Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during Jan/Feb 2008, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
Membership programs are a popular way for nonprofits to raise funds from individuals who support their work. Many nonprofits have members — local museums, public television and radio stations, international organizations. For many of these groups, the term “members” is usually just another way of saying “donor”; membership is primarily a way to get more people to give to the organization by offering member benefits such as magazines, discounts on admission for events, and so on. But for people working in grassroots social justice groups, members are often the people at the heart of the work — not just clients or donors who receive services or benefits, but people who are active in making the change that the organization seeks, who help fulfill the organization’s mission of social change.
For groups for whom membership is more than just another label for donors, members can be a largely untapped source of fundraising income as well as an overlooked group of potentially effective fundraisers. Many of the members in these organizations are highly committed to program work, have direct experience with the organization, and can speak about why the work is important to the larger community.
If you work in a grassroots membership organization, how can you help these members raise more money for your work? And how much money can you expect to raise?
This article looks at three grassroots organizations that are doing the challenging but rewarding work of recruiting members to carry out their fundraising work. Each of these groups, to varying degrees, sees fundraising as part of their members’ responsibilities, and each has built a strong base of members who contribute significantly to their fundraising capacity.
Each of the three groups profiled in this article has a different definition of a “member,” reflecting the diverse ways that organizations define stakeholders in their work. Mujeres Unidas y Activas (MUA) is a group of low-income Latina immigrant women in the San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to personal transformation and community power. MUA runs several innovative programs to empower and educate its members, including workshops and campaigns on the topics of immigrant rights, domestic violence, and women’s health. MUA defines a member as a woman who has actively participated in its programs for a specific period of time. Such participation can include attending ongoing MUA meetings or going to protests.
“After six months the women are eligible to participate in trainings that the organization gives,” says Andrea Lee, MUA’s Co-Director of Administration and Development. “They also have to pay membership dues.” MUA currently has 400 members in Oakland and San Francisco; about half attend MUA events on a weekly basis.
“It’s really clear to the members that they own the organization,” adds Lee. “Donors don’t direct where the organization is going, the members do.”
For Project South — a leadership development organization with offices in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. that engages in what they call “bottom-up movement-building for social and economic justice”— members are all the people who give money to the organization. But Project South makes an important distinction between regular members and what it calls “constituent members.” Constituent members are people who are in the group’s target community of low- to middle-income Southerners.
Nearly half of Project South’s 750 members are from its core constituency. Although this model allows the group to stay true to its social justice mission and ensure that marginalized people will remain the leaders of the organization, Project South places importance on keeping nonconstituent members connected and invested in the program work. Doing so can be challenging. Many of Project South’s nonconstituent members live outside the South; they become members out of a sense of solidarity with low-income Southerners. Will Cordery, the group’s Development Director and Executive Leadership Team member, says the group tries to help the donor members feel more connected to the work by holding large public events where donor members can interact with constituent members.
“We have public spaces for members to engage with us annually,” he explained. “We invite all of our members to local community events that we put on every year, like our Juneteenth celebration, and we’ll have our big 25th anniversary shindig next year.”
The third of these groups is Metro Justice, an organizing group that has been working for a fair and just society in Rochester, New York since 1964. The group stresses educational work and does some direct service work through their many task forces, from fighting for gay marriage to working to win equitable funding in public schools. With only two paid staff, the group is almost entirely run by its dues-paying members and other volunteer supporters.
If you are just starting or wanting to boost your existing membership program, how can you get more people in the door? Each of the three groups has different strategies to recruit members, but each of their strategies emphasizes starting with the people who come into regular contact with the organization and who naturally align themselves with the organization’s values and program goals.
“Our major strategy [for recruiting members] is through direct mail,” says Tanya Smolinsky, Organizing and Development Director at Metro Justice. “We collect names constantly, particularly at our own campaign events. So all our prospects are hot to medium. We have no ‘cold’ prospects.”
