Why Membership Matters

Members are critical to the success of your Friends group; they sustain and help carry out your mission as well as providing volunteer and financial support. An active membership is a vital way of developing commitment amongst your supporters.

Building your Membership

There are some simple steps you can take to build your membership base. Some important questions to keep in mind: Who do you want to reach? What benefits will a member receive? Why should someone join?

  • Capture Names: At all park or site programming events--trail and beach clean-ups, hikes, birdwatching days-- make sure you have a sign-in sheet to capture potential member information. There is no better time than when someone is actively engaged with your park to maximize on their interest. After a park event is over, make sure to send out a friendly membership ask. This can be an email or a letter but email saves time and is a great way to link to more information about your Friends group. Also, talk with your park manager about a permanent place to keep a membership/information sign-up sheet. That way, you can collect names and information and send out weekly/monthly asks to people who have expressed an interest in learning more about your Friends group.
  • Organize a Membership Mailing: If your membership numbers are stagnant sometimes a blanket approach to attracting new members is the way to go. Organizing a USPS Every Door Direct Mail (EDDM) zip code mailing is a way to reach a large amount of people and is relatively cost effective. EDDM mailings cost less than sending letters by first class mail. Talk to your local post office to see if there are any mail houses in your area that you can speak with about setting up a zip code mailing. Then, design a postcard of flyer which might include:
  • Broaden your Horizons: Your Friends group is part of a broader community. It’s worth it to get out and network! Are there other conservation, hiking or gardening groups in your area? What about the local chamber of commerce?
  • Make it Worth Their While: Becoming a member of any not for profit is a great way for people to donate and support a cause. But, with a membership comes the expectation of something mutually beneficial for a supporter. Most supporters of not for profits do not want to see their money wasted on items and offers that are not mission based so keep that in mind as you structure your membership level tiers. There are lots of low- to no- cost perks you can add as incentives for people to become members, such as member-only newsletters and updates, discounts on Friends group programs or merchandise, member-only meetings, hikes or informational sessions.
  • An introduction to the Friends group
  • A list of upcoming Friends events
  • An invitation to an open house or other specific Friends event
  • A discounted membership offer with an expiration date
  • A discount to an upcoming event

Regardless of the information on the card, the Friends website and logo should be prominent on the mailing and there should be a call to action (e.g., join, donate, volunteer, come to an event). If your budget allows, try a large color postcard (6” x 9” or larger) – this will cost more in postage but will stand out in the mail.

A few types of organizations and individuals who may be interested in partnering are listed below:

  • Local Audubon chapters may be interested in co-sponsoring programs, particularly if birders are a user group of your park. People involved with an Audubon chapter are likely to also have an interest in the park and could make good potential board members, members or volunteers.
  • Libraries are community centers and are a good places to make connections and tap into younger audiences. There is also great potential for hosting joint programs with local libraries. For example, your Friends group could talk about the park or site during a program at the library, or the library could hold readings at the park or site.
  • Senior citizen centers and programs
  • Regional volunteer centers
  • Religious and civic organizations: People active in religious and civic organizations are often service-minded, making these entities a great source of potential volunteers and board members. They also have many connections in the community.
  • Applicable departments/clubs at local high schools, colleges and universities. Professors of environmental sciences, environmental clubs and communications departments are great potential sources of board members, volunteers, interns and pro bono services. For example, the Friends could reach out to a professor about having a class work on a project for the Friends – e.g., science or history project, a film about the Friends or the park/site, a marketing campaign

Contact these local organizations and see if they would be interested in hosting your group for a presentation at their next meeting. You can bring along a Powerpoint presentation or give a general talk about your Friends group, programming you put on and what your plans are for the future. Make sure to bring along membership information and sign-up sheets. This is a great way to make new connections and get the word out about why it’s a great thing to become a member of your Friends group.

