Let’s strengthen organizations, raise more money and scale up impact by speeding up how we learn about and position membership programs.
A membership innovation community of practice will identify and speed understanding of what’s working, best practices and innovation across a broad range of communications, engagement, fundraising, and organizing activities in nonprofits, journalism, political campaigns and social-good business.
Don’t want all the background? Jump to project goals and process.
We believe membership – people joining, investing in, learning from, and acting in partnership with others – is (or could be) a strong framework for scaling deep and sustainable activism and healthier organizations. This brief provides a path towards testing that idea.
Membership is critical to sustaining relevance, revenue and sustainability.
Membership has a long, global history. Groups like the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, National Geographic, Consumers Union and League of Women Voters are membership based.
Labor unions are membership-driven as are cooperatives (local grocery co-ops, for example, and outdoor stores like REI in the United States and MEC in Canada).
Community groups (Rotary Club, garden clubs) and trade associations are also membership based. And millions of people become members associations like the American Association of Retired Persons People every year.
People become members by investing money and time. In many cases, people receive career guidance, networking, volunteer opportunities, discounted products, invitations to events and more.
What is membership? For the purposes of this brief, we view membership as having three parts:
- People investing in an organization.
- An organization investing in people.
- A framework that binds together the interests of people and an organization.
Why do people become members of an organization? The simplest reason: because they’re asked. Usually by people they know. Most members enter an organization with at least one active relationship.
Members receive access to services and benefits for the time, money and personal capital they offer groups. Members are often given opportunities to meet, interact and learn from one another. People also learn and improve skills, take on volunteer roles and eventually become leaders. In many advocacy organizations, membership offers people an opportunity to directly engage with others and the organization in actions around a shared mission or vision for the world.
Let’s assume there is some value (or at least a bit of accuracy) in the above definition of membership, it’s historical presence and why people put their hard-earned money and time into an organization as a member.
It’s worth noting that the public service journalism sector is looking to membership as a path towards revenue growth and sustainability as well as knowledge and service. The Membership Puzzle Project is one example of that sector’s search for stronger member-driven skills and projects.
Today, nonprofits (both advocacy and community service groups), associations and journalism/media organizations (nonprofit and for-profit) use a variety of membership models to secure direct and indirect support.
Membership programs are usually built around and optimized for fundraising. People are asked for a minimal amount of time, a $30 donation, a Facebook follow, an email address. They receive a thank you (hopefully). They are passed into the hands of staff running fundraising and advocacy programs.
Membership programs are typically separate from organizing and communications. Software/CRMs may track donations and email opens. But software only does what the people using it ask. Organizations do little to build member relationships (or, in other words, do little to invest in the needs of members). People are either bombarded by messaging in their inboxes and social media feeds. Or receive little at all.
Everyone is concerned about impact. Many people want to work with others to have a direct impact. People in are looking for opportunities to invest not just their money but their time, skills and experience. They’re looking for anchors – places to hook their attention, build relationships, learn more and do good.
Meanwhile, organizations are dealing with solving transactional problems like high membership growth costs and/or churn. Most members would be surprised to learn that the most important calculation of their relationship is acquisition cost and lifetime value. The constant need to replace members creates an endless search for new people, new lists, new audiences – attention taken away from deepening and sustaining membership.
People are looking for consistency and impact are hearing about crises and immediate needs. It gets attention. But we lose attention, tune out, and move on to another crisis.
Worse, people are losing faith in nonprofit organizations. It’s a problem for the causes and communities in which we work who are not consistently served by a committed group of supporters.
Thousands of nonprofit organizations have decades of data about membership programs. Yet, too often, membership teams are sidelined to focus on marginal list growth strategies. Conversations about innovation, sustainability, scale and value TO members get set aside.
We need to rethink what membership can be. We should share lessons, test outside the box, build partnerships across sectors (and inside organizations).
Creating Modern Membership Models
Now is the time to look at new membership models. Membership teams and their partners across the organization, nonprofit and NGO leaders, and even members themselves need new and empowering membership models that can engage and even excite people.
To get there, the sector needs testing and learning, networking and training, and many more opportunities to unleash creativity.
We believe that networks of people working in and around membership programs (everyone from membership teams to organizing, volunteering, fundraising and other roles) will create stronger organizations – and more powerful outcomes – with opportunities and resources to more rapidly learn, test and master membership programming across their organizations, campaigns and teams.
This is a time of declining trust in institutions. And it’s not just government. NGOs, nonprofits and even small organizations face questions from constituents and potential supporters about finances, diversity, leadership, sexual harassment and more. Media and news organizations rely on reader (and source) trust to stay in business.
