2 concepts to boost membership participation

March 29, 2016       The NonProfit Times      

National Geographic, headquartered in Washington, D.C., faced a conundrum several years ago: How could it build a pipeline for long-term membership while not disturbing magazine renewals?

Contributing membership was the chosen avenue. NatGeo decided to focus on direct mail, which still drives 93% of individual giving, according to a Blackbaud study, and tends to be the preferred model of the organization’s target audience, Baby Boomers and older adults.

Finding a balance between benefit and mission-based memberships was a roadblock, Sarah Stallings, NatGeo’s director of annual giving, said during “National Geographic Society: Engaging New Donors at an Established Nonprofit” at the recent DMA 2016 Washington Nonprofit Conference.

The organization started off with two concepts. The first focused on one of NatGeo’s explorers working on national parks in Africa. The package included photos that detailed points made in the solicitation. An invitation signed by the president and CEO was the theme of the second concept, accompanied by an insert explaining NatGeo and a copy of the magazine’s classic Afghan girl photo. Neither concept included an offering and both were purely mission focused.

The invitation model won across the board, according to Margot O’Leary, account director for Avalon Consulting Group in Washington, D.C. Invitations received a 290% stronger response with a 26% less expensive package. All told, the invitations came with a $53.72 net donor cost to acquire, within NatGeo’s budget, while the explorer concept was over seven times higher.

NatGeo has managed to break even on the endeavor within two years, said Kerri Kerr, senior vice president at Avalon. The organization has since tested away from the invitation concept and moved onto a membership-focused package and a survey package that is also breaking even.

NatGeo turned to co-ops to extend beyond its in-house list in 2015, as a means of bringing those outside the organization in. The effort has yielded the promise of high dollar potential, with 69 gifts of more than $1,000 earned through direct mail acquisition. Volume is also showing promise. Its donor file sat at just 800 two years ago, but NatGeo’s file is now up to 28,000 with a trajectory to hit 50,000 by the end of 2016.