How To Build the Best Nonprofit Membership Programs


If your organization is a nonprofit, or help run one, you know that you need ways to earn regular revenue while still progressing your mission. Membership programs are one of the best ways to do this. Membership programs give your supporters something they want in exchange for their financial support, and they also provide valuable insight into who your supporters are and what they care about.

Contrary to donations, a membership is a relationship where your supporters receive something in return for their financial contribution. While this has tax implications, it can be a great way to incentivize recurring contributions.

Learning how to start a membership program seems daunting, but it is actually a pretty simple process. In this article, we will cover:

Let’s go!

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What is a Nonprofit Membership Program?

Nonprofit membership programs are a great way to engage your members and increase the level of support you receive.

A membership program is a key part of any nonprofit's fundraising strategy. It helps transform individual donations into recurring revenue, which can be used to fund programs and services.

best-membership-programs-what-isSam is ready to become an expert in building membership programs!

Membership programs also help you build relationships with supporters by giving them opportunities to get involved with your organization, as well as exclusive membership experiences.

Nonprofit membership programs also provide you with valuable insights into who your most engaged supporters are, which can help inform everything from fundraising efforts to communications strategies for your visibility.

The benefits of such programs include:

  • Educating members on how they can get involved with the nonprofit, including where they can volunteer, how they can donate money or resources, and what events are coming up that will require additional volunteers.

  • Providing members with exclusive access to events and experiences that would otherwise be unavailable to them. For example, members could be invited to private screenings or performances by artists or authors whose work supports the nonprofit's mission.

  • Encouraging members to promote the organization's mission through their social media channels, word-of-mouth referrals, and other avenues.

Before you start designing your membership model, you should define your goals.


Define the Purpose of Your Membership Programs

The primary purpose of any membership program is to increase the number of people who are deeply invested in your organization.

Membership programs provide a way for members to connect with each other, build a community around your nonprofit's vision, and get involved in your organization's mission. They can also help you achieve financial goals by increasing revenue and decreasing overhead costs.

Refining your primary goal can take any number of forms, including:

  1. Adding to your financial resources

  2. Building a stronger community around your cause

  3. Promoting new services

  4. Expanding your core project

Once you get your primary goal worked out, it is time to focus on your secondary goal. What will the membership provide for the member?

Your membership program should be designed to meet the needs of both current members and prospective members. Current members will need information on how they can get more involved in the organization, while prospective members will want to know what your organization has to offer before choosing whether or not to join it.

Decide what the secondary goal of your membership program will be:

  • Providing content to your supporters

  • Offering services to your members

  • Connecting members with each other

  • Giving industry resources and promotion

What you choose as your goal will have a direct effect on the way you set up your membership program.

Pro Tip: you can create a program for each segment of your community: members, donors, major donors, etc.  

While these secondary goals are flexible, there are some best practices to follow.


Define Appealing Membership Benefits

Once you have defined the benefits it will bring to your nonprofit, it is time to think about the benefits the programs will offer to your members. Here are some ideas you can explore:

  • Members-Only Articles and Resources Online

  • VIP or Free Access to Events, Workshops, Goodies, or Merch

  • Membership Card (Physical or Digital)

Your nonprofit is a community, and the members of your community are the backbone of its success.

Your membership program is an opportunity for you to show them how much you appreciate their commitment to your cause.

Members can take pride in knowing that they are making a difference in their community, and they will feel like their money is going toward a good cause, not just paying some random monthly fee.

This will help them feel more connected to your organization, which means they will be more likely to stay involved and donate more money on top of their monthly dues.

best-membership-programs-define-appealing-benefitsOliver's members love the multitude appealing benefits!

That is why it is so important to offer great benefits for members. Not only does it incentivize new members to join the fray, but it also makes your existing members more dedicated to your cause. This means more hands on deck and more financial support for your bigger projects.

Just like with donor recognition, a larger amount of support deserves some special benefits. Consider adding a few membership levels to your design so your biggest supporters get access to the best stuff. This shows your appreciation for them, helps justify the cost even more in their mind, and incentivizes smaller donors to upgrade.

Pro Tip: You can introduce tiers in your membership programs, to stir your members' motivation! Members can upgrade to a higher tier after they see the value in your program or scale back (if, for example, they do not have the financial means to continue at their current level) without having to drop their membership entirely.

Now that you have your design for the membership strategy, it is time to create a plan for executing it.


Define How You Will Manage The Programs

The more preparation you do upfront, the less scrambling there will be later on. That is why it is important to determine everything about the membership program first before launching your marketing for it.

Here are some of the key things to focus on as you built out your strategy:


You should decide what the membership program fees are going to be for your members. You can either have one fee across all tiers or create different fees for each tier. It is best to keep the fees simple and easy to understand, so make sure to create a sheet with all tiers, amounts, and benefits listed.


The period of time that a customer will have access to the membership program is another important factor when setting up a membership program.

