Over the last three months, I've had conversations with four associations about their approach to raising money. The conversations usually touch on many of the same points:
"We're an association and are struggling to raise additional funds from our members."
"We think it's because a lot of our members may not fully understand what we do and why we need to raise money from them."
"We've seen a decline in our membership and have had to restate our membership levels."
"We are trying to figure out how we can offer our members giving opportunities as an alternative to membership dues."
"We're not sure we are relevant anymore. People are spending less time with our content even though it's really good. Our members tell us that's what they want, but in the end they don't follow through."
"What should we do? Do we have a fundraising or a membership problem?"
If you work for an association, I suspect you've had similar conversations with your colleagues.
Before I share with you the advice I give to my association clients, I want to first discuss a major challenge that, in today's competitive fundraising environment, most associations face.
Content Is King — and There's a Lot of It
You have the best newsletter out there. You've established rigorous business rules to ensure you get the right professional development content to your members in the right format and at the appropriate time. But no one is consuming it. Not that your members don't find it valuable — it's more that they can't find it. Let's be honest: there's an abundance of content and information out there, good and bad. And, to make matters worse, associations today have lots of new competitors for the attention of their members — consultants and thought leaders who are creating their own content and targeting it to your members. What does it all mean? It means your members are in the driver's seat when it comes to deciding what is good and what is not, what is useful and what is not. It also means that many associations are scrambling to learn as quickly as they can how they can make their content stand out in a very crowded environment.
Membership Is for Some But Not All
I know this notion runs counter the bedrock principle of the association model. Membership used to be the entry-point for participation. By being a member, you got the benefits of membership. But that value proposition, which in the past included content and training for individual members, has been eroded by the arrival of other entities and technologies on the scene. Increasingly, it's something many associations feel overwhelmed by. But again, that's something you don't have much control over; your members will decide whether your content is something they need or want. And because that's the case, it's okay — in fact, I recommend it — to allow individual members and non-members alike to engage with your content when they want it, at a price they can afford (which, for some things, might even be free). Such a policy is unlikely to hurt your business model anymore than it has been hurt by growing competition, and it has the added benefit of creating membership leads down the line.
Membership Is Not the Same as Asking for Money to Help the Field
Associations spend most of their time providing programs and training designed to help their members excel on the professional level. It's what I call the "personal benefit" model, and it's different than the philanthropic model. In non-association fundraising, we typically seek support to help the clients or beneficiaries we serve, not a broad field. The core fundraising challenge for associations today, however, is getting individual members to think beyond what's in it for them and to focus on how their support can help the field. Your members need to think of their annual dues as just one rung on a ladder of engagement. And they need to understand that because they are a dues-paying member in good standing, you have permission to ask them to move higher up that ladder for the benefit of the field. Which is why it is important for associations to be clear and specific about how member donations will be used to benefit the field. If your engagement model is solid, your members will see that their support benefits not only themselves, but all the organizations that make up your field and are doing good work to create social change.
Remember: whether you're asking for dues or donations from your members, individuals are inspired to give by the emotional connection they feel to those who benefit from their support. As an association fundraiser, your storytelling should never stop at what the association can do for its members; you need to show them what their support means for the association, for the field, and for all the people who benefit from the good work your members and their colleagues, both in and outside their organizations, do.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.