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Designing the Best Membership Program for Nonprofits

9 min read
April 21, 2023
Ronnie Gomez headshot
Ronnie Gomez
Content Marketing Manager, Neon One
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For growing nonprofits that have established a strong base of supporters, creating a membership program can be a great next step. 

Through a membership program, these nonprofits can offer their supporters the chance to invest more deeply in their success in exchange for benefits ranging from tangible goods to increased access and special discounts—-it’s a win-win arrangement that can be transformational for both sides. 

That being said, starting a brand-new membership program isn’t something that can be done overnight. Great nonprofit membership programs require thoughtful planning and careful, considered discussions between key stakeholders on your team. 

If you’re interested in starting a membership program at your organization, we’re here to help! In this article, we’ll cover the types of membership programs you can choose from, and six key considerations to make before launching your program

But first…

What is a Membership Program? Does my Nonprofit Really Need One?

Nonprofit membership programs work in pretty much the same way as their for-profit cousins do. Through their program, a nonprofit grants members certain privileges or perks in exchange for charitable contributions given in the form of membership fees or dues.

An important thing to note about membership programs is that they are completely separate from your recurring giving program because an exchange of benefits occurs. 

Implementing a membership program is a nonprofit fundraising and stewardship strategy. They can be an excellent way to grow your supporter base and increase engagement with your organization—all while bringing in revenue! Additionally, organizations registered as unincorporated associations must use a membership model to raise money.

On the hunt for a CRM? Considering Wild Apricot? Click on this image to explore our side-by-side comparison to see which platform would be best for your organization.
On the hunt for a CRM? Considering Wild Apricot? Click on this image to explore our side-by-side comparison to see which platform would be best for your organization.

The 4 Types of Nonprofit Member Programs

Acquisition and engagement strategies may vary, but all member programs typically are designed based on four different models. Use this list to figure out which will work for your organization. 

Trade Associations

Trade associations rely on membership programs for all their revenue needs.

With trade association membership models, members pay a fee and receive substantial benefits, up to and including exclusive networking opportunities in their field and partial influence over decision-making within the organization.

Trade association members are usually corporations or individuals from high-earning professions. As such, fees for this model are generally set at a higher amount than they would be with other types of membership models.

Members-as-Donors

The members-as-donors membership model is usually what comes to mind when many nonprofits think about membership.

With the members-as-donors model, donors will pay a membership fee and gain status as members. In return, they can receive certain benefits like discounts or semi-exclusive access, but they do not gain any ability to influence decision-making.

Because donors don’t have any internal influence at the organization, the interaction between the organization and the member is usually more limited after members pay their dues.

Members-as-Consumers

With the members-as-consumers model, members are treated more like consumers than donors.

The goal of the members-as-consumers model has little to do with fundraising and more to do with community-building. Because they want people to enjoy the benefits of their services, the nonprofit sets fees relatively low or might even offer membership for free. While there are usually perks and benefits included in these memberships, they are often fairly limited. 

The hope is that, in return, the nonprofit will build a strong network of supporters and donors that can support each other, further the cause, and grow the organization.

Members-as-Advocates

The members-as-advocates membership model is the most ambiguous type of membership program.

Because advocacy groups are more concerned with furthering causes than fundraising, this model relies on an exchange of intangible benefits. Members will offer their voices, actions, and skills, while the organization provides a guiding structure for mobilizing advocates.

However, since many organizations with an advocacy focus still need to fundraise, they’ll also often incorporate a consumer-based model as well.

6 Key Questions to Ask When Starting a Membership Program

Creating a great membership program takes time! A lot of careful consideration and planning goes into designing benefits that generate interest among your supporters. Here are some questions you can use to inform your strategic planning discussions.

What is the structure of our membership program? 

Because each type of member program offers different benefits and has a slightly different focus, it’s important to clearly define the parameters of your membership program before you offer it as an option to donors.

