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Section 17. Establishing and Maintaining a Membership Program

Learn how to decide whether a membership program makes sense for your organization, how to set one up, and how to keep it going.


  • What is a membership program?

  • Why might you want to establish a membership program?

  • When is a good time to establish a membership program?

  • Who are potential members, and how do you find them?

  • How do you establish a membership program?

  • How do you maintain a membership program?

What if...

Your organization could count on a chunk of annual income that came with no strings attached?
You could mobilize hundreds of people to provide political support for your cause or your organization?
You could draw on a large pool of people to help with planning, fundraising, public speaking, and other organizational tasks?
These are some of the possibilities you might realize if your organization establishes a membership program.

You probably belong to one or more organizations, and pay for your membership. What kinds of organizations are you a member of? Perhaps some, like the YMCA, that you've joined so you can use their facilities. Perhaps a professional organization that advocates for your field and gives you the chance to network with like-minded colleagues. Perhaps one or more human service or charitable organizations that you contribute to every year -- Oxfam, say, or Boys' Town. How about public radio or TV? Or an advocacy group: the Sierra Club, or NOW?

Establishing and maintaining a similar membership program for your organization can help you toward institutionalization by building a base of financial, political, and moral support over the long term. When people join an organization, their membership signifies they've made a commitment to that organization, and implies that their commitment will continue. And that continuation will guarantee your organization their financial contribution and support every year.

This section will help you decide whether a membership program makes sense for your organization, and show you how to set one up and how to keep it going.

What is a membership program?

In its simplest terms, a membership program is one which asks people to contribute something - money, time, their presence, their names, certain actions - to your organization, in return for which they become somehow affiliated with it for a set period of time -- usually a year. Members may or may not receive products, privileges, or other advantages over non-members. Depending on your organization, members may have to meet some standard or hold specific credentials in order to join (think of the American Medical Association, for instance). In any case, membership implies an "insider" status. Much of the purpose of a membership program is almost always to increase the financial, political, and/or operational stability of the organization.

There are a number of different types of membership programs, and many organizations run programs that fit into several different categories.

  • Programs affording members something substantive. The "something" may vary greatly from organization to organization:
    • The use of facilities or services, as with the YMCA or an art museum
    • Networking and advocacy, as with the Chamber of Commerce or a professional organization
    • Specific publications, such as those which come with membership in many professional and other organizations
    • Group health insurance, legal help, and other services which some organizations, particularly professional organizations, can provide to members
  • Programs supporting organizations that lobby or use the legal system on behalf of particular causes, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Friends of the Earth, or the National Rifle Association.
  • Some memberships, like those in the American Bar Association or the American Psychological Association, help establish a professional credential or legitimacy.
  • Programs that support national or international charitable, research, environmental, or other efforts. Some examples are Oxfam, the Heart Fund, Easter Seals, and the Nature Conservancy.
  • Programs that support the work of local human service, health, environmental, or other community organizations. Many local programs, -- community land trusts and those serving developmentally delayed adults come immediately to mind -- make membership programs a standard practice.

There are, of course, many other kinds of membership programs. Some are for the direct spiritual or psychological benefit of members - Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, or a church or prayer group. Others are primarily social, or centered around a particular activity: the Elks, model train clubs, bowling leagues, etc. Still others - the American Legion, for instance - are limited to members of certain groups or people with certain common experience. We're specifically concerned here with membership programs that can help to institutionalize an organization.

Why might you want to establish a membership program?

"Membership" in your organization may seem unnecessary. Why not simply ask for contributions? While this may be effective in obtaining funding, it may be less so in assuring long term support. For this reason, many organizations that have no basic need to offer membership do so anyway.

The National Geographic Society (NGS) is a prime example, since virtually all members join simply to subscribe to its magazine. The mystique of being a member, however -- of being part of something as romantic as the NGS, which sponsored the first successful expedition to the North Pole and the discovery of the Titanic -- appeals to many people, and keeps them coming back to the organization year after year.

Membership increases commitment to your organization by fostering the feeling of belonging. If members see the organization as theirs, they'll be more likely to support it and act on its behalf, whether that means giving money or advocating or attending events.

Besides making members feel part of your organization, membership can build support for it in a number of ways.

