Old Dogs, New Tricks, and Reconsidering Gift Memberships

Old Dogs, New Tricks, and Reconsidering Gift Memberships


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’ve never been a fan of gift memberships or member-get-a-member campaigns, because the renewal rate on these types of memberships is so dismal – ten percent is about as good as you could hope for. So I had my usual skepticism in full display when my friend John turned me around 180 degrees.

John has a great deal of experience in public television and radio fundraising and is a wizard behind the scenes with computers and data – there isn’t a statistic or a number associated with various appeals and campaigns that he can’t find – and he’s very good at it. John says that comparing gift membership renewal rates to regular renewal rates is folly. The better comparison is with new member acquisition. His recent “acquisition rate” off a gift member list was eight percent, well above the best new membership acquisition mail I’ve seen anywhere.

Thank you, John. Consider me a convert.

My advice to clients now is “try it, and see if it works for you.” Here are several tips, based on John’s experience:

  • Produce a membership nomination card that includes blanks for both nominee and nominator information. Be sure to include a blank for email. You might require a gift membership payment, in which case keep the options very simple, but consider complimentary memberships also, or a “special introductory rate.”
  • Consider distributing it with your membership renewal thank you letters. Alternatively, you could fold it into your newsletter, especially if you have a new member matching grant in hand.
  • For larger organizations, I suggest making it a benefit for the $100 level. (You might even send two cards to members at the $1,000 level.)
  • For all organizations, I recommend allowing Board members to nominate as many people as possible.
  • Once you receive a nominated member form, enter them into your database in such a way as to be able to track them separately. Send them a notice of their nomination including the name of their benefactor. If they were nominated by a Board member, include a letter signed by the Board member.
  • Resist making the assumption that the gift membership needs to be an entire year. It could be for six months, or four, or even three.
  • Regardless of the term, send these nominated members everything you would normally send to any member including newsletters and appeals. If they should respond to one of the appeals, start a regular membership for them at that point in time.
  • After the term is complete, send them a renewal sequence modified to reflect their nominated status. Also, on their last newsletter, send it first class with a note stapled inside that indicates that their nominated membership is expiring – please renew today.
  • Finally, if/when one of these nominated members joins, send a thank you note to the person who nominated them.


Does your organization use gift memberships? What is your experience? As always, your comments, responses, and questions are welcomed here and by email at David (at) DevelopmentForConservation (dot) com.



I’m still interested in your five-year value calculations. If you have not shared yours, and would be willing to participate (it’s anonymous!), here are the instructions again:

  • Isolate the members and donors you have who made first gifts to your organization at some point – any point – during the calendar year 2015.
  • Now add up everything those donors have given to your organization – as a group – since then (through 12/31/2019).
  • Send those two numbers to me – the number of donors and the total amount they have given. The email address is David (at) DevelopmentForConservation (dot) com.


Cheers, and have a great week!



PS: Parts of this blog were originally published in February of 2010.


Photo by Art Tower from Pixabay



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  • Margo Copley
    Posted at 20:45h, 13 February

    This is going back to the basics. What do most conservancies offer as membership benefits that would prompt a donor to gift someone a membership? How does this differ from suggesting a name to add to the conservancy’s mailing list by making a donation in that person’s name?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 05:48h, 14 February

      Benefits is the subject for a much longer answer, and maybe another post. But the answer to your other question is that it doesn’t differ. Making a gift in someone else’s name for the purpose of adding the name to the conservancy’s mailing list (including solicitation list!) would amount to the same thing. What might motivate someone to do that? Perhaps they are so fulfilled by their experience that they want to share with someone else they care about. Or maybe they are connected so emotionally to the work that they want to help the conservancy succeed. Regardless, if we think of these new donors as members at this point, we MISS the point. They are NOT connected yet; indeed they are not even donors yet. But changing that paradigm to thinking of them as “prospects” can help us communicate with them and engage them more effectively. THANK YOU for your comment!