Membership programs invite and build trust by increasing transparency and direct investment in an organization’s mission, values and operation.
More people than ever are engaging in advocacy and political campaigns as volunteers, activists and leaders. Nonprofit organizations can better learn from organizing campaigns – even those under their own roof – to build stronger membership programs.
Sustainable funding remains critical to the long-term health of nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits are raising money and figuring out monthly donor programs but aren’t innovating membership in ways that deepens affiliation to sustain themselves for long time and grow leaders.
Meanwhile, journalism organizations and others are looking towards advocacy and struggling to find/implement membership models and practices.
There is a place for renewed, revitalized and re-imagined membership in nonprofit advocacy and organizations. Some of this work is already happening in public service journalism through the efforts of The Membership Puzzle, the Coral Project, Open News and others. These projects demonstrate the value that testing and networking around membership and engagement bring to communities of practitioners.
We envision a project that advances membership innovation in nonprofits, collaborates with other sectors and ongoing projects to share learning, and makes it possible for far more people to become more sustainably engaged in social good and community change.
Goals of this project
Here’s what we believe this work can accomplish:
Revitalize the membership field so that a wider range of organizations and campaigns can reach more people, engage people more efficiently and sustainably, and promote growth of leadership, revenue and program innovation.
Build a learning community of people working in and around membership. This may include people in nonprofits, NGOs, advocacy groups, political campaigns and social movements, associations, trade groups and labor unions, journalism and community media and more.
Rapidly share data and resources needed to test membership and related programs in fundraising, organizing, mobilization, volunteering and leadership.
Identify and assess a variety of new and existing membership models that organizations, funders, consultants and members can apply, learn from, test and iterate upon.
Create a culture of measurement, testing, reporting, iteration and transparency that supports broader membership program innovation.
What would doing this actually look like? Here’s an idea:
Create a network through baseline research and reporting.
- Survey a broad cross-section of people involved in members
- Get direct and subjective feedback on:
- What is and isn’t working.
- Identify good, great, creative work and thinking in membership.
- Bring subset to a kick-off meeting/event/conference where diverse group meets, networks, shares learning, creates plans for next steps in community.
- Identify what needs to be measured/evaluated for project impact and success.
Continue growing and sustaining a network of membership innovators and leaders.
- Online/offline community (could range from just email list/facebook group to one or more in person events in different locations)
- Identify need for and create training materials
Identify and showcase membership innovation and testing in the wild.
- Membership Innovation Showcase and/or Membership impact guide. Read more.
Inspiration / Background / More Reading
Who’s thinking about this now? We’ll continue updating this list as we find/receive ideas.
- The Future of Membership [New Citizenship Project]
- The Secret of Scale [Peter Murray, Stanford Social Innovation Review]
- Lesssons and cautionary tales from 130 years of membership at National Geographic [Cherie Hu, Membership Puzzle]
- We spoke to hundreds of independent news supporters over the past year. This is their membership manifesto [Emily Goligoski, Membership Puzzle]
- Texas Tribune strategic plan
- Shorenstein Center. Business Models for Local News (report). Extensive section on membership tests/models.
- Buzzfeed news quietly tests a membership program [Digiday]
- Where does journalism end and activism begin? [Nieman Lab]
- Advocates are becoming journalists. Is that a good thing? [Columbia Journalism Review]
- When it comes to launching serious, sustainable membership programs for journalism, ask for more, more often, and aim higher [Nieman Lab]
- What your site can learn from 100 news programs with robust membership programs [Membership Puzzle]
- A journalism innovation entrepreurship reading list [Phillip Smith]
- Guide to audience revenue and engagement [Emily Goligoski and Elizabeth Hansen, Tow Center for Digital Journalism]
- Six lessons about audience and email growth for nonprofit news [Emily Roseman, Shorenstein Center]
- Jay Rosen: Members don’t want a gate around the journalism they’re supporting [Poynter]
- Crossfit is my church: How fitness classes provide the meaning that religion once did [Tara Isabella Burton, Vox]
- “Hands-on journalism” fosters community engagement [Josh Stearns, International Journalists’ Network]
- The Myth of Civic Engagement During Trump’s Presidency [Adam Seth Levine, Behavioral Scientist]
- Seven newsrooms share the promise and pitfalls of moving the engagement needle with members [Jessica Best & Alec Saelens , Membership Puzzle]
- Small groups can change the world: An interview with Marianne Manilov of the Engage Network [Britt Bravo, Have Fun. Do Good.]
Compact Flash photo via JD Hancock, Flickr. CC 2.0.