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Nonprofit Membership Models: The What, Why, and How

10 min read
December 13, 2023
Shannon Whitehead headshot
Shannon Whitehead
Content Strategist, Neon One

So, you’re starting a membership program—now what? Check out the various nonprofit membership models that exist throughout the sector! Determining which model works best for you will then inform how your program will function and what member benefits will look like.

Every membership program needs a structure that appeals to its intended audience. In this article, you’ll learn about various membership models for nonprofits and discover both the keys to success and potential challenges you may face.

Membership Models: The What and Why

A membership model is an organizational structure where a nonprofit offers a valuable set of benefits in exchange for a recurring membership fee. Membership models determine how organizations drill down to plan membership tiers, community-building activities, and budget and revenue priorities.

Nonprofit membership models outline the value of membership—exclusive discounts, resources, networking and learning opportunities, and more for members—while providing various benefits for the organization, including:

  • Consistent Revenue: Membership fees are a predictable revenue stream that can help organizations plan and budget for the future with a degree of confidence.
  • Stronger Advocacy: There’s strength in numbers, and a strong membership base provides organizations with more voices to amplify their cause, advocate for policy changes, influence the community, and raise awareness for their mission.
  • Engagement: It’s reasonable to expect people who join a membership organization to be engaged, connected, and invested in participating because they’ve already invested their membership fee and want to get the most out of it.
  • Visibility: Every member comes with unique networks and connections, providing opportunities to spread the word about the organization’s mission and increase its visibility in the community. 
  • Credibility: With more visibility comes increased credibility, presenting the organization as a thought leader and credible voice in its industry.

Identifying the right type of membership model for your nonprofit is the first step to building a more engaged and financially stable organization. Below, you’ll find a breakdown of a few common nonprofit membership models you can use to determine the best fit for your organization.

Types of Nonprofit Membership Models

There are a number of membership models you can choose from to structure your membership program. Here are four of the most common types of membership models for nonprofits:

1. Trade Associations

A trade association is an organization where members are professionals in a specific industry. These members exchange their membership dues for exclusive access to career-boosting resources, networking opportunities, educational and social events, and more.

Membership in a trade association carries a plethora of benefits for members looking to get ahead in their profession. These membership associations may choose to operate similarly to a traditional nonprofit organization—allowing corporate sponsorship and other donations—or rely solely on membership fees for revenue.

Membership benefits website page for Women in Manufacturing (WiM)
Membership benefits website page for Women in Manufacturing (WiM)

Women in Manufacturing is an example of a trade association membership model, offering community and professional development to women who work in the manufacturing industry.

2. Members-as-Donors

Organizations following the members-as-donors membership model reap the many benefits of recurring donations. As the most traditional membership model of all, the members-as-donors model aims to provide supporters with an avenue to regularly donate to a cause they believe in. Members can donate a certain amount to be considered a member and—hopefully—choose to continue giving on a consistent basis.

While membership may allow a donor access to insider information about the nonprofit’s work, it doesn’t get them a position on the board of directors or any decision-making power in the organization. Offering memberships is this type of organization’s primary means of fundraising.

3. Members-as-Consumers

For the members-as-consumers membership model, the primary goal is community building, not fundraising. Often, members can join for a nominal fee or for free! The benefit of this model for nonprofits is the ability to draw people in more easily and build a solid network of supporters for their cause.

If the organization does collect a small membership fee, it’s used for the benefit of all members and to help members enjoy their services. A few examples of the members-as-consumers model are clubs and facility access memberships (such as gyms or community centers). 

4. Members-as-Advocates

The members-as-advocates membership model focuses on producing action behind a particular cause. This type of organization’s primary concern isn’t fundraising but advancing their cause through meaningful action, such as influencing policy change and mobilizing supporters to volunteer, advocate in court, etc.

Become a Member page on Florida Coalition for Children's website
Become a Member page on Florida Coalition for Children’s website

The Florida Coalition for Children uses the members-as-advocates membership model to effect positive change in the child welfare system in Florida.

The Keys to Success with Membership Models

No matter which membership model you decide is best for your organization, there are a few best practices to follow to build a strong membership program and effectively market to the people you’re trying to reach.

Understand Your Target Audience

One of the most important steps in refining your membership model is to gain an understanding of your target audience by conducting an audience analysis. Once you know the type of people your potential members are, you can tailor your membership offerings to their interests and needs.

There are a few methods you can use to get to know your target audience, including…

  • Data: What can your past supporters tell you about who may be interested in your cause or services? Even if you’re just starting out, your organization has likely made a few connections. Use the information in your database—such as your nonprofit CRM—to analyze the demographics (gender, location, occupation, age, etc.) of those who have interacted with you before.
  • Personas: It’s okay to play pretend sometimes…especially when it comes to visualizing the type of person most likely to join your membership program. The data you just pulled can help! A member persona may look something like this:
Member persona for Kelly, age 38, Elementary Teacher, Income $45-55,000, Interests include animal welfare, club soccer, and local events
This may seem like a simple, made-up person (because it is!), but developing a persona for your target audience can help you get a clear picture of who you need to reach to grow your membership base.