  • It can broaden the knowledge and understanding in the community of your cause and the work of your organization.
  • Membership builds a core of community support for the organization, and helps to establish the organization as a "given" in the minds of the community. ("Of course we need that service -- it's just as much a part of this community as the Fire Department.")
  • It may be the first step toward involving members more deeply in the organization -- as volunteers, Board members, or even staff.
  • Once firmly established -- a process that may take three years or more -- a membership program can afford you with predictable annual income that can be used however it 's needed.

Membership programs don't happen overnight. Building a membership list large enough to yield a fair number of members, smoothing the process of contact and maintaining membership, and learning to manage and expand the list all take time.

An adult literacy organization started a modest membership program (memberships were $25.00) with a mailing list of about 200 names. In the first year, there were fewer than 25 members, the next year about 40, most paying only the basic fee. After six years, the mailing list was up to over 3,000 names, and revenue from membership was over $12,000.00, with many members contributing $100.00 or more. Many on the list were now reliable members who had contributed for at least three years. But it took six years of work to get to that point.

  • Membership and familiarity with the organization may motivate some people to contribute toward an endowment fund, or to make larger annual gifts.
  • It can help to develop a sense of identification with the organization among members, thus strengthening their support and their advocacy in the community.
  • A successful membership program can help to establish credibility with funders.
  • Being able to point to a large constituency ("We have over 500 dues-paying community members.") can increase your clout with policy makers.

While a membership program brings with it many advantages, it carries a major drawback that needs to be examined as well. It is extremely important to be certain that you have the resources -- particularly the personnel, whether staff or volunteer -- to start and sustain it over time. Managing and continuing to build a member list and maintaining the program can be time-consuming and frustrating. Program management and maintenance need an organized mind, attention to detail, long-term commitment, and, ultimately, a reasonable amount of time each week. And a yearly membership drive takes careful coordination and a lot of labor. If your organization can't provide all that in some way, you might want to think carefully about whether a membership program is right for you.

This isn't to say that it can't be done without a professional membership director. Very few small organizations have one, and many are able to run very successful membership programs. It simply means that someone has to take the time and assume the responsibility either for getting things done or finding others to do them. That person can be a volunteer (although it's much more likely to be the director of a small organization), an interested staff member, or a Board member, but whoever it is, she has to be committed and to have the skills necessary to make the program happen.

When is a good time to establish a membership program?

As with most "when" questions in the Tool Box, the temptation is to answer "Right now," but that's not strictly true in this case. Right now is certainly the best time to begin planning your membership program, but it may not be the best time to implement it. There are a number of questions to consider -- assuming you have everything else in line -- before deciding when to actually begin a membership program.

When is the best time to contact potential members? To answer this question, you have to know your community and its peculiarities. Winter holidays, for instance, are often seen as a good time for a membership appeal, since people are perceived as feeling generous and full of good will at that time of year, and it's a final chance to record charitable contributions on the year's taxes.

The tax issue only matters if your organization is certified as a 501(c)(3) tax -exempt non-profit by the IRS. Contributions for lobbying or legal work are usually not tax deductible, even if the organization is tax exempt.

It's also true, however, that people are often strapped for cash at holiday time. Many other organizations may be taking advantage of the season to recruit members or raise funds, so you'll have some competition. Furthermore, while winter holidays might be a good bet if you provide services for children or the homeless, they may be less appropriate if you provide advocacy or are fighting against something. People prefer the positive at this time of year, and like to feel they're connecting with someone.

Some other considerations when choosing a time to solicit members:

  • United Way. The United Way or its local equivalent runs a campaign at a given time every year (usually in the fall). If you're a member, you probably aren't allowed to run any fundraising activities while that campaign is going on. Even if you're not a member, it's generally foolhardy to try to compete directly with something as respected and community-wide as United Way.
  • Other organizations. Other community organizations may also have membership drives at specific times. It's probably a bad idea, both politically and pragmatically, to stage your membership appeal at the same time, unless you all have some agreement about solicitation.
  • Availability of potential members. In some communities, particularly those dependent on a single large employer, most people may take their vacations at a particular time (often in July or August), so that time may be a poor choice for a membership drive.

In reality, you can probably make arguments for and against almost any time of year. If you use the above considerations, you'll probably find that a particular season or month leaps out at you, because everything else is in some way inappropriate. Sometimes, you may just have to make a less-than-perfect choice, rather than agonizing endlessly. Once you establish a particular time for a membership drive, your members and supporters will expect it and respond to it in any case.

