On Membership Levels and Data Retention

On Membership Levels and Data Retention


31 January 2023


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Two questions came through my inbox this week. I answered both in due course, but I get asked these a lot, and it occurred to me that I should share them here as well.


The first question: We’re redoing our membership levels, and I’d like some advice about how many we should have.

Before I answer, please know that I think there are two competing ideas here. The first involves what you ask for and the second involves how you recognize the gift. Let’s tackle both, starting with recognition.

Some organizations confer governance authority on their membership. Most do not. If you do, there’s nothing wrong with that, but governance is NOT what I’m talking about here. So, with that qualification, here’s my take:

  • Membership should be recognized with as personal a thank-you letter as your organization can muster in as short a period of time after the gift is made as possible. And members should get a paper newsletter at least four times each year.
  • That’s it.
  • Any one who gives any amount of money, restricted or unrestricted, should be considered a member. 366 days later, they are not a member any more (unless they have made another gift). OK – that’s a bit harsh, but at least cut them off after 15 months. People who aren’t members don’t get a paper newsletter. (They don’t get thanked for renewing either!)
  • I strongly recommend named thresholds (donor circles) for members who give above a certain amount and leave their gift unrestricted. Each named threshold should be strongly branded and should feature a signature token or special event – for example a branded jar of honey or jam (nature preserves?), a fleece jacket, or an elegant outdoor dinner. For this reason, the number of naming thresholds should be minimal. My recommendation would be $365, $1,000, $10,000, and $25,000.
  • BUT – I would not offer a named threshold until and unless there are at least eight donors already giving at that level (or above).
  • So – a donor of any amount is a “member” until they make a threshold gift of $365. After that they are a ____________.


Now we can tackle the second idea: what you ask for. I would always ask for more than they gave last year, and I would rarely ask for more than four times what they gave last year.

  • If they gave less than $35, I would ask for $50.
  • If they gave $35-99, I would ask for $100
  • If they gave $100-$249, I would ask for $365, and I would “name” the threshold amount accordingly.
  • If they gave $250-999, I would ask for $1,000, and I would “name” the threshold amount accordingly.


You can probably get the rest of the idea from there. Note that most of the “ask” levels are not named. When you ask for a number greater than what they gave last year, I recommend offering several check-box options  to choose from. From left to right, start with what they gave last year, then the ask amount, then two levels above the ask amount, and “Other.”

Example for someone who gave $50 last year:

$50          $100          $250          $365 (Every Day Stewards)          Other



The second question: Can you point me to any resources that consider when to drop a person from a land trust’s direct mail lists? Three years of no giving or activity? Five?


Here’s how I answered:

  • I would cut non-responsive donors from receiving the paper newsletter after 15 months.
  • I would still try to renew their membership for another year after that.
  • I would continue sending all appeal letters for another three years after that – until it has been five years since their most recent gift.
  • And I would continue to include their names in any letters that are mailed for the purpose of recruiting new members. The bottom line is that even someone who gave you money twenty years ago is worth more than someone who has never given money.


To put it even more plainly, I would never cull them completely from the database and I would never completely stop asking them to give again.


HOWEVER, there are two exceptions that are important. First, and most obvious, is when someone requests to be removed, or requests that you cease sending any mail to them whatsoever. In BOTH cases, they should NOT be removed – they should be flagged DONOTMAIL. This should ensure that they do not get mailed by accident when you acquire a prospecting list from another organization.

The other exception, is that you should at least consider NOT cutting off most donors above a certain age, probably 70 or 75. The logic here is that a large number of bequest gifts are adjusted even within the last five years of a person’s life. Many of these donors will stop making annual gifts within this same window. If you consequently cut them off from receiving the paper newsletter and/or regular appeal letter mail as soon as they stop giving, you may be unwittingly creating a circumstance where they remove you from their will.

Pro-tip: You don’t want to do that.


I expect that there will be push-back on many of these points. Please leave me a note in the comments section below, and let me know what you think.


