Facts about Nonprofit Memberships

The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) reports that in 1953, associations received 95.7 percent of their revenue from membership dues. In 2016, that number fell to 45.4 percent for trade associations and just 30 percent for professional associations. Are you interested in retaining membership revenue? We’ve culled together a few best practices below.


5 Tips for Successful Membership Programs

Know Your Goal - Exclusivity or Frequency

There are two primary types of membership programs.

Are you offering a membership based on exclusivity, ie a Legacy Society based on the amount of giving or type of giving? These types of membership programs are best managed as specialized giving programs. They may look at annual giving levels, but are not actual ‘membership’ programs in the truest sense of the word. The benefit to these programs is that they are relatively inexpensive to implement, allow an organization to interact with a more ‘selective’ group of supporters, and can easily be replicated or updated.

Feature-Driven Membership programs are used for different purposes. Often these are driven by the desire to provide pricing incentives for frequent visitors and specific target audiences. These usually involve multiple levels and categories.

  • An example is the local park that offers Annual or Daily Membership levels along with sub-categories consisting of seniors, families or residence requirements.
  • The benefits to these programs are reduced fees for frequent supporters and attendees. These are usually annual membership programs and revenue can be relatively steady and predictable. The challenge of these programs are the complexities involved with managing various membership levels, ever-changing benefits per level, and the upgrade/downgrade process for members. These programs often-times also require a membership number and/or card which identifies the level and program.

Understand which type of membership program you are developing, and use appropriate software and management tools to support the goals of the program.

Listen To Your Members

This may seem obvious but there are quite a few Membership Directors out there that either don’t survey their members, or just keep repeating the same program year after year. Museums, Clubs and other member-driven organizations have changed radically as documented beautifully by Robert. D. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.

Have you integrated member feedback forms to gather information on pricing, levels or categories? Do you know what your member’s #1 complaint might be? Millennials, the internet and online communities are competing for our audience’s time and focus. How can we best integrate the online experience with a traditional member? Ask and they will tell you.

For an interesting video-chat on engaging new audiences, you may want to attend free events like the American Alliance of Museum’s free “Watch and Talk” events.

Frequent Touches

We know membership retention is less expensive than new member acquisition so what impacts retention the most? Frequency. Engaging with supporters and members can be as simple as having an active social media strategy directed at your membership base. It can also be more complex and use cross-media channels such as a membership e-newsletter, a once-a-year “thank you” call just for being a member, and invitations to specific events.

Tracking these “touches” will allow you to begin scoring engagement. Engagement scoring is a data-driven practice that drives quantitative discussions about members and help drive long-term membership retention strategy. Read more about engagement scoring and data-driven metrics.

Leverage Automation

There are very good software solutions for membership-driven nonprofits and associations. Unfortunately, many organizations are not using this tool to its full-potential. Are your members just being treated as donors in disguise? Have you fully utilized the automation and communication tools inherent in your software solution to drive retention? For an excellent review on the why behind automation, read NeonOne founder Jeff Gordy’s excellent article on membership features. It reviews not just what you should expect as a minimum, but why the features and functionality are worth taking the time to learn and utilize with your organization.

Know Your Audience & Your Peers

The most successful membership managers will also be engaged in their local, regional and/or industry-wide professional organizations. Joining isn’t just for those looking for a job — these networks allow Membership Professionals to learn more in-depth about what is working and not working in their marketplace. The impact of the economy may be hitting your region or state in a significant way. How does this impact your members use of disposable income? What have other membership organizations done to adjust? Know who the strongest players are and be open to thought leadership around this constantly changing profession. Get started today by joining one of many groups on LinkedIn. Geographic limitations or being “too busy” to leave your desk is no excuse. Try looking at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, Museums & Art Galleries Group or any one of hundreds of other LinkedIn groups today.

Issues Tracking Nonprofit Memberships

We want to hear more from you! Let us know what areas are causing concern to your membership program and we can start a conversation with community. Shoot an email to lisa@nonprofitgarden.com.

Lisa M. Lane is the founder of Nonprofit Garden, LLC. She obtained her MBA in Services Marketing from the University of California Davis and has been working with membership nonprofits and professional associations since 2001.