When do you have the capacity to mount a membership drive? Capacity generally means three things: people, money, and time. When are staff members or volunteers available, or how long will it take you to find volunteers, to do the work involved in getting a drive together? When do you have the cash available for a mass mailing or phone marathon, and when can your organization afford the staff or volunteer time needed for coordination?

When does the organization particularly need an infusion of cash? It might make sense to schedule your membership drive for a predictable time of year when cash flow is a problem -- between grants, perhaps, or a time when expenses are particularly high. If early spring is traditionally a period when cash flow is low, for example, then your membership drive should be in late winter, which would bring in the cash when you really need it.

Are there times or events when -- because of the nature of your organization -- a membership drive would be particularly appropriate? A land trust might tie its membership drive to the birthday of the great naturalist and environmentalist John Muir, for instance, an adult literacy program to National Literacy Day in September, or a domestic violence prevention group to "Take Back the Night" activities in the community. Sometimes the anniversary of a local event that everyone remembers, and that is associated with your organization's work -- a tragic accident, a heroic act, a fire, a crime, a local historic event -- may be a good time for a drive.

An alternative may be a membership program that goes on constantly. People are solicited as their names appear on your list (see below), and are asked to renew their membership on the anniversary of their joining. This won't work for every organization -- it increases the administrative burden -- but for some, it may be the best solution.

Who are potential members, and how do you find them?

Everyone in the community is a potential member. However, since it would be difficult -- in all but the smallest communities -- to contact everyone, a list of people who are at least somewhat likely to be sympathetic to your organization is a good way to start. How do you get such a list? There are a number of ways to get a core list of names.

  • Start with people you know. Ask everyone connected with the organization -- staff, Board, volunteers, participants -- to come up with a list of the names and contact information of a few friends and acquaintances who can be solicited. (Ten is usually a manageable minimum, and some people will come up with many more.) It might also help to pass the lists around, since some names may suggest others to some people. As you start attracting members, you may want to ask if they'd be willing to contact friends and ask them to join.

As is so often the case, the personal touch is crucial here. Research consistently finds that the most important reason people give for joining an organization is "Somebody asked me." The people on the list should know that they're being contacted because their friend is associated with the organization and wants them to join. If the membership solicitation is by letter, each list maker can write short personal notes on the letters to the ten or more people on her list. If people know that someone familiar vouches for and believes in the organization, they're much more likely to join.

Your core list should also include current and former donors or contributors, current and former volunteers, and - if you provide services or run a program - former participants. (If most participants are low-income, you might designate a different level of donation for their membership. If regular membership is $25.00, former participant membership might be $10.00, or whatever they can afford.)

As you build a list and enter it into a database, think about exactly what information you'll try to get. There are the obvious categories for easy contact -- name, home and business addresses, phones, faxes, and e-mails -- but there's also other important information. Who referred this person to the list? What's their history of contact with the organization? Have they stated any preferences about being called or about any other form of contact? Have they donated to the organization in the past, and how much?

You may want to enter some personal notes in addition to specific categories. Some members may be interested in specific aspects of the organization, for instance ("Says she wants to help with fundraising."), or may have contacts they're willing to share ("He's Bill Gates' cousin, and is willing to call him.").

If you're keeping a computerized database, adding and using new categories is a fairly easy process. If you're keeping a pencil-and-paper list, you'll probably want to limit the amount of information in the interests of time and of the fact that it's much harder to retrieve from a paper list. Where a computer database will sort and resort the list in any way you want -- by zip code, by size of contribution, by who recommended the name, etc. -- paper lists have to be gone through one by one, and can only be sorted by one category at a time. If your list is 40 people, that's not so big a job; if it's 4,000, it can take forever.

  • Target specific groups that have some connection to the work of your organization. If you're a community health clinic, you might aim to contact all the health professionals who live or work in the community, for instance.
  • Consider buying or borrowing contact lists from other organizations or from businesses whose lists comprise people who'd be sympathetic to your work.

For Example,  an adult literacy program, for instance, used lists from bookstores. A similar option is to trade lists with another organization.

The drawback to borrowing or sharing mailing lists is that some people - the author is one - get very upset if their names are given to other groups without their being consulted. One way to deal with this is to ask people to check a box or otherwise indicate whether they'd be willing to have their name given out in that way, and then make that a category in your database, so that you can pull out the names of those who object before you give your mailing list to someone else.

