How to Decide Membership Rules for Nonprofit Organizations
Is your organization starting a membership program or revamping your bylaws? Having a stable list of membership rules will help ensure the best experience for your organization and its members!
In this article we will cover:
Let’s dive in!
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Introduction to Membership Rules
There are a couple of things to define before we move on to membership rules: the definition of members/membership, and where these rules come from.
Members vs. Supporters
Before we jump ahead to membership rules and what they may consist of, let’s clarify what we mean by members and membership.
According to the Model Nonprofit Corporation Act, "Member" is a person in whose name a membership is registered on the records of the corporation and therefore has the right, not solely as a delegate, to select or vote for the election of directors or delegates or to vote on any type of fundamental transaction. In some cases, nonprofits use another definition for the term "member", and that is anyone that contributes to your organization and receives benefits such as a newsletter, early access to an event, or a chance to meet a beneficiary.
Although technically members, because you associate them as such, the individuals in the second definition are more like supporters of your organization. You might be thinking that your nonprofit database also considers your supporters as members, and you are right! Members in your database can be anyone that you deem to be a member, so in this case, either definition will work.
The main difference between a member and a supporter is that members have voting rights to elect directors and have a say on fundamental matters, while supporters do not. In this article, we will be referring to the first definition when we mention members. If you want to learn more about the second definition, what we refer to as supporters, take a look at our article about how to increase membership.
Where Rules Come From
Now that we have clarified what we mean by "members", let’s move on to formulating your membership rules. This will help give you a better idea of where to start and to help you understand what membership rules are.
For this section, the main documents you will need to consult are your bylaws and articles of incorporation. If you are just starting your nonprofit and don’t have these written yet, don’t fret, this article will give you a better idea of what they are and what membership information to include.
All of your membership information needs to be found within your bylaws and articles of incorporation, meaning that they are important when it comes to creating your rules. More specifically, the articles of incorporation should contain more basic membership information, but your bylaws should include as much as possible.
Before creating your list of regulations, you need to double-check these documents to see what membership information you have already included if any. This will include:
Whether you have stated that you will have members or not.
If you stated that you will have members, you must check what the rights of members are and any other membership information you included such as the payment of dues, tiered membership plans, and any benefits associated with membership.
Define any rules you have already listed in either of these documents.
After locating this information, you will need to analyze it to determine which rules should be determined for your members based on your ideal membership model. For example, if you have declared that your members will pay dues, you should create a rule stating that members should pay dues, and even list the amount and dates that they need to pay by.
Pro Tip: If you do decide to charge dues, make sure to be as explicit as possible with what kind of fees you are charging and why. This includes information like if you are offering payment plans, the payment methods accepted, and if dues are paid according to the calendar year, anniversary date, or academic year.
There are some other places you will need to look before considering membership rules, including national and state nonprofit laws.
Each state has different requirements for how your nonprofit organization should operate, including the rules and rights of your members. Be sure to check with your state to determine if there is anything you need to take into consideration when forming your membership rules.
To check on national regulations for nonprofit organizations, you can check the Model Nonprofit Corporation Act, which includes provisions for the legal rights of members.
Pro Tip: To ensure your organization complies with state and federal nonprofit laws, we recommend seeking legal advice, such as an attorney specializing in nonprofit organizations, or more budget-friendly options like legal aid centers and college legal clinics (don’t worry - these are supervised by professionals).
Rules of Enrollment
Your membership rules will likely be broken down into two categories: qualification and governing rules. Let’s walk through these together, along with the penalties associated with not abiding by them.
Some membership-based organizations might decide to limit eligibility to join their nonprofit according to several factors such as location, profession, or the institution they attended. These restrictions are called qualification rules and they help your organization to limit membership to the exact member profiles you are looking for.
For example, the University of Michigan Alumni Association of Central Florida would have qualification requirements of attending the University of Michigan and living in Central Florida.
If you do decide to limit your membership according to some qualification rules, you must state this in your bylaws! Doing so will protect you from legal action and allow you to cite why you are not permitting someone to join your organization.
Other than qualification restrictions, your organization might want to have some governing rules. This includes things such as when to pay dues, hours members need to dedicate to your organization, and the behavioral code of conduct.
Behavioral rules are very common in national organizations that aim to hold a specific reputation, and usually specifically lay out what members can and cannot do as a member. Common examples of this are sororities and fraternities that have rules relating to the content members post on social platforms, induction of new members, and the holding of a certain academic standing.
These types of rules are not just for national organizations and college clubs but can apply to professional organizations as well. These behavioral rules allow you to ensure that your members are representing your organization in the best light possible.
