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Why Your Nonprofit Organization Needs Members | Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

Why Your Nonprofit Organization Needs Members

Why Your Nonprofit Organization Needs Members | Wisconsin Historical Society

To thrive, your nonprofit organization needs public — not just financial — support. Members are the best source of this support. While your organization's board is its governance and head, your organization's general membership is its heart and soul. Both your board and your rank-and-file membership must work together to accomplish your organization's mission and goals.

Maintaining and building membership takes time and money, but the investment will be well worth it. You should make your members an integral part of your work. If you think of your members as more than donors, you will be able to find many ways they can contribute to your organization other than their annual dues. Some important ways that members can contribute to your organization are described below.

Provide Positive Identification in the Community

Your members define your organization. When you apply for grants, engage elected officials, or speak authoritatively in any public venue, you can point to your membership for "positive identification." When an antagonist asks, "Who are you to criticize this proposed building demolition?" you can say you speak for families, teachers, neighbors, business owners, other developers, city officials, historians, engineers, contractors — in short, the diverse group of people that doesn't want to see a part of your community's history disappear.  The number of people you represent matters, but who these people are shapes your public identity. 

Establish Volunteer Time

Your members are your volunteer labor force. Time is money, and volunteer labor can help your organization do more with less and contribute much-needed energy. In fact, grant application budgets often require you to list volunteer hours. You will build relationships with individual members if you assign them meaningful volunteer tasks.

Maintain Financial Stability

Membership dues provides a reliable, renewable income stream with great growth potential. Even in our recent recession, contributions to arts, culture, and humanities-based nonprofit organizations rose by an estimated 5 percent (Giving USA 2011). New members who feel a strong connection to your organization are highly likely to increase their financial contributions over time. Long-time members will be your primary contributors during targeted fundraising campaigns.

For 501c4 non-tax-deductible organizations, membership income often constitutes the majority of an organization's budget. This is also true of most conventional 501c3 nonprofit organizations. In 2011, individual contributions constituted 73 percent of total nonprofit income (Giving USA 2011).

Gain Political Influence

Some of your members may be able to provide your group with a personal introduction to an elected official. Your efforts to engage with an elected official will be much easier if one of your members already has a good relationship with that official. Also, when you talk to an elected official on behalf of a cause, you can point to the size and diversity of your membership. Elected officials are interested in votes, so the size and breadth of their constituent group matters.

Harness Expertise

Your membership is a team of experts. Each member brings something to your cause that can save you money or expand your organization's capacity. An integral part of your membership development efforts should be harnessing this expertise and applying it to your capacity-building efforts. You will develop lasting relationships if you engage individuals as significant contributors.

Expand Membership Development

Once a member is on board with your mission, understands his or her role on the team, and is excited about your organization's work and plans, that member becomes an ambassador for your organization. This ambassador will be primed to find more members. If your membership drives tap into your most excited and engaged members, you will add tremendous energy and momentum to your staff and board efforts.

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