Nonprofit Membership Programs: 7 Steps to Starting One

Nonprofit Membership Programs: 7 Steps to Starting Your Own
Organize your support base.
Increase your revenue.

What Is a Nonprofit Membership Program?

Membership programs are a means of incentivizing giving and involvement within nonprofit organizations and associations. The organization extends additional engagement opportunities to members in exchange for donations in the form of membership fees.

What are the Benefits of Membership Programs?

Nonprofit organizations with membership programs not only reap the benefits of extra donations through membership fees, but they also provide specialized perks and engagement opportunities for invested supporters—a truly mutually beneficial relationship!

What Kinds of Organizations Use Membership Programs?

While any nonprofit can benefit from a membership program, these programs also extend to organizations who don’t rely on traditional fundraising methods. Trade organizations, professional associations, and advocacy groups all utilize a membership model to raise money.

Conceptualizing Your Nonprofit Membership Program

1. Determine the Structure of Your Membership Program

There are a number of membership program models your nonprofit can follow, but in order to choose the structure that makes the most sense for you, you’ll first need to understand your own goals.

Ask yourself a few questions as you lay out your membership strategy, including:

  • What role will our members play in our organization?
  • How will we provide membership benefits?
  • How will our members contribute to our nonprofit’s cause?
  • Is the purpose of our program fundraising, advocacy, or community-building—or something else entirely?

The most important element to keep in mind is (as always!) your supporters. Structure your membership program around your constituents’ interests and personalities—after all, they’re your future members!

Move on to the next step when: You’ve determined how you want your membership program to function within your larger nonprofit organization.

2. Establish Membership Fees

You might use your membership fee revenue to:


  • Boost your annual fund.

  • Benefit a specific campaign.

  • Cover your membership benefits.

  • Keep your office up and running.

  • Develop new programs.

  • Endow a grant or scholarship.

Membership fees are an integral aspect of membership programs, so you’ll want to be careful as you select the right price for membership.

To determine an appropriate amount, you’ll first need to consider the goal of your membership program. Check out the list to the left for examples of how different types of nonprofits allocate the revenue generated by their membership program.

However you decide to use your membership revenue, you should first determine what your end goal is. Then, work backward from the amount you wish to raise. Consider how many members you think you can encourage to join, and then divide your goal among those members.

Since you’ll be focused on recruiting, your membership fee should be set at a point that’s both feasible for most new recruits and profitable for your organization.

Move on to the next step when: You’ve decided upon a membership fee amount that makes sense in relation to your membership goals.

3. Consider Membership Benefits


If you want your membership program to thrive, you’ll want to establish a plan for keeping members engaged at a level that’s somewhat more interactive than your non-member donors. That way, when it’s time to send out membership renewal letters, your members won’t think twice about renewing!

While you don’t have to shell out big bucks to keep your members involved in your new program, you can put forth a little extra effort to keep your members connected to your cause. They’re interested in your organization, so don’t let that dedication go unnoticed.

Show your members some gratitude by:


  • Offering members-only newsletters and discounted subscriptions to your publications.

  • Providing special access, like early event registration, free raffle tickets, or extended bidding time.

  • Hosting member community-building activities, such as special events or meetings.

  • Giving exclusive discounts to products, services, or event tickets.

  • Presenting members with a physical or digital membership card.

Move on to the next step when: You’ve come up with a plan for providing membership benefits, no matter how big or small.

Constructing Your Nonprofit Membership Program

4. Devise a Leadership Strategy for Your Program

As you develop your membership program, you’ll need to appoint a leader (or leadership committee) to take charge of the initiative.

While membership programs can run concurrently with many other fundraising and stewardship efforts, these are specialized programs that require dedicated time and hard work. As such, it’s important that you set up a devoted leadership team to take the charge on these tasks. 

Depending on the scale of your organization (and program), you may relegate these roles to any of the groups listed to the right.

No matter which route you take, make sure you have enough hands on deck to keep all your efforts running smoothly.

An individual

For organizations on the smaller side, a solo staff member might be well-suited to manage your membership program. Just remember: with only one person overseeing the entire program, you’ll need to have a transition plan in place should this individual ever leave the role.


A staff team or committee

If your membership program is more expansive, you might want to look into forming a committee of staff persons to handle membership efforts. Have a clear leadership structure in place within your committee to ensure that your membership tasks are most efficiently managed.