  • Circulate a sign-up sheet at presentations to faith groups, service clubs, and other organizations.
  • Go where the money is. You might prepare a specific presentation or solicitation for a large employer or patron of the arts, or try to make contact with such a person through a mutual friend. If you're asking someone to join and contribute a significant amount, or to solicit his friends, it's wise to be specific about what you want to use the money for, and how it will benefit the organization and the community over the long term.

Sometimes the most valuable thing a prominent person can give you is the use of his name. A particular endorsement on a membership letter may do more than the text to convince people to join the organization.

  • If you haven't done it already, start building a contact list right now. It should include everyone the organization has had contact with, including current and former contributors, colleagues from other organizations and from the field (including those outside your region), current and potential participants, current and potential volunteers, legislators, former staff and Board members, community members, public officials, etc.

Compiling and managing a list like this is much easier if you put it on the computer. If you have that capacity, there is a large amount of software -- with a broad range of price and complexity -- designed specifically for this purpose. Such software will typically allow you not only to keep track of information about each person (a contact history, who or where their name came from, their relationship to the organization, how much they contributed, etc.), but to print out, automatically, computer -generated letters with the correct address and salutation to everyone on the list, or to a selected group.

As your list grows, computerizing it -- and timely entry of new names and information -- becomes more and more necessary if you hope to keep control of your membership program.

How do you establish a membership program?

You've already accomplished some important steps toward your goal - deciding on a time for a drive and building a list of potential members. But that's only the beginning of establishing a membership program for your organization. There are several other considerations to deal with in setting up and running a program, and in maintaining it over a period of years.

Develop a system for overseeing the membership process

As discussed earlier, the logistics of a membership program -- building a list, organizing a membership drive, responding to membership contributions, and maintaining the program -- all take time and effort. A coherent system for handling all this is absolutely necessary for a successful membership program. And the key to an effective system is an effective coordinator.

In a larger organization, the membership coordinator might be an administrator or staff member responsible for development. In a smaller organization, it will probably be the director or assistant director, or even a volunteer. Whoever it is, the coordinator needs to have an overview of the program as a whole, and to understand what's necessary to make everything happen at the right time. She doesn't have to do everything herself, but she has to make sure that everything gets done, and done properly. She's the hub around which a membership drive revolves, and the last stop for questions and problems.

An effective membership system should include, in addition to a coordinator, clear timelines for each step in the process, and clear assignment of responsibilities for each of the tasks that needs to be accomplished: list-building, crafting an appeal, stuffing and sorting mailings, training and supervising callers, recording and answering responses, and maintaining the program.

Set fees or dues

To a large extent, where you set your membership fees depends upon who your target members are. It generally makes sense to make membership accessible to the largest number of people possible while still getting returns that make running an annual membership campaign worthwhile. Think about who your target members are. If you want large numbers of your organization's beneficiaries to join, and most are low-income, then you either need to set fees low, or to offer membership on a sliding scale. Look at what other groups do, and canvass people in the community to get some idea what would make the most sense for you.

All this assumes that you will charge a fee for membership. That doesn't have to be so, depending upon why you want members. As discussed above, they can function as community support, as advocates, as a political base, or as a source of volunteers and board members. The assumption here is that, if you're using membership as an element of institutionalizing your organization, you need all those things and money as well.

Charging a membership fee, or a fee that seems too high, may mean that some of your supporters won't join. If you're a grass roots group, you may be seen as selling out or abandoning your principles. On the other hand, unless you think your members ' support and political clout can assure your funding, that assured money from a solid membership base can go a long way toward providing a foundation for your activities over time.

The price of annual membership may be connected to something you offer to members as well. Professional organizations that publish a journal, for instance, usually include the cost of the journal in their membership fee.

You might think about offering different levels of membership. Many organizations designate different levels of contributors as "regular member," "friend," "supporter," "patron," "benefactor," "angel," etc. You may also offer different privileges or products for different levels. A performing arts organization, for instance, may offer higher contributors a chance to meet with performers before or after the show.

Whatever the character of your organization, and whether or not you decide on different levels of membership, you'd be wise to offer members something. Bridge Over Troubled Waters, a Boston organization that offers comprehensive services to homeless youth, sends its members a quarterly newsletter. Each edition contains a short news bulletin about a current program development, a brief profile of a staff member, and a longer, but still brief, participant success story. These stories tell of abused and abandoned adolescents who, with the help of Bridge's services and their own inner resources, have left the streets and become college graduates, Bridge staff members, loving parents -- functional people who see themselves as somebody.