  • Surveys: If you could meet with all of your current supporters or members, what would you ask them? When fine-tuning your membership model, it can be helpful to know what keeps supporters engaged with your organization so that you can market those benefits to potential members. Send a survey with a few questions to that effect, such as:
    • Which membership benefits appeal to you the most?
    • If you were to recommend an [Organization Name] membership to a friend, what would you say?
    • Is there anything you wish [Organization Name] did differently?

We can’t stress enough how crucial it is to know your audience and, therefore, know which membership model serves them best.

Develop a Strong Value Proposition

You’ll find that much of the research you do to define your target audience can also help you develop a strong value proposition. Your value proposition is different from your mission statement. A mission statement describes why you exist, while a value proposition states the benefits you offer your target audience.

A membership value proposition could be:

  • “Join the largest network of construction professionals in the country!”
  • “Be a part of the bright future of cardiac health research.”
  • “Transform your career with monthly learning and networking opportunities!”

Define your value proposition for members to illustrate how your membership model benefits them. What does your audience get out of joining forces with your organization? Why should they want to be a part?

Keep Members Engaged

Did you know that it costs four to five times more money to acquire a new customer than to retain current customers? We can imply a similar principle to membership programs—instead of putting most of your effort into attracting new members, it’s better to keep your current members happy. After all, happy members tell others about your organization, and that can produce a lot of growth!

Your nonprofit’s membership model won’t be successful without intentional efforts to keep members engaged and satisfied. Dedicate budget space, calendar space, and other resources to member engagement. Special events and regular communications exclusive to members can go a long way in fostering and maintaining member engagement.

You can assess the impact of your membership engagement and retention efforts by tracking your membership retention rate.

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.

Potential Challenges with Nonprofit Membership Models

Choosing the proper membership model for your organization can result in a thriving program with engaged members who stick around for the long haul. However, developing membership models often comes with challenges, too.

Here are a few challenges that could affect the success and longevity of your membership program.

Financial Stability

As we’ve covered, member retention is a huge help in ensuring consistent revenue for your organization. But beyond keeping members around, it’s critical that the services you offer are balanced with the number of membership fees you bring in. Overpromising benefits and under-delivering in value can cause membership numbers to dwindle.

When financial stability is a concern for your organization, consider diversifying your revenue streams. For example, if you typically rely solely on membership fees for revenue, consider hosting fundraisers that align with your audience or opening an online store to sell attractive merchandise to like-minded supporters.

Thwarted Renewals

It’s not enough to convince a member to join—you also have to inspire them to stay. If you don’t have a plan in place to connect with people when their membership period is ending, that can be a major threat to your success. Lapsed members represent a big missed opportunity to keep an already interested person on board.

Every membership program needs a strategy to encourage membership renewals. When it’s almost time to renew, create a membership renewal campaign that reminds people of the value and benefits they receive from membership. Highlight the impact the organization has achieved with their support. And, perhaps most importantly, make sure the renewal process is smooth and easy! (“Smooth and easy” can be subjective—ask a few people to test the process.)

Want some help crafting membership renewal letters? We’ve got a handy how-to guide complete with a free downloadable template!

Implementing an Effective Membership Model

First comes audience research, and then comes design. Use what you learned about your potential members to choose the type of membership model that suits their interests, needs, and passions the best. Don’t skimp on the details—plan down to the membership benefits package, welcome emails, calendar of events, and membership renewal campaign. 

Next: Test, test, and test some more. What type of messaging lands with your desired audience? Will a membership fee-based revenue stream satisfy your organization’s operational costs? Does your members-as-advocates model need a touch of members-as-consumers to retain members and meet financial goals? Refine your nonprofit’s membership model based on what you discover in the process.

Every step of the implementation process—from designing to launch to everything that comes after—is gonna be way easier if you have a robust membership management platform at your disposal. With the right software solution, you’ll be able to analyze member data, segment and automate communications, quickly spin up member forms—and a whole lot more.

If you want some help finding the membership management software solution that’s right for your nonprofit, check out our mega-guide below.

Perfect Your Membership Model with Neon CRM

A successful membership model needs the support of a powerful CRM. There’s a lot that goes into building a membership program with a clear mission, smooth operations, and an engaged member base. But a membership-focused CRM can make your job much easier.

With Neon CRM for Associations, you can go beyond membership management and get the automation, personalization, and reporting features you need to keep members happy—all while cutting down on your administrative tasks. 

Ready to learn more? Click the button below!

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