“Donor”? “Member”? How about “BFF”?

Many nonprofits struggle with how to describe their supporters: Members? Donors? Something else? In the strictest sense, “members” can only be part of a “membership” organization, which is defined by that group’s bylaws. And as they say on those AmEx commercials, “Membership has its privileges.” In other words, if someone is going to commmit to becoming a “member,” they have the right to expect benefits, like a members-only web page, a members-only event or newsletter, the right to vote for the board. That sort of thing.

Bow, box and chocolatesBut that’s just the legal and official definition of “member” and the meaning of “membership” as applied to organizations. The real world has at least fifty shades of nuance, particularly when it comes to fundraising. So when you’re trying to think expensively, why not think expansively? The idea of “membership” gives many donors a greater sense of connection to and ownership of a nonprofit organization, in a way that “donor” or “supporter” does not. “I’m a member” means “I belong,” “I’m part of the Cool Kids Club,” and “I own this.” Those are important sentiments to nurture – particularly because deeper connection increases the likelihood of deeper financial support.

But there’s a hitch: some groups have noticed that fewer people these days seem to be motivated by “paying dues.” The renewal letter that says “it’s time to renew your dues” may be very, um, yesterday. So what’s today’s version?

If a fundraising program is aimed at connecting as many people as possible to your work, and building community ownership in your success, then words that create connection are important. Some organizations are concluding that anyone who gives any amount of money (even a business that donates a boat trip to the silent auction) will be a considered a “member.” Some types of members – major donors, for example – require extra effort beyond the methods used to bring in and renew other members.

Box of chocolates, anyone?

– Allison Handler, Portland, OR