The cost of this newsletter is probably minimal: it's produced in-house, and the printing is almost undoubtedly donated. Its impact, however, is enormous. It would be difficult for anyone reading it to fail to be moved by the plight and resiliency of those profiled, or to deny the value of Bridge's work. The newsletter keeps members ; it's as simple as that.

Contact people

So you have your list in front of you. It may have 200 or 500 or 5,000 names on it: now what? Here are some possibilities for reaching those names, with the pros and cons of each.

You don't have to have a "complete" list in order to start contacting people. Building a list is an ongoing activity. For the sake of efficiency, however, it does make sense to have enough names before you start so that it's worthwhile to attempt a campaign. It makes very little sense to enter into a membership drive with only 20 or 30 names; but it makes just as little sense to wait till you have 1,000 before you get started.

Personal meetings. This is the ideal. It's unlikely that you can make personal contact with everyone on your list, but it may make sense to try to make a personal appeal to people you particularly want as members. These may be community leaders, potential major donors, or people who've been involved with the organization before. Having someone they know contact these folks face to face will greatly increase the chances that they'll join. 

Like all the other contact methods on this list, face to face meetings take preparation. You need to think carefully about who'll make each contact - personal friends of those to be contacted, the organization's director and board, well-known organizational supporters - and then make sure that those people have the information to answer whatever questions come up about the organization. In addition, they need a pre-tested method of approach - a script, or at least a general line of conversation, that's been run past several people who are representative of those who will be contacted in this way. The more prepared the contact people are, and the more thoroughly pre -tested the approach is, the more likely it is that prospects will become members.

Phone solicitation. Even if you use other contact methods, contacting people by phone is another common way to solicit memberships. Many organizations send letters and then follow up by phone to a core group of the most likely potential members, or to those who might need a little extra push. Whether you use the phone as your only method of contact, or as a supplement to other methods, it's important to make sure that you train callers and help them understand what they need to say.

Who might your callers be? In most cases, they'll be people solidly connected to the organization: staff and Board members, participants, regular volunteers. Occasionally, community supporters or other interested outsiders might join a phone campaign.

Whoever your callers are, you'll need enough phones with separate lines to make a dent in the list (you may be able to convince a business or institution to donate its phones after working hours); a script for each caller to help her introduce the idea of membership, answer questions, and deal with a number of situations (like membership letters - see below - phone scripts should be pre-tested to see if they 're effective, and changed if they aren't); and food, drink, and bathroom facilities.

You'll also need some time before the calling begins to train callers, so they won't be tongue-tied or alienate people who don't want to join.

Phone contact is tricky. Some people love being called; others hate it. All the books say that you should call at dinnertime because that's when people are home, but most folks dislike having their dinner interrupted. So you both risk alienating a potential member, and have a shot at enlisting an enthusiastic supporter every time you pick up the phone. For that reason, it probably doesn't make sense to make calling your only source of contact with potential members.

It's particularly important that, if someone asks not to be called again, that injunction be included in his record so that he's not disturbed a second time. It 's also important that it be recorded if someone obviously enjoyed being called, or had a good conversation with the caller. Caller training should include ways to get off the phone quickly and graciously if someone is clearly unhappy about being called.

Direct mailingsThe most common, and probably the most efficient, method of contacting prospective members is a direct mailing. You compose a letter asking people to become members, put it in an envelope -- perhaps with a brochure about your organization, perhaps with a personal note -- send it off, and wait for a return. As described above, this process can be made much easier if you have software that automatically prints out a string of personalized letters for all the people on your list.

Sounds easy, right? Well... yes and no. The part that's easy is printing the letters. All you have to do is make sure that someone keeps putting more paper in the printer. But first, you have to write a letter that will convince people that your organization is worth joining. And afterwards, you have to fold and stuff into envelopes the 200 or 500 or 5,000 letters that represent all the names on your mailing list, either stamp them or sort them for bulk mail (see box below), and see that they get mailed at the proper time. Let's take these three tasks -- writing, stuffing, and mailing -- one at a time.

Writing membership letters. You may think that some people won't even read your letter... and you're right. Some will look at your letterhead or at the envelope, decide not to contribute, and throw your letter away. Others will be convinced -- or not convinced -- by the personal note from someone they know. But for a large number of the people who receive it, your letter will be the factor that determines whether or not they decide to become members.

