This week I'm honored to introduce Ken Meifert. Ken is the Senior Director of Development at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He's overseen the growth of their membership program from 7,000 to more than 30,000 members. So I've asked him for his thoughts on raising annual support from dues paying members. You can learn more about the Hall of Fame at baseballhall.org.
Membership Dues vs. Annual Fund
Talk with a development professional working for an institution that has a membership program and they will tell you that they have struggled with where membership ends and donations begin.
On the surface it seems simple…but as we dive in the picture can become a little cloudy. It goes like this…the membership director wants people to upgrade their memberships…raising more money to support the mission of the institution. The annual fund director wants people to contribute in addition to their membership dues. Both admirable goals…so what’s the problem?
The problem is the mixed message you send to your donors. Do you want people to upgrade their memberships or donate in addition to their annual membership dues? Sure you can ask them to due both…but then both of those messages are weaker and less clear.
At the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum we came to the conclusion after much soul searching…well actually conversations with members and donors…that many people view membership in a transactional sense. If all of the benefits they need come with an entry level membership why would they upgrade? It would be akin to an empty-nester couple buying a mini-van that seats 8. Now that does not mean that these donors will not provide additional support, in fact it is just the opposite; we have many members who donate 5, 10, or even 25 times their annual membership dues to our annual fund.
Why don’t these generous folks just upgrade to a higher level membership? Because they want their donation to be 100% tax deductible and realize that by making a donation to annual fund none of their money is spent on providing member benefits they don’t need. It is a win-win for the Hall of Fame and the donor.
Once you have decided on your strategy be prepared to explain it to your donors, they will ask. You can expect that occasional call from a donor who makes a large gift and expects their membership to upgraded. We have found in every case, when we explain that a $1,000 donation is 100% tax deductible and that a $1,000 membership has tangible benefits that reduce the money going to support our mission to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations through baseball, the donor understands.
So in practice what does this mean…it means that at we ask our members to make donations in addition to their membership dues and never ask them to upgrade to the next membership level. Is that the right answer for every institution? Of course not. What is universal is that membership programs provide fertile ground for building relationships that lead to major gifts. Bottom line…talk to your donors, understand their motivations, understand what is important to them and most importantly craft a clear strategy for increasing donor engagement and support.