have blocked their IDs; therefore the caller ID indicates "Private." Those that I have spoken with indicate that this approach angers them.] My experience is that approximately 2% to 5% of the numbers dialed results in a personal contact. Is there any data on this question?
    Finally, I talked with David Plouffe last fall. He believed that the next Presidential campaign grass roots fundraising will bypass emails and phone calls. He said the parties will probably rely on texting. Has anyone on this forum used texting? If so, what was the percentage response?

    May 03, 2010
  • The biggest problem with texting for nonprofits is that nonprofits don't have the text addresses (cell phone numbers and the carrier name) of members, donors, or other constituents. As a result, texting works best when individuals text their contacts, rather than the organization senting out text messages.

    The Obama campaign very smartly, early in the campaign, got people to text THEM (for instance, if they wanted to hear earlier than the rest of the public who the vice presidential nominee would be). Therefore the campaign had the text addresses of hundreds of thousands of people.

    So hmmm. It will be interesting to see how it comes out.

    May 03, 2010
  • In a member based organization have campaigns that give away memberships been successful to attract longterm members?

    For instance, the association I work with is a member based organization. We receive 80,000 to 100,000 unique hits per month on our website. We are thinking about offering free memberships on an automated marketing drip campaign. Based on our retention rate of approximately 70% we are hoping to retain and gain paying members the next year.

    What has been the experience of other nonprofit organizations who have tried this type of campaign? Historically, do these campaigns gain paying members the next year or has this typically been unsuccessful for membership based organizations?

    Sep 06, 2016

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