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Membership Programs

Most people belong to one or more membership organizations and are dues paying members. These dues constitute donations to the organization and are tax-deductible under IRS laws (minus quantifiable value of incentives). While many take advantage of the tax deduction, people primarily join and renew because they believe in the organization. Most feel they are helping to make a difference and trust that the organization is wisely investing the dues they pay.

While it requires an up front investment and staff time, a membership program can be a key ingredient in a 501(c)(3) nonprofit park-support organization's fund raising strategy. Membership programs produce a steady annual flow of cash to help cover operating expenses, start-up costs for new projects, and on-going program expenses. A membership program can also help engage and cultivate people with a willingness and a potential interest in making larger capital gifts in the future.

Spinoff benefits for organizations with membership programs include:

  • Greater public awareness of the organization and its objectives
  • "Friendraising" constituency building
  • Building a resource base for volunteer support
  • Attracting larger gifts down the line

A membership program alone is not enough to sustain an organization. Yet it serves as a basic building block along with other fundraising tools such as on-line fundraising, capital campaigns, and deferred giving programs.

Many friends groups and associations affiliated with the national parks manage successful membership programs. Key considerations in packaging your membership program include:

Is a Membership Program Appropriate for your Organization?

Membership programs require substantial upfront commitment of financial resources and continued administrative support. Before any group undertakes a membership program, it should consider the following:

  • Is the organization achieving its mission and financial objectives without a membership program? If so, why is one needed? Maybe a capital campaign or special appeal for funds makes more sense.
  • What dues structure will be required to help meet the revenue goals of the organization? Will dues be prohibitively high or exclusionary?
  • Can the organization afford to invest/"lose" money for the first few years to build a roster of dues paying members? Net losses are predictable during the start up phase.
  • Does the organization have the staffing and administrative support necessary to support a membership program with services and communication that will motivate donors to renew?

Establishing a Membership Program

Before beginning a membership program your organization needs to decide whether it will focus on getting a large number of members or attracting high-end donors.

The most common approach to establishing a membership program is to mount a relatively-wide membership appeal to people in all giving categories.

Another approach is to offer exclusive memberships to attract substantial donors. A strong, prominent Board of Directors will attract others of comparable stature into the program.

The costs of establishing and servicing membership programs include:

  • Staff salaries and benefits
  • Direct mail list acquisition and maintenance
  • Computer services
  • Design and printing literature and envelopes
  • Postage
  • Communications (electronic newsletters offer a lower cost alternative)
  • Office supplies and expenses
  • Recognition certificates and donor premiums
  • Publicity

As a rule, the relative cost of maintaining the program becomes smaller as the membership increases. The first years require an upfront investment from your organization. Create a Business Plan for your membership program which will help you determine how much funding is needed upfront to enlist and retain members. New organizations starting up a membership program can expect an overhead between 50% and 100% of funds raised. In the long run, program overhead costs should be no more than 25% of the amount raised through membership dues.

Membership acquisition is not a money maker. Profits are made through membership renewals and eventual larger renewals as gifts. Don't mistake memberships for major donors. Cultivate members and move them up.

Building your Membership

Prospective members include:

  • Those who benefit from services offered by the park or by the partnering organization
  • Park volunteers, staff, and retirees
  • Residents of nearby communities who are park neighbors
  • Individuals and businesses with a history of supporting parks and recreation
  • Members of similar organizations

Personal solicitation is most effective in instances where a few select prospects are sought. Major events are a good way to create personal relationships between the prospect and the people in an organization. Have prominent members, board members, or officers meet with prospects. The telephone, while less personal, is another approach to recruit major donor-members or to upgrade existing donors.

Special events, coupled with media exposure, have been used by some organizations to kick off a membership campaign or increase their membership rolls. Be sure to diversify activities to get new members - including tabling (setting up a table in the park or at special events), hosting events, promoting memberships through association or park stores.

Direct mail is the most widely used membership recruitment tool and is capable of reaching the largest number of prospects. Direct mail often involves the use of leased, rented, borrowed, or exchanged mailing lists. Lists are leased or rented through a "list broker" who can recommend lists, get approval from owners of lists, and evaluate mailing results. For more information on the effective use of direct mail click here.

