All You Can Eat: Questions and Comments About Membership Levels

All You Can Eat: Questions and Comments About Membership Levels


7 February 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Last week’s post – On Membership Levels and Data Retention – hit a chord with a lot of people. Great questions and what-ifs were posted in the comments and in my email both. So I promised a follow-up to offer more complete answers to the questions posed.

For the most part, the questions were based on two assumptions that I do not necessarily make. The first is that membership consists of a number of fee-based levels. I tend to think about membership as a range, instead. The second is that programs and activities need to be evaluated on a 12-month basis. I tend to use a 36-60-month time frame. For example, I am more interested in how much money a person gives over a five-year period than what they give in any one of those years. Perhaps this week’s post will help unpack some of that, but please keep the comments and questions coming if something here still fails to make sense.


Question from Aaron: How do you justify the expense of providing printed newsletters to donors/members who don’t give enough to cover those expenses?

Aaron’s example included members giving $10/year when the cost of printing and postage for newsletters was $9/year.

Answer: I close my eyes to one-year metrics.

I believe that what we want most from “members” is donor loyalty – someone who joins, falls in love, keeps giving ‘til death do us part, and then leaves a bequest. (Note that I am using the term “member” very loosely here to mean donor, nothing more. As I explained in last week’s post, every member should receive a member newsletter.)

One of the metrics I track is fifth-year value of new members. In other words, on average, how much money will a new member give over the first five years of the relationship? You can and should track this number for your own organization.

The range for land trusts is about $180 to more than $4,000, but the median value is about $800. One interesting item from the data is that many of the organizations with five-year values less than $800, including all of those less than $400, have abandoned paper newsletters. Some have abandoned paper appeals as well.

I’ll grant that if you compare the cost of printed newsletters to the money a $10 member gives, the economics will chase you away pretty quickly. Instead, I suggest looking at the program as a whole. Most land trusts I see have average gifts in the $250-$500 range. More than enough to justify spending money on newsletters.

One obvious thing you could consider is mailing a paper newsletter only to members giving above a certain threshold – say $35 or $50. You could, but I wouldn’t recommend it. And here’s why: I will be planning to send everyone giving $10 (or anything else less than $35) a renewal notice that asks for $35. Not everyone will say yes, but paper newsletters will improve my chances dramatically.

And while I’m right there, let me mention that the lowest level of $10 doesn’t make any sense to me. I made the point in last week’s post that anyone giving any amount of money should be considered a member. So my minimum would be $1. But that’s not a “level” of membership. And $10 shouldn’t be either. I recommend a minimal “level” at least at $35. Just to be clear, my renewal letter might ask for $35, $50, $100, or “Other.” For someone to be a $10 member, they would need to write in $10 under “Other.”

We are considering increasing membership dues …

My whole point about membership “levels” is that membership should be considered a range. Seen through that lens, I would NOT recommend “increasing membership dues.”

For membership appeals and renewals we are typically looking for two data points: how many respond and how much they give. Using standard A/B testing formats, I have tested asking for $25, $35, $50, and $100. There was no relevant difference in response between asking for $25 versus $35. We just received $10 more per response. There WAS a difference in response between asking for $35 versus $50 (slight depression of response but relevant) and asking for $50 versus $100 (greater depression of responses). However in both cases, we raised more money when we asked for the larger amount.

Lesson? If you want more responses (like for recruitment letters), keep the requests down around $35. If you want to raise more money, ask for more money. BTW, this is a super-easy test. If you conduct a test, I would be very interested in your results.



Question from Patty: Can you say more about a paper newsletter rather than e-news?

Answer: Sure – you need both, but if you only do one, make it paper.

There are many ways to communicate, and the idea that one “channel” will be equally effective at communicating with all members is folly. Not all communications channels are equally effective. E-News and social media certainly have their place – as does video – but they do not replace paper. (See also: Resist Replacing Paper Newsletters with ENews.) They are fundamentally different in how they penetrate the consciousness. An e-Newsletter blips onto the screen for several seconds to several minutes. A paper newsletter sits on a countertop or desk for several days to several weeks. Their communication value is wildly different.

Also, the cohort that supports conservation work still skews older. Two-thirds are 55 and older while Millennials just recently cracked 20 percent. Older people are more likely to respond to paper communications. And tracking donation value versus number of donors, the scales tip even more dramatically. Donors making 5, 6, and 7-figure gifts are rarely in their 30s or 40s.

Further, not all paper communication is created equal. Frequency turns out to be more important than weight. So a four-page newsletter mailed six times each year has greater communications value than a 12-pager mailed just twice each year. If you will fold a plain self-addressed envelope into the newsletter, some will be returned with money in them – a useful way to measure readership and collect feedback on topics that resonate with members and donors. If you put the entire newsletter inside a larger envelope, more people will return envelopes with money. Donors do not respond to electronic communications in the same way.



Question from Jen: we consider our newsletter to be outreach … So our newsletter (2x per year) goes direct mail to a LOT of households, AND we leave copies of it at various gathering places around our community (coffee houses, post offices, tourism offices). This begs the obvious question – what do “members” get that is special?

Answer: I would create a separate communications piece for outreach.

