Bright Ideas

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 CC0 1.0 Universal.

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25 September, 2018

Do you need a digital team, what roles would be on it and who would be included? Good questions. I’m skeptical that most organizations need a digital team so much as need digital first leadership and cultures. I wrote about it the other day in a piece called Thinking about digital strategy in teams:

“Digital is in every role in the organization, not just a few people easily pulled into a single team. Everyone and every role can, will and needs to understand how digital works.”

If nothing else, check it out the digital teams resources shared at the bottom. Other good/smart people have been thinking hard about digital teams in nonprofits the past few years.

Another good read on nonprofit digital strategy comes from Ryann Miller at Toronto-based Grassriots. Digital is a strategy, not just random tactics, posted at Charity Village, distills more thinking about how and why a digital-first organization isn’t just running better online fundraising and social media campaigns but is building lasting relationships with people built on member needs. Miller identifies building blocks for a digital-first org:

  • Supporter/consumer-centric
  • Transparent
  • Collaborative
  • Empowered
  • Data-driven
  • Agile / iterative
  • Innovative

Have you seen the new book, Driving Digital Strategy by Sunil Gupta?

Gupta, Edward W. Carter Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, explains how legacy organizations need to approach digital strategy in an org-wide / holistic way and not as a single tactic, single department, or as something that just gets added onto existing strategy.

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Leaders need to think about what people really need. If you understand what people are trying to accomplish and build for that, instead of thinking of digital as a channel to reach more people, you’ll be more efficient, advertise better, save money, sell more.

Gupta’s aiming at the for-profit world but the point stands for NGOs. Here’s another summary from an interview with Gupta. He was also interviewed for the HBR Ideacast in August. Great listen for the ride home.

Gupta talks about Peloton, the stationary bike company, in the Ideacast interview. Peloton doesn’t view digital as a way to reach more people but as a way to create a fuller experience that people will crave, rely on, pay more for and tell people about.

This brings me to exciting examples of companies putting people first to build powerful relationships (and businesses) in a Vox article called Crossfit is My Church. Sounds weird, perhaps, but a powerful read.

Casper ter Kuile, a researcher at Harvard Divinity School and Executive Director at On Being’s Impact Lab, looked at Crossfit and Soulcycle (again with stationary bikes!). They wanted to understand if, why and how millennials are replacing organized religion with other experiences that fulfill a need to be part of something bigger than themselves.

I think unions and membership orgs (e.g. Sierra Club) once did this very effectively but for a variety of reasons failed at thinking about membership as anything more than payment for services.

Skipping ahead, what if a membership organization’s strategy (most of which was digital and probably all of which was guided by core elements like transparency, empowerment, being supporter-centric) was directed at creating at experiences that addressed people’s needs, including a need to belong to something bigger / better than any one individual’s self?

Charity:Water is one example of this approach in action. There are loads of ways for NGOs to solve advocacy / political / community problems. But few are built from the ground up to give supporters direct roles – and personal meaning – in addressing water supply problems in communities thousands of miles away.

Putting the needs of supporters first would change how most groups staff themselves, think of revenue streams, approach role of volunteers, define membership, develop content, and more.

This isn’t an especially new idea (see older versions of Sierra Club, trade associations, and labor unions).

But does an updated version work in complex legacy organizations (and newer startups) that are solving advocacy problems (protecting forests, stopping mining, reforming health care finance)? It can and, I suspect, has to work in more orgs, more campaigns, more communities.

Don't stop believing

Good more or less related reading:

I’m not the only person who once subscribed to National Geographic who ended up confused about what membership means there. Membership Puzzle shares Lessons and cautionary tales from 130 years of membership at National Geographic. By the way, Membership Puzzle is doing an amazing job looking into how journalism/media nonprofits and startups are rethinking and testing membership engagement.

“When newsrooms start valuing their relationships with the communities they serve over the quantity of content they can produce, it shapes journalism for the better. And that focus on relationships is helping newsrooms have an impact and develop new opportunities for revenue and sustainability.” American Press Institute releases A Culture of Listening, a report diving into how/why journalists strengthen reporting and value through deep listening practices, tools and techniques. Useful for community organizers and activists

Want to kill democracy? Starve civic institutions (and parks and public lands). From Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at NYU: “Just as certain hard infrastructures, such as those for power and water, are ‘lifeline systems’ that make modern societies possible, so too are certain social infrastructures especially crucial for democratic life.” Libraries, environmentalists, outdoor recreations groups, the YMCA and many more should be talking about this at a time when government zeroing out spending on community institutions.

