Is a Membership Program Right for You?
Many libraries and fundraising organizations are faced with this question, and the answer isn’t easy, especially if you are also conducting an annual fund or other kind of campaign. Why run a membership program when you have nothing really tangible to offer? Read these pros and cons to help you decide.
Your donors want to be part of something. Most people like the feeling of belonging to a group, club, or other support organization with which they feel a personal connection – something beyond simply carrying a library card.
It makes your library friendlier. Membership brings people a deeper sense of ownership in their library. They will feel better about using the materials and services if they feel they have done their part to support it.
Membership dues are a great source of unrestricted funds. Dues contribute more money to support your library’s general operating expenses.
Membership creates a great database of library supporters. Members provide an excellent pool for future fundraising efforts and solicitations, as well as for library volunteers.
The “swag” you distribute is free advertising. Swag is an inexpensive gift you give members. It is customarily imprinted with your library or its fundraising organization’s name and logo. When your members wear their T-shirts or carry their library book bags, they are walking advertisements for your library or its fundraising organization. Keep them well informed of your programs and activities so they can also serve as your advocates!
A Friends or Foundation membership card is concrete. It says, “I’m affiliated!” Members like to have membership cards as tangible evidence of their association with an organization like your library’s Friends group or its Foundation.
Membership creates a pool of interested volunteers when advocacy needs arise. When it’s time for your library or its fundraising organization to urge public officials to keep the library’s budget strong, your members are your library’s army – its hands, feet, and voice.
Membership numbers impress public officials. In the public arena, there’s strength in numbers. Remember that your members are public officials’ constituency and voters in future elections. The higher your membership count, the more influence members will have.
Members are strong prospects for planned gifts. Because members can be counted on for regular annual gifts and for repeat gifts, they may be willing to include the library or its fundraising organization in their estate plans too.
Donors who give large gifts may become confused. Not all donors to your Friends or Foundation will understand the difference between a donor and a “member,” and it can be confusing to donors when you ask them for “membership” dues. They will want to know why they should make an extra payment to be a “member” of an organization they already support.
Membership may discourage other kinds of giving. Some feel that membership dues mean smaller donations in other areas of fundraising.
Memberships can be confusing when you also have an annual fund. Members often confuse their membership dues with their annual fund donations. They think their membership dues are their annual donation, or vice versa. This gives rise to a bigger problem if your membership renewals occur in the same month as your annual fund. People may see this as one more fundraising ploy! (The best practice is to make sure that your membership solicitation and your annual solicitation are spaced six months apart.)
Membership does not beget “philanthropic” giving. Most membership organizations receive dues in order for members to have access to certain services and programs. It often costs less to become a member than to pay admission every time one visits. Sometimes membership discourages an interest in giving altruistically in favor of trading dues for access.
Membership is something extra of which to keep track. Membership requires a system to keep track of your members, and continued updates of the information in that system. This can be a time-consuming process.
Management of a database – monthly renewals? Membership renewals are a lot of work. How often will you ask your members to renew? How will you follow up? Getting renewals could take as many as three renewal solicitation letters per member per year. These are (1) an alert that membership is about to expire; (2) an alert that membership has lapsed and is about to expire; and (3) an alert that membership has expired.
The term “member” seems contradictory to why a library exists. The library is an egalitarian institution – free and open to all – and the very idea of a “member” seems to contradict this basic belief.
Memberships do not appeal to Gen X and Gen Y populations. The general rule, stated above, that people like to belong to something has an exception: the Gen X and Y population does not like to join. Research studies have confirmed that these generations want to know what difference their dollars will make, not what’s in it for them.
The membership mailings may cost more than the membership campaign brings in. Adding a member to a mailing list can be very expensive. Postage continues to increase, and the cost of printing newsletters and program announcements can also be expensive. Does it make sense to send mailings to someone who is only supporting you with a small annual membership contribution (often $25 or less), but not truly supporting your library in a significant way?
Your staff will discuss this forever! The distinction between members and donors will never go away. Your staff will discuss and weigh the details time and time again, and will always reach the same conclusion: There is no right answer to whether membership is an effective fundraising program for libraries or their fundraising organizations.