A nonprofit organization that does not mobilize a membership base does not exist. It cannot have an impact in civil society since it is isolated from the rest and would not have the means (both human and financial) to organize events to draw attention to the cause it is promoting. A winning nonprofit is an organization that inspires, mobilizes and drives the people it attracts to its cause.
Members are the main asset of a nonprofit. Not only do they perform tasks that make the activity of a nonprofit possible, by helping in organizing events, intervening in public events, communicate around your brand and fundraise for you; the base is also an income-generating asset. As we have seen in the previous chapter, members do pay an annual membership fee, which flows constitute one of the rare stable sources of income for a nonprofit. It is therefore, vital for a starting nonprofit to capitalize on building its membership base.
Members sign up to become part of a nonprofit in exchange for an annual fee. Their involvement is up for renewal every year, which means that managers must have to take into consideration the aspirations of the member base to avoid high turnover rates. Such rates would negatively impact the work of a nonprofit, since it would reduce the pool of potential members and spread bad word of mouth, especially for grass-root organizations. There is a cost for acquiring members. It typically increases exponentially as the most accessible potential members need the least targeting. If a nonprofit does not increase its national network, it will reach a ceiling where attracting new members will eventually be impossible (the “market” for highly-motivated people towards a certain cause is generally small). Expanding your membership base does entail that you expand your footprint. There is also a cost for retaining members. As an organization, you will have to invest in team-building activities, quality events and administration to be able to create a positive experience for all parties involved. It is interesting to note that the higher the number of members gets, the lower the cost of retaining an individual member becomes.
The importance of members goes beyond economic considerations. Indeed, a strong feeling of belonging will make the work and activities of the organization much more efficient, as the stakeholders will identify with each other and the cause more strongly. Moreover, deploying a large membership base serves a bargaining chip when dealing with fundraising, borrowing or sponsorship.
To analyze the drivers of membership building, we must first ask the question: why would anyone join a nonprofit as a contributing member?
Members cite a wide range of reasons that prompt them to get actively involved in a nonprofit organization they believe in. They often want to have a positive impact helping the advancement of a cause that is dear to them; doing it in a structured way (membership, annual contribution, take part in the meetings etc.) is important. Second, members are somewhat insiders to the organizations they decide to join; it allows them to evaluate somewhat the level of efficiency, transparency and trustworthiness of a nonprofit. It can be seen as some kind of investigative work conducted by highly engaged citizens. Finally, some benefits are linked to member status, even though they are not automatic.
It is therefore clear then that the first step for building a strong membership base is to formulate a powerful message, articulated around a compelling communication and an impactful messaging. The cause, mission or issue your organization ambitions to embrace must be well-defined, and the means you will deploy to address it must be clarified and well-documented. Second, your nonprofit must demonstrate from the start that it runs on a culture that promotes solidarity, transparency, trustworthiness and accountability. Third, the managerial structure must be somewhat flat and inclusive, to leverage the membership you will acquire and to foster a participatory culture in the organization. While a charismatic founder will certainly contribute to attracting members thanks to his/her charisma and aura, checks and balances must be designed to ensure that the founder’s syndrome does not go out of hand and antagonizes members.
HOW CAN YOU, THEREFORE, ATTRACT MEMBERS AND KEEP THEM IN THE ORGANIZATION?
You first need to define a well-designed membership program. It starts with identifying the role members can play in the big picture of your organization: where do they fit? By isolating the purpose they can serve and the value they can bring, it is easy to target communication and branding on those aspects to maximize the effectiveness of your reach. Your membership program must also feature a grid of fees and benefits that go along with said fees: members should be incentivized to subscribe to the plan that suits them best. You should not aim for fee maximization: it is better to have 1000 members who pay 10$ on average a year than 200 who contribute with 30$.
You have to design a signing-up system that is easy to understand, accessible and trustworthy. Use the right platform for you (we will cover the technological aspect in chapter 6) and ask for the minimum of information you need to organize your membership base effectively. A lengthy process is not advised, each minute that the potential member spends on the page filling up information can add to his/her frustration or impatience, prompting the potential member to abandon or get distracted.
After having crafted your membership program, you will have to get the word out. You need first to understand your target audience and talk to it. Draft some potential members’ profiles, with their interests, their personal beliefs and values as criteria and segments. Analyzing your target demographics is important as it will allow you to optimize your marketing efforts and reinforce your authenticity. Indeed, a passionate nonprofit will not target everyone in the hope of getting some attention, but will focus on those who seem to be eager to join and act. It is also important to leverage your organic networks by relying on employees, volunteers and board members to spread the word and list potential members in their inner circles.
