You want to introduce a membership campaign, preferably as part of the Annual Fund Campaign. Your objective is an expanded and reliable base of donors who renew their support year after year.

Good thinking. Give yourself a pat on the back: An effective membership campaign can be one of your greatest assets and building it requires little more than a dose of common sense and strategic approach.

The Purpose Of a Membership Campaign

Philanthropy-driven, recognition-based, membership campaigns are proven and effective tools used to convert prospects into donors, to increase the size of gift, and to build and strengthen relationships. They are one of the most useful solicitation methods fund-raising managers have.

Such campaigns can work with corporate and even foundation donors, but let’s stick with where the membership campaign works best, and where most of the money is to be found. Individuals. (Of the $350 billion given to charities annually in the USA, approximately 84% comes from individuals.)

Donation Levels = Membership Levels

You want to attract as many donors as possible to make their respective donations which they may choose from a number of various giving levels you provide in your campaign

Membership levels need to be structured around what you believe is, or close to, the giving potential of your prospective “members.” As you will discover after rating each of them, capacity will vary widely.

Plugging into your campaign a wide range of membership levels allows you to provide each donor a giving opportunity he or she will recognize as appropriate to personal circumstances and the depth of his or her connection to your mission. In addition, the more giving levels you offer, the greater flexibility you will have in securing support at even higher levels as solicitations continue.

Determining Membership Levels: The Backbone of Your Campaign

You’ll need to analyze your existing donor base in order to establish the membership levels you’ll offer. You do this by (1) charting the gifts you currently receive and (2) estimating the capacity of current donors and viable prospects. Remember, there’s no point in offering membership at levels beyond the giving capacity of your organization’s donors and prospects.

You could begin to work with preliminary gift levels along the following lines:

  • $50 to $99
  • $100 to $249
  • $250 to $499
  • $500 to $999
  • $1,000 $2,499
  • $2,500 to $4,999
  • $5,000 and over

Some organizations offer special rates for students or senior citizens. The practice of offering reduced membership levels to both young and old is commendable, but organizations that do so must also create benefits that meet the specific needs of each group. Before you employ this strategy, you’ll want to consider the number of such gifts needed to make a meaningful dent in your campaign’s goal and the time and expense of processing them.

Of course, all donations are welcomed and important. However, I suggest your bottom level fall no lower than $50; organizations of size might want to begin at the $100 level.

Odds are, some whom you’ve solicited at higher levels will send donations at those lower levels anyway. I don’t think it’s good practice to solicit them intentionally. Of course, you’ll welcome any and all donations – – and use the time between membership and renewal to cultivate and engage such members toward upgraded support.

If you’re starting from scratch or seeking to expand an existing but small base of donors, identify new prospects in ways described in the exhibit Major Donors & Prospects—beginning always with your Board of Trustees.

Creating a Reality-Based Gift Chart

Compile an A to Z listing of all current donors an lapsed donors—no more than three years (excluding those whose reason for lapsing is known).

Tally by levels their most recent donations to determine the population of each level. For example, you might find the majority fall within the $100 to $249 range and the rest are positioned in levels above and below. This gives you an early-stage picture of the spread of donors in each range of the gift chart.

In the event you have no previous donors, compile an A to Z listing of your new prospects. As best you can, develop a general range of gifts using the above process and estimates of donations in each level.

Charting Your Path to Success

As in all fund-raising, every request for membership support should include a suggested gift amount.

Using your A-Z listing, create a two-column chart, recording the previous contribution of each donor in one column and leaving the second column blank for recording the amount you will request for this campaign.

NamePrevious Gift $Suggested Ask $
Anderson, M/M John500
Atkinson, Susan1,000
Bailey, M/M Albert2,500
Carson, Mary100

Tony Poderis’s article on rating and evaluating prospects provides more information on this necessary process.

Engage a few people “in the know” to rate each donor and determine if you should seek the same amount for the new campaign or suggest an increased gift. When lack of information makes rating impossible, you can arbitrarily raise the suggested asking to one level above the previous gift. When rating lapsed donors, I recommended the suggested ask amount be the same amount as the previous gift.

The sample Memberships Campaign Gift Range Chart illustrates what you’ll have after completing the exercise outlined above.

Rate in the same manner all new prospects on your A to Z listing. Stay within reasonable bounds and honest evaluation of their familiarity with your organization and the level of interest they have in your mission. (I am not talking about a Direct Mail effort to mostly unknown and uncaring individuals, especially those out of your area of service.)

What You See is Not (Necessarily) What You Get

The potential members you’ve identified are reasonably close to the organization. You’ve rated with care their capacity to give. There’s a solid volunteer-solicitation team being assembled. One critical question remains: “What portion of our Annual Fund Goal should we expect the membership campaign to generate?”