Metro Justice’s vigorous direct mail program to recruit new dues-paying members consists of mailings and phone calls to prospects. Every prospect is sent at least four appeal letters and receives a follow-up phone call from a current member-donor before they are dropped from the group’s list. Another strategy that Metro Justice has used successfully is reaching out to community members who write letters to the editors of local newspapers that reflect the social justice values of the organization. “First we call the person to thank them for writing the letter,” explains Smolinsky, “[then] we let them know that they might be interested in the work of our organization and we send a personal letter that basically says the same thing and includes a return envelope.”
Project South’s approach to recruiting members is to appeal to as many people as possible who come into contact with the group. “We have several community events throughout the year and meetings in our [office] building of organizers and community activists, or staff of other organizations,” states Cordery. “Once we make initial contact, these people become part of the contact database.” These prospects will then receive a fall appeal letter as part of Project South’s annual membership drive. “We also do a large e-mail as follow-up, and then phone banking,” Cordery continued. The group’s staff, board, and current and constituent members put time into this phone follow-up.
For MUA, their current members are the main recruiting force for the organization. “The majority of new members come to MUA via existing members who do informal recruitment in their personal circles, at their churches — even on the bus,” says Lee. The group also has an Outreach Coordinator, Silvia Lopez, who helps mobilize graduates of MUA’s Leadership Training to do outreach for the organization on the street and at community events. MUA also contacts local social service providers up to twice a year to provide their clients with information about the group.
“In addition, MUA has maintained a strong presence in the Spanish-language media — television, radio, and print,” says Lee, and has relationships with a network of social workers, therapists, and other health providers who refer women to MUA.
Although their definitions of membership vary slightly, all three groups agree that members should pay dues. Paying dues is an important way for members to feel ownership of the organization and to show their commitment by putting their money where their mouth is.
“There are many people who are active in the organization as volunteers but they have never paid membership dues,” says Metro Justice’s Smolinsky. “[But] a member is somebody who pays dues.” The group’s standard membership dues are $30, but supporters can pay whatever is possible for them and still be considered Metro Justice members. Even with this flexibility, their average gift is $70.
Clearly, having members carry out the fundraising work of the organization is not just a token gesture but is a mainstay of the group’s fund development program.
“We do renewals fairly frequently,” says Smolinsky. “I have very active volunteers. Our membership chair probably puts in 15 to 20 hours a week.” Volunteers are the lifeblood of Metro Justice’s fundraising work, maintaining the group’s database as well as doing follow-up phone calls to current and prospective members after mailings are sent out.
But consistently collecting dues can prove labor-intensive, especially since each group has a small number of staff relative to the number of their members.
“It’s very staff-intensive to take the dues and process them,” reports Lee of MUA. Rather than rely solely on staff, the group’s membership dues coordinator is a volunteer who is a member herself, which helps make dues collection more of a member responsibility than a staff task and helps increase the group’s ability to collect dues.
Despite the importance of members feeling ownership by paying dues, given the small dollar amounts that grassroots groups often charge for dues, can a membership program translate into a significant source of revenue?
For the groups profiled here, the real fundraising potential of a membership program comes not from dues but from the fact that their members are expected to fundraise, just as they would gather petition signatures or attend a city council meeting as part of a campaign.
Project South has recognized that running an organization that spans the entire Southern region of the U.S. takes more work than even their five full-time staff can accomplish. Getting members to help with the fundraising work is a necessary strategy to secure resources for the organization.
“The staff operate at top capacity at all times,” says Cordery, “and there’s always lots of work. If there are members who’ve expressed interest in doing more, we certainly plug them in.” Approximately 27 percent of Project South’s $400,000 organizational budget comes from individual gifts, with another 38 percent coming from sales of publications and other mission-related products created by the group. This income is largely generated through the work of member-fundraisers.
Project South members are involved in the group’s fundraising committee and in major donor work, helping staff carry out the labor-intensive work of cultivating relationships with donors and asking for new and renewal gifts. Donor-members sell the group’s mission-related products, including publications and training materials, conduct trainings for Project South themselves, ask their friends and colleagues for donations, help organize community events and fundraisers, and do phone banking to recruit new members.