It's important, therefore, to plan and write the membership letter carefully. It should explain briefly and powerfully what your organization does. Give specific examples of the organization's success or efforts -- refer to participants if you 're a service organization; refer to politics if you're an advocacy organization; to issues, to research, to whatever your organization aims to achieve. Tell people what their money will help you accomplish, and what they'll get for their membership. Thank them in advance for being great people who care about their community. Let them know if their contributions are tax deductible. And do it all in clear, readable, graceful prose.

Again... when your letter's done, pretest it. Give it to a number of potential members, your neighbor, your friend's Aunt Sally, your cousin's bridge club, and see what their reaction is. Better yet, if it's possible, send out a pilot letter to a small sample of your mailing list and see what the results are. If you get an overwhelmingly positive response, you're home free; if not, you need to find out what would work better, and rewrite the letter in those terms. No matter how good your letter sounds, if it doesn't convince people to become members, it's not what you need.

If there's no one on your staff who's capable of writing a good membership letter, turn to your Board, to volunteers, to a friend -- wherever you can find the expertise. It's crucial that the letter be persuasive, well-written, and grammatically correct. (If you blow it, and then catch the error before the letters are mailed, don't let it go: reprint them.)

You might add to your letter a tear-off or separate sheet to fill out and send back with membership dues. Such a sheet could include both basic information (name, address, phone, amount enclosed) and a check-off of things that a prospective member might be interested in being involved in -- volunteer tutoring, fundraising, providing in-kind goods or services, etc. Your recording task will be much easier as a result, and you'll be able to flag people to contact after the campaign is over.

Stuffing membership lettersThe key to stuffing letters is finding volunteers to do it -- Board members, organization volunteers, people who just want to be helpful. Providing food and drink and holding a "stuffing party" can be a relatively painless way to accomplish an essentially tedious chore.

Another possibility is finding a group unconnected with the organization to do it: a high school community service class, a sheltered workshop. One organization had a stuffing arrangement with a halfway house for incarcerated adolescents. The kids were extremely fast, and were so pleased to get out for a few hours that they happily stuffed thousands of envelopes -- competently -- in return for a fast-food lunch and snacks.

Mailing membership letters.

By far the least expensive way to handle mailing is with bulk mail. More costly, but still relatively inexpensive, options are third class mail and postcards. The most expensive option is to stamp each letter separately and send it first class at the normal rate.

Bulk mail is an option that the post office provides to non-profit organizations for a set annual fee. It allows greatly reduced postage rates on mailings of 200 or more pieces, but can only be used at the post office where it is purchased.

Bulk mail only makes sense if the annual fee (usually under $200.00) is less than the amount you save in mailing costs by buying a bulk mail permit. If you're only doing one mass mailing a year -- unless it's truly huge -- a bulk mail permit may not help you. If, however, you're doing three or four, it may save you a lot of money.

Here's how it works: You buy a bulk mail permit that entitles your organization to bulk mail rates (usually considerably less than half of first class). You have your envelopes printed or rubber-stamped with your bulk mail permit in the upper right corner. (It's a standard design that printers and stamp makers have on file, and they'll insert your permit number.) To use these envelopes for regular mail, you simply put a stamp over the bulk mail permit.

Bulk mail, in order to be eligible for the low rates, must be sorted by zip code. The more specifically the mail can be sorted, and the more letters going to the same zip code, the lower the rate. Sorting can be done while stuffing, thus saving a good deal of time and effort. (This may all sound complicated, but the folks at your local post office will usually be glad to help, because it will make their job easier if you know what you're doing. By the same token, the nicer you can be to them, and the more you can do to reduce their workload, the smoother the whole operation will go.)

A drawback to bulk mail is that it's sometimes slow. There's no guarantee that it will reach its goal within a day or two, as most mail in the U.S. does. It can take as much as three weeks sometimes, although most bulk mail actually travels about as fast as first class. If you want to be absolutely certain that your mailing reaches its recipients within a short time, then bulk mail may not be an option.

A hint: always include at least one envelope addressed to yourself in any bulk mailing. That will give you a check on how long the mailing is taking.

Another consideration here is how to set your letter apart from the pile of solicitations, catalogues, bills, political messages, and notices that arrives daily in most people 's mail boxes. Don Dillman, who has done research in this area, suggests making the letter look both professional and distinctive. This may mean hand-addressing envelopes (an impossible job for a mailing of several thousand, unless you have a huge number of volunteers, but not for a mailing of a few hundred); using odd-sized or colored envelopes and paper; using distinctive stamps; etc.