No matter how much confidence you have in the validity of your asking ratings, their sum total seldom, if ever, reflects what you’ll actually receive. Some people will give nothing. Some will give the same amount as their last gift. Some will give less. How, then, can you set a practical and reachable goal?

Assured that solicitations will be made in the best way and, for the most part, your new prospects are not so distant as to be classified as “cold calls,” establish your goal as a projected percentage of the total ratings. If basics described above are in order, you may be comfortable projecting say, 40% of the ratings total. (You may find, however, that a lower percentage is more realistic.)

Confidence in your plan, faith in the relationships you enjoy with potential members, and past experiences may prompt you to project a higher response rate. You, and only you, can estimate the impact these elements will have on how donors and prospects are likely to respond.

What’s in a Name?

You can be creative in determining the names you’ll assign to each giving category, but donors will be drawn immediately to “tags” specific to your organization and related to your mission. You can also employ familiar categories such as, Friends, Benefactors, Pacesetters, etc., or designations such as “Individual,” “Family,” “Associate,” or “Sustaining.”

The Benefits of Offering Benefits

Donors everywhere have many opportunities to make meaningful contributions. Most choose to support those organizations whose missions resonate with their personal values.

While donors give mainly because they care about your organization, there’s no reason to be shy about providing “perks” appropriate to contribution levels as tokens of appreciation. Doing so not only offers extra benefits and privileges to donors, but also provides an effective tool that increases confidence of volunteer solicitors approaching prospects, especially those of high value.

As illustrated in Memberships Benefits And Privileges To The Donor, you’ll want to structure membership levels and coinciding “perks” in cumulative fashion, with each higher level adding a benefit not available in levels below it.

Pluses and Minuses

When benefits or privileges have what the IRS describes as “market value,” I urge you to disclose that value in your solicitation materials.

When you alert donors to what is and what is not tax-deductible, you can offer them the opportunity to accept membership but decline its “rewards.” In this way, the full amount of the membership becomes tax-deductible as allowed by law. (Consult the IRS Publication 526 for details.)

What If My Organization Can’t Offer Tangible Benefits?

A “What-your-gift-can-make-possible” strategy based on the estimated “cost” of various services increases the appeal of memberships when tangible perks are not feasible. For example:

  1. Six months of a scoutmaster’s service to inner-city children.
  2. A week of computer training for a welfare mother preparing for employment.
  3. An education outreach program enriching the lives of 100 students.
  4. Wholesome and nutritious meals for 100 people per day at a food bank.
  5. Full, or partial, support of an educational scholarship program for needy and worthy students.

Remember, being creative about pulling these solicitation tools from your organization’s budget, mission, programs, projects or services is symbolic, not literal. That is, we don’t want to lead people to believe services won’t be delivered unless they give their money. Rather, the concept is simply a technique that associates what specific good work will be supported by a specific level of support.

Launching the Membership Campaign

Once you have established the basics of your campaign, you’ll need to develop a plan for attracting members, (personal solicitations, direct mail, events, etc.). The resources below can help.

Development of a Total Plan

Calendar & Action Plan

Meeting Agenda for the Committee

Membership Campaign Letters

You’ll also need to develop and produce the materials needed to support your plan (Case for support, brochures, letters, event and meeting invitations, instructions, PR material, etc., as well as to provide necessary campaign information and related materials for the volunteer campaign team of leadership and solicitors. (Such working examples are often easily obtained from other organizations). Also see my Campaign Solicitation Kits: “For Want Of A Kit A Campaign Was Lost?”

Recruiting Your Solicitation Team

Job #1 is the identification and recruitment of a volunteer leader for the membership campaign. If no such candidate emerges from the board, seek a strong supporter from the business community—preferably someone with sales and marketing skills—and influence. My article How To Recruit Your Volunteer Fund-Raising Team offers thoughts on the process.

Using the gift chart, separate prospects who should be solicited personally from those who will receive a mailing and a phone follow-up and those who will receive a mailing only. To determine how many volunteers you and your volunteer leader will need to recruit, divide by 5 the number of donors slated for personal solicitations. Add 8 to 10 additional individuals for phone follow-ups to specified mail recipients.

The Cardinal Rule: Never Solicit Without Suggesting an Exact Amount

Far too many organizations develop membership programs, announce them, and distribute solicitations with no suggestion for a desired and specific level of support. That’s why I insist on the rating process described above.

You don’t want to establish donation levels, tie them to respective benefits and privileges, put the full menu of options in front of prospects, and then expect them to select gift levels appropriate to their capacity or to what you rated.

It’s human nature—and a proven fact—that when given open-ended choices in that way, the majority of donors will select the middle-range, or lower, of whatever multiple contribution amounts they were asked to consider at the same time.

