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Membership

Information and resources to help you develop and connect with your organisation's membership.

Many non profit organisations have a membership base. From large organisations such as the RSPB or RNIB to local arts or befriending groups, this process of becoming a member or a friend is a vital way of developing commitment within your supporters.

Organisations manage their members/friends in different ways. For some it is about creating a special 'club' where members get discounts, magazines, events, etc. For others it is a way of helping people get closer to the organisation and its services or to other members of the group.

Some organisations will have dedicated teams who manage and communicate with the membership and will put lots of effort into retaining and attracting new members.

Managing membership at the Rationalist Association

Judith Walker, Business Manager at the Rationalist Association (publishers of New Humanist magazine) shares her views of managing membership.

The Rationalist Association has a membership base of 500 full members and a further 2500 who are subscribers to New Humanist Magazine. Membership is traditionally older but the numbers of new atheists championed by Richard Dawkins are increasing. The Rationalist Association also promotes humanist morality and is concerned with human rights worldwide. Donations from members have built and support the running of a secular School in Uganda.

Fees and benefits

Membership fees

Set fees at different levels for inclusivity. For example, you could have concessionary rates (for young people, senior citizens, etc) and gold membership for more affluent members. For special members you could provide extra benefits such as discounts on training or events where they can get to mingle with important people.

If you are a registered charity, you may be eligible to claim gift aid on a part of the membership fee. It is a good idea to have your membership package checked by the gift aid department of HMRC before you make a claim. Obtain a confirmation from them that you are eligible to claim.

Membership benefits

Only give members benefits they really want and use. Many people would prefer their membership money to benefit the organisation rather than provide something they see as a gimmick.

New members

Finding new members can be costly. You need to be inventive with whatever resources you have available.

One good way is to build a list of prospects. Include anyone who shows an interest in your organisation or makes a donation. Put them on your database as prospective new members. It is important to consider data protection issues.

Other ways of recruiting new members:

  • Ask your existing members to ask a friend to join and offer a reward.
  • Swap lists with other likeminded organisations and approach their members. But be aware of data protection law and the potential impact of sending mail to people who don't want it.
  • Advertise or put inserts in magazines which are read by people who may sympathise with your organisation. However this can be an expensive way of getting members. Any campaign must be tracked and evaluated to measure its success.
  • If you can get publicity in the press for your organisation this can be a good, cheap way of attracting new members.
  • Create a page about membership on your website, include stories and quotes from exisiting members, also photos and video clips from events and activities.
  • Use appropriate social media sites for your target audience, such as Twitter or a Facebook page to direct people to your website and membership sign-up form. Consider having a Facebook group which you can make closed or open where members meet on-line, or maybe use WhatsApp Group Chat for instant messaging with members.

Keeping track of your members

A good well maintained database is the secret to good membership management. This helps you to collect revenue and keep in contact with your membership.

Commissioning a database

When commissioning a database get a programmer who specialises in membership or subscription databases. Also get advice from someone who understands membership management. Then consult with end users (staff/volunteers, etc). They have day-to-day contact with your members and know what is required from a database to provide a good service. They can highlight potential problems and make useful suggestions. Do not under estimate the value of this knowledge.

Consider whether a cloud hosted database or one stored locally on your own server is the best option.  Having your database stored securely in the cloud gives your organisation much more flexibility, but relies on a robust internet connection. Having your database on your own server may benefit local users, but you must ensure the physical systems are secure and data is backed up. Cost should also be considered as cloud based databases can be more affordable compared to the price of using your own server.

Maintaining a database

Your database is a valuable tool through which all your membership revenue comes. Treat it as a valuable asset and look after it with great care.

Make sure data entry is consistent. The database manager should think about all possible variants for data entry and specify written guidelines for entry staff to refer to. Staff entering the data should follow these rules exactly and complete all fields. It can be difficult to use volunteers for data entry as it is harder to be strict with them. It is better to user paid staff and to help them develop a pride in the accuracy of the data.