Since most people receive a constant stream of direct mail invitations to join and contribute to organizations, the challenge is to motivate the person to write a check rather than throw your solicitation in the trash can. Effective recruitment literature is central to a successful direct mail campaign. This consists of an appeal letter to catch the prospects' attention, explain who the organization is, what it does, and why the reader should join. Most organizations also have a general purpose brochure that is included in new member packets. The appeal letter is often the prospects' first exposure to the organization and must create a positive impression. It should not be too slick or overblown, or it might inadvertently send the message that the organization is already well-financed.

Most nonprofits exchange lists to develop and expand their own lists. As a survival measure, organizations carefully delete the names of their "best" members (ie., long term or high level contributors) from lists they exchange or rent. Keep in mind that your promise to not share your mailing list has an appeal to members in this day and age when people are deluged with direct mail or on-line solicitations.

Cultivate customer service. Communication with members is vital and a customer's experiences with an organization should be positive. Send out thank you letters two to four days after of receipt of membership dues and renewals of donations or memberships. Send out twice as many non-solicitation pieces as solicitation pieces to members. Include donation envelopes in journals and newsletters.

If the membership relationship is established and benefits are delivered as promised on a timely basis, the member will feel part of the organization. On the average, approximately 80% of members renew for the next two or three years. After three years, many people renew less automatically, so a special push is needed at that time.

In seeking renewals, organizations often suggest the next higher level member category, or some specific increase in contribution and let members know how the increase will be used. On average, roughly 15% of renewing members will upgrade their level of contribution

Renewal appeals are normally personalized. The appeal letter usually reviews the objectives of the organization, member benefits, and some of the ways the member's contribution was put to good use in the past. Acknowledge when and what each member enrolled for. This increases responses and donations. Renewal appeals are sent first class with address correction requested, so that the organization can stay on top of address changes. Premiums, appropriate to membership interests and organizational purpose, often entice members to renew.

On average, as many as 25% of people let their membership lapse. Organizations usually make three serious efforts to get members to reinstate before giving up on them. Substantial members with lapsed membership are contacted by phone and advised how meaningful their membership is to the organization and asked if they would consider rejoining. They are sometimes tactfully asked why they haven't renewed. Even if they don't return as a member-contributor, their input is valuable. It may indicate the need for changes in the appeal.

The most important way to acknowledge a member's contribution is with a timely letter of thanks accompanying the specified premium. Large contributors are usually handled in a personal way, such as in a phone call from a board member or officer.

When developing a marketing strategy, have professionals conduct a survey. Find out why people joined. Look to existing members and gauge how they respond to the campaign. Listen to them - find out what attracts them to your organization and motivates them to renew.

Maintaining a Membership Program

Once an organization has recruited a member, it will want to count on, and upgrade, his or her support for many years to come.

Organizations retain members by demonstrating that member dollars are needed and being put to good use. This is accomplished through periodic update bulletins, letters or newsletters, annual meetings, special events, and social activities.

An effective database manager, a software system to manage the data, and good, clean databases are essential for maintaining a membership program. A fundraising organization is only as good as its database. Database planning upfront is essential to ensure that necessary information can be captured, maintained, and sorted to meet present and future needs. A number of database programs are commercially available at all levels of investment to launch or upgrade a membership program.

Newsletters keep the membership informed and involved. Most organizations produce monthly, bi-monthly or quarterly newsletters, taking advantage of the opportunity to keep members informed about the organization's progress and activities, reinforce member benefits, seek and acknowledge volunteer support, and offer interesting articles for the reader. Regular monitoring is necessary to ensure that the costs of such newsletters are in proportion to the membership dues received. Electronic newsletters, bulletins, and updates may be a cost effective alternative to print materials. Another means to communicate with members is a website, which can also be used to enlist online donations and new members.

The challenge is to establish a positive, informative relationship without overwhelming the members with mail and other information to the point they feel annoyed or harassed.

Annual meetings and other social events sustain member involvement, particularly the most active ones. They relish the chance to meet others with similar interests and establish valuable business contacts. The most successful organizations schedule an annual meeting and one or more special member get-togethers during the year, especially for members in the larger giving categories. Get them on-site to experience the park and become personally engaged. Such events also give an organization a chance to open a person-to-person dialogue with a contributor that can lead to a larger donation.

Develop a strategy for cultivating and maintaining a cadre of media people who are supportive of the organization. The media can help keep the organization and its goals before the public eye. This is really important when an organization is just getting underway, recruiting members for the first time, or conducting special appeals and drives.

For information on specific membership programs, click one of the links below.

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