Why many nonprofits need a new membership model, and how they could build one

Posted on July 13, 2015 by - Strategy, User Experience

A new report describes how public media could supplement its old fundraising model with a new model of membership.  The report should be required reading for all nonprofits.

A report by Melody Kramer describes how public media could supplement its old fundraising model with a new model of membership. The report should be required reading for all nonprofits and digital strategists. Photo by San José Library, CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s no secret that many US nonprofits have struggled to recover after the recession. Federal, state, and local governments have made deep cuts in public contributions to the nonprofit sector. Charitable giving only returned to prerecession levels in 2014, and most of this growth was the result of contributions from a few “megadonor” individuals. Meanwhile, millennials and technology are disrupting the nonprofit environment.

As old funding models decline, nonprofits are anxiously searching for new models that might lead to more financial stability. Of course, nonprofits also wish to remain independent of private interests. This is particularly challenging because most nonprofits are expected to continue providing services and increase funds without investing in adequate infrastructure—even as demand for their services increases.

What’s a nonprofit to do? Many seem to be contacting their supporters more often to plead for donations. But in doing so, they risk making supporters feel like mere ATM machines. In a recent post on her Getting Attention blog, nonprofit marketing consultant Nancy Schwartz reported that during the 2014 holiday season, even she felt “sick and tired of the endless fundraising emails from the organizations I support, despite knowing how much they need my help.”

So how can nonprofits continue to fund their important work without compromising their mission or alienating their supporters?

A new model of membership

Nonprofits come in many shapes and sizes. They have diverse needs and varying constraints. Each nonprofit should chart its own course, but nearly every nonprofit could benefit from reading Melody Kramer’s new report, Putting the Public into Public Media Membership.

Kramer observes that public media stations are experiencing major declines in donations and audience sizes as technology, generational changes, and competitors disrupt public media’s business model. She proposes that public media could reverse this situation by embracing a new membership model:

This model is based not on the pledge drive (or on cultivating sustaining donors or large donors, as many stations seek to do), but on building an infrastructure that allows community members to contribute to their stations in a variety of ways, including non-financial means. It takes as its starting point the understanding that building relationships with potential donors leads to their sustained support—in the form of time, money, and advocacy on behalf of the [public media] station.

Guiding principles

Kramer points out that many volunteers have professional skills but few opportunities to contribute them to nonprofits. “Studies of both baby boomer and millennial volunteers suggest that they are looking for meaningful volunteer experiences in which they can use their professional skills,” she writes, “and that many nonprofits have not developed programs to take full advantage of these talents.”

A nonprofit could create community by inviting members to contribute their talents in support of the organization’s mission. The community that grows from this work would feel invested in the nonprofit. These community members would care about ensuring that the nonprofit succeeds.

But in order to create this virtuous circle, nonprofits must first welcome people into their work. That means sharing work in progress and inviting meaningful collaboration. The more an organization interacts with its supporters and end users, the more the organization discovers how to improve its work. This type of human-centered design and open collaboration helps organizations learn how to thrive in a changing environment.

A playbook of strategies and tactics

In her report, Kramer provides a playbook of strategies and tactics that stations could use to broaden and deepen relationships with community members. Here are a few examples:

  • Use volunteers’ professional skills: Invite volunteers to contribute professional skills other than their ability to do clerical work. Volunteers could lead workshops, take photos or videos, conduct oral histories, contribute design skills, host events, or help digitize content.
  • Explore partnerships with universities: These partnership could engage a range of students and departments in research and capstone projects that would benefit everyone.
  • Set up ways for volunteers to make remote contributions: Public media should create online mechanisms for people to volunteer from home if they cannot volunteer in person. Online volunteers could contribute material for broadcasts, tag or transcribe content, test new websites, help on software-related projects, create playlists of the station’s content, or write and record testimonials.
  • Recruit designers and developers: Stations should invite volunteer designers and developers to collaborate with employees on coding projects. Stations could put their code on GitHub and encourage open collaboration.
  • Solicit story ideas and sources: Stations should ask volunteers to contribute ideas, sources, and information before, during, and after a project.

I hope the report finds a wide audience within and beyond the public media and journalism communities. Many types of nonprofits could apply the playbook’s principles and adapt its tactics to radically improve their effectiveness and sustainability.

Key ideas

The report closes by summarizing ten key ideas for public media stations. I’ve taken the liberty of replacing “station” with “nonprofit” so the list addresses the nonprofit sector as a whole:

  1. We must create opportunities for people to become ambassadors for a [nonprofit].
  2. We must create ways for people to explore the physical space of a [nonprofit].
  3. We must create frameworks for communities to be more deeply connected to each other using the [nonprofit] as a hub or platform.
  4. We must incentivize [nonprofit employees] to collaborate and share content and/or code.
  5. We must develop different communications strategies for [nonprofits] to contact remote contributors or donors.
  6. We must develop more ways to facilitate both creation and distribution of information.
  7. We must think about the legal and technical frameworks that could facilitate a more collaborative model.
  8. We must think about what it means to be a member.
  9. We must work in public.
  10. Above all, we must think about and learn from the user, the person, and the public.

The report is well-written and full of concrete examples. Interested? Visit the Nieman Lab’s website to read the full report.

Josh TongJosh Tong is a content strategist in Washington, DC. He helps colleagues create powerful content through research, strategy, and implementation.

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Why Many Nonprofits Need a New Membership Model, and How They Could Build One by Josh Tong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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