Formulating these types of rules will come with time. Within the first year of running membership campaigns, you will be able to identify which rules are necessary and continue to build them over time.
Pro Tip: Hold a brainstorming roundtable with your board of directors, delegates, or any important members of your organization to determine your initial list of rules. Bylaws are usually only modified once a year, so try to include as much as possible before your bylaws need to be renewed.
Other than behavioral rules, there are several other governing rules you should consider including in your bylaws. These include:
Conditions of membership. If your members are required to participate in certain events, volunteer a certain number of hours, or pay certain fees, this needs to be listed in your rules. Anything that is considered a condition of membership must be listed! For example, if you are a veteran’s association, you might establish a rule that members must attend at least one membership event per year. Policies like this might seem strange when you are first creating your membership campaigns, but they are a big contributor to membership engagement and your members will thank you later.
Nonprofit law. We mentioned this a bit earlier, but if there are any state or federal regulations that your nonprofit needs to adhere to, these might also be rules that your members must abide by. Again, we suggest seeking legal advice to ensure your rules comply with these laws, especially if your state is one with many laws pertaining to membership.
Remember that all rules you create need to be listed in your bylaws! This is an important step in creating your membership rules, and one that you cannot forget. It is especially crucial for our next topic, what to do when your members are not abiding by these rules.
Penalty for Not Abiding by Rules
Empty promises are fire starters for rule-breaking, and you want to ensure that your nonprofit does not engage in these practices. The best way to do this is by establishing a specific procedure when members break the rules of your organization.
Some common practices that nonprofits take to handle consequences are:
Standards & ethics committees - these are very common for organizations with behavioral rules. Common examples of standards boards are university disciplinary committees, the board for housing associations, and the board of business societies. These boards are usually elected representatives and help to examine the case for a member that has broken one of your bylaws. During meetings, they analyze all of the information provided and then determine if and how the member will be penalized.
Warnings - if one of your members has broken the rules stated in your bylaws, but you don’t consider the offense to be worthy of punishment, you can simply issue a warning. The number of warnings you decide to give out is up to you, as long as you ensure that your organization is treating all members equally. How warnings are given out is also left for you to decide. You can allow your standards board to issue the warning, or simply notify them by email. A common way to distribute warning notices is to have the manager or board member associated handle this. For example, if the member has not paid their dues you would have someone from your membership finance team reach out to them.
Member resignation, termination, and suspension - you can probably guess what each of these items is. Everything comes with the good, the bad, and the ugly. If your members are not abiding by the rules that you have laid out in your bylaws, or have not responded to warnings, it might be time to consider one of these options. Don’t worry, everything comes with a silver lining. Although this might be one of the hardest jobs of your nonprofit, by taking these actions you are enriching the quality of your membership experience and ensuring that you have the most supportive group of members possible.
Now, the reason we mentioned your bylaws so many times in this section is that you cannot take any of these actions unless your bylaws state the rule the member has broken. Think of it as an employee-employer relationship, you cannot just fire an employee, you need to have some proof first. This also applies to your members, and they can take legal action if you do not take these precautions.
That being said, ensure to include some blanket statements in your bylaws in case of holes. For example, you could say "no member shall represent XYZ organization in a bad light" and add more specific rules later when you see problems occurring.
Responsibilities and Rights
The last thing to consider when creating your membership rules is your members’ responsibilities and rights.
Legally, all members of your nonprofit are allowed to elect board members, have voting rights on fundamental matters, and approve changes in your bylaws. Depending on your local laws you might need a certain number of members to vote on these items to validate the results.
If this is the case for your organization, you might consider adding it to the bylaws that your members need to be present for a certain percentage of voting meetings. This helps you to ensure that you never have issues unresolved because of lack of votes.
Pro Tip: If your organization heavily relies on member voting, be sure to host voting sessions away from holidays, and during times when you know your members are most present.
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⚖️ What is the difference between members and supporters?
The main distinction between a member and supporter is that a member has more legal rights associated with the organization. Also, less formally speaking, members tend to pay a fee in exchange for extra benefits, whereas supporters do not. Find out more.
💪 What are the basic rights of a member of a nonprofit organization?
Legally speaking, any member of a nonprofit is allowed to elect board members, vote on fundamental matters, and approve changes to your bylaws. However, a certain number of members may have to be present at each vote for the results to be valid; this varies from state to state. Find out more.
📝 What should be included in my bylaws?
Conditions of membership are extremely useful to include in your bylaws as a governing rule. This is essentially what you expect from your member as a condition of signing up to your organization; for example, volunteering for a minimum amount of hours. Find out more.