Saturday, August 14, 2010

What happens when you confuse members with donors.

He looked up from his papers and said that typically nonprofits generate about a third of their revenues from membership dues. "We need to start a membership program," he said. I asked, "What are the benefits of membership?" "Well, for one, you get to support our organization."  I sighed and thought "Well, at least this will be a good blog post."

If you are a member of a gym then you get to use the exercise equipment. You certainly do not think of yourself as helping the gym owner's kid go to college although you are doing that too. If you make a gift to a charity you feed the homeless, educate kids, help improve the neighborhood, etc., and you probably think that if you were to meet the Executive Director that they would at least recognize your name and perhaps give you a hearty hello. In short, you expect better service...just like if you are paying dues to a gym.

Do you see the problem?

So what is the difference between annual dues and an annual gift? Why do you feel self-satisfied about one and sorta guilty about the other. If paying annual dues makes you proud of yourself (hey, I am pulling my own weight around here) and annual gifts make you feel burdened (man, they really put the squeeze on me) then you are a member. If giving an annual gift makes you proud and paying annual dues make you feel obligated then you are a philanthropist.

Membership programs require member benefits. Annual giving programs require a touch of altruism. What are you expecting from your donors? Are you asking them for the right kind of gift?

If you are uncertain what you are asking for then I am almost certain that your member benefits are much too generous.  When organizations are not clear they tend to apologize for asking by laying the membership benefits on too thick.


Anonymous said...

I think your blog post might be helpful to organizations, but I must admit, I think the post is rather unclear. I know one must expect blogs to be written quickly, unlike a weekly or monthly column, but I still expect a very clear argument, if an argument is being made.

One problem with this post is the shift from the perspective of organizational practice, to the perspective of an individual who supports an organization (and perhaps feels guilty), and then a shift back to the organizational perspective again (but then indicate that an organization might be feeling guilty over its fundraising).

All this left me confused.

You also seem to imply that a member might be giving gifts as well as dues. This confused me too.

Perhaps you should specify the differences in fact -- beyond perception and mere nominal differences -- between good membership programs and good gift/donor programs. Examples (fictional or not) would help.

And you certainly ought to mention that many political [501c4] nonprofits require members for political influence. The NRA is a perfect example of this. (The NRA is effective both because it has a very active membership, and because its total membership -- active AND just dues-paying -- is large and widespread).
Anyway, I think that you are saying too many organizations call their fundraising programs membership programs, and not donor programs. I think you are saying that organizations should be more honest and simply cut down the 'membership benefits' and just ask for donations instead via dues and gifts.

(In any case, I certainly wish the big environmental organizations would stop sending members items like backpacks -- unless, at least, they donate a significant amount. And then the item had better be durable and manufactured in a sustainable manner for workers and environment.)

George Stevens said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I did not mean to confuse you, but as you can see the topic itself is confusing.

I am pleased to see that you got the message. Organizations that confuse members and donors confuse the people who send them money. While the backpacks are a nice reward, many people get angry that nonprofits are wasting money on what are called "premiums." That money should be going to the cause, not to the person who has written a check.

So let's all be very clear. Members are meant to be counted (and recruited) if you are an advocacy group (like the NRA). Members expect some kind of benefit for their gift (advocacy for their favority cause is one benefit, but a premium of shotgun shells branded with the NRA logo might be another).

Donors give because they want good done. They need a thank you but they do not need or want you to spend money on them...rather they want the money they give to help you reach your mission.

Both members and donors can give gifts to your organization. They expect only a thank you for their gifts.

Only members expect personal services for the money you send them. Those personal services might be free admission, special classes, or even gifts.

This is so easy to write and so hard to implement...especially if you are sending confusing messages to the people who send you money.