To decide which model is right for you, first think about your organization. What role do you want your members to have? Is the goal of your member program mostly to:

  • Raise money?
  • Build a community?
  • Offer services?
  • Further your cause?

Once you’ve decided which role would be most valuable for your nonprofit, consider what you can offer members in return. The better you can pinpoint their interests and concerns, the more compelling and successful your membership program will be.

2. How much should we charge for membership fees? 

One of the most important parts of defining a membership for a nonprofit will be setting membership fees.

To set membership fees at the appropriate amount, your organization should first set a membership goal.

If your membership program is tied more to raising money, you’ll want to come up with a monetary amount. If you’re seeking something more intangible from donors, it’s probably better to set a goal for the number of new members you hope to recruit.

After you’ve decided on a goal, you’ll want to consider:

  • The format of your membership model
  • The size of your program
  • The financial capacity of your constituents

Together, these three factors will influence where you should set your membership fees.

3. Should we create different membership levels?

At many membership organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, there are different levels of membership that come with different kinds of perks and benefits.

Your nonprofit needs to decide what kind of membership levels work for you. If you decide to craft multiple levels, take time to carefully way out the costs and perks for each.

To better craft your membership levels, dive into your constituent database and take a look at your current base of support. If your supporters are primarily small-dollar donors or have historically purchased less expensive memberships, then maybe a single affordable level will do. 

But if your base is more diversified, there might be an opening for more expensive membership levels. 

Either way, an important question to consider is your team’s internal bandwidth. The more levels you have to manage, the more complicated and time-intensive the job will be. Is your team up for it?

To learn more about the art (and science) of setting nonprofit membership levels, check out the article below:

4. Who will head our membership program? 

If you’re making membership a staple of your organization, you’re going to need an individual or team to head this effort.

To determine which person (or people) will be most suited to manage your membership program, you should consider both the type and scope of your membership model.

Depending on the format of your program, you might need:

  • An individual. If your member program is fairly small and just one of the many ways your organization engages constituents, you can probably get away with delegating this effort to just one staff member.
  • A team. If your membership program will be an extensive effort that’s core to your organization’s success, you’ll probably need multiple staff members to oversee it.
  • Volunteers. If your nonprofit doesn’t have enough staff to manage a large membership effort, you might also consider recruiting the help of volunteers.

To make your program as successful as possible, make sure that you’ll have enough hands devoted to this effort from the beginning.

5. How will we manage subscriptions and renewals? 

To achieve member status with your organization, your donors will have to subscribe to your program and renew their membership once it expires.

Seeing as subscriptions and renewals will be integral to facilitating your membership program, you’ll need a way to manage them effectively.

Especially for large organizations with a vast number of constituents, this task might be easier said than done.

Luckily, there’s association management software, which was built to help nonprofits better oversee their membership programs.

Neon CRM for Associations comes with comprehensive, easy-to-use membership management features that work in combination with powerful fundraising tools, while streamlining costs by allowing you to manage everything in a single system. 

Wonder how Neon CRM could help your nonprofit or association? Check out the story of how the Respiratory Health Association used their Neon CRM database to increase their reach:

6. Will people have to apply?

No matter how your membership selection process takes place, the first step to accepting new members is extending (and processing) a membership application form.

Depending on your type of organization and your membership standards, the application might be a way of collecting information or reviewing prospective members to ensure they meet certain criteria.

You might screen your applicants on any number of qualifications, from education requirements to professional affiliations. For example, a trade organization might prefer to accept only those who have been working in the respective field for 5+ years.

Or, your organization might simply want to get to know future members before granting membership privileges. If so, the application is a great place to request pertinent information and ask that the applicant elaborates on their interest in the cause!

Your All-In-One Membership Solution

Neon CRM for Associations can provide your organization with the tools, features, and best practices to engage your members and further your mission.

The all-in-one platform offers streamlined revenue management, constituent marketing and communication tools, experience and event management capabilities, and activity tracking features.

To learn more about Neon CRM for Associations, schedule a free demo today!

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