Eight Strategic Mistakes with Memberships

Eight strategic errors nonprofit organizations often make that stand in the way of “smart growth” in their membership numbers.

Eight Strategic Mistakes with Memberships
7 mins read

Build your membership rolls and understand your membership as your constituency.

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 keychains, 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 (or increased) your membership — and thereby your influence, resources, and effectiveness.

About the Author

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

33 thoughts on “Eight Strategic Mistakes with Memberships

  1. 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).

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

      1. 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!

  2. 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?

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. #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…

  5. 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.

  6. 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

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

    2. 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

  7. 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

  8. 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.’

  9. 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?

    1. 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.

  10. 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?

  11. I went to a culture segments workshop where they tested the “free membership” idea and they said it had an overwhelming response. We are a free institution so we depend on our membership income – but I am super curious about this strategy and if it will work.

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