What Role Members?

The word “member” rolls off the tongue easily for many nonprofit managers. Too easily, it sometimes seems, because the word implies an exchange of perceived value that might or might not be shared by the nonprofit and its members. Since the mission model of many nonprofits depends on the effectiveness of the membership, a flawed model can be a handicap.

Fortunately, a little analytic clarity can help shape an effective membership strategy. The starting point is that the membership transaction is always structured, however loosely, as some kind of quid pro quo exchange. The elements of what makes membership valuable for both sides are easy enough to identify. There is an economic aspect, usually monetary, although in some cases what is exchanged might be things like the member’s time and the organization’s skill. And there is the nonprofit’s benefit(s) and the member’s gain.

Nonprofit managers who want to use members effectively must start with a clear-eyed notion of what they want members to accomplish and what they want the members to feel they’ve gained in return. In this way, members are unabashedly tools for accomplishing a mission. Since membership is always voluntary, it can be presumed that members share that mission.

The place where most membership propositions break down is around how well the nonprofit can predict its members will react. Sometimes members disappoint because they simply don’t respond robustly enough. In most of these cases, though, the breakdown can be traced to a flaw in the nonprofit’s mission model, or a failure in execution. We will examine five different membership models to see how all this fits together.

This description of membership mission models can be used as a set of recipe cards: pick one that suits your situation and compare the details. If your membership model doesn’t fit well within one of these descriptions, it may be an indication that you are not using your members effectively. Often this will be because you have a confused membership model. In that case the information can be used as a kind of diagnostic – for example, what seems like disappointing dues revenue in certain models could actually signal the need to re-think the overall model.

Check the chart for a quick summary of the different characteristics. While there could be other possible models, we believe that these represent the majority of membership models typically used by nonprofit organizations.

A classic use of members is primarily as revenue sources. This is the NPR model, in which a member makes a donation for a package of benefits at a certain dollar level and is given the title of member in return. The economic value of the benefits is well under the level of the donation, but members are comfortable with this because they understand that a large part of their ‘return’ is the satisfaction of helping a worthy cause.

In the members-as-donors model, both parties understand that there will be little engagement beyond the exchange of membership for a fee. Members are not integral to the successful functioning of a public radio station, so management is freed from the responsibility to use them in any capacity beyond membership revenue. Note also that this is unrestricted revenue, which can be the hardest kind to get in such large quantities.

Superficially this model seems like money-for-nothing, but the transaction only works if the quality of the nonprofit’s brand is high. Nonprofits without such a high reputation will not succeed with the member-as-donor model.

In certain instances, the members of a nonprofit are actually more like consumers. This model is characteristic of club-style programs such as Boys & Girls Clubs. Here the membership cost must be set very low, if a dollar charge is assessed at all, because the goal is to build an ever-growing set of concentric social circles.

In members-as-consumers mission models, the nonprofit is using membership as a synthesizing device, not a source of revenue. Harlem Children’s Zone has done a very good job of building this sense of unity among its consumers, as have many charter schools. Note that in most club-style service models the entity does not explicitly have exit points. In a very real sense, both parties benefit if the ‘membership’ is never really terminated. The nonprofit wants their consumers to use as much of their services as possible, so entry barriers are low and exit pathways are not necessarily promoted.

Many nonprofits have an advocacy agenda. People power fits naturally into a nonprofit advocacy agenda, if only because most parts of the nonprofit sector do not have large enough operating models to produce large amounts of money for advocacy. So the tools of choice tend to be rallies, email campaigns, mass marches, and the like.

In the membership organization that specializes in advocacy the nonprofit engages largely in exchanging intangibles. The effective advocacy nonprofit offers a clear vision based on a compelling cause. It provides guidance, structure, motivation, affirmation, and gratitude to its members. In turn, they provide their time, passion, and effective organizing.

The problem with the pure advocacy nonprofit, of course, is that there is no money associated with an exchange of intangibles. This is why nonprofit public charities dedicated to advocacy tend to be thinly funded. In an intangibles-for-intangibles swap there is little room for revenue. Advocacy-only membership nonprofits have to find other sources of revenue that do not distract them from the primary task or detract from their credibility. Disability advocacy groups are a good example of this category.

This is another membership organization where a strong brand may help bring in revenue since some members may be motivated to support the organization beyond their personal participation.

The above situation is what gives rise to specialized groups that have found a way to blend advocacy with commercial-style transactions. The classic example of this category is AARP, which has developed both a very strong advocacy base and a commercially viable member benefits program.

This kind of nonprofit typically scales up to an usually large size in order to carry out both lines of its business effectively. Here the transaction is complicated because the basic membership fee joins effortlessly with the commercial side.

Trade associations for many in this sector have a distinctly for-profit twang, so it may seem like there is a disconnect between them and much of the public charity world. But in business and legal terms, there are multiple trade associations at all levels in the nonprofit sector. Human service providers have local, statewide, and national trade associations, while foundations and arts groups – among many others – also have such entities. Professional societies are close cousins of trade associations.

Trade associations’ fundamental membership exchange is different in degree from the other membership organizations. Members tend to be corporations, not individuals, and the membership fee is often high, at least compared with individual membership groups. The nonprofit trade association is an almost purely commercial exchange – money for (shared) power.

Of course, a flawed membership model is not the only reason for underutilizing members. Organizations still have to execute well on the basic tasks of membership management – marketing, recruiting, and managing – or member effectiveness could still fall short. But the starting point is crystal-like clarity about what one needs members for, and what the organization must do to satisfy them.


Thomas A. McLaughlin is a management consultant and contributing editor of The NonProfit Times. He is a member of the faculty at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. His email address is [email protected]