If you have an e-mail contact list or organization listserv, this may be a way to ask people on it to join. It's still early to understand exactly how effective e-mail is in a situation like this. Many people think of any kind of solicitation as spam, and either automatically delete it without reading it, or are angry that they've received it in the first place. Others may be delighted to be contacted in this way.

In any case, e-mail will only work for those who have access to it, and may therefore eliminate many elderly and low-income people, who are less likely to own and use home computers.

If you have a website, you can advertise membership there. Whether it's worth it or not depends upon the number of hits you normally get, and whether you're willing either to deal with rolling membership, or to take the trouble to run a campaign on your site, and then take it off when the campaign's done. This is a low-cost option, and probably would work best added to one or more of the other contact methods described here.

Public appeals through the media.

These can include Public Service Announcements (donated ads on radio and TV), paid ads in newspapers or on radio or TV, Internet advertising, press releases or press conferences, or stories in the print and broadcast media about the organization and the membership drive. Since they lack personal contact, these methods are probably less effective than the methods above.

Other methods.

Although the ones above are the most common forms of membership solicitation, there are other methods, both low-key and high-profile, that can be used. In the former category are posters and fliers in local businesses or a booth at the home show. More flamboyant appeals can involve street theater, contests, festivals, or people in odd costumes. If you have a lot of different options, you can use whatever seems appropriate at a given time for a given audience.

Record and answer responses

Every response has to be recorded with all its relevant information -- whether this is a new membership, how much the contribution was, etc. Each response then has to be answered, and if membership includes something tangible -- a publication, a key chain, a window sticker -- then that has to be part of the answer as well. The recording and answering should be one action, not two -- they should automatically happen at the same time.

Here's where your system can be tremendously helpful. Those responsible for recording and answering responses will know who they are and what they have to do, and will also know whom to ask for help if they are unable to keep up with the task.

The usual method of response is by personalized form letters or thank-you cards which provide space to acknowledge the amount the member contributed. (Once again, your computerized system can print out personalized letters, and the amount can be filled in by hand.) The letter should explain how the money will be used, at least in a general way, and thank the member, both for his contribution and his wisdom in understanding how important your organization is. A sincere thank-you is really important: people love to know someone has appreciated the good thing they've done.

If members got personal notes on their membership letters from friends within the organization -- staff or Board members -- those friends should be asked to write personal notes on the thank-you's as well. Remember also that, for contributions of $200 or more, if the contribution is tax deductible, you have to provide a receipt, or a letter that doubles as a receipt, for tax purposes.

How do you maintain the program?

Once you've run a successful membership campaign, your job hasn't ended. You have to do it again the next year, and the next, and the next, continuing to expand your list and hoping to increase membership and income each time. Maintaining the program over time takes organization and effort, and is just as important to success as the things you do during the membership drive.

  • Keep building the list. Continuing to add to the list of potential and current members should be a constant activity. Anyone the organization has contact with should be added to the list, and people within the organization should be encouraged to think of others who could be added to it. If it seems possible, another route is to ask members either to suggest names or to contact friends and ask them to join as well. The possibility of buying or borrowing mailing lists from other sources has already been discussed.
  • Keep the list up to date. You should manage a membership list like a garden, pruning and weeding to keep things growing. Names of people whose deaths someone in the organization is aware of, or who have asked to be removed from the list, should be removed immediately. Duplicates and people whose names have been on the list too long without a response from them should also be removed.

How long do you keep a name on the list if the person doesn't join? Most of the experts say three years. People may not join the first year, but might be persuaded by a second solicitation a year later. Generally, if they haven't joined after three solicitations, you can assume they're not going to.

You can also do a list-cleaning every couple of years, by mailing people a card to be returned if they want to be taken off your list. (This can be a double-edged sword, however. Once people start contributing to an organization, they often continue out of inertia until something happens to change the pattern. A card like this could be that something.)

By the same token, there should be an ongoing attempt to fill in any missing categories of information for those who remain on the list. Addresses, phone numbers, and zip codes can often be found in the phone book, for instance. A memo to staff may uncover a person's original contact in the organization. This information can come in handy later.

Building a membership list and keeping it up to date sounds like a straightforward, fairly simple task. Don't be fooled: it isn't. Doing it right requires almost daily checking and updating: once you get behind, it's incredibly hard to catch up. It requires a very high level of organization, constant vigilance, and a near-obsessive attention to detail. It's a great job for a volunteer or board member who gets real satisfaction out of keeping things in order.

