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Establishing a Membership Scheme


THE TAKEAWAY: Establishing a membership scheme will allow your organisation to make more money and develop a stronger support base. To launch a successful membership scheme planning is all important, and your organisation will need to take a long, hard look at itself to be successful.


Establishing a membership scheme could help your organisation do two things:

1. Access more funds that aren’t tied to project budgets

A membership scheme will provide you with an opportunity to collect funds in the form of annual subscriptions or membership fees. The major advantage of this source of money, unlike most grant funds and some donations, is that it can be used on an unrestricted basis for general operating funds rather than for individual programs.

2. Develop a more committed group of supporters.

A membership scheme can increase commitment and loyalty. With the right sort of encouragement and personalised treatment, your supporters will become great advocates for your organisation, and may in fact convert their appreciation into regular donations outside of their regular membership fees.

Who can establish membership programs?

Any organisation can establish a membership/alumni program, but they are particularly appropriate for organisations with an existing strong supporter base and a particular reason for people to band together. Such groups include:

NOTE: Schools looking to build alumni programs should also check out the Building an Alumni help sheet for further information.


Questions to ask when creating a membership scheme

Why do you want members?

Before deciding what type of membership program to inaugurate for your organisation, think about why you actually want members.

  • Do you want more volunteers?
  • Do you want help with your advocacy activities?
  • Do you want people to join in your events?
  • Do you want money (via membership fees) to support your operations?
  • Do you want to encourage a sense of belonging?

Knowing why you want members will help you to make a clear pitch to prospective members, as well as helping you to determine what to offer them in return.

Why do you exist?

When establishing a membership scheme the most important thing to do is to show people what your group does and why it does it.

Gaining members will be much easier if you are able to encourage them to join in your cause or your work.

People will join if they share a common goal with you (e.g. helping conserve a forest), and if they can see that you might achieve that goal with their support.

Who can join?

Some not-for-profit organisations have enormous, wide-ranging memberships – a university alumni or league football club are two such examples.

Other organisations (a particularly prestigious golf club or a specialist professional organisation, for example) may opt to be more exclusive and limit their membership to a certain number of members, or to those living in a certain geographic location, or to a certain type of person (e.g. women; young people; older people).

One of the first questions you will have to ask yourself is who will be eligible to join your group. Most community organisations value inclusiveness and will want to make their membership as open as possible.

What are you going to offer?

Potential members need to feel that they are going to get something out of their membership. Some people may feel that they have received enough just knowing that their subscriptions are working towards supporting a cause close to their hearts, while others will want something more tangible.

Things to offer include:

  1. Freebies;
  2. Benefits; and
  3. Discounts.

In the Membership Basics help sheet we explain what freebies, benefits and discounts you could offer.

How will you choose joining and membership fees?

Before deciding what you’re going to charge, you may want to revisit your main purpose for setting up the scheme, what you want members to do, who is likely to join, and what they can or will pay.

Some organisations’ membership schemes include a joining fee and annual membership fees. These should be tailored to your reason for seeking members:

  • If your membership scheme was launched to raise money: higher joining fees and annual fees.
  • If your membership scheme was launched to recruit more volunteer help: lower joining and annual membership fees, with a request for in-kind support (such as a prescribed number of volunteer hours from members).

Some groups provide different membership levels, each offering different services, benefits, and privileges in return for annual membership fees or dues. Refer to the membership structures help sheet for more information.

For more information on what to charge visit the Membership Basics help sheet.

How will you find members?

Most organisations follow a simple routine when starting a membership scheme:

  1. Start with your database of contacts, including current and previous donors and supporters.
  2. Compose a letter/email to outline the case for membership and invite people to join. Your letter should include information about what their membership will offer your organisation (how they can help), and what you can offer them in return. You should also include details about the different levels of membership available, if any. You must also include a "call to action" – if they want to join, how do they do it? Consider setting up a webform (so people can click and join immediately). At the least, include a phone number, email address and fax number. Attach your membership sign up form to your letter/email.
  3. Send out personalised ("Dear John" or "Dear Mr Smith", not "Dear Everyone") emails/letters to all of your prospective members.
  4. Follow up a few weeks later (personally, or via a phone call, if possible) in case people missed the first email/letter or need some extra encouragement to respond.

To go broader, you can consider sending out a generalised invitation (via a mass direct mail or email campaign, though be careful of spam laws) inviting a broad base of people in the community to join your organisation.

This kind of campaign is called a membership drive and can be undertaken once a year to try to expand your membership base.

Is it easy to join?

If your group has made it too much of a hassle to join (convoluted process; unanswered phone calls/emails; only one way of joining), people simply won’t bother.

If it takes longer than a few minutes to join, it's too long.

Membership must be easy to explain as well, so provide any volunteers or staff working on your membership campaign with a "script" if you need to.

Avoid procedural barriers, such as:

  • long letters to read
  • people who give long-winded explanations
  • requiring too much paperwork
  • too many steps to sign up.

Becoming a member should be as easy as typing or writing down your name and address. You can follow up with more formal payment processes once you've got their names down

Can your organisation afford a membership campaign now?

When setting up a membership scheme, you need to think seriously about how much your organisation will need to spend on establishing the scheme, and the likely time difference between that expenditure and receiving your first lot of income from subscriptions.

Establishing a budget for running the scheme is a critical part of the initial planning. Think about what expenses you will encounter, such as:

  • Hiring a membership administrator/coordinator
  • Getting a computer/database
  • Providing a dedicated telephone/fax number (including call costs)
  • Developing specialised stationery
  • Printing & distributing membership cards and other materials
  • Communication costs – e.g. buying ad space in the local newspaper.

A membership scheme isn’t a quick fix for any group.

Your scheme may take a number of years before it breaks even, let alone makes a profit. It should therefore be seen as a long-term investment. As such, your forecasts, plans and budget should be projected over at least three years.