Real-World Fundraising Tactics for Membership Organizations
"I already paid my dues. Why am I being asked for a donation?” For membership organizations, this can be a feared response from members. However, a well-crafted case for support and creative approaches to fundraising can help change your membership’s culture into one of philanthropy.
“Don’t make fundraising a surprise,” says Beth Brodovsky, president of Iris Creative Group, a consulting firm specializing in strategic membership communications. “Let members know up front that you’re a fundraising organization. Show pride in what you’re doing through member-funded programs.”
She recommends that membership organizations develop a strong case for support that can be used to guide communications.
“For many membership organizations, so much communication focuses on renewals, and solicitation is almost an afterthought,” she says. “Organizations need to communicate who they are and what their funding needs are.”
Clearly, recruiting new members who understand that dues alone do not sustain membership organizations is imperative, but what do you do when existing members do not necessarily understand this? Educate. Soroptimist International of the Americas, a global women’s volunteer organization with 34,000 members in 20 countries, makes a strong case for fundraising.
“Member dues pay for member services governance and the operating backbone of the organization so contributions can solely support programs and fundraising,” says Senior Director of Development Nancy Montvydas.
That said, a challenge for this global organization is countering the mind-set of donations staying locally in the more than 1,300 clubs versus benefiting the organization’s global programs. This is where consistent messaging plays an important role.
Stay on target
To make sure your communications resonate with members, Brodovsky recommends borrowing from the corporate world and developing a persona to target messaging. A persona is a finely detailed description of whom you are talking to.
“Figure out your ideal fit of a member — age, other demographics, and details down to what magazines he or she reads,” Brodovsky recommends to better connect to members’ emotions and needs.
“When being general with communications, organizations can end up connecting to no one,” she warns.
Soroptimist boasts an impressive member giving rate of 12 percent. Clear messaging through multiple channels reinforces the case for support. Members are solicited via direct mail, email and social media — although communication is not always about a direct ask.
“Other communications are more about engagement, education and getting members involved,” Montvydas says.
Education is also key to Soroptimist’s giving program, and it begins at the top. A fundraising council of the board conducts regular town-hall calls with club presidents to explain how contributions are used. Club giving is an important source of revenue for the organization, with 80 percent of clubs making gifts.
More giving = better benefits
For some membership organizations, dues and donations are really one and the same. The draw to give more is better benefits.
This is the case for the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, which has 3,000 members. To help determine what membership benefits matter most, Executive Director Scott Staub recommends regular membership surveys.
“We survey members every two years to find out what benefits they like the most,” Staub says. “We were surprised to find out that the second most popular benefit was tickets to member previews for book sales.”
This information has helped inform the focus of membership appeals as well as timing.
Elite levels of membership and giving clubs can help members set their sights on higher donations. Staub recently introduced a leadership circle with recognition levels ranging from $1,500 to $25,000 — a significant increase from the prior high club level of $1,000.
The Junior League of Wilmington, a local women’s volunteer organization in Delaware with 400 members, also has had success with reconsidering its giving club levels.
“We were aiming too low with $500 as our highest recognition level,” President Susan Coulby says. “A past president approached us and said that if we created a $1,000 level she would double her gift to be the first name there.”
The response was positive, and other members stretched their giving, as well.
Recognition can be a strong motivation, particularly within membership organizations in which members know each other.
“Competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to generosity,” Coulby says.
Recognition for members donating at all levels is important, Staub emphasizes.
“Just last year we started recognizing all donors who have given 10 years or more, regardless of amount,” Staub says, adding that those donors receive a Thanksgiving card and a personal thank-you call from a board member. Subsequent giving is being tracked to determine the results.
The timing of fundraising solicitations in relation to dues collection is an important factor to consider to avoid donor fatigue or confusion. To help members differentiate between dues and fundraising appeals, Soroptimist collects dues in the summer when clubs are not as active, and the appeal process runs fall through spring. Plus, an option to donate with dues payment is offered to members. The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library has rolling membership renewal, and each member receives up to three reminders. Members also receive an end-of-year appeal and a special director’s appeal in June.
Know your goals
Renewing existing members is fundamental to the success of membership organizations, but in order to thrive, membership organizations seek to add new members. The critical question to ask, Brodovsky advises, is to consider whether your goal is membership growth or revenue growth.
“Don’t bring in warm bodies,” she says. “Bring in the right members: Attract those who want to support everything you do.”
Coulby seconds this recommendation, adding, “The organization needs to make giving easy and not be embarrassed to ask for donations.”
Sometimes the status quo is no longer working for an organization, or development staff is inspired by what another organization is doing. Instead of jumping in and changing a whole fundraising program, consider testing. Brodovsky recommends taking 10 percent to 15 percent of your organization’s list and trying one different element.
“By testing on a small group you can make sure you can still keep the lights on if what you’re doing differently doesn’t work well,” she says.
What can you change that could have a potentially positive impact on your fundraising appeals? Try timing, frequency, design or your pitch.
“Just don’t try more than one change at a time, or you won’t know which one caused the change,” Brodovsky warns. “Sometimes the change can be negative, but at least you learned what isn’t the right approach for your organization.”
However, if your test sample out-performs your control group, you may have hit on a change you can implement for all appeals and communications going forward.
While revenue from donations is always a source of additional income, consider looking at your membership dues.
“We hadn’t raised our basic membership fee of $35 in 10 years,” Staub explains. “We didn’t announce an increase to $40. We just did it, and so far there haven’t been complaints or greater attrition.”
Take a look at your rates. Consider raising them if it has been five or more years. Members may not be as price-sensitive as you fear.