A list can be kept on a standard computer database, like Microsoft Access or Lotus Approach. There is, however, as mentioned above, software specifically designed for fundraising that allows you to organize membership lists in a number of ways. If you choose to use a standard database, you can create computer-generated personalized mailings through the Mail Merge function of your word processor. If you have an integrated database and word processor (Microsoft Office or Lotus Smart Suite, for instance ), such mailings are easier still.

  • Respond to specific offers or requests from current members. If someone expresses a desire to help the organization and is never contacted, you've lost both an opportunity and a friend. It's crucial that you follow up on information volunteered during a membership campaign and on contacts by members during the rest of the year.

Someone specific should be responsible for going through the list immediately after the campaign and pulling out the names of all those who offered time, goods or services, expertise, or anything else. (Here's where tear-off returns, if you used them, make your life easier.) Whoever does the information-gathering should then refer the name of each member to the appropriate person in the organization -- volunteer coordinator, fundraiser, director -- for follow-up.

The same should be the case for any member who contacts the organization to offer help or make a request in the course of the year. Members' communications of any kind should be treated as high-priority, and effort made to get back to them as soon as possible. They're your ambassadors in the community, and it's important that they feel good about the organization.

  • Keep contact with the membership. Maintaining contact with members keeps the organization in their minds and establishes a relationship. There are a number of ways to accomplish this.
    • Newsletters or other simple publications. Like the newsletter from Bridge Over Troubled Waters mentioned earlier, a one- or two-page communication a few times a year can make members feel more a part of the organization. A simple newsletter might include brief news of the organization (numbers served, recent successes, efforts engaged in, etc.) and a story -- of a participant, a successful initiative, a new program -- reminding them of why they're members.
    • Contact members about needs. Members who didn't think to offer may have furniture, expertise, volunteer time, access to funding, etc. that they're able to donate or obtain for the organization (often with tax benefits to themselves). People like to be asked for help, and like to be able to respond. They'll feel good and become more loyal members, and you'll get what you need.
    • Ask members for help with advocacy. Your membership is a ready-made advocacy group. Many members can be mobilized to write letters, make phone calls, etc. for either a particular situation or long-term support of your issue.
    • In any press release, news conference, or article about the organization, thank members and friends for their support. If a member contributes or does something out of the ordinary, put it in the newsletter. Let members know they're appreciated.

Maintaining member good will is an important part of a membership program. One organization made it a point to hold at least one members-only event a year. These were free to members and their guests, and generally involved something not readily available to the general public -- a private tour of a historic house, a guided excursion on a river lined with spectacular autumn foliage. Generally staged with donated or greatly-reduced-cost services (a Board member was a docent at the historic house, for instance), and with food and entertainment provided by the organization's staff and Board, these events cost the organization next to nothing... but the good will they generated was invaluable

  • Make sure members know what their contributions make possible. Explain how important undedicated money is, and explain what you were able to do with it that you wouldn't have been able to otherwise -- buy a copier, pay for particular services, etc.
  • Ask for member input. Members may be able to help with planning, dealing with funding emergencies, or looking at long-term strategies for advocacy. They might even help plan the next membership campaign. Try to make them feel like part of the organization.

Properly maintaining a membership program exacts a cost from the organization in time and energy, but the costs of not maintaining it can be far greater. Once your program is established and a system for maintaining it is in place, you're ready to reap -- and continue to reap -- the rewards of an organization with true community support.

In Summary

A membership program can bring your organization both financial resources and increased community support, but it takes work and thought to establish and maintain one.

There are a number of tasks to complete and decisions to make:

  • Develop a system for running your membership program
  • Choose a coordinator
  • Decide on your target group
  • Put together, and continue to add to, a list of potential members
  • Determine when to begin your membership campaign
  • Devise a fee schedule for membership
  • Decide how you're going to contact potential members, and how you'll respond
  • Figure out what, if anything, members will receive from the organization
  • Put together and transmit the actual membership package
  • Maintain the program, through list management and contact with and cultivation of members, for as long as your membership program exists.

Congratulations! You're a membership organization.

Online Resources

FAQs about nonprofit membership from

Information on starting and maintaining a membership program from the U.S. National Park Service.

Membership renewal and retention. A blog by Bunny Riedel, host of Nonprofit Conversation

Writing an effective membership renewal letter. Another from the same source.

Print Resource

Robinson, E. (2003). The Nonprofit Membership Toolkit. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.