Volunteers

If now isn’t the right time to reassign or bring in new staff, you can outsource your membership tasks to a team of volunteers. While volunteers can be a great resource, keep in mind that you won’t have their full-time efforts like you would a member of your staff.

Move on to the next step when: You’ve determined who will take the lead on all membership-related efforts.

5. Select Appropriate Membership Management Software

In order to juggle all your newfound member data, you’ll need to implement some form of membership management software.

Software is essential for managing member data, but it can also help you with many other member-related tasks by making it possible to:

  • Build branded membership websites.
  • Set up a custom constituent portal.
  • Manage membership fee collection.
  • Create custom member reports.
  • Design and automate member communications.
  • Host digital membership cards, like the one to the left!

If your organization also relies on traditional fundraising methods, you’ll want to find a membership software that can integrate with your existing database. 

If your tools don’t communicate with one another, you’ll be left with a lot of manual data entry, which results in a greater chance for human error (and a lot of valuable time wasted!).

When you integrate your member management tools with your constituent database, you’ll be able to work with both donors and members in one centralized location—a much more sustainable solution!

Move on to the next step when: You’ve selected a membership management solution that can integrate with your donor database (and any other platforms you may use).

Engaging Members in Your Nonprofit Membership Program

6. Market Your Membership Program

As a nonprofit, you know that promotion is a central part of moving your mission forward. Likewise, if you hope to attract new members, you’ll need to develop a marketing strategy for your membership program. 

With all your marketing efforts, it might be easy to get lost in the membership drive process, but don’t lose sight of the value of your membership program.

Rather than simply selling your supporters a product, you should be inviting your most invested donors into an exclusive, mutually beneficial experience.

As you put together a promotions plan, keep the following tips in mind.

Target Audience

Choose your target audience wisely, beginning with those donors who would most likely be interested in your programs. Use your software to find donors who regularly volunteer, attend fundraisers, and participate in advocacy.

Multiple Channels

Use a multi-channel marketing approach to get the word out on all platforms, from direct mail to social media. Begin by advertising the benefits of your new program in your newsletter (and make sure to include a link to sign up!).

Membership Application

Keep your membership application form simple and straightforward to reduce abandonment midway through. Don’t forget to prominently display your application on your website, in emails, and on social media.

Move on to the next step when: You’ve developed a multi-channel marketing strategy to seek out membership prospects.

7. Retain Members Long-Term

If your marketing efforts are successful, you should find yourself with a group of interested prospective members.

Once your new recruits have filled out their application and submitted their first membership fee payment, the process doesn’t stop—in fact, the membership experience has just begun

To keep your members invested long-term, you should put together a retention plan for your membership program.

Most importantly, make sure your members remember why they joined in the first place. Membership programs should be a valuable experience for both nonprofits and members!

Follow best practices for retaining existing members, including:



Understand why they joined and play to those strengths.

If you can effectively track why people joined your membership program in the first place, you can ensure you do more of it. You don’t want members to lapse because your program isn’t living up to expectations! Send out surveys and engage members in conversation at events.



Say “thank you” often.

Automate acknowledgements any time a member participates in membership events, volunteers, renews their membership, or makes an additional donation. Tip: An additional personalized note never hurts! Address it using their first name, and make sure a staff member signs it by hand.



Communicate regularly.

Keep communication lines open with regular newsletters, invitations to membership appreciation events, and information on volunteer opportunities. Use your membership management software to send batch communications to specific member lists or interact with members one-on-one.



Make renewal easy.

Automate membership renewals so your members don’t need to worry about remembering to pay their dues. If your software doesn’t offer this feature, send timely reminders when members are close to their membership expiration.



Conduct exit interviews.

While it’s not always possible, if you can, interview some of your lapsed members. Figure out why they left so that you can make internal improvements and do better for your current members. Send out a survey to those who can’t make it to an interview.

Your membership program is ready to go when: You’ve developed a member retention plan to keep your members engaged with your program long-term.

Additional Membership Program Resources

Our Favorite Membership Management Tools


Top Membership Management Tools

All your new members will come with a host of information, and you’ll need a way to manage all of it.

Check out our list of the top membership management tools before you purchase your membership management software. 


7 Steps to Boosting Member Engagement



You’ve set up a membership program and have recruited a strong set of new members. What’s next?

Check out these simple steps to boosting member engagement by implementing an effective member retention plan. 


How to Write Membership Renewal Letters



If you want to retain members long-term, you’ll need to master the art of the membership renewal letter.

Check out these best practices and top tips for writing a membership renewal letter that will convince your members to keep coming back!