Where Have All the Members Gone?

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Why Not-for-Profit Members Are Important

Keeping the doors open for your not-for-profit organization is challenging. Money is hard to come by. Federal and state funding is likely to decline sharply during the next few years. The National Council of Non-Profits recently reported that government support, donor retention, and corporate funding have already dropped. Private foundations and individuals focus on new, splashy ventures that are often outside your mission. Covering day-to-day expenses keeps directors and board members awake at night. At a time when relying on members’ support is more important than ever, the crowded schedules of families and distractions of electronic screens means fewer members, both current and new. After all, what’s in it for them? Why should they join your group? If you’re involved in running a museum, an advocacy group, or a community organization, you need to show them why.

How to Attract New Members

Attracting new members rests on two factors: (1) relevant programming, and (2) effective communication. Relevant programming is normally specific to an organization’s environment and mission, but it sometimes requires careful revision. Effective marketing to prospective members, however, concerns all organizations. Here are some approaches that work.


  • Show people how they will benefit from joining. Don’t merely tell them about your group—it’s history, list of officers, calendar of events. Those things are perhaps important after they have joined. Initially, however, they need to know what joining the group will do for them, their families, their community.

  • List the benefits concisely and in order of importance. For example, if your group offers services or sponsors events at a physical location, tout the benefit of involving members in non-virtual human interaction. It’s good to get out and away from our electronic screens!

  • Tell stories. If need to awaken empathy, create videos or brief stories about individuals who have benefited from your group. Appeal to prospects’ concerns for their own situation or feelings of empathy and solidarity for the persons described in your stories. Research shows that people feel empathy for individuals more readily than for large groups or strangers.

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  • Collaborate with other organizations and businesses. Consider offering package deals whereby new members can join two or more organizations for the price of a single membership at one. Or link up with corporations and offer their employees significant membership discounts. Both ideas can pay off in more new members and greater word-of-mouth reach.

  • Invite people to join! And make it easy to do so. Try to avoid offering complex levels of membership fees.

  • When someone does join, be sure to thank them—repeatedly. And follow through on the benefits.

For additional strategies, check out Top New Strategies for Nonprofit Membership Growth and 3 Expert Tips for Building Member Engagement.

How to Retain Current Members

Members who pay membership fees are donors. They should be treated as such. That means that you must thank them in every communication about your organization. Roll out the red carpet for them. Treat them like VIPs, because they are. Without them, your organization will surely collapse and you’ll be out of a job. Here are some specific suggestions to focus your communications on your members.

  • Create an email list for members. Use it frequently, but not too often, to inform members of new benefits, special events, and always to thank them for their support. The cost in money and time to maintain and use an email list is less than for sending out notices via regular mail. If your membership is large, segment your list according to interest, activity, or level of support.

  • Feature stories about members on your organization’s website.

  • Start a blog. Include stories about members in blog posts. Invite members to contribute their own posts to your blog (edit as necessary).

  • Use your email list to distribute a monthly or quarterly newsletter. (Have a few physical copies available at your organization’s location.) Focus on the activities and achievements of members or beneficiaries of your group, not just on the staff. Thank your member-donors.

  • Sponsor events that encourage members to network with one another about common interests or concerns. Avoid trying to control everything.

  • Invite members to contribute their time and expertise, not just their dollars. Create program advisory boards to help evaluate and revise your group’s programs. Encourage members to join your executive board or, if they are able, to help with fundraising. Interestingly, the more time that members invest in an organization, the better acquainted with its needs they will become; and that often leads to greater financial support. Thank them.

In all ways, both great and small, show your members your sincere appreciation.

Fix Both Design and Content

All organizations maintain websites and distribute print materials such as brochures, newsletters, reports, etc. Most pay a lot of money for professional assistance, either in-house or outsourced, in designing such materials. Since human beings are visual creatures, deficiencies in graphic design are easily spotted. Graphic design of websites and brochures must be visually appealing, informative, and consistent in promoting an organization’s brand.

Although many businesses have published well designed websites, perhaps with professional help, their written content often lags. Perhaps their officers have written the brochures, newsletters, or solicitations themselves, despite being too busy with other matters. Or perhaps such materials focus on the organization and its personnel rather than on the members. Or maybe the authors of written pieces simply lack the expertise to produce effective work.

Develop written content that gets the job done. Prospective members need to see how joining will benefit them. Current members need reminders about how the organization contributes something important to them and to their community. If the writing is sloppy, vague, dull, or error-ridden, folks will be turned off. The best graphic design in the world cannot overcome such problems.

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Effective messaging today also requires using social media—Facebook, Twitter,Instagram, Pinterest, etc.—often and well. This cannot be achieved as an afterthought or a sideline. Promoting an organization on social media requires assigning someone to create the content (images + words) and monitor responses. Increasingly, organizations that cannot handle this task in-house retain freelance writers to get the job done.

At a time when a growing, healthy membership roster is key to your organization’s survival, don’t take a chance on delivering a substandard, ineffective message. Get professional help before it’s too late to turn things around.

One thought on “Where Have All the Members Gone?

  1. What’s Going down i am new to this, I stumbled upon this I have discovered It absolutely useful and it has helped me out loads. I hope to give a contribution & aid different customers like its helped me. Great job.

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