Your organization’s membership program is more than just another source of revenue. It’s how you build your community and move supporters up the engagement pyramid. But as more nonprofits launch and evolve their membership models, it’s increasingly apparent that not all membership programs are actually accessible for their audience. And that’s a problem.
It’s time to talk about making membership programs more equitable and inclusive for all.
Here are some alternatives to create a more participatory model — one that benefits both your cause and the people who stand behind it, no matter their ability to give money or time.
What Do You Want From Your Organization’s Membership Program?
Building a membership model that’s open to a broad range of supporters calls for your nonprofit to define (or perhaps redefine) the purpose and goal of your membership model. What do you want to get out of it?
For example, one hallmark of a membership program is the sustainable source of revenue it provides. For nonprofits in the starvation cycle, a donation-based membership is a source of nourishment. But membership programs can offer organizations much more than necessary funding.
Explore all the ways a membership could benefit both your organization, your cause, and your supporters. Then reframe your membership model’s goals and purpose to reflect that.
For example, your other goals could include:
Build a social community of supporters who find connection with other people like them, and thus see your organization as an even more meaningful part of their social life
Create meaningful ways to invite your audience further up the engagement pyramid – especially if you find them plateauing at the beginning of their experience with you
Cultivate a passionate group of ambassadors for your mission by sharing inspiring news, thought leadership, and ideas with them first
Connecting with what matters most to your highly engaged supporters and seeking advice, ideas, and input from your membership first
On the surface, these goals don’t pay the bills. They don’t pay for your staff’s salaries or take care of the internet bill. But each of these goals works to amplify your message and further your mission. Ultimately, the wider your message spreads, the more donations you’ll get.
As you produce and share scroll-stopping content, your supporters in turn share it with their network. As a result, you’ll attract more supporters who are able to donate to your cause.
The more people you have spreading your message through an inclusive and participatory membership model, the more overall attention your organization receives — from supporters who can give in many different capacities.
9 Ideas for Inclusive, Participatory-Based Membership Models
The conversation around equitable and inclusive membership models is just beginning, and no one has all the answers yet.
While ideas and possibilities are brewing, consider these participatory-based programs that benefit everyone.
A free membership tier. By offering multiple levels of membership – some levels being paid and one that’s free – you invite more supporters into your organization. Since part of the purpose of a membership model is to build community, it also means building trust. So if you make this free tier a reality, make sure your language is clear: Free tier, no questions asked.
Free trial period. Just like your favorite streaming service, sometimes people need to see what value they’re getting before committing to paying monthly or annually to subscribe. The same goes for your membership model. If you do add a free trial period, make sure you design it in a way that provides multiple ways for people to engage in the community quickly. Be sure to follow up with clear next steps, timelines, and onboarding instructions if they want to continue their membership in a paid capacity.
Pay what you can. The honor system method. Provide a clear pricing structure and let members know what they can get for their contribution. It shows them the value of what you’re providing, which will help them determine how much they want to pay.
Offer scholarships or a certain number of free memberships per month. Have larger dollar donors provide a single or multiple memberships through a donation. This is a great way to connect new members with older members, fostering your community and encouraging prolonged, evolving engagement. If you have a large interest in free memberships, start a waiting list and provide a base level of content in the interim so that people can stay engaged.
Trade membership for volunteer time. Instead of monthly monetary donations, why not trade membership for volunteer time or a certain effort? If you go this route, the task at hand should be a clear, discrete action that’s trackable. Make sure you’re clear in expectations and communication.
Reward for recruitment. If a supporter brings in a certain number of new recurring supporters to the community, they could get next year’s membership for free.
Boost content in exchange for membership. Spreading your content far and wide is worth a lot! For your supporters who are active on social media, think about rewarding their sharing of your content with a free membership. This would require setting up a tracking system, but you should be watching and engaging with your more active supporters on social media anyway.
Moderate an online community group. Discord, WhatsApp, Signal, and Forum are all useful tools for communities to gather online and share ideas and information. But moderating these groups can be a big job. Consider offering a free membership to moderators of certain group sizes. This not only rewards active members. It also gives them the opportunity to feel more connected to your organization.
Run a peer-to-peer donation campaign. This kind of campaign requires your organization to provide supporters with the ability to create a personal fundraising page, for example on Giving Tuesday or for running a marathon. Your supporter sets a dollar donation goal and if they hit it, they get a year of membership.
Exceptions to and Considerations for a Participation Based Membership Model
Another consideration if you choose to make your membership model more inclusive? Think about what you’re giving back to your members and what matters to them.
There is a case to be made for exclusive access and content for your high dollar donors. This is especially true if these members provide significant levels of ongoing recurring monthly or annual income for your organization.
Still, the question needs to be asked: Is that exclusive access a good long term trade-off for your organization? To ensure it is, those people should still be invited to participate in the broader community by:
On the surface, your organization can provide some neat perks. But if those tote bags or exclusive access to content don’t mean much to your audience, you’re only wasting your time, effort, and money instead of investing in a benefit that members will find more valuable.
Not only is being more in touch with your supporters' needs, it’s also a lighter lift on your staff.
Instead of, say, shipping out tons of branded coffee mugs every month, your staff could host an online meet-up for members. Not only would this perk be more intentional and scalable, but also feel more meaningful to your community.
There is so much more to be done to create an inclusive and equitable space for supporters of every kind. Making it a reality starts with a conversation, exploration, and sharing of ideas.
If you’ve had success with a membership model based on participation, we’d love to hear it and continue the conversation.