If there are community events that allow informational tables, sign-up! Put together a display of pictures, informational flyers, and membership information and take the opportunity to speak face to face with the community. You may even want to have an incentive for people to leave their contact information, like hosting a raffle for anyone who signs up, or give out a small takeaway (car decal, sticker, pen, etc.).

Retaining Members

Your group has conducted lots of outreach at local events, organized a zip code mailing, collected contact information from sign-up sheets. Yet when you analyze your membership it’s clear that people do not renew their memberships on a yearly basis. You may be attracting new members but the old ones don’t consistently renew. Retaining members is a major issue for many Friends groups.

Members are valuable in the long run because they often become more than just members. Members might become volunteer, serve on your board, or make contributions above and beyond their membership dues. Multi-year members see the value in being a part of your Friends group and can become ambassadors. Practically speaking, it’s more expensive to attract new members (printing costs, mailing costs, time commitments for speaking engagements and public events) than retain members who are already informed about your Friends group and have actively given their support. So how do you ensure a high member retention rate?

ASK! People stop renewing their membership for many reasons. But a common reason is simply that people forget! Your Friends group membership may be at the top of your priority list but your membership base needs reminders.

Keeping track of current members who are about to lapse and consistently sending out reminders about renewing is critical. If your membership renews on the same date every year (and not a rolling basis) then you should be contacting members before their memberships lapse, during the enrollment period and even after the drive is over. If someone has let their membership lapse, do not take this as an immediate sign that they no longer wish to be part of your group. Non-profit best practices suggest keeping lapsed members on your renewal mailing list for up to five years. More immediately, sending out a ‘win-back’ email or mailer is helpful to capture those extra-late stragglers. A win-back message includes language that states that your Friends group misses their support and talks about what was accomplished with their past support.

ASK WHY! Sending out a membership survey is a great way to find out why people chose to join your Friends group in the first place. A free internet survey tool such as Survey Monkey or Google Forms allows your group to easily and inexpensively reach out to members and learn more about them. Many of your members will probably say that they joined because they simply wanted to support the cause. But take the opportunity to ask more in-depth questions. Do they find value in the benefits you offer? Do they like having access to member-only newsletters? Do they participate in membership hikes or clean-up days? Do they want to get more involved?

With this knowledge you can tailor benefits and programming to retain members Surveys also let members know that their voices matter. Give your members a way to feel engaged and listened to and you will find that your retention rates improve.

Meet your Members at their Level: Retaining members means learning more about why people donate. As your Friends group membership grows, it’s advisable to segment supporters by their level of contribution. Every group has major donors or "angels" that support the mission at higher-than-average rates. The level at which a donor is considered major depends very much on the organization. Some organizations might consider $100 donors as major whereas other organizations might not consider someone a major donor unless they contribute $1,000 or more.

It’s worthwhile to give special treatment, either through phone calls or personal notes, to higher donors. If a donor comes in at a high level year after year and then suddenly stops, some individual outreach is in order.

Active stewardship of your members forges stronger relationships which will ultimately compel them to remain a member and supporter of your Friends group.

Say Thank You: Make sure to show your gratitude and appreciation. An initial ‘thank you’ letter should be sent as soon as a member joins. Membership appreciation gatherings (could be a special hike or lecture or a small reception) are another way to make your members feel valued.

Engaging Members

Making sure your members feel engaged and valued is key to retaining them.

Members want to hear from you! Keep your members updated on what your Friends group has planned for each season. E-newsletters, posts on social media, paper newsletters, and direct emails are all great ways to keep in touch with your supporters.

Special Events and Programs. Membership implies exclusivity. You can offer something as simple as a ‘members only’ hike or lecture or a discount for a program. Picnics, receptions and other special events just for your members can create buzz and interest for non-members to sign-up and be a part of the fun.

Volunteer Days. Oftentimes your members want to actively participate in the stewardship of your park. Make sure to stay in touch with your members and invite them to volunteer days or to participate in special projects.

Keeping your members engaged strengthens the long-term viability and success of your Friends group.