Are membership schemes a great idea or a lot of work? In the first of two articles Alex Youel helps you think through your business objectives and membership design before it’s too late...

Photo of two National Trust membership recruiters
National Trust recruiters at Bowderstone car park in Borrowdale, Lake District

National Trust Images/Paul Harris

The variety of arts organisations is as great as the arts are themselves. Funding for them, as we know all too well, is more varied again, subject to the vagaries of shifting local and national funding priorities, political imperatives and popular support, whether visiting, events attendances, secondary spend or donor interest. So might a membership scheme offer a more reliable and sustainable funding stream? And might such a scheme offer other valuable benefits too, such as building a community of support among local people, a source of regular repeat visitors and a pool of potential donors and volunteers?

Inevitably (trust me, I’m a consultant), the answer is not a straightforward yes or no. There are some important questions to ask before deciding if it is right for you, starting with the most difficult: Does having ‘members’ support my organisation’s business strategy? Perhaps the word ‘member’ isn’t quite the right term or indeed concept, and ‘friends of…’, ‘supporters’, ‘season-ticket holders’ or a classic tiered donors scheme might be a better fit for the strategy. In two cases I have worked with recently, both started off thinking in terms of membership but concluded in the first that a supporter scheme was what they really needed, and in the second that a car-parking seasonal pass was just the ticket.

Fully engaged members are your best supporters and allies in difficult times

All such schemes, whether for members or otherwise, require efficient administration of personal records. But a membership or friends scheme can imply more: a (welcome) increasing commitment among its members, leading to calls from them for their voices to be heard by decision-makers and ultimately to demands for inclusion in your governance procedures. This is member engagement and of course it is a good thing. Fully engaged members are your best supporters and allies in difficult times. But it may not be quite what your trustees were expecting when you set off together down this path. Best to be up front about the possibilities − and to be prepared to intervene if and when a marvellous friends scheme turns into anything but.

So besides governance, what aspects need to be thought about before taking the plunge? First you must agree on what your organisation’s objective is for the scheme. Is it all about the money, generating local support or finding more volunteers? Closely followed by working out what is in it for people considering joining. The latter is the membership proposition – a simple phrase or sentence which encapsulates why people in your target audience would want to join in the first place, setting out the principal member benefits in a clear and compelling way. Perhaps, like the National Trust for example, the proposition is about visiting places for free, as many times as you like, coupled with the satisfaction of supporting a very worthwhile cause. For a museum which already offers free admission, it might be about providing opportunities to be the first to see new acquisitions, get behind the scenes, meet the curators and enjoy early, free or discounted admission to special exhibitions. For all membership schemes the social opportunities to meet like-minded people are really important.

Having settled the strategic objective, the proposition for the target audience and the outline package of member benefits, next follows the consideration of which membership categories to offer. These will be informed by the characteristics of your carefully chosen target audience, and then there are policy decisions to be taken as to what criteria will underpin the categories. For example, is a ‘senior’ membership open to everyone over 60, or should it be 65, or is it only available if the applicant is not only of the right age but has also retired – and how would you be able to check this anyway? Finally comes the price at which each member category is to be offered. At this point, if it hasn’t happened already, a good review of the membership offerings of your friendly fellow arts organisations (aka competitors in this context) is important.

With all the above to hand you are ready to test your thinking so far with a helpful group, perhaps 12 or 15 strong, including people drawn from your target audience but also from your trustees (you’ll want an ally at the top table) and work colleagues (ditto). The more involved they are at this design stage, the more likely the finished scheme is to succeed.

So, by this stage you will be forming an opinion as to whether the emerging membership plan is looking like a great idea or whether it already seems like a lot of work. But time and effort expended in the design stage is never wasted. In my next article (in a couple of weeks) we will look at how to anticipate and prepare for a scheme that is showing early signs of becoming a great success, before it overwhelms your communications, database and hard-pressed customer care team!

Alex Youel is Managing Director of membership consultancy Your Membership Matters. He worked for the National Trust for 25 years, latterly as Head of Supporter Relations.

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