Nonprofit Membership Recruitment Primer
By Mark Baumann © 2016
This document is free to all and freely distributable. I only ask you maintain my copyright. If you have any suggestions to add please contact me.
This is a review of membership recruitment programs that nonprofit groups can use, based on my experience with a variety of legal and social organizations. There is no one size fits all approach and membership needs and leadership abilities must be considered. Surprising results can be obtained with focus, and often it is best to start small and build. Most organizations will likely need to experiment with programs to find the ones that are worth enhancing.
The first task for any group is to identify who they are and what their overall goals are, and how they differ from other groups, and then identify what their members may need. These questions are typically hard to answer so a flexible and evolving approach may be appropriate.
Most organizations will attract and keep members by providing some type of benefit, and for many, this involves membership programs which can be organized into five main groups: 1) large education program; 2) a series of smaller education programs; 3) communication and information systems; 4) support systems; 5) Other.
Many organizations seem to thrive by effectively implementing programs of value to members in at least three of these main groups, and a large education program is a common anchor. In my experience however, one large education program is not enough to support a healthy membership number. I have seen groups successfully offer, in addition to a large education program, small education programs and a member directory, or a listserve and a support system, or a mentor program and networking events. In addition to at least three main programs, successful organizations also offer some combination of smaller benefits, such as a website, socio-political voice, newsletter/blog, practice guides, etc.
Programs can be oriented to membership recruitment, income generation, or a combination, depending on the needs of the organization. When membership recruitment is an important need, a careful balance of free programs should be considered. For example, some organizations do not require membership for listserves, discussion sessions, and networking events.
In terms of marketing, consider a “drip marketing” approach, where many smaller contacts/notices function to consistently remind members and potential members about the organization’s benefit. In some marketing theories, drip marketing is more effective than infrequent but larger messages. Many of the program options below can be smaller events that function as good drip marketing opportunities.
Below are some specific suggestions to help groups get started thinking about membership recruitment methods, but the list is not comprehensive in quantity or quality of programs. Some programs function to blend across the larger topics.
LARGE EDUCATION PROGRAM
This is a complex topic so I only offer a few ideas here. If your organization has not put one of these on, it may be best to start with small programs or partner with other organizations. The WSBA Low Bono section took over an existing annual program from a larger organization in a partnership format. One potential problem is the risk of failure, and the cost of failure should be considered for new organizations. It may take time to understand what educational topics are truly of interest to the members.
Existing groups may want to consider how effective an annual program is for membership recruitment. Commonly, effective recruitment requires other programs and a drip marketing approach to provide a synergistic web of member benefits.
Consider tapping program speakers to write newsletter articles and blog posts, or provide supplemental smaller program sessions.
SMALL EDUCATION PROGRAMS
Small education programs. These include 1-2 hour brown bag programs, and 2-4 hour events. The longer events are probably better when offered less frequently and used 1-4 times per year. Shorter sessions are excellent as a series 4-12 times per year and offer a good drip marketing opportunity. Providing ample time for questions can be valuable for some groups. These can be simple, no-host meetings, offer relatively lesser materials available by download only, limited in size to 10-50 attendees, and located at office conference rooms, hotels, or restaurants. With low overhead, marketing is less of an issue and can be done primarily by email, social media, and webpages. Once an organization puts a few of these on, they should become fairly routine and not require too much work. These may be more powerful if done in conjunction with a networking event.
Webinars. These are growing in popularity and perfect for a series. The software available is currently in flux, and free versions can be experimented with before committing to a particular program. Consider software that does not require users to download a program. A downside is the lack of human connection and networking opportunities.
Informal discussion groups. Sometimes called Early Riser Breakfast, and Lunch and Learn these offer unique personal experiences that some people find very valuable. These do not offer CLE/CE credits, can be no-host, and held at a restaurant and may be 1-2 hours in length (90 minutes works well). These can be semi-structured, where 1-2 hosts start a topic with some information and then let the group ask questions and share their ideas, and in this format the sessions function more like a place for people to share to get some validation (operating much like a support program). These can function as drip marketing opportunities and can enhance other programs by staying on a regular schedule and coordinating session topics. Group sizes may work well with 4-12 attendees.
COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS
Website. For many organizations, a website is a primary communication tool, although commonly it is not a member benefit of high value. Some organizations choose to make member relevant materials available only to members, although providing information as a public benefit or loss leader may be more commonly expected and more effective for recruitment. WordPress, a free and popular platform, can scale to serve most organizations’ needs, and has a wide number of plug-ins to provide whatever services are needed.
Websites can include news/blogs, calendars, member directories (with searchable profiles), discussion forums, conference registration and information with presenter materials, organization history, informational articles for professionals and profession consumers, practice standards, practice guidelines, forms, wiki’s, minutes and bylaws, leader and contact information, payment opportunities, and of course member benefit descriptions.
Social media. A highly potent set of programs, but more complex than what I can describe here. A social media program should be brainstormed to optimize exposure vs. effort. Everything else can connect to social media outlets depending on organization needs.
Listening sessions. These can have tremendous value, are free, and involve setting up small group sessions where 1-4 hosts focus on listening to 2-12 (or so) attendees. Listening sessions have the ability to spawn valuable and unique new ideas and programs, or uncover less than obvious member needs. The WSBA Low Bono section (first of its kind in the world) started with a series of listening sessions hosted by the WSBA ADR section. These can be conducted at office conference rooms and living rooms, or quiet coffee shops. Generally operated around a specific subject.
Listserve(s). Examples: Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, BBList. For most groups, these are highly valued. Mediators in the WSBA ADR section and Prevention Works of Clallam County coalition members found them to have no value, although discussion forums on the ADR web page had some (but probably marginal) value. Brainstorming sessions can first identify potential problems and solutions, target audiences, list platform options, and develop a listserve policy statement. Any listserve must have at least one primary monitor; alternative monitors may appear over time. Some groups have well-behaved members and require little monitoring, and others require some monitoring. A private in-house platform may have more durability than a free service. The WSBA Family Law section listserve is considered extremely valuable to that group, and it helped to have some lawyers committed to make sure all questions were answered.
Non-organization Listserves. Answering questions from your organization’s perspective. Leaders can consider joining other organizations’ listserves and participating. This may be especially effective with some amount of coordination, appropriateness, and clear identification of your organization and their philosophy.
Blog(s). Blogs can be intimidating and may be more than what some organizations can provide, but offer a lot of value and may be able to be implemented with a relatively manageable amount of work, especially if started small and the work is spread around. An initial goal could be to assume most blog posts would be relatively short news/information items. Brainstorming sessions can explore ways to generate content, topics, and develop some style preferences. Generating original content can be pursued, but that is difficult and should not be relied on.
I have conceptualized, but never attempted to implement, a Multi-Faceted Content Generating (MFCG) approach. MFCG might be like getting a little syrup from a lot of trees, so no one tree has to carry a load too large. Potential sources for post content could be: re-posting news/articles from various trade association sources, calendar items, short personalized and anonymized personal experience stories, original articles, articles by conference speakers, news items contributed by members, member profile pieces, case example summaries, case law summaries, statutory/regulatory updates. Formats for various types of posts could be developed to help drafting and editing chores. “Mini-message” chunking could provide good sources of content. Chunking involves a person taking small bits of a book or theory and posting a 1-4 paragraph mini-message. For example, suggestions from a parenting book could be delivered in small bites on a regular schedule. Chunking by several people who are passionate about a topic could provide a lot of content for blog posts. A group of people could be organized to take responsibility for various information sources/categories.
An editorial board (formal and/or informal) could be created to review posts. Editing content can take some effort, and this is especially true for original content of substantial articles. Shorter posts reduce drafting and editing time. A group of several people who can give at least a quick cursory review for short posts should suffice to maintain quality and reduce the workload. It’s possible an editorial group can be organized to handle larger articles, but that may be something for an organization to develop later and would likely take a very dedicated group of people, beyond what most organizations seem to be able to manage.
Groups with larger national or international associations should be able to share and obtain information to repost.
WordPress is a great blog platform and offers a good variety of ways to organize with ease the work of posts.
Newsletter. An essential element for some organizations, and extremely difficult for others. Generating content that is effective enough to be a member benefit is difficult to obtain. This may be replaced or coordinated with blogs, and may only serve as a basic information source rather than offering substantive information. NAMI in Clallam County is a very small group, and the newsletter is their lifeline. Some groups put a good bit of effort into newsletters but the quality is not worth reading, so feedback and careful attention to what members want will help with thinking about the cost-benefit analysis of newsletters.