Don’t stop believing. Never thought I’d share a New York Times piece about Steve Perry (yeah, that Steve Perry) but this story has it all: music, love, tragedy, redemption, croquet, the Eels, big hair.


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Thinking about Digital Strategy and Teams

I’ve had several conversations the past few weeks about digital strategy and teams in nonprofits and media startups. They all come back to culture, teams, fundraising and the idea of digital-first organizations. Fascinating and fun topics but curious to be seeing this pop up now. Seems like the nonprofit community hasn’t talked much about digital teams recently – or not as much as five or ten years ago.

Then a great question popped up on the Progressive Exchange email list. Basically, how do we structure our digital team as we grow and evolve. People wrestling with this. It’s a huge issue impacting strategy, funding, leadership, vision and more. I threw together some ideas and resources on the question. How are you answering (or asking) the question these days?


We have a few staff who work on some aspect of digital but it’s not centralized so we lack in strategy and structure.

How do other nonprofits successfully structure digital teams. Are these teams stand-alone or are they housed under other departments? If housed in another department, which department makes the most sense?


Digital is in every role in the organization, not just a few people easily pulled into a single team. Everyone and every role can, will, needs to understand digital works.

What that means, for example, is that today digital tools/communications gives people a computer in the palm of their hand. It empowers them to be super organizers (P2P texting), fundraisers (P2P fundraising / online donations), lead their own campaigns (volunteers that lead parts of your network) and take on new roles (citizen journalism, citizen science, blogging, sharing on social media, etc.).

This changes everything about the role of the organization, its staff, and which assets of the group are valuable.

In practice, this looks different at different organizations.

Digital first leadership

What often matters most in a successful transformation is digital-first leadership. That could be an executive director who comes straight out of digital campaigning, organizing, or fundraising. Someone who gets networks, iteration, engagement, people power…can speak tech or at least not get lost in the jargon.

But in reality most execs are there to raise money, inspire, manage, set a big vision and give everyone else the tools to implement it. So a director doesn’t need to be steeped in digital so much as aware/supportive and know what to hire for while being able to let people do the work they were hired to do.

This is, in part, why you’ll see “digital director” roles. Where it works is where this role is someone with a meaningful guidance position. Access to and input on high level org, program, organizing, fundraising strategy. And some responsibility for managing digital leadership within teams. It’s going to depend on overall structure in an org. There is no one size fits all solution.

Do you need a digital department?

Where it seems most likely to get messy is when there is a digital department that sits next to a fundraising department, an organizing department, a tech department, an HR department, etc. (or teams). Then you get into questions/debates about what’s digital?

Fundraising and organizing are very digital. Tech is digital. Things quickly become turfy, siloed, easily contentious. Meanwhile you’re struggling to put the interests/needs of the audience/members/supporters first.

I have some other notes on the sort of membership and engagement strategy organizations could/should aim for if they really want to empower people to create change and sustain relationships with a “digital first” organization. But that’s for another day.

Depending on timeline and resources, it could be super helpful to talk to people building / running digital strategy and teams in digital first organizations – groups that started online or groups that have been making a transition to digital first.

Some ideas of who to talk to (not all inclusive – just some orgs I know well, know how they approach digital, know leadership, know they’ve been through digital transition, have seen in action recently, etc.):

Greenpeace UK
Australian Youth Climate Coalition
Global Zero
Rainforest Action Network
Common Cause
The Washington Bus


Nowhere near an all-inclusive list. Just what comes to mind first. All help thinking about digital teams though some are more focused on org strategy.

Digital Teams Report (2018)
NetChange Consulting

What makes nonprofit digital teams successful today? (article based on Digital Teams Report)
Jason Mogus & Austen Levihn-Coon, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Digital is a Strategy, Not Just Random Tactics (2018)
Ryann Miller, Charity Village

Understanding Digital Strategy (2018)
Harvard Business Review, 30 minute HBR podcast interview w/ Sunil Gupta, business professor and author of Driving Digital Strategy

Developing a Strategy for the Digital World (2018)
Harvard Business Review, Interview w/ Sunil Gupta

The Digital Plan (2018)
The Digital Plan book project is led by Brad Schenk who helped transform digital strategy/team at Rainforest Action Network.