That’s a sure way to inadvertently encourage a $1,000 prospect to become a $100 member: You must ask for—respectfully suggest—the $1,000 gift. The tried and true fund-raising axiom holds especially fast here: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.”

A Final Word: Sensitivity

It’s important to review the responses of your new members on a case-by-case basis as the starting point for your next year’s membership solicitation. You want to avoid alienating new members by asking for an increased gift to the upcoming campaign, especially from those whose membership donations were larger than their previous contributions. In other words, you should give folks a year or two before asking them to step up to the next membership level.

For example: A previous donor has been giving you $100. Your rating for the new membership campaign suggested a capability of $250, which you asked for and received. Don’t make the huge mistake of asking the donor to move up to the $500 gift level the following year. Even suggesting any amount above $250 would be a costly error.

In the eyes of the donor, going from $100 to $250 represents a significant increase. Asking for more the very next year—or even the following year—would telegraph a lack of appreciation for their increased support and a lack of sensitivity to their resources.

Note: The preceding article, “Membership Campaigns: The “How-To,” is a progressive and companion piece to my original Membership-related article, The Name Is the Game: Memberships and Named Gift Opportunities, which is an introduction to the concept. I suggest you read it as well.


Defining & Applying Membership Benefits & Privileges

The above article and my other about Membership Campaigns worked to convey the idea that, in Membership Campaigns, the use of donors’ benefits & privileges (perquisites, i.e.,”perks”), having “market” value, is not to be taken so far as to shut out organizations not in position to offer such tangible items to their donors and prospects. The “What your money can help make possible,” in terms of ascribing explicit programs, services and projects to various donation levels, is a tried and true successful tool for any organization, especially social service and religious organizations.

“Perks” can work—when practical, manageable and economical—especially when offered to donors and prospects of performing arts and other cultural organizations—organizations which have obvious benefits they can offer, such as tickets to performances, receptions, discounts in gift shops, and other events.

Along with mission-connected benefits of membership described above, social service organizations may only require some creative thinking on their part to as well come up with “perks” when they can be useful to attract memberships. One way might be to have a corporation sponsor its membership program and provide the benefits and privileges in the name of the organization. Trustees, or other friends of the organization, could host parties and receptions at their homes, country clubs, yacht clubs, etc., for major membership donors as “perks,” which would prove to be desirable, attractive and appreciated—and cost the organization nothing.

How To Make It Work

But, let’s back up a bit, in the event that to some, the idea of providing privileges, benefits and rewards to donors for their charitable membership gifts is somehow looked upon as being counter to the basic tenets of philanthropy. In plainer terms, such a practice could be seen as the “tail wagging the dog,” in that we should not attach anything to “benefit” donors as an overbalance for their charitable support. To overcome such possible objections, we should see the practice in the following ways when we offer “something” for the donors’ membership gifts:

  • They are sometimes persuasive to a prospect’s giving decision, but mostly are effective because they allow us to specifically tailor a suggested asking to the prospect relative to the explicit benefit level. The most ineffective ways to ask for money are all too often voiced as, “Give what you can,” and “Give what you are comfortable with,” and “We would appreciate a gift in the range of $ ____ to $ ______. None of those three ways lets any prospect know what our real needs are, and how the prospect can help us to meet the need. A stated membership level amount does.
  • They are bolstering to the solicitor as an effective solicitation tool. Asking a prospect for a specific donation allows for confidence on the part of the solicitor when she or he can ask in this way: “We respectfully ask that you consider a donation to (organization) in the amount of $500, and for that generous gift, it would be our privilege to welcome you to be a member of our “Benefactors Circle,” where we can offer tokens of our appreciation to you in the form of ___________.”

Such a request made by a volunteer to a prospect, but ending the volunteer’s dialogue directly after the $500 amount was spoken, would result in “dead air,” and that could prove to be an uncomfortable and unsure spot to be in to not know what to say next. The gift-to-membership narrative solves that problem.

But Is It True Philanthropy?

However, with the judicious use of “perks,” let us not lose sight of Philanthropy.

We must keep the benefits and privilege tokens of our appreciation to donors secondary in our minds, and in our donors’ minds, to the main reasons for giving to support our organization.

Philanthropy occurs when the donor and the solicitor share a sense of righteousness—a sense that something good has taken place—not simply that a tax deduction has been obtained, that there will be enjoyment of a benefit dinner or auction, that a name is printed in large type, that they will carry away a tote bag, etc.

Philanthropy occurs when the donor feels that the decision to give is justified—when the donor shares in a project by helping to make that project possible or to work better—and asks for nothing more in return.

Fund-raising is what makes philanthropy work, and philanthropy is what makes our multicultural democracy work better than anywhere else on Earth. I know, because I constantly hear from good people all over the world who want to know how they can use our philanthropic process to the best possible advantage in their own countries.