What is membership?

I’m working on a project aimed at assessing (and rethinking?) how diverse communities of people working in nonprofits, associations, journalism and social good approach membership.

The process includes understanding what membership is – and what it isn’t.

Most people working in the field – and members themselves – have a sense of it. But there is no one clear definition of membership.

Organizations use membership in wildly different ways. For some, being on an email list is membership. For others, taking an online action is membership. For others, you pay a minimum amount and earn the right to vote on board members and bylaws. For most, the words member, donor and supporter are used interchangeably during the fundraising process. One can only assume this is in an effort to attract donations from people who find the idea of membership a compelling one.

Does any of this variation matter? Presumably, organizations and their membership teams have tested the terms and know what they’re doing. They know when to use “make a donation” and “become a member” and can clarify for people what the difference, if any, is between being a donor and a member.

I’m not sure the variation matters. But I do believe that vague use of membership invites vague levels of support.

Not defining membership within an organization – and being clear about its goals, requirements, and strategy – sets the stage for fuzzy, unclear and potentially meaningless relationship between people who are supporters and people who work in organizations. And that’s going to weaken the creation and implementation of any program involving people: fundraising, organizing, digital, communications, content, social media, volunteering, board development and more.

So let’s take a leap and write down a definition of membership. My definition certainly isn’t the only one (what’s yours?). And this one is colored by an emphasis on maximizing people power in a modern, digital world.

Three elements of membership

[1] An investment in the organization and its mission by the member.

This could involve money, volunteer time, skill-sharing, advocacy on the organization’s behalf or other resources and services. A strong membership model supports a member who chooses to do more than one of these things and the ability to add or subtract from their investment. A strong membership model also values and optimizes for whatever investment a member is able to contribute.

[2] An investment in the member’s needs by the organization

The organization offers benefits and/or services that the member can use to improve their quality of life. This could be very tangible goods and services (tote bags, books, product discounts). This could be events such as meetings, conferences or even trips. This could be the opportunity to learn a skill or meet people –  these are often direct or indirect benefits of volunteer programs, for example.

It’s worth considering if the “benefit” your organization offers members benefits the person or the organization. Many organizations send supporters a magazine or newsletter. These can include educational and/or entertaining information for the member but are often aimed at helping the organization meet its need for a more informed membership.

The first mention of membership on a Sierra Club donation/join form comes in the form of small print at the bottom of the form.

[3] A framework that binds together the interests of member and organization

Benefits to the organization and member are the ingredients. A framework that ties people together are the recipe. And, like any cook knows, while there are a thousand ways to cook a chicken, not all of them taste good.

The details can vary but somehow, a strong membership program will create and support ways for members and organizations to better understand and depend on one another.

Shared mission or purpose should be a goal of most any member-organization relationship but it isn’t sufficient or even necessary to a membership relationship.

Historically, many organizations offered members a decision making role in the organization. Members could vote on board members, bylaws and major policy changes. This still happens as many (though likely not all) REI or Sierra Club members know.

Supporters of an organization likely share the mission of that organization. But few supporters can recite a mission statement to you. And, often, people will take action simply because they’re asked and not because they share the mission of the organization.

What membership means

Here’s what membership should not mean:

What membership should NOT feel like

Too often, membership simply means being one of many. A name on a list. Someone who can give money when asked. Sign a petition when asked. Come to a meeting when asked.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Technology, transparency, and community building offer a multitude of opportunities for people and organizations to share interests, work together for common purpose, and participate in programs that better support both organizations and people.

I’m excited by the work of Membership Puzzle, a group looking at what membership means for journalism. And journalism organizations like The Texas Tribune who are focusing on membership engagement as a core element of its future growth and sustainability. Know of a project in the US or global NGO/nonprofit sector that’s assessing and testing membership? Would love to hear about it.


Flock of sheep photo via PublicDomainPictures.net. CC0 1.0 Universal.

One thought on “What is membership?

  1. It’s great that you’re looking at the question of re-envisioning membership. There’s been a lot of discussion among membership organizations (and their umbrella groups such as societies of association executives and nonprofit groups/NGOs in the US and Europe) but most of what I’ve seen focuses on better engaging membership not (re)assessing the entire concept. We are definitely moving in the direction of new organizational and operational models and more of this in-depth and creative analysis is very needed.

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