Hot Dogs & Philanthropists

View from an airplane window at the wings and flying over a scenic landscape of green hills and rivers
What does it mean to be a “member” of a non-profit organization? Really…what does it mean to you? I can get my head around membership to Costco, an airline lounge, a committee, and countless other examples. Member of the faculty, member of Congress, member of the FDIC. But I fail to see the purpose of membership to a non-profit.
I come from the world of professional fundraising where we talk about membership often. And I draw a distinction between membership that is tangible and membership that is tactical. For example, to be a member of Costco, I pay an annual fee and in exchange I get access to meaningful discounts, generous return policies, extraordinary telephone support from the electronics concierge, and fun food samples and $1.50 hot dogs and a soda. Heck, because I am an “executive member” I even get an annual rebate check that is a percentage of my annual purchases. Membership means something to me and to Costco and this meaning is not philanthropic. There is tangible value in the exchange between us and I expect more for each membership upgrade I elect. Costco expects nothing more from me as a member except more money for each of these elected upgrades. No membership, no access to the big box store. Fair enough!

But to be a member of a non-profit organization is a very different matter, really; it’s largely a one-sided tactical matter. Non-profits use the term member as a way to ingratiate the person more deeply so that they will make larger and more frequent gifts in the future. Membership is an gift upgrade strategy. And yet, by using the term member, we are setting up the relationship to be one of mutual exchange–I give you money and you give me something in return. Membership is not philanthropy, and it does not sustain organizations long term!

Organizations that focus on membership miss the point completely. Membership, as a fundraising tactic, is about quantity–gather loads of $35 or $125 members and keep growing the membership and never think about how to deepen the relationship for even larger gifts and greater connection to the charity. Charities call these people members, and these people are treated like members–you give us more money and we give you more “premiums”, an annual meeting/gathering with a briefing by the board chair, and towels in the gym or a member-only space.
View from an airplane window at the wings and flying over a scenic landscape of green hills and rivers
So here’s the rub–members to non-profits are not members…they are donors or philanthropists! And non-profits with a focus on membership development miss this point! We have created an entire class system in our organizations that categorizes people, their donations, and their motivations unfairly and inaccurately. This is especially tricky for social justice organizations, by the way. The system we have created states implicitly and explicitly that small gifts are membership gifts and large gifts are from philanthropists. Members are treated to low touch, cool, automated contact (lots of direct mail) and philanthropists are treated with high touch, warm, personal contact (major donor dinner parties).
Yet, it is my belief (and it is a much better tactic), that it doesn’t matter what amount is given to the organization, the giver is a donor. And a skilled fundraising team will know how to sort and segment these donors based upon a wide range of strategies and then employ tactics to engage the donor more deeply in the organization’s mission. A skilled fundraising team does not look for ways to extract more money from our members (or ignore them completely), we look for ways to deepen relationships. The gifts will follow.
A person’s membership in an organization is not important to me at all; knowing what motivates a person to give to the organization whether it is $35 or $35,000 is what is meaningful (and strategic) to me. When we focus solely on members, we only care about how much a person gives and how frequently. If we focus on donors or philanthropists, our focus is on why they give and our shared connection to the common cause.

I would love to see non-profit organizations talk less about having hundreds or thousands of members and re-frame this language to having hundreds or thousands of donors. You can still give out bumper stickers and internally categorize people by gift amounts if you wish, but I urge you to think about how you hold (and service) your membership and your philanthropists. Members and philanthropists are not interchangeable terms; they are completely different.

And I am curious: Where do you spend your time, with members or philanthropists? How does that work for you? What do you believe about the person who gives your organization $35? $350? $35,000? If you seek to use tactics that are automated as a capacity matter, what would it look like to have these tactics be philanthropy directed and not membership directed? What does membership services or member relations or membership desk mean to you? How about donor services or donor relations or donor desk? Where are you a member and what do these memberships mean to you?

The way we do our work is typically a reflection of what we believe/feel about our work. Are you servicing members or are you cultivating and nurturing relationships with your donors?

Give it some thought and then give me a call!


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Gary M. Groth, MS, PCC, CPCC

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