Five models of digital teams (2017)
Jason Mogus, NetChange Consulting

Detangling Digital (2018)
Sam Dorman and Chris Zezza, Mobilisation Lab

Becoming a Digital First Organization (2016)
Alice Hendricks & Misty McLaughlin, NTEN

What Digital Really Means (2015)
Karel Dörner and David Edelman, McKinsey

Product teams: The next wave of digital for NGOs? (2015)
Sam Dorman, Mobilisation Lab

How to Build a High-Performing Digital Team (2013)
Perry Hewitt, Harvard Business Review

Five Dysfunctions of a Digital Team (2011…but still useful)
Jason Mogus, Michael Silberman & Christopher Roy, Stanford Social Innovation Review

You should go-to them occasionally.

Abortion must be employed only if there isn’t any other choice, but, treating it as yet another sort of contraceptive method isn’t warranted in any manner. Abortions can result in a great deal of dangerous impacts on the girl who has experienced the precise same. It’s always been controversy supported, with lots of moral implications at the middle of it. Continue reading “You should go-to them occasionally.”

Power-full storytelling for change

Can we create powerful (and “power-full”) storytelling for advocacy that shifts power to people and communities so they may better control the change they seek?

Power-full storytelling

The “traditional” framework for advocacy storytelling is built around persuading those who aren’t directly affected – or who aren’t currently engaged – to empathize and act. This is a good way to go when what you need are people to write Congress, come to a march on Washington or give you money so you can do more of your good work.

But persuasion isn’t about power. Persuasion acts on those not affected. Somewhere along the way it’s possible—too easy, really—for the change that needs to happen to be disputed, watered down, stalled in a committee. Meanwhile, real people go hungry, real homes sink into the ocean, real wildlife lose a place to live.

Philanthropy may recognize the power problem

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, recently wrote Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough in the New York Times. In it, Walker calls on the philanthropic community and, perhaps, a broader economic and political establishment, to not simply address the effects of inequality and injustice on society but to solve their root causes.

Farhad Ebrahimi of the Chorus Foundation wrote about the Foundation’s decision to focus on systemic change and supporting transitions to a new political economy in choosing how to direct its support of climate change advocacy.

It’s not a new idea to social justice advocates: We can (and should) feed the hungry but wouldn’t it be more prudent to tackle systemic causes of inequality and poverty that are leading to a growing number of hungry families and children each year?

Pressuring the System or Shifting Power?

Advocates and campaigners can do much more to tell the stories of people impacted by inequality, poverty, hunger, war or environmental disaster. And many are doing just that with interviews, personal histories, photos and video, and other narratives that tell stories of the impacted and less powerful in their own voices.  Recent work by Humans of New York tells the story of refugees to help fundraise for the community. In the film @Home, activist Mark Horvath interviews dozens of homeless people, family members, and others in the community to tell the story of homelessness from the perspective of those living it.

Continue reading “Power-full storytelling for change”

Great Content : Stronger Content Strategies

We help organizations develop and implement content strategies that create the conditions for more people to learn, act and lead change in their communities.

But not every content problem needs to be solved with a grand strategy. Our approach identifies content goals, needs and solutions by working across organizations, looking at data and finding examples from collaborators, competitors and other sectors.

Some of our content services include: 

  • Content strategy assessment, development, implementation and staffing.
  • Original writing and editing of blog posts, articles.
  • Creating, designing and producing email newsletters.
  • Editorial calendar creation and support.
  • Webinar planning and production.
  • Audio and video planning and production.
  • Developing partnerships with bloggers, freelance writers and other content professionals.
  • Staff support and training for blogging, writing and new media projects.
  • Content marketing and advertising.

We’ve worked with large and small organizations around the world, including:

Let’s talk (or call us at +1 720-480-6975).

Better Data : Better Content

Organizations are creating blog posts, reports, articles, social media posts, videos, audio, websites and much more. This content takes staff (or consulting or volunteer) time and money that could be used elsewhere.

