Above and Beyond
Getting people to write checks to support your organization can be tough. But what of those folks who already are writing you a check every year? What of your members?
Membership-based organizations offer a variety of benefits to members, but the support can’t — or shouldn’t — stop there. Loyal-member lists often offer the best leads for potentially larger gifts, but the question is how to get members to see the “added benefit” of giving above and beyond their membership dues.
Grant Healey, vice president of development at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says one of the key challenges of fundraising at a zoo or other visitor attraction is that there often is no record of or information on general attendees.
“When you’re selling tickets, you’re trying to run people through so you don’t have long lines, and the process becomes very cumbersome if you try to get personal information on these people,” he says, adding that one of the benefits of having members is that it creates a file of regular zoo visitors who can be contacted through direct mail.
“What we do know about them is that they made a value purchase. But we don’t know who they are, how affluent or not affluent they are, how interested they are in conservation and animals,” he says. “So through our direct-mail fundraising to the membership, in effect we’re asking people to self identify — ‘yes, I have a philanthropic interest in the zoo and, yes, I’m affluent enough to afford a $100 gift, $500 gift, $1,000 gift,’ whatever they identify.”
In general, individuals who sign up for value memberships can be a challenging demographic when it comes to fundraising outside of member dues.
“Most of those people are members because they made a value purchase. And so that isn’t necessarily the key group you’re looking for when you’re looking for donations,” Healey says.
Still, he cautions that you shouldn’t overlook this segment when fundraising. In his experience, fundraising from members still yields better response rates than sending out a cold mailing to a rented list.
“With a normal acquisition mailing, you’re very pleased if you get 2 percent. With the membership mailing, we would expect a 4 percent to 6 percent response,” he says.
What’s more, not all of your members are just in it for the value. A certain segment is affluent people buying memberships because they love the zoo and its mission. Healey says these members often give more than the zoo’s maximum membership amount of $99 when they join or renew.
For organizations that offer the value membership, it’s important to recognize when members demonstrate philanthropic intent.
“Once they start making gifts of $100 or more, then we say, ‘OK, membership isn’t the issue anymore.’ We want to work on the philanthropic side, and there the message is not, ‘You get this benefit by giving at this level.’ The message is, ‘We want you to help the zoo, we want you to support the zoo, we want you to make the zoo a stronger organization,’” Healy says.
Organizations with membership levels that go beyond $100 haven’t correctly identified the motivation behind those purchases, he adds, recommending separating the philanthropic motivation from the value motivation to allow for a philanthropic conversation that focuses on the intangible benefits beyond membership.
Up the ante
Still, if you find it difficult to get members to move beyond the value mindset to the purely philanthropic, the key might be upgrading members through renewals, according to Dana Hines, president and chief executive of St. Louis-based Membership Consultants, a full-service membership marketing firm that works exclusively with zoos, museums, botanical gardens and arboretums throughout the country.
Hines runs upgrade campaigns for her clients twice throughout the year, mailing in the spring to members who are due to renew in the fall and mailing in the fall to members due to renew in the spring. The mailings are personalized so that they reference the recipient’s current level of membership and ask him or her to upgrade the membership to the next level, or even two levels higher.
Hines says she has clients who have seen between 5 percent and 8 percent response to upgrade mailings — results that seem to hold true year after year.
“For organizations that we’ve been doing these upgrade campaigns for, we did them the first year and it was very successful. Resoundingly successful, and we thought, ‘OK, everybody who was going to upgrade has done it. We’ll try it again this next year but it probably won’t work,’” Hines says. “[But] their revenues went from like $45,000 in upgrade revenues the first year to $85,000 in the second year, so there was actually, I would say, almost a hunger among their members to do more than what they had been doing.”
Because they focus on the added benefits of moving up the membership ladder, upgrade campaigns are a good way to reach members who might not respond to purely philanthropic appeals where they won’t receive anything in return.
“So you can do the math for them and kind of play their game,” Hines says. “This is a value situation. If you’re a member at the $250 level, you’re going to receive X number of passes, and you value that at X number of dollars and so you can really illustrate for them how it’s also a good value in addition to helping support the zoo or the aquarium or wherever they might be a member.”
Offering members premiums such as hats or umbrellas, as many
environment-focused organizations do, often can encourage an upgrade in membership level, as well. However, many development professionals are leery of getting their donors “addicted” to the premium model, making it increasingly harder to retain and upgrade them.