Project South’s constituent members are not as involved in fundraising, although they do some phone banking to member prospects and they attend community events.
Metro Justice raises about 84 percent of its $140,000 annual budget from individuals, including income from membership dues and special events. Clearly, having members carry out the fundraising work of the organization is not just a token gesture but is a mainstay of the group’s fund development program.
Training for grassroots members in fundraising is key to the success of any program. Metro Justice, which has the strongest member-driven fundraising program of these three groups, makes fundraising training and support for its members an integral part of its fundraising work.
“I provide formal training to our task force members and guidance to members who are trying to raise funds for various campaigns,” states Smolinsky. “I am always trying to think of ways to get board members to be more knowledgeable about and more involved in fundraising. For example, I present our membership development strategies to the Fundraising Committee and then to the full board.”
According to Smolinsky, Metro Justice has very active committees of members who organize two major fundraising events for the group each year. Volunteers are also heavily involved in membership recruitment and development, from collecting names at events to helping with mailing parties and conducting phone banking. Metro Justice also has a Fundraising Committee, which includes board members as well as regular members.
At MUA, members are actively involved in fundraising, including as board members. Currently, eight of MUA’s eleven board members are grassroots leaders in the organization.
“I make an annual donation, I pay my membership dues, and I encourage other members to pay their dues as well,” says Maria Reyes, a MUA board member and grassroots leader who has been involved with MUA for ten years. Reyes also owns a jewelry business and often donates raffle prizes to the organization. “I also go to house parties organized by MUA donors and talk about MUA’s work and how important their support is to our organization’s survival.
“MUA has made it possible for me to be involved in this work by offering fundraising trainings and helping me to overcome my fear of being told no,” states Reyes. Board members receive formal training in grassroots fundraising, and Lee is considering how to involve regular members. “MUA is in the process of figuring out how to incorporate fundraising into existing programs,” explains Lee, “or whether to create a separate fundraising training/committee track for members interested in developing those skills.”
One fear for organizations whose members are low income is that members will feel intimidated by fundraising tasks that involve talking to wealthy people. MUA has tried a unique approach to dealing with this potential challenge. The group recently facilitated a meeting between a major donor and four MUA members so that the donor could hear first-hand about the women’s experiences and the women could meet with a donor in a nonthreatening situation.
“It was a really great interaction because it was a dialogue,” reports Lee. “Our members asked her, ‘There are a lot of different ethnic groups, is there a reason why you’re supporting Latinas?’ They learned that this donor had been a teacher of English as a Second Language; she expressed how much she enjoyed working with and had gotten close to her students, who were mostly Latino.
“There’s an ability to cross certain language and cultural barriers when you provide people a space to talk with each other,” emphasizes Lee. “We really want [the donor] to know what we’re about and our members are extremely open about their experiences. This allows an openness for the donors as well.”
Grassroots members also often gain a great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from being involved in their group’s fundraising efforts. “Many of us come to the group with personal problems,” says MUA member Silvia Lopez, who also sits on the board of directors and serves as the group’s outreach coordinator. As a peer counselor for the group, Lopez often helps members who are dealing with domestic violence or legal issues to access community resources outside of MUA.
“Fundraising helps us to keep busy, forget our problems, and help MUA at the same time,” explains Lopez. “And by raising more money, we ensure that MUA will be able to help even more women. I feel important when I can give something back to MUA.”
“To me the best part of fundraising is motivating people in the community to support MUA and seeing them respond to our request,” says MUA’s Reyes. “It makes me so happy to see that there are people who want to support MUA’s work.”
It’s clear from the work that these three groups are doing to engage their members in fundraising that it takes some time and effort, but that the end result more than makes up for it. From more income from dues and member-driven fundraising to a sense of fulfillment and reward for your members, this type of fundraising presents a win-win formula for any grassroots group.