Membership Development - The Art and Science of Reaching New Members

Developing a plan for increasing membership (and participation) in your community organization, agency, or community group is essential to your success. Notice I said, membership development - not a membership drive. I like the term membership development, especially for coalitions because new members as well as old members need to be continuously involved in the development and growth of the community group or coalition. A membership drive just seems to temporary and doesn't capture the nature of a coalition or community groups efforts.

A membership drive is really only the beginning. Successful coalitions manage their members well, communicate with them often, and motivate them to work for the coalitions. Those organizations who just do a membership drive will find themselves short of membership very quickly. Membership requires nurturing. Membership development planning is a way for you and your group to organize your actions and fulfill the core need of having new, fresh membership that represents your community while nurturing the core members who "are always at the table."

A membership development drive is an important activity because it helps you to (a) map out how you will get from point a (a coalition in need of members) to point b (an organization with the membership it needs to fulfill its mission and vision and (b) to make your search for new members efficient and effective. A planned effort for nurturing new membership is superior to a disorganized attempt at membership development.

Who are the potential members for your coalition or community group and how do you find them?

You don't have to look to far (or hard) to find new members. The entire community is a potential member for your coalition or community group. However, not everyone in the community is available or interested. The most important factor to finding potential members is identifying a list of potential names and working hard to keep the value in the membership for the person who is supporting your work.

How do you develop a list of names with key stakeholders and people who are potentially interested in your mission and vision?

1. If you haven't done so already - start building a contact list right away. This list should include everyone that the coalition or community group has had contact with in the recent past (6-12 months). The list should include former and current contributors, colleagues, legislatures, community champions, board members, staff, public officials, community leaders, etc.

Begin your search with people that you know. Ask members of your coalition and community who they know that may be interested in supporting the work you are doing. Most people can identify between 5 - 10 people right away.

Once the list is created you may want to share the list with potential stakeholders to see if the list triggers any new ideas about potential members. For example, you can ask a potential stakeholder, "Here is the potential membership list we have developed so far, is there anyone that you can think of that is not represented on this list?"

2. One essential steps to a successful membership drive is offering a personal touch. Research consistently finds that people join organizations, agencies, and community group efforts because, "someone asked them to join." Don't forget to offer your membership development team support materials. Make sure that they have adequate access to information whether it be a white paper, a report, or a brochure with the keys of membership.

The people you speak with should know why you are contacting them and if you were referred to them - how the person who referred them is associated with the organization. The person also needs to clearly understand the value that you offer (satisfaction, personal fulfillment, new skills, new information, social connectivity) and why joining your work is so important. People are more likely to become members when they know someone who already believes in the mission and vision of the organization, agency, or community group.

Action Step: As you build your list, consider the type of information you would like to keep on record. If you are going to be keeping an electronic database (Excel, Infusionsoft, etc.) adding fields to your spreadsheet will be easy. However, if you are using a paperbased record, you may want to be very specific about the information you collect and only collect what is absolutely necessary. Here are some suggestions: name, address, phone, email, referral source, history of participation, personal preferences, donation history, personal notes, and interests.

3. Coalitions and community groups can use sector lists to create your membership development list and outreach priorities. Coalitions and community groups often have specific target groups, called sectors, that need to be represented on the coalition or in the community group efforts.

Membership drives are successful when you target a specific group (i.e. healthcare or faith based organizations) and aim to contact all the key leaders in that group who live and work in your community. As you identify each group (government, school, youth organizations, business, human service organizations, law enforcement, colleges and universities, etc.) you will be able to continue to build your list in an organized, meaningful way.

4. Consider joining other groups who already have a thriving membership. These groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, Civic Groups, etc., can give you access to key champions and people who will be interested in your cause.

You may run into potential members at these events or functions - take advantage of the opportunity to share your story and invite people to join you in the good work you are doing.

Action Step: When you contact your potential member use good content and personalized communication to get their attention. Be sure that you and your team know the reason your coalition or community group began and exists today and know the value that you offer to the potential member. It is also important to make sure your request is clear, specific, time limited, immediate and doable. Regardless of the outcome, you should thank the potential member for their time and request permission to add them to your email distribution list so they can stay informed of the coalition or community group's activities. The truth is, you never know when someone is going to be ready to join, so keeping them on your "leader board" is a great idea.

Another effective way to keep someone interested is to follow up your communication with an email or a letter. The letter can be preformatted but personalized to the potential member and ready to go out to the individual right away.

5. Keep members (old and new) motivated and involved. People usually join an organization or community group because they want to do something for others or for the community. However, they also want to get something out of being a member. Key motivators include feeling valued by the organization, being able to see the contribution they are making, opportunities to learn new skills and get education on a topic of interest, professional development, feeling part of team, being a part of activities that entertain or add to their social life.

Action Step: Here are some ways to keep people engaged once they join your team: (a) hold introductory workshops (these can be online or a recorded welcome message that is distributed via email or YouTube) (b) welcome and introduce new members to other new members (c) run regular education and development sessions for all members (d) give people responsibilities and tasks and team them up with experienced members (this increases their use and feeling of value) (e) leaders should spend time getting to know new members.

Building your coalition's capacity is important. Capacity begins with a constant stream of new membership and continuous education for current membership that provides the tools necessary to promote the coalition and its work.