I would start by specifically defining the purpose of the outreach. Consider how different the following purposes are:

  • Raise the general visibility in the community, with the idea that some will be inspired and will become members.
  • Engage communities of color and other under-served populations in Nature-based activities.
  • Make the case for investing in conservation work as a community value.
  • Teach children and adults about ecosystem health, biodiversity loss, and climate resiliency.


The list could go on and on. Then the next question is: Is my membership newsletter the best communications vehicle for delivering this outreach content?

My answer would be No, but that’s mostly because I believe member newsletters should be about members and donors – what they are doing, how they are getting involved, and what they believe about the world that makes giving to the land trust something that they value. Member newsletters should be short and sweet and filled with content that shows how their giving is making a difference.

Also, there is a qualitative difference between mailing newsletters to members who give money and leaving them around town for others to discover. The first is proactive – you are mailing it to them. The second is passive – they are noticing it and picking it up. I would NOT mail newsletters to people who don’t give money. (The newsletter is what members get that is special.) I WOULD leave them around town.

So if you don’t mail paper newsletters to non-members, what could you send? How about an “annual report” to the community, filled with information about engagement and opportunity to make a difference? (No pie charts, please.) What about invitations to community events and get-togethers? What about announcements of new Board members, new program staff, or a statement of organizational values?

Yes to all of the above.



Questions from Julie: what is your thinking behind the emphasis on named donor circles for people who keep their gifts unrestricted? And what about increasing the giving level threshold of current recognition societies?

Answers: Named donor circles serve as important incentives for donors to make gifts in support of the mission – an incentive that is erased when donors making only restricted gifts are also included. And I do not recommend increasing the giving threshold for donor circles.

Every organization should consider, debate, and formalize a recognition protocol for gifts and giving of all sizes and purposes. If you’ll do this, you will quickly discover that people giving making restricted gifts to a specific program, project, or outcome are already recognized. They get their names etched into bricks or boardwalks. Or on plaques embedded in rocks or on trail benches. Larger gift donors have buildings or rooms or trails or preserves or even parking lots named after them.

And to some extent, being recognized through naming rights provides an incentive to restrict their gift to that project.

Restricted donors are not the ones going unrecognized.

Giving Circles provide an incentive for donors to leave their gifts unrestricted. It’s a way of recognizing donors who make gifts in support of the mission.

Think about it this way: you wouldn’t recognize a donor who makes a restricted gift to one project on a donor recognition plaque installed on a different project.

And you shouldn’t (IMO) recognize the same donor on a project AND in a Giving Circle.


And I would definitely recommend keeping the threshold gift for your Giving Circle at $1,000. Think of it using the same logic that every donor is a member. $1,000 is a giving threshold, not a fee or a cost, and membership in the Giving Circle is a range. I would consistently challenge your Circle members to give more each year – $1,500, $2,500, $5,000 and so on. When you have eight giving $10,000, then start a NEW Circle at that level.

But keep the threshold for the one you have at $1,000.


Thank you, everyone, for your questions and comments. Keep ‘em coming!


Cheers, and Have a great week.




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Myriams-Fotos, courtesy



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  • Samantha
    Posted at 13:00h, 09 February

    Question going back to the original post on your advice to cut non-responsive donors from receiving the paper newsletter after 15 months…how does the weird and wild year of 2020 factor into this equation? Should we look back to donors who lapsed on 2019, since 2020 was such an anomaly? Thanks!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 14:54h, 09 February


      I really appreciate the question – thank you for writing!
      The fifteen months begin now – this month. So, if I had a newsletter ready to go right now, I would mail it to anyone who has made a gift of any size since November of 2021. I wouldn’t worry about sending newsletters to people who haven’t given since 2019 or 2020.


  • Rob Krain
    Posted at 07:44h, 08 February

    “If you put the entire newsletter inside a larger envelope, more people will return envelopes with money.”

    Can you tell me more about this? Significant mailing cost difference. I’d be curious to see some data on response rates.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 11:52h, 08 February

      Thank you so much for the question. I got the notion from Tom Ahern’s book, Making Money from Donor Newsletters.

      “Charities want to save money on their newsletter, which they typically view as an expense with little-to-no-measurable ROI. The cheapest way to mail a newsletter is to shun the added expense of an envelope and use a self-mailing format instead. This is usually a mistake. Repeated tests by Domain conclusively showed that self-mailers didn’t, for the most part, produce great results. Gifts didn’t roll in. The same newsletter in an envelope, on the other hand, could produce lots of gifts. Why the difference? The best guess at Domain was that self-mailed newsletters had “low perceived value,” to use marketing jargon. Which is one way of saying that they mostly just got tossed in the trash unread.”

      But I would suggest that you test it yourself. Consider it a working theory that makes some level of sense. If someone has to open an envelope to get the information, they are more likely to spend more time with the material inside. Send half your audience the newsletter as a self-mailer and half in an outer envelope. Measure your response and compare. If you will share your results, I would be interested in passing them along on this blog.


  • Jill Boullion
    Posted at 12:46h, 07 February

    We increased our printed newsletter to 3x in 2022 and our household donations went up significantly. We’d love to do 4x/year but the newsletter is a lot of work. We also did a redesign to make it much more donor-centric and appeal to people’s emotional reasons for giving. We know people are hanging on to them because we’ll get a check using the response section of the newsletter MONTHS after that newsletter was sent out.

  • Annie Maloney
    Posted at 10:32h, 07 February

    “I close my eyes to one-year metrics.” – Best line of the day!