Starting a Membership Program

Dear Kim,

I am the director of a very small nonprofit organization that provides programs and services to adoptive families. We are considering starting a membership program. I really don’t know where to start. Levels? Benefits? Any suggestions?

Thanks, signed,

What do members want?

Dear Want,

First, step back and consider the difference between having members and having a broad base of donors. Ellis Robinson, author of the Nonprofit Membership Toolkit, provides an excellent definition of a member, as follows: “The term member connotes a personal connection with your organization, a shared ownership. In fact, in some cases, this is the legal meaning of the word.…Most organizations desire member participation beyond simply a checkbook relationship. If you are looking for involvement of your supporters in ways that include volunteering, political activity, expertise and influence, acknowledge their role with the word member rather than donor. “

Now, ask yourselves which of your supporters you want to be involved beyond helping you with a donation. If the answer is everyone, then a membership program might be the way to go. If only the families who are adopting might be involved in your group in the way Ellis’s definition suggests, then a limited membership might be appropriate, along with an additional donor program. If the answer is, “We really mostly just need the money,” then a donor program with no membership will be better. Donors feel involved and feel (or should feel) appreciated, but they don’t feel ownership, which in many cases is most appropriate.

Once you answer the philosophical question around membership, the issue of how much to charge and what to give people tends to fall more into place. What can the kind of people you want to be members afford as a general minimum? Make that amount (generally not less than $25) the membership fee. The benefits of membership are usually a newsletter giving the members information that they want and need. Then, if people give more, they may get invited to something, they may get discounts on products, if you have any, or they may just get the satisfaction of knowing that they made a difference in a bigger way.

You can always add benefits to membership, but you are hard pressed to take them away. So, only promise people what you can actually deliver. Approach this question with a lot of thought on the front end. This will save you time (and grief) later on.

-Kim Klein