If data entry is not accurate and consistent, it will be harder to use for example in mail merges, reports and analysis.

Duplicates are the curse of any database - constant vigilance is needed! Every time a new member joins, check to see they are not already on the database. It makes the organisation look bad if a person is sent two copies of everything and wastes money. Many databases include functions and reports to assist this process.

Keeping your database up to date

Make sure the data is up to date. Address changes, cancellations, renewals and other changes should be processed regularly so that the data is clean and usable. This is particularly important before any big mail out. It is also useful for answering member’s queries and to get management information for reports.

Data protection

Do ask members for their permission allowing you to contact them and in particular if you may ever consider giving their details to third parties. This should be clearly recorded on the database.

Back up

A back up of the data should be done regularly. You need to have an up-to-date copy of the data available as databases change frequently. It's also important to test your back up, making sure it can be rolled back and data restored successfully. If you back up to external media such as a removable hard drive, this should be stored in a fire proof safe or even taken off-site.

Communicating with members

Keeping members in touch with your organisation is very important. Their reasons for becoming a member may be diverse but letting them know your news and opportunities to get involved will ensure that they feel part of the community.

Good customer services

Staff should have empathy and respect for the membership. Answer phones promptly, return calls on voice mail, reply to letters and emails within a reasonable time. Also be willing to talk to them about the organisation but be skilled at politely ending the conversation if it is taking too much of your time.

Customer communications

Email is often the most efficient method of communication. Develop a system of sending emails direct from the database. Mail merge letters and renewal notices can also be sent this way. Don't forget to make some provision to use paper when required, you don't want to exclude members who don't have an email address. If your membership is from a particular demographic it may be appropriate to ask how they prefer to be contacted. Adapt your communication channels to your members preferences, for example by asking them to follow you on Twitter or like your Facebook page.

Make the wording of communications appropriate to the membership. Use plain English to get your message across clearly. Think about length, don’t overwhelm readers and include actions for them to do (tell a friend, buy Christmas cards, sign a petition etc). Do ask members to donate on a regular basis. People are often willing to give a bit more. Make sure you get a gift aid declaration from donors. If you are a charity, promote legacies to your members of all ages.

Regular newsletter

Keep in regular contact with your members and let them know what the organisation is doing on their behalf. An e-bulletin is often all that is required for most people, there are a number of systems available such as Mailchimp (offering a free service for non-profits) and most can report statistics about how many subscribers have opened the newsletter and clicked on links. Do also make available a paper copy for those who request it.

If it is appropriate and affordable for your membership to receive a printed magazine then produce one, although carefully consider the cost of production, postage and readership rate compared with an e-bulletin. Make your magazine look professional - easy to read and well designed. Do not overdo the contact; probably once a quarter is enough unless there are important news items coming up.

Renewals

Ask people to renew their membership well ahead of time. Send at least two reminders if you don’t hear from them. Also make a follow up phone call. Ask them to renew by direct debit as renewal will be automatic.

Online renewals

Try to communicate on-line as much as possible using e-mail for issuing membership renewals and reminders and on-line forms for accepting renewal instructions. Data can be automatically added to your database, quickly checked by staff saving time and money. Offer a secure online payment system such as WorldPay or PayPal for cards or paperless direct debit. Don't exclusively use online payments as some people won't use these.

Direct debit

Get as many members as you can to pay by direct debit. The renewal fees will come in without you having to spend time and money chasing and processing them. Members will still have the option to cancel.

You need to apply to be a direct debit initiator through your bank but all this can be done for you by a direct debit bureau such as Go Cardless or Rapid Data, which can then collect the direct debits for you. A smaller organisation may find this easier than dealing with direct debit software themselves and is cost-effective.

Have your say

What are the biggest challenges in membership? How do you communicate with your members? Do they expect a level of communication you just don't have time to provide?

Page last edited Apr 13, 2017

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