Membership Drives

Membership Drives

I have yet to meet a land trust that felt it had enough members. On the one hand, it’s both difficult to argue with and hardly surprising. On the other hand, recruiting new members can become an obsession that results in serious neglect of the members you already have. And when you consider it carefully, the most effective first step in membership growth is to keep the ones you have.

So here’s an out-of-the-box thought: Instead of thinking about recruiting new members, let’s think about recruiting new renewals!


Fundraiser’s Almanac: August

Fundraiser’s Almanac: September

  • Handwritten Letters
  • Getting the Most from Your Fundraising Events
  • Good News
  • Filing/Data Entry
  • Lapsed Member Letters


A new renewal would be defined as a person making their second gift – their “first” renewal. Start by establishing your own organizational baseline. Count everyone who joined your land trust for the first time in 2014. Now count how many of them have renewed to date in 2015. This is your first year renewal rate – and if you’re like most land trusts, the number is far less than you might hope or even guess. For most, 35-40% is really good. Many struggle to get a 30%, and some are down around a 20-25%.

Why the first-year attrition? Let’s quickly look at what we know from experience:

  • People tend to renew using the same mechanism as they used to join. People who joined on-line tend to renew on-line as well. They don’t tend to respond to a mailed renewal notice. Those who join at an event need another event to trigger their renewal. And organizations that receive gift memberships learn quickly that renewing the giver is more fruitful than the recipient.
  • New members have different communications needs than veterans. The land trust business is complex and data heavy. Few join because the land trust has 29 protected areas or because we were able to work out a building envelope for Mrs. Peabody’s farm. Yet our newsletters feed them a steady diet of such information for 12 months and then ask for their renewal. Perhaps instead, we could be more sensitive to why people join and feed them stories of gurgling creeks, children’s wonder, and salamanders – stories of views that are and views that were.
  • New members need more than one connection with an organization. Thank you calls from board members, guided hikes, social events, and even window decals can keep their decision alive for them over the course of twelve months before they are asked to give again – to renew.

Putting aside for the moment the need to communicate with new members effectively throughout the year, I think much of this work lends itself to concentration of activity because of the bandwagon effect. I usually recommend organizations concentrate their membership activity in the spring, leading up to and including Earth Day. Even so, most people do tend to give in the fall and many successful Membership Drive campaigns are conducted each fall as well.

The idea behind the Membership Drive is that people are being recruited and renewed all together, all at the same time, instead of spreading out the work through the year. And there are many reasons to like them:

  • Membership Drives have public goals, against which progress is visibly charted.
  • Membership Drives are inclusive. They involve all members of the staff and board for a finite concentrated period of time.
  • Membership Drives are FUN. They feature social events and open houses that are informative, emotional, and corny.
  • Membership Drives are multi-channel. They feature direct mail, email, event-based, and even telephone solicitation.
  • And Membership Drives END, which is a blessing.

But here’s the interesting part. Membership Drives boost the first year renewal rate as well. It turns out the sense that everyone is doing it at the same time creates the kind of momentum and “belonging” that can trigger a renewal decision. And moving the needle on first year renewals can make a huge difference in membership growth overall – much more so than doubling down on marketing and outreach.

Are you doing something special with “new renewals?” Or do you have a first year renewal rate over 40%? What’s working for you?





Find out how David can help you with your Membership Fundraising here.


Photo credit: Bobcat by Walt Kaesler.

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