We love content and storytelling. But if you can’t connect content to data–and use meaningful metrics to inform content strategy–you’re not accomplishing much, possibly wasting money, minimizing impact, and quite likely running teams of people who don’t know why they’re doing the work. Continue reading “Better Data : Better Content”

Turning policy experts into reporters

The Munk School of Public Affairs at the University of Toronto is doing something brilliant that NGO leaders should check out. The Fellowship in Global Journalism, an 8-month program that trains subject experts to become reporters. The program gives students the support, training and tools needed to create powerful stories for widely read news and online media outlets. Training focuses traditional and digital reporting skills and the program provides participants with high-level mentorship from working editors. All that is layered on top of the participant’s strong subject expertise.

deep sea mining
An ocean issue that could use more news stories: deep sea mining. This is an Auxiliary Cutter to be used by Nautilus Minerals for seabed mining near Papau New Guinea. Photo via Nautilus Minerals.

Imagine, for example, the stories that a few oceans experts could create for widely read media newspapers and online media if they had deep skills in reporting, data visualization, video production and other storytelling skills needed today. You don’t see many oceans stories because traditional news outlets don’t have staff to cover those stories and new media outlets haven’t built up subject expertise. But all are looking to publish great stories people will read and share.

It’s not that readers don’t care about oceans, it’s that there’s nobody to tell the story. And more (and better) stories are needed to support a public narrative on which advocates can hook their calls to action.

Oceans are just one example. You could swap out medicine, immigration, childcare or prison reform and get similar results.

Great news stories are in higher demand than ever so why not make them about issues that matter. There are more places reporting general news for national and global audiences than ever. Some start with a V: Vice and Vox. A is covered: AlJazeera. And then there B for Buzzfeed and M for Mic. Meanwhile, long-time regional, national and global news outlets are cutting full-time positions but, in most cases, hungry for good stories.

There are too few people who both know their subject and can develop great stories about it. This creates an opportunity for policy experts to engage global media in new and more direct ways. It would be fantastic to see the environmental community or other advocacy sector support a similar endeavor.

Three ways to stop wishing for a big campaign

In the movie Big, Tom Hanks plays 12 year old Josh Baskin who puts a coin in a magic wish machine at the amusement park arcade one summer night and asks to be big. Nothing happens after making the wish so he heads home and goes to bed.

Be big

You know the story. Josh wakes up the next morning and is, well, BIG (and played by Tom Hanks).

Sometimes, your campaigns go big. You probably didn’t plan for it (though you may have wished for it). The ride may be fun but it’s probably not what you expected.


Sometimes, things don’t turn out as you hoped. You didn’t raise much money. New people didn’t stick with you. The media didn’t respond as you hoped. The big suit doesn’t always fit right — you may walk away disappointed but a bit wiser.

Big. And not so fun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the question “What does it mean for a to ‘go big’ if you’re a nonprofit?” What is a viral campaign? That’s because I’m organizing a session here in Denver with the folks from Tech4Good titled Going Viral: The Ups and Downs of Hitting it Big. The program is tomorrow so you’ve probably missed it.

We don’t have to find Zoltar and wish to be big but we do need to know what “big” is, tap into what helps make campaigns go big and be ready when it happens (even if it’s not as dramatic as in the movie or the ice bucket).

So… What IS Big?

When it’s really big you know it. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was big. Very big.

Google trends - ALS
A 12 month Google search trends chart tracking ALS and Obama searches. The ALS spike is reminiscent of the Super Bowl and other huge national events.

Continue reading “Three ways to stop wishing for a big campaign”

Do you create content, measure it and still have no idea if content matters?

You are not alone if you answered yes (or even maybe/I’m not sure) to the question in the headline above. There is a disconnect along the creation, measurement, impact and learning path when it comes to content.

We set up The Content Survey to help you better understand how to develop and measure content that drives social change. Here are some preliminary results (and check out the slides below, too).

Content Survey - Preliminary Results

Who Took the Content Survey

67 organizations participated in the survey. Of that group…

  • 30 are small groups with under 20 staff.
  • 9 are mid-sized organizations with 20 – 50 staff members.
  • 11 are large groups of 51 – 100 staff.
  • 17 are very large organizations with over 100 staff.

The leading ways in which individuals saw their organization achieving its mission were direct advocacy and education. Groups also use research, community organizing, policy making and community service to achieve their mission.

There’s no clear correlation between organization size and having a written content strategy. Twenty-three percent of small groups have a content strategy — same as large organizations.

Overall, only one in four groups report having a content strategy.

Does Content Strategy = More Powerful Content?

Continue reading “Do you create content, measure it and still have no idea if content matters?”