On Membership Systems – Part 1

On Membership Systems – Part 1

Q: How many times should you pester a donor?

A few days ago, “Shannon” asked the above question. It’s a good one and I will answer it fully in this and the next few posts. But I will also address the larger issues around membership systems: recruitment, renewal, and membership stewardship.

Let’s start here: “How many times should you pester a donor?” is not an honest question. (e.g. Have you stopped beating your spouse?) You should never (knowingly) “pester” a donor, period.

The real question is this: “Where is the line between nuisance and helpful reminder?” And the one implied by that question: How do you know when the absence of a response is a negative response?

The only answer is that you don’t, and that you can’t, because it changes from person to person. Any kind of overlay answer will fail for many, and overlay answers that limit fundraising requests often include opportunity costs.

So then the question becomes: If we don’t send a reminder, will we have enough money to pay our bills?

My answer would be based on why you have members in the first place and what membership means in your particular organizational culture. Most organizations I work with use membership as a fundraising strategy. As such, it is very attractive.

  • The process of annual renewal tends to tie donors to the organization more effectively than single project or program appeals;
  • The relationships built with members through the process can blossom into long-term “friendraising” that make major gifts, planned gifts, and donor loyalty more likely in the long run; and
  • The renewal process is a great way to introduce new and/or reluctant board members for fundraising (and acknowledgement!).

Done thoughtfully and well, membership is one of the most stable, sustainable, and predictable sources of unrestricted operations income out there, and has been for generations. The year-over-year “renewal” rate is often more than 70 percent and some organizations see closer to 75 percent.

Just to be clear, to get the year-over-year renewal rate, pick a specific calendar date. I use January 9th (ask me why sometime). Take the number of people who wrote a check to your land trust between that date in year 1 and that date in year 2. Then count how many of those check-writers gave money again during the following year. You will hear some claims of renewal rates over 80 percent, but those are almost always qualified by very few “new” members joining each year. Renewal rates over 75 percent are not a particularly common experience.

I would answer the question this way: propose a target range for your renewal rate, for example 70-75%. You might want it to be a little lower if you have lots of new members, because they tend to renew at a much lower rate the first year of their membership. Send an initial letter with a follow-up about five weeks later. If you get a cumulative response rate in the target range or higher, you probably don’t need to go further. If not, send a second reminder, and perhaps even a third, until you get in the goal range. If you haven’t gotten at least 65% after four letters, you probably need to look at the letters themselves. There may be something else wrong.

Some people don’t even need any reminder, of course. And some need more than just one. Your renewal system should be able to accommodate everyone.

Just don’t pester people.


Photo credit: Landscape Arch by Walt Kaesler.

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