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In addition, enrolling a donor as a member gives a concrete reason for sporadic donors to become regular donors, at least once a year when their membership renewal comes due.

Would a membership program be good for your organization? If you already have a membership program, are you clear on what you and the members gain from having the program, above and beyond being a donor to your organization? Here are some of the  questions to help you decide:

  • What role do you want people to play in your organization who are not board or staff?
  • What should be the base membership fee?
  • What benefits should you offer to members?
  • How can you best manage joining and expiration of membership?

"From a fundraising point of view, a member generally feels more ownership and involvement in the organization than a donor does, even if the member never actually does anything with the membership. These kinds of organizations want people to feel involved beyond simply giving money."
– Kim Klein, What Lies Down the Membership Road?

What role do you want people to play in your organization who are not board or staff?

Members generally feel more ownership and involvement than donors. Members may have an expectation to be asked to contribute other things in addition to money. Some of the things they may contribute are volunteer time, political support, expertise and influence.

If these things would benefit your organization, then consider starting a membership program. However, if you really just want money to do your work, then a membership program may add more administration for little added benefit. In that case, look for other ways of showing your gratitude for the money that donors contribute. Donors feel involved and hopefully feel appreciated, but they usually have no expectation of being asked to give anything besides money and feel little ownership of your organization.

What should be the base membership fee?

One good way to decide on the base membership fee is to ask yourself what kind of people you want as members. Then decide what those people can afford as a general minimum. Make that amount the base membership fee.

You may have the kind of organization that does not require a fee at all. For instance, people who live in a specified area of a city are sometimes considered members of a neighborhood association whether or not they have ever been to a meeting or paid any dues. Some organizations also give memberships to anyone who donates at a certain level.

You can also set levels of membership to allow for different degrees of ownership and involvement. Some typical levels are student, senior, corporate, regular. This allows for people to participate at an appropriate level to their current circumstances and gives you some information on who they are.

What benefits do you offer for membership?

Ask yourself what motivates people to want a membership in your organization and tie the benefits to that. The reasons that people will be motivated to become a member depends on your mission. They may simply want a stronger sense of affiliation with the work you do or gain satisfaction from knowing that they are making a bigger difference. In other cases, members may be looking for concrete benefits, for instance an after-school youth center.

Whatever the mission of an organization, members are usually offered something tangible in return for membership. It may be symbolic or practical. If your organization's mission is to save the rain forests, then a hat with the logo of your organization may be just what people want to advertise  their involvement. If your organization provides an after-school youth center, then membership would provide greater access to equipment.

Many memberships offer a newsletter that gives members information that they want and need.  For some, the newsletter is the only benefit offered, and that is quite sufficient.

"When considering which benefits to offer, less may be more at first. 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," cautions fundraising consultant Kim Klein.

In addition, check out tax considerations when deciding on benefits. Certain insubstantial benefits may be offered by organizations without impairing the tax-deduction that may be claimed by people who join.  However, there are very strict limits on what can be considered a tax-deductible benefit, and which benefits need to be dealt with in a different way.

"When we set fund-raising goals, we usually cast them in terms of dollars. However, the major fund-raising goal of any organization should be to build a base of loyal, supportive donors who give money year after year, campaign after campaign. The longer a donor gives to an organization the more likely those gifts are to grow in size and frequency."
– Tony Poderis Building Donor Loyalty

How do you manage joining and expiration of membership?

Some organizations keep memberships simple - beginning of year to end of year. In this case, there is often a membership drive at the end of the year where the organization expects to get most of their new members. People who join in between are still members only until the end of the year. Another simple way to handle it is that anyone who gives over a certain amount automatically gets a membership.  A more robust membership is one where you pay dues and your membership is valid for 12 months from that date.

Keeping track of a simple membership program that runs the calendar year can be quite easy, and can be managed with the ordinary features of your basic donor management software.  Membership can be determined just by looking at when someone last gave. However, for varying dates of expiration, levels of membership, and a range of benefits, special membership management features are important.

Sasha Daucus is Newsletter and Web Content Editor for FundRaiser Software. Through her work at FundRaiser, she volunteers as forum host and facilitator for TechSoup, a nonprofit technology help site. Outside of work, she volunteers for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. In her free time she enjoys nature photography and listening to world music from the Mediterranean region.