I’ve thought about the membership vs. donor debate for a long time and from many angles. Most of the organizations I’m familiar with have members who receive your services or donors who give you money. There’s not a lot of crossover.
Fundraisers usually don’t want to muddy the waters of the more transactional side of giving. We all know that it’s more than a transaction, but let’s be practical. A donation is a 100% taxable benefit—which membership isn’t. Membership fees are usually low and not upgradable (you can get a $50 donor to give $100, but a $20 membership is a $20 membership).
Members are tied to the nonprofit’s cause differently than donors are. For example, membership at a local Multiple Sclerosis organization may be a way to directly access discounted exercise programs or learning opportunities associated with the disease - waived entrance fees or a seminar on living well with MS. As a fundraiser, you’ve probably heard this before: “We are serving these people who need us and there’s no way I’m asking them for money!”
Likewise, a newsletter for members is a lot different (or should be) than a donor update. Members want information about your services, while donors want to see how their dollars are making it all happen. And there are a variety of stakeholders with their own needs, wants, and expectations:
Board members who pay a membership fee but don’t see why they should donate;
Volunteers who donate and would like some of the perks of membership;
An advisory panel made up of direct clientele who neither donate nor pay a membership fee but somehow end up with many benefits.
So what happens is donors and members get put into silos which signal the end of opportunities.
I think there are some things we can think about if we offer membership services in addition to seeking donations from individuals. Here are a few ideas:
Stop training members to think all you need is their membership fee
Membership fees are generally tied into services provided with that fee. How much will it cost to print the member newsletter? To provide an annual conference for members? But this has nothing to do with what it costs to run your nonprofit and it doesn’t speak to all of the ways those programs and services are accessed for $25 a year. If more was done to incorporate fundraising language into conversations with members, the thought of members as donors wouldn’t be such a tough pill to swallow.
Stop training donors to think all you need is their money
There’s no doubt that you must show donors ‘the love.’ Could you be doing it better? How do you ask donors for more than just cash?
Your donors will feel like they are in a special club if they are stewarded properly. But if all you’re sending them is appeals and then thank you letters, they’re going to feel more like ATMs than partners, don’t you think?
Some things to offer to donors that we always offer to members:
Concrete opportunities to see how the organization really operates(through learning opportunities, classes, etc)
How do you utilize the passion of your members?