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 Dave Boardman, courtesy pixabay.com


Share this!
  • Julie Holmes
    Posted at 10:07h, 01 February

    Thanks for this post! It came right at a great time. I like your ideas of not having an overwhelming amount of membership levels. Two questions: what is your thinking behind the emphasis on named donor circles for people who keep their gifts unrestricted? (I get that we want to encourage as many unrestricted gifts as possible, do you recommend a corresponding society for donors giving restricted giving)? And second, any thoughts on increasing the giving level threshold of current recognition societies? For example, our leadership giving society has been at $1000+ for decades and we’d like to increase it in the coming year, but we’re concerned about pushback. Thanks!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 10:59h, 01 February

      Julie, Thank you so much for your comments and questions! As I stated in an earlier comment, I will be providing much more detailed responses in next week’s post, but here’s a quicker answer. Your organization should consider, debate, and formalize a recognition protocol for gifts and giving. If you’ll do this, you will quickly discover that people giving $1,000 to a specific project are already adequately recognized – through plaques, donor walls, named benches and trails, and so on. THEY are not the ones going unrecognized. And to some extent, being so recognized provides some level of incentive to restrict their gift to that project. In the same manner, Giving Circles provide some level of incentive for donors to leave their gifts unrestricted. You wouldn’t recognize the same donor on two different projects. 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. But it’s a giving threshold, not a fee. I would consistently challenge your Circle members to give more each year – $1,200, $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.


  • David Allen
    Posted at 14:22h, 31 January


    Thank you so much for your comments and questions! There is much to unpack here, but the bottom line is that you are making assumptions I do not necessarily make. My blog posts typically run about 800 words and my draft replies to your questions are already at that length. So, I will plan to provide a good deal more depth as a full post next week – promise!

    Keep ’em coming!

  • Jen Filipiak
    Posted at 09:02h, 31 January

    I have kind of the opposite question – we consider our newsletter to be outreach, a way to let folks in our community to know that we exist and why and to potentially inspire people who don’t give, but are connected to us, to start giving. And this has happened, someone who gets are newsletter is inspired by a particular story and sends a donation (and includes a note that says “I loved that your doing xyz). (as a side note, we are a larger land trust, with 8 staff and a budget for this stuff). 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… Right now, not much other than our personal gratitude (we’re pretty good at prompt notes and calls). Maybe we should develop a special “member” newsletter? We’re also getting started with swag, and definitely could start giving gifts based on membership levels. Curious your (and others’) thoughts on this? What about the annual report? Members only?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 14:18h, 31 January


      Thank you so much for writing. There are two questions: Outreach for what purpose? And is my member newsletter the best vehicle for delivering that purpose? My guess is that it is NOT. And if it is not, and it’s also not actively supporting your members’ decisions to give, you are running the risk of working against yourself. At best, I would create another newsletter just for members, but would also take a careful look at what you want your outreach to accomplish and start experimenting with other activities to deliver those results.


  • Patty Renaud
    Posted at 08:41h, 31 January

    HI David, can you say more – or direct me to a previous blog post?? – about a paper newsletter rather than e-news? thanks

    • David Allen
      Posted at 14:12h, 31 January


      Thank you for the prompt. The bottom line on paper is that people respond to it. E-News should not be seen as an alternative, but rather as a supplement. And if we measured our results based on how people actually behave versus what they say, we would all be mailing paper information. E-News, social media, email communication (mail chimp), and even text messages are all valued in their own right. But they do not replace well-constructed paper newsletters (or appeal letters, or renewals).


  • Aaron
    Posted at 08:31h, 31 January

    David, I’m curious how you justify the expense of providing printed newsletters to donors/members who don’t give enough to cover those expenses.

    A real world example: I volunteer with an all-volunteer organization that sends a seasonal newsletter to its members three times per year. Each issue has a ~$3 unit cost, so $9 per member, per year. This organization’s current membership dues are $10, meaning that 90% of one’s membership is going towards sending them a newsletter (does that even meet the definition of a charitable gift?). Add in the unit cost of an annual appeal and printed acknowledgement letter and this organization’s membership program is actually losing money. We are considering increasing membership dues, but this post is making me reconsider if/how we go about it.

    I like the idea of “any one who gives any amount of money…should be considered a member”, but is it worth having a minimum giving amount in order to receive printed newsletters or any other “perks” that have a direct cost associated with them? This seems not dissimilar to the higher membership circles that include invitations to special events, etc.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 14:06h, 31 January


      Thank you so much for your comment and question!

      The answer is that I close my eyes to one-year metrics on sample sizes of one person. Instead, I look at the program as a whole. What is your annual average gift, and how is that number trending? Most of the land trusts I see are in the $250-$500 range. More than enough to justify spending $9 on newsletters. I also look at average five-year values of new members. Most of your $10 members will be relatively new, meaning that we should not evaluate their “value” for another couple of years. The research work I have done suggests that the median average five-year value is close to $800. Again – plenty high enough to justify $9 worth of newsletters each year.

      Again, thank you so much for writing!