The 300-Member Trap

The 300-Member Trap

 

By David Allen, Development for Conservation

 

I’m closing in on ten years in the consulting business. Along the way, I have worked with dozens of land trusts, and doing so has afforded me an interesting vertical window into the land trust community.

In other words, because I have worked almost exclusively for land trusts and other conservation organizations, I am in a unique position to form insights into that community.

And one thing that has always struck me as interesting is how many land trusts have “about” 300 members. Certainly between 200 and 400.

And they are “stuck” there. One Board member even told me that “the same 300” members gave them money each year. Never mind that it would be nearly impossible for that to be true, the underlying truth in what he was saying is that his organization had had the same number of members for many years.

And this is the pattern I have observed in many, many land trusts across the country.

There are several variations. Land trusts with staff and/or talented Board members who are dedicated to outreach work often have 500-600 members. Land trusts who raise money for highly public projects often see a “blip” of several hundreds of members before returning back to the 200-400 range.

I call it the 300-member trap, and the root cause is not difficult to understand.

The number of members an organization has is related to two variables – the rate of attrition (renewal rate) and recruitment. Land Trusts will lose a certain number of individual supporters each year regardless of renewal efforts. Like road friction for a moving car, annual attrition will inevitably slow down an organization’s speed (number of annual donors). And incremental improvements in reducing friction will reduce the rate of that slowing down.

Recruitment is the accelerator. To maintain a current speed, acceleration must exactly counter the effect of the friction: recruitment must match the rate of attrition. To increase the number of annual donors, the land trust needs to step on the recruitment gas (marketing) until the organization reaches a new stable speed.

But once there, any backing off of the recruitment will result in the number of donors decreasing as well.

Back into the 300-member trap.

The truth is that stabilizing at 300 members is not hard. If a land trust loses 30-40% (about 100) members every year, those can be easily balanced by what I call “background” recruitment – lapsed members coming back, volunteers who join, events, tabling, and so on. Land trusts that reduce attrition to just 25% might even use this 100-member background recruitment to grow to 400 members or so.

But any interest in growing substantially beyond 400 members will take new investment in member recruitment.

There is a problem with the 300-member trap: it’s probably not enough. 300 members giving an average of $200 only amounts to $60,000 in annual operating revenue. A substantial major gift development program might bring the average gift up to $600 or more ($180,000), but where will the staff time come from to implement it?

It’s a trap.

I’m going to devote the next several weeks of this blog to recruitment stories.

To strategies for stepping on the gas.

And climbing out of the trap.

If you have some stories to share, I’m all ears. What are you doing to avoid the 300-member trap?

 

Cheers, and Have a great week.

 

-da

 

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

 

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2 Comments
  • Walt Moody
    Posted at 20:38h, 01 May Reply

    I’d welcome being in that trap of “only 300 members”. We have about 200 members.
    1) We have a 100% volunteer staff. If a trust has over 300 members I ask, “Who’s on salary?”
    2) Life member count drops every year. .
    3) Rejoins (after lapse) rate was was high for a while but then tapered off.
    4) Renew rate of base is very stable. We’ve a loyal base constituency. We’re a small land trust,.
    5) New member rate seems driven by number of events such as advertised hikes etc.
    6) Low 2nd year renewal of new members is a concern (I’m on membership committee).
    Given all that, any suggestions?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 16:45h, 02 May Reply

      Walt – Thanks for the questions.

      I’d welcome being in that trap of “only 300 members”. We have about 200 members.

      You’re in the trap already. I call it the 300-member trap, but the actual range is more like 200-400. The number isn’t as important as the fact that it’s a trap. It feels like if we could just slow the attrition, we would grow. In fact, the variable that is more in our control is the recruitment side. We need to retain the donors we have to be sure, but we will grow only if we can recruit.

      1) We have a 100% volunteer staff. If a trust has over 300 members I ask, “Who’s on salary?”

      There’s no particular magic in a salary. To be effective at recruiting and retaining members, it has to become someone’s job, regardless of whether that person is actually paid or not. And they need both the means and the opportunity to get really good at it.

      Set a goal. Do the math required to calculate the necessary recruitment. Allocate resources to recruitment fully cognizant of the fact that positive ROI won’t be realized until year 2 or year 3. Implement the strategy and apply the metrics. Stay the course.

      2) Life member count drops every year.

      Many people say life member and mean some arbitrary gift amount that exempts the donor from ever needing to give again. If that’s what you mean, I recommend dropping them altogether, because they get in the way of fundraising. Either that or make the amount of money worthwhile. (I have no objections to a life membership threshold of $10MM.)

      3) Rejoins (after lapse) rate was was high for a while but then tapered off.

      Try tweaking your letters, phone calling or both.

      4) Renew rate of base is very stable. We’ve a loyal base constituency. We’re a small land trust.

      5) New member rate seems driven by number of events such as advertised hikes etc.

      People who join because they attended an event are notoriously difficult to renew.

      6) Low 2nd year renewal of new members is a concern (I’m on membership committee).

      If you compare first renewal rates of people who join from events, with people who join from email and social media, and people who join because they got a letter in the mail, only the letter people approach 50%. This should tell you something about where to best put recruitment investments.

      Given all that, any suggestions?

      Think paper. The organizations that have the greatest penetration rate (# of donors / service area households) are mailing to every home at least once each year.

      Also, in your database, isolate the donors who made a first gift in 2014 and calculate the amount of money that THOSE donors gave in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. Divide the amount of money into the number of new members and you will get an average 5-year value of new members.

      In my recent work, I’ve been tracking this metric for more than 20 land trusts of differing shapes and sizes. The median value is $1,100. Those will lesser values tend to be relying on electronic communications and special events. Those with higher values tend to be using paper more and are routinely raising money for specific projects. See 5Yr Value: The Metric that Tells You the Most About Your Fundraising.

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