You can gain your first members by “up-selling” volunteers into joining the program, with the benefits that go with it. Finally, invest in automation and digital marketing tools as they will help you minimize the amount of time spent and will make the best out of the raw data you derived from your targeting and segmentation. Putting forward the value you are offering to potential members should be your central point. A sign-up newsletter must also include a link to the sign-up page, to maximize conversion.
For nonprofits, it is useful to think of members as they were customers.
Indeed, they are the closest thing to customers since they are buying into your idea and project. They must be convinced that their initial investment in time, energy and money is worth it; plus, it is in your interest to have the highest renewal rate possible. It is crucial to distinguish in your membership base between first-time members and others, as this particular group has the highest turnover rate since they do not usually have the time to develop strong links that would convince them to stay. They are also the ones who reevaluate the most of their initial “purchase” decision. You must design a calibrated acquisition and retention strategy for them.
Finally, you need to create a true sense of community. Members must feel like belonging to an extended family, this is why you need to create bridges between individuals by setting up group chats for example. Organizing members-only events will also be decisive as it will allow for a real connection between members who have a lot in common. Plus, by developing personal relationships with others, members will have fewer incentives to leave. Their personal lives become increasingly associated with other members. You must also maintain regular communication with them, sending them weekly newsletters that inform them of the schedule, the initiatives, the opportunities, the challenges etc. Communication is key to maintain your membership base, but do not be tempted to spam them.
CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT YOUR BRAND
We typically do not associate the concept of the brand with nonprofits, as it sounds like something for-profit organizations develop to stand out in the crowded marketplace. But a brand is not only a trademark, but it is also a powerful summary of your values, your mission, your style and what sets you apart from those who are doing the same job as you. From this perspective, it is fundamental for a nonprofit to craft its brand image and we will see in this section how branding for nonprofits differs from for-profit branding.
There are some similarities between the two worlds as brands that serve the same purposes. Developing a strong brand allows an organization to stand out in a crowded market. Since nonprofits also operate on markets (if we consider members, donors and volunteers as “customers” who buy into your nonprofit’s credibility), it is an essential feature. One of the challenges nonprofits face in their early steps is breaking the glass ceiling and establishing both the value they can provide the community with and how they differ from other nonprofits that address the same issues as they do. A good brand positioning can definitely help with that.
The conventional approach to branding in the nonprofit sector has often placed the brand at the center of the fundraising process. While it can be a powerful tool for that as it allows for the diffusion of branded merchandising that directly contributes to income generation, it somewhat limits the extent to which a brand can be useful. The dominant approach to branding focused on building visibility to maximize fundraising, it did not take into account the opportunities a good brand could provide a nonprofit with at the strategic level.
The development of an identifiable brand in the nonprofit world is generally seen as an essential step in an organization’s growth. It constitutes an inflection point that is crucial to pass and manage in order to obtain nation- wide relevance and pursue the cause outside of an organization’s native territory. Branding can help from a strategic perspective, as it allows to fix an identity and project short and long-term goals in terms of communication, membership building and internal cohesion. Moreover, it gives an organization more bargaining power and credibility when it comes to negotiating sponsorships, grants or partnerships. Nonprofits must therefore think about their brand like any other organization does: it is an intangible asset that has both an income-generating role and a managerial/marketing role.
There is a shift in brand management in large nonprofit organizations, as the emphasis has moved away from income generation to strengthening social cohesion, identity and global impact. This is where branding in the nonprofit world differs from for-profit companies. Indeed, brands can be “shared,” allowing larger organizations to sponsor other less-known initiatives that are in line with the mission or purpose they are promoting. Moreover, strong branding contributes directly to increased operational efficiency as it mechanically enhances the two drivers of performance in the nonprofit world: perceived value and intrinsic motivation. An omnipresent brand across the globe motivates employees, members, and volunteers much more than an obscure one, as it gives them at least the impression that their work is impactful indeed. Nonprofits have turned around the concept of branding to make it an internal governance tool and an essential part of the culture they are promoting.
But what exactly is a brand? It seems that it has a somewhat vague definition because it is not only the sum of a name, a slogan, a logo and a set of self- declared values and principles. Somehow when it comes to branding, the total is bigger than the sum of the individual parts. While a powerful brand does have all of the above items curated and well-designed, it also has something else. It is a psychological construct that is associated with an emotion.