7. The Membership Program

Sarah Tober
4 min readAug 5, 2022

A nonprofit’s version of a corporate subscription service

Sailing into a membership worth subscribing to... Photo taken by me while sailing in the Bahamas in 2017

In the day and age of subscription-based services and products, a nonprofit membership becomes an easy addition to the consumers’ ongoing list of automatic deductions now being coined as “microtransactions.” A good example of these microtransactions is BMW. BMW vehicles include heated seats and steering wheel, but you have to have a subscription in order to utilize these features. There are several benefits to a nonprofit in crafting a well-planned annual membership and donation program. Not that nonprofits haven’t already been doing this for years. After all, churches have offered automatic monthly tithe deductions for decades…

The benefit of a tax-deductible membership or contribution to a nonprofit has merits fiscally for the donor and offers the organization an incredible opportunity to connect with potential volunteers, donors, passionate supporters, and/or board members.

An excellent example | Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Membership Program wildflower.org/join

As a leader, understanding your customer informs every part of your business and approach. Applying what I learned about profiling “buyer personas” from our Marketing Management class, has proven to be an invaluable tool in identifying and assessing the membership. Creating buyer personas for your organization is a process in itself. However, it will serve as a base for the membership program as well as communities and people served (the customers), board, and staff.

How to Create Detailed Buyer Personas for Your Business [Free Persona Template] hubspot.com/marketing/buyer-persona-research

By using the institutional knowledge available (longtime board members, staff, volunteers, and historical documents) I was able to identify who has traditionally been involved with our organization. The visioning process of who we want ideally to comprise our board and membership, is one of my favorite parts of the process. This is a powerful opportunity to create or hone in on DEI goals.

Back at the statewide nonprofit, I proposed building a membership program to not only create an additional and much-needed revenue stream, but also to build an army of advocates, necessary to gain the Texas Legislature’s attention.

Members invited to meet personally with then Speaker of the House Joe Straus in 2017

In building a membership program, here are the steps I took:

1. Build the levels. Design the levels of membership based on your buyer personas. The varied cost tiers should be in line with what your membership can afford, but offset any costs to the organization. Build the benefits of each level. Each higher level should reflect more benefits.

2. Capture the audience. A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool can be beneficial in gathering contact information and outreach to your membership. Some of the ones I experimented with helped me to cut down on administrative time and created integrated systems between contact information, building specialized lists, automated outreach and a robust donor platform. Here are some of the systems I had success with: DonorPerfect, Salesforce, Hubspot, and Little Green Light

3. Thank the members. When starting out the membership I took a mission driven approach to further engage the community. By providing a handwritten thank you with a seed packet, the members received a personalized touch and as an organization we were able to tout the amount of packets distributed and planted.

4. Communicate with the membership. If possible for your organization, a special members only newsletter is ideal for creating exclusive information sharing. Members want to support the organization’s mission and better understand the work, so this is the ideal place to showcase that.

5. Grow the membership. Providing discounts or special offers can help grow the membership, especially around the holidays or national recognition days related to the organizational mission. Encouraging members to give the gift of membership helps further the organization’s reach and engage members that may have otherwise been missed. This is also the place to demonstrate how much a membership impacts operations and furthers the mission. Always use data to tell the story.

The membership program I crafted for the statewide nonprofit example

This is a revenue stream. Again, donors look for a diversified stream of revenue for a nonprofit. However, membership can also be your army of advocates. The number of members you represent can be a powerful tool in advocacy. When I worked for a small business lobbyist, we were able to promote that our membership included nearly 30,000 dues paying members. We also had a Small Business Day at the Capitol where members met with their legislators at the Capitol. Asking your members to write their politicians is another powerful tool to get the work done. Nothing annoyed TxDOT like having our members write them en masse to support a Scenic Byways Program (which for some reason they had historically been opposed to implementing).

Me speaking with Governor Abbott at our Small Business Day at the Capitol

Ultimately, what I learned as a leader is that no matter how small or large their contribution every member matters.