Calendar. If you don’t have enough calendar items, a calendar may look like a ghost town. An alternative or supplement is a WordPress category-page with posts categorized with a word-like “calendar”, which automatically populates a sub-blog with calendar-only items (ask your website person about how this works). The Training Schedule page at www.ICC.Institute works this way.
Member awards. Obviously a way to reward and highlight members, but this is also a good opportunity to market and promote organization philosophy. Many types of awards can be considered, including a Presidents Award, Member of the Year, Excellence in Service, Volunteer Award, Service to the Community Award, etc. Standards or measures should be developed for transparency.
Wiki/Practice guides. This is a quantum level up in the amount of work required and probably something most organizations would need to slowly work towards doing, usually in conjunction with other programs like education and blogs while building a group to support the project. In theory, Wiki software (online encyclopedia) should be easy to set up, so the software part is not the problem. Starting slowly, such a project may be less difficult than imagined, especially if in Wikipedia-style there is a group of people who can contribute their piece of expertise.
Networking events. For some groups, networking events are a key member benefit. They can be organized in many different ways. The WSBA ADR and Low Bono sections use different styles but with the same effect. The mediator group hosts high end sessions at upscale hotels. A panel discussion is held for about 45 minutes and is followed by social/networking time with free upscaled appetizers and a free alcoholic beverage offered. These were very effective member recruitment programs, but they cost a large amount of money per event, paid for by the organization. The low bono group held networking events at local pubs/bars. Sometimes a small amount of inexpensive happy hour appetizers and/or one free drink was offered, and sometimes it was no-host. Usually they had someone talk about a topic for 30 minutes, but most attendees were interested in simply networking and socializing. Low bono networking events were very successful, cost about $100 or less, and were usually paid for by small donations ($5-$20) from leaders.
Networking can be done in association with education programs, for example with national directors/speakers attending, which requires special attention to scheduling.
Member directory. For many professionals, the ability for clients to find them is a key issue. Brainstorming sessions can first identify potential problems and solutions to hosting a directory. Give thought to software selection. Many organizations have poorly implemented directories. Clients should be able to do advanced searches limiting the scope to relevant topics like practice focus, experience, and geography.
Mentoring. This is potentially an extremely valuable benefit, but the value may be illusory and mentoring programs are notoriously difficult to implement and maintain. Research should be conducted to see what kind of programs might work and what legal issues may be present, such as maintaining confidentiality. Program options range from one-to-one in person (most difficult to organize) or email- only mentoring, to group mentoring sessions (relatively easy). The WSBA Low Bono section successfully operated a group session called Coffee House Attorney Mentor Program (CHAMP). Multi-person sessions were held in coffee shops and restaurants, but these require attention to confidentiality issues which are easily resolvable. A CHAMPS-like program can be operated with a small number of committed mentors.
The CHAMP format differs from how most people think about mentoring. In the CHAMP format, there is no ongoing obligation or commitment. Each session is a one-time deal which makes less commitment for mentors and easier to recruit them. Mentors and Mentorees certainly can establish ongoing relationships if they want.
Practice resources. Similar to practice guides above, these can come in a variety of methods. A key member benefit of the WSBA Family Law section is Quick Cites, created by Doug Becker, and offers a brief summary of virtually all relevant Washington family case law. AFCC offers a formal scholarly journal that many members find a sufficient reason to join. These resources likely require an intense contribution from one or a group of dedicated members.
Connecting with leadership in other groups. This can be time consuming but offer rewarding partnerships.
Hi-touch methods. As opposed to hi-tech, hi-touch involves one-to-one communications. Personal efforts to contact potential members are very effective, but of course potentially time consuming. Once on leadership’s radar screen, these can be done organically in the moment of other events. Brainstorm targeted groups and specific methods for your potential members.
Mining inactive members. Consider a hi-touch approach to contact inactive members. Why they dropped out may be useful information.
Practice standards pages. Probably a very difficult chore for most organizations, and in terms of membership benefit may have relatively little pay off.
I am grateful to the following people for their contributions to my learning and experience: Bruce Pruit-Hamm, Jeff Bean, Alan Alhadeff, Forrest Carson, Jenny Anderson, Celeste Miller, Dave Black, and Helen Ling.
This Primer is free for all. Please contact me if you would like to contribute other suggestions and help this list grow.
Warm regards to all,