Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Build Membership in Your Nonprofit Organization

How to Build Nonprofit Membership | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

Building membership in your nonprofit organization is a never-ending effort. Start by becoming familiar with the most common reasons people choose to become members of your organization. Then design your membership development efforts to include the strategies described below.

Get to Know Your New Members

Make a point to find out why a new member joined your organization. Knowing what the new member thinks about your organization will help you to live up to and even exceed that member's expectations.

Knowing your members can also help you provide value by giving them meaningful ways to participate, such as through social opportunities, work contacts, meaningful volunteer opportunities, or access to your research files.

The Chippewa Valley Cultural Association (CVCA) spent its first decades rehabilitating a historic school for use as a regional arts center and performance space. Over the years, hundreds of volunteers helped to shape the identity of the organization as a truly grassroots nonprofit. During the process of developing the center, the CVCA asked the community to weigh in on the project. Although many community members did not think the area could support the center, the CVCA's engagement with the community catalyzed fresh thinking within the organization. The CVCA's arts center, the Heyde Center for the Arts, is now established and stable. The group continues to maintain its grassroots identity by keeping membership dues low and maximizing volunteer participation.

Understand a Potential Member's Point of View

Empathy goes a long way when looking for members to join your organization. Your membership development work should take in accout both big-picture and personal contexts. When reaching out to potential new members, consider these questions:

  • What is happening in the worlds of your target audiences that might prevent them from joining your organization?
  • What other organizations might attract the interest of potential members?
  • Will the poor economy prevent people from joining your organization?

Sell Your Organization

Nonprofit organizations have a tendency to undervalue their services, in part because they think their mission provides people with reason enough to join. Even though your organization is not working for a profit, you are still selling something of value. You should asses the value of your organization and consider how you might build on that. This is a particularly useful exercise when you are drafting your membership development materials. For example, if you are providing networking and social opportunities, such as special behind-the-scenes tours of interesting places, classes, a certificate program, publications, or members-only events, you should sell them in your marketing materials. Also, make sure your "sales" team — your staff, board, and engaged members — knows your organization's full worth.

Close the Deal with New Members

As soon as someone joins your organization, close the deal by cementing the relationship. Offer the new member a way to participate in the organization in a meaningful way. Something as simple as inviting the member to an upcoming event or the public portion of a board meeting can go a long way. You can also engage new members using social media tools and providing them with volunteer opportunities. While some members will be happy just to write a check from time to time, many members would like to do more, especially during the honeymoon period with your organization.

Poll Your Membership

Regular member outreach efforts through polls and surveys will help you maintain and build an active membership. Periodically check in with members to get their general feedback, especially if you have just implemented a new administrative system or member database. Polling members on advocacy issues can help prioritize the group's work. When making an end-of-year donation appeal, an annual end-of-year grassroots poll can be a great way to remind members that you care about their ideas.

Here are free or low-cost web-based survey tools:

If you’re gearing up to write or revise your strategic plan, you may consider securing a professional consultant to evaluate your members' perception of your services. 

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.