Changing from Membership to Non-Member Organization

Dear Kim,

I am the director of a membership nonprofit and our board is thinking about changing us to a non-member organization to help us refocus our efforts to serve our clientele, clean up organizationally and become more streamlined and efficient. Would this be a mistake and how tough is it to do this? What is the real question we should be asking ourselves to help determine whether we should be a non-member or member nonprofit?
—Members Only

Dear Only,

Let’s start with your last question, which is an excellent one. You should be asking, “What role do we want people to play in our organization who are not board or staff?” Generally groups that want members want not only the financial support of membership dues, but also political support and a broader community to which to be accountable. In highly membership driven organizations, such as unions, members run for office, set organizational direction, and turn out in numbers for demonstrations when that is necessary. Usually members get something back for their contribution, which can be very tangible, such as access to a gym or decent working conditions, or more symbolic such as tote bags or pins, which stand for commercial free television or saving the environment. I don’t think that ceasing to be a membership organization will have all the effects you describe—a streamlined, efficient and cleaned up organization. Many membership organizations are very efficient and many non-member groups are not. You imply that your members are different from your clients. This structure may be causing some problems. Normally members are people who also who use a service—religious institutions, museums and theaters; and social service agencies—such as homeless shelters, free clinics, or hot lines–don’t have members.

It also may not be that easy to make this switch, depending on the role that members now play. For example, in many membership groups, the board would have to get approval from the whole membership to dissolve itself, and that dissolution would include the board, which was elected by the members. You will have to look at your by-laws and possibly consult a nonprofit attorney before taking this step.

I would look much more closely at what you think your problems are and what will really solve them. As the saying goes, “Don’t change the tire that isn’t flat.”