You can have a yearly membership where a supporter pays a simple fee at the same time each year, and gets access to the benefits for that time. The benefit here is that you can charge more for a yearly membership and will get that money upfront, even if the member decides a membership is not right for them. Of course, once you get that first payment, it will be another year before you see it again.

You can also set up a monthly membership fee. This amount will be smaller, and gives the member a chance to back out each month, but so long as you keep retention high, it can mean a more consistent flow of cash.

The key here is the word “retention”. Member retention is the single most important aspect of any membership program, so make sure your benefits are amazing and really justify the cost to the member.

Membership Rules

Membership rules for nonprofit organizations serve to keep everything easier to manage. Before launching your program, establish some rules to increase engagement (like mandatory meetings) and proceedings for events. Just be sure to not have so many rules that it is harder to see how fun being a member is!


Who will manage this membership program? Choosing a manager for your membership strategy is imperative. This person will be responsible for issuing benefits, monitoring payments, answering questions, and organizing events.

Without this person, your membership strategy has no support to sustain or grow, so choose wisely. While you can automate a fair portion of the job with nonprofit management software, there is still a need for someone to run the show and direct the course of the program.

This person will also be responsible for communicating with the members, which in itself is an extremely important job. In fact, let’s go over how to do that now.


Include Impactful Communications For The Members

When implementing a successful fundraising membership program, you should give your members something in return beyond your benefits, something that shows them you appreciate their contributions and keeps them in the loop about your nonprofit.

Communicating Member Appreciation

Showing appreciation for donors and members has been shown to boost retention and incentivize new members. At the end of every year, and upon the completion of a project, you should communicate your gratitude to your members.

You can do this by communicating regularly with your members, letting them know how their time, money, and/or efforts are impacting the project you are working on together. For example, if you are fundraising for a new playground in your town, share pictures of the kids using it once it is built! Letting people see their impact will keep them engaged and excited about what is happening with your organization.

On a smaller scale, you should also send a thank you letter each time someone engages or renews their membership. It does not have to be anything too crazy: Just a quick note to say thanks along with their donation tax receipt (if applicable) is enough.

Keeping Your Members in the Loop

There are a lot of ways to make sure your members are kept up-to-date on everything that is going on with your organization: email newsletters, member portals, direct mail, the list goes on! Let’s check out each one so you can master member communication.

Email Newsletters

Email newsletters are great because they are quick and easy to send out. You do not need to print anything or even send it through snail mail (although you can send the same message in conjunction to increase read rate).

best-membership-programs-impactful-communicationsMatt is working on his member newsletter right now!

It is especially easy with an email marketing automation software like Springly. Just set up an email template with your body text, links to articles or events, and variable slots to input the members’ names (for personalization.)

Send off a few messages each month to keep members up-to-date. If possible, try sending them out weekly or biweekly instead of monthly, since that gives people more opportunities to see what is happening.

By doing this consistently, you can ensure that everyone knows about your events, fundraisers, and projects. This can increase attendance and foster a stronger sense of community.

Member Portals

A member portal is a section of your website that requires a member login. Inside, there would be resources for your members that only they can see.

Member portals are similar to email newsletters in that they provide information and links to specific content and reminders for events and fundraisers. Your member portal is also where you can provide membership benefits like special content, access to events, and more.

Direct Mail

Direct mail is paper in an envelope. While it is more expensive per outreach and requires more legwork (getting and sticking stamps and labels, stuffing envelopes, the like) it has more of an air of formality to it.

It is best to use direct mail when making big announcements or inviting people to very important events. Just make sure to send an email along with it, in case one of your members misses the letter.

Pro Tip: You can create a special channel to communicate with the members: private space on your nonprofit website, monthly newsletter, private Facebook group, etc.


Final Thoughts

Now you are ready to start designing and implementing your membership programs. To recap, you should do all of your planning before sending out any promotions to avoid confusion or backtracking. Define your goals, both in relation to how the program will benefit your nonprofit, as well as how it will benefit the members.

Figure out your fees and membership periods and teach your membership team lead about all of the ins and outs, so they know exactly what is coming.

Using a nonprofit membership management software is a good idea, since it can automate a lot of the data entry.

Finally, establish a strong communication channel to keep members up to date on events, fundraisers, and projects. It is best to use a conjunction of email, membership portals, and direct mail.

Once you set all of that up, it is time to find some members. Send membership information to your existing donors and show them the benefits of being a member. Soon, you will have a strong community of members all working to support your cause.

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💡What is a Nonprofit Membership Program?

A nonprofit membership program is a relationship wherein a supporter contributes to the cause financially and, in return, receives some benefit from the organization. Find out more. 

🔑 How to define Appealing Membership Benefits?

Membership benefits are very important to keep retention high, and can consist of things like exclusive content, access to VIP events, and exclusive member experiences. Find out more. 

📝 How to communicate impactfully to your members?

In order to ensure that no one misses anything important, it is crucial to have a strong communication method for your members. This can be with email, a member portal, direct mail, or a combination of all three. Find out more.  

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