To Member or Not to Member

To Member or Not to Member


16 June 2020


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


This topic comes from a Reader Question, which in turn came from a discussion thread on the Alliance’s Learning Center:


The discussion regarded using a “membership” framework in direct mail, etc. I hesitate to get rid of it because my impression is that “membership” frameworks offer better return/results on mailings. So, my first question is, can you confirm this?

Secondly, mentioned in that thread was the idea that a “membership” framework is slightly exclusive-sounding. What are your thoughts on that idea especially in light of the race-related discussions ongoing right now? If we’re trying to be more inclusive, would you suggest getting rid of “membership” and corresponding language as a way to be more inclusive?


I have long defended using the word “member” precisely because it does engender a sense of inclusion and belonging – of loyalty. We’re not looking just for handouts. We’re looking for people to engage with us. And specifically in fundraising, we’re looking for people to engage by giving money.

To a large extent, that sense is supported by data, but not in the way most people imagine. Organizations that have strong membership programs do tend to enjoy strong donor retention, and those that replace other frameworks with membership programs tend to see a bump in retention.

But it’s not about the word. And it’s not about the tangible benefits. And it’s certainly not about ceding voting control of the organization.

It’s about tribalism.


So I did what I have recommended that others do: I asked a Behavioral Scientist. One of the blogs I follow is The Agitator which is from DonorVoice. On the site, they have an “Ask a Behavioral Scientist” feature. Here was their reply:


There’s evidence that using nouns e.g. “helper” instead of verbs e.g. “help” leads to an increase of the behavior described by the noun, in this case helping behavior. The theory behind this is that nouns signal a fixed identity or quality while verbs signal an action which might be transient. In other words, any one might help or not depending on the circumstances, but if you consider yourself to be a “helper” then you’ll help in most situations. The same logic applies to other nouns that can be used as labels e.g. donor, supporter, member etc… Their use might make people internalize these identities which could then lead to consistent behavior.

Now, which label is most effective? The answer might differ based on the audience and the target behavior. That’s why I always recommend testing this concept with your specific audience and with a variety of labels to find the most effective.


That might sound evasive, but in fact, it bolsters my argument. Changing from “members” to “donors” is unlikely to make much of a difference unless the underlying program also changes. If it changes in the direction of supporting the action of giving and donating to specific things or at specific times, retention is likely to erode. If it changes in the direction of belonging, “labeling,” and otherwise signifying attachment, it will likely increase retention.


So with that, I took another look at the thread. Most of the comments were from land trust organizations that had moved away from using a membership framework. Their contributions to the thread essentially fell into two camps – those who argued that membership frameworks were too much trouble for the organization, and those who argued that membership frameworks were no longer consistent with their inclusivity messaging.

In my opinion, both are misguided.


Membership frameworks are not monolithic across the country. There are programs that lavish trinket benefits at every level and those that send periodic communications and invitations to engagement events. Many programs still confer voting rights to membership; most do not.

Organizations that throw out their membership framework because they feel guilty for not providing benefits or because keeping track of renewals is too difficult are missing the point.

The membership framework is just language. And it’s language everybody understands. People belong to a faith, a community garden, a CSA, a neighborhood, an alumni group, a profession, and even a grocery store. It’s tribal. And in each case, there is a reinforced sense of belonging, of self-identification, and of annual renewal.

That framework is supported by using words like “member,” and “renewal,” but it is not dependent on it. Organizations that have strongly branded “annual campaigns,” for example, can do just as well.

It’s just not as easy.


And that brings me to the issue of inclusivity.

I think there are two different issues here, relating to program and relating to fundraising.

If your programs and projects are only for your members, or even just perceived that way, there is clearly something wrong. And if moving away from a membership framework helps you fix that, it’s certainly worthwhile.

But that is clearly NOT a fundraising problem. In fact, there may even be a fundraising “cost.”

The question I would have is this: How much does chasing inclusivity (versus raising money) cost the organization each year and is the cost worthwhile? I had a long strategic discussion with one organization in which we identified that “servicing” a member cost the organization $19 on average. So providing services (newsletters, events, electronic communications, and so on) only made economic sense if the donor gave $20 or more.


The fundraising issue is more difficult to get to. If you strip it down, it goes something like this:

  • Only old white people support us now
  • The reason that old white people support us is that we refer to donors as members
  • The reason that people who are NOT old and white don’t support us is that we refer to donors as members
  • If we move away from the membership language, we will be supported by a more diverse community


The problem with each one of these statements is that there is no evidence to support them. There are no A/B tests. Most organizations do not track demographic information in their databases – in fact, most don’t even track age information. We’re not including members and donors (and non-members and non-donors) in these discussions.

So decision-making is not based on data. It’s based on “gut.” One writer even said, “This is all possible because we believe that few of our donors give seeking status, but this may not be the case in other areas.

And therefore we have no idea whether our intended result is working.


It’s not about the words. It’s about the program.


As always, your comments, reflections, and stories are welcomed here.


Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Thank you CZ for the question today!


Photo by jplenio courtesy



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  • David Brant
    Posted at 15:29h, 16 June

    Good blog post David. We are all in on members. Like your comment about tribalism and belonging. It works.

  • David Lillard
    Posted at 08:51h, 16 June

    This is fascinating, and for us, timely, as we wrestle through this issue. In past work, I’ve found that people who give always refer to themselves as members. Even if there is no membership program. They see themselves as members because they have made a commitment to join. It seems to be this feeling of belonging. David, your Raleigh presentation handouts — which live with on my desk and are referred to often — has a slide called What We Hear. It points to the conventional notion that e-news is just as effective as a newsletter. You commented, “There is no brand connection with e-news. Newsletters matter.”

    I hear what you’re saying in this post: It’s not the words, it’s about the program. Maybe the program need not be overwhelming; rather, an invitation to be a helper?

    As always, thanks!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:37h, 16 June

      There is an inherent danger in membership programs which is better saved for another post. The danger is in moving the exchange away from gift and toward transaction. If too many benefits accrue to those who make a specific gift, the risk is that they come to see the benefits as “costing” that amount of money and only worthwhile as long as the benefits are desirable. The classic example is about access – like to a zoo or museum, or possibly even a preserve. This membership is closer to a fee than a gift, and it gets in the way of fundraising. Why should someone give $500 for something they could get for $50?
      See The Trouble with Transactional Giving and Transactional Donors Are Not Really Donors – Yet
      Thank you for the comment!