Nonprofit Membership Programs: How to Create a Better One at Your Organization

There are many benefits to building a membership program at your nonprofit. Learn how to create one that works.
Membership Model Website

From Blue Apron and Netflix to Spotify and the Dollar Shave Club, the consumer world has fully embraced a monthly subscription model. This relatively new approach is changing the way we shop, absorb information, and interact with brands. Consumers love subscriptions because of the convenience factor. And brands love them because they offer much more reliable revenue streams. It’s a win-win.

Now, however, the ubiquitous subscription model is picking up steam in the social impact space. For good reason. Membership programs (as they are usually called) offer an enticing solution to the perpetual funding problem so many nonprofits struggle to resolve. And they allow supporters to "set and forget" ongoing, budget-friendly contributions to their favorite social impact organizations.

The simple subscription model is a good thing. But you have the opportunity to craft a membership experience that goes beyond this basic approach. By creating a high-value, digitally savvy membership program, you can take your funding into your own hands. You can entice more supporters to become sustaining members, grow a more predictable stream of unrestricted funding — and strengthen your supporters' commitment to your cause at the same time. Here’s what you need to know to get started.

Beyond Tote Bags: The Future of the Nonprofit Membership Model

Funding is critically important for your social impact organization. It’s the lifeblood that fuels your programs, covers your operating costs, and supports your marketing and communications programs. Yet, if your nonprofit organization is like many others, funding may represent a constant source of stress. You may even find yourself trapped in a never-ending, never-enough starvation cycle.

Many nonprofits are already adopting some version of a “subscription-style” membership program to address their funding concerns.

In this arrangement, social impact organizations appeal to supporters to make recurring monthly donations rather than a single annual (or irregular, ad hoc) donation. The “ask” is for direct, ongoing, no-strings-attached support. These programs typically come with relatively few perks other than the occasional one-time gift — you know, a branded mug, tote bag, or pair of socks.

To be perfectly clear, there is nothing wrong with this version of nonprofit membership or “sustainer” programs. In fact, it represents a great start for nonprofits that haven’t yet tested the membership model. But it’s really just that: An entry-level version of the robust, digitally driven, content-rich membership program you can (and should) cultivate.

You see, the future of nonprofit membership programs is much more dynamic, immersive, and participatory. It’s as much about building community as it is about growing your revenue stream.

Build a Meaningful Membership Model That Fosters Community

Membership models only create a community for your followers if you’re thoughtful in your offerings. Use this cheatsheet to inspire and create potent program offerings that give back to your supporters and spark their ongoing commitment.

So, what does it look like? Think of your favorite news service or entertainment platform. Chances are, they offer a paid subscription in exchange for premium content. Next-level nonprofit membership models take a page out of that playbook. It’s not that members literally pay to gain access to an organization’s content. Rather, members gain access to an organization’s full suite of events, storytelling content, educational information, advocacy resources, and more.

The precise details of your membership program will depend on your organization’s unique activities and objectives. However, your program may include one or more of the following perks:

  • Access to your activist toolkit
  • Unrestricted access to your content, possibly including early access to certain content types
  • Early registration for events
  • Access to special livestreams, such as a roundtable discussion with your movement’s leaders
  • More frequent updates, such as a special, members-only edition of your email newsletter
  • Opportunities to engage, both digitally and in your organization’s boots-on-the-ground work, to further your mission
  • Input in certain aspects of your organization’s decision-making processes
  • Access to an active community of engaged and loyal supporters

You should consider ways to provide your members with tangible perks like the ones listed above. However, don’t fret if you aren’t able to produce an in-depth “menu” of them right away.

Remember, there are plenty of intangible perks for your members, too. Your supporters will feel good simply knowing that they are supporting your organization in an ongoing way. In that sense, your biggest job is simply to connect with people’s beliefs and core values. In fact, for many of your supporters, the decision to become a member may be a way of expressing their identity.

The Benefits of Next-Generation Nonprofit Membership Programs

There are many benefits to creating a robust membership program. First, however, it’s necessary to establish that this approach only makes sense if your organization has embraced a digital-first culture. You know you’re ready to start thinking about a membership program if you already have a fully functioning digital hub, complete with a robust brand, storytelling website, action center, and compelling content.

Spinning up a “2.0” version of a membership program represents a big investment of time and resources — much more than the “basic” model that so many nonprofits currently utilize. However, if you’ve embraced the digital media platform model we recommend, then you’ve already laid the groundwork. You’ve built the infrastructure. And you’ve already proven that you can keep up with a demanding editorial calendar, too.

In any case, the benefits of pouring resources into a next-level membership model are many. In doing so, you can:

  • Break the starvation cycle by significantly growing your revenue stream and making it more steady and predictable
  • Form and nurture an ultra-engaged community of your most committed supporters
  • Forge an ongoing relationship with your sustaining members that grows and deepens over time — along with your supporters’ loyalty
  • Create special “asks” for your members to get involved and move the needle on your mission
  • Offer perks and authentic community that attract new supporters to become members and commit themselves more fully to your cause
  • Respond more rapidly to fast-moving events by mobilizing your “base” — your members — to take real-world action, such as joining a protest

How to Create Better Nonprofit Membership Programs

Use the following tips to build a winning strategy for your social impact organization’s membership program.

  • Differentiate your membership program from a “simple” monthly donation. What do your members gain access to? What kind of community do they enter into as members?
  • Move your supporters up “the ladder of engagement.” Recognize that you use your membership program to nurture and deepen your supporters’ relationship with your organization. Be sure to offer multiple opportunities to engage, allowing your members to become increasingly involved over time.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your members for help. Remember, your members represent the most engaged cross-section of your supporters. Ask them to participate in or vet your early messaging. They will be more willing to try things and give you feedback, which can improve your broader communication strategy.
  • Use your digital action center to drive membership. If your action center is engaging enough, it can be used to drive supporters to join your membership program. Once they are members, your action center should also be the hub of all of your member activities, creating sustained engagement.
  • Don’t expect supporters to go from “zero” to members overnight. You’ll need to build interest and loyalty over time. You do that with compelling content and with “smaller” actions, such as signing a petition, making a one-time donation, viewing a video, and joining a live-streamed event.
  • Show proof of impact. Help each member see the direct impact of their monthly contributions.
  • Customize the member experience. Use personal data to customize each member’s experience. For example, don’t ask your members to donate. (They're already doing that, remember?). Instead, ask them to volunteer, sign a petition, or take some other action. Or, if a member previously attended a particular event, you might serve up photos of the event with a message asking them to share a favorite memory. This sort of personalization requires that your action center be integrated with a robust CRM, such as EveryAction. Based on the information you gather in your CRM, you can more easily determine what actions your supporters will engage in and tailor some of your program work to leverage your members’ engagement.

Your organization's mission is critical. And you're already working hard to create the change you wish to see in the world. By investing in a membership program, you can cultivate a base of dedicated supporters, build your financial stability, and scale your impact to its maximum potential.

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