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Five Reasons Membership Programs Fail—And What You Can Do About It

Five Reasons Membership Programs Fail—And What You Can Do About ItLaunching a mission-centered membership program offers a terrific opportunity for nonprofits to rally a base of like-minded supporters around a cause, while creating an entirely new stream of recurring revenue. However, it can be more difficult to build a thriving membership program than many nonprofits expect.

Here are five pitfalls you’ll want to avoid:

  1. Thinking that people will join and renew just because they like you
    Your organization is doing exemplary work and your mission is compelling, so why wouldn’t people join your membership program? In short, because a cause simply isn’t enough. Members want to be part of a transformational experience. They need to see that three months, six months, or a year of involvement in your membership program is going to make a noticeable difference for them personally.
  2. Treating membership like a singular buying transaction
    Nonprofits that excel at nurturing donor relationships can apply the same principles to a membership. There are eight specific stages of member experience, and the most effective programs will intentionally address the unique aspects of each:

    • Discovery—The prospect has a problem (or a social concern) that deeply troubles them.
    • Contemplation—The prospect considers whether your membership offers a viable solution to the problem.
    • Activation—The prospect completes the buying action. They join your membership.
    • Onboarding—The new member looks for validation of their buying decision.
    • First 30 Days—The new member assesses early experiences to determine if promises of value will be kept.
    • Beyond 30 Days—The member continues to assess whether their investment has been worthwhile.
    • Pre-Renewal—The member faces the renewal decision.
    • Post-Renewal—The member assesses whether their loyalty is appreciated.
  3. Overcomplicating your technology
    Being easy to do business with is essential, but too often nonprofits skimp on technology in order to save on expenses. This can backfire, making it more difficult for members to join, engage, and renew. The most successful membership programs leverage technology to create a frictionless experience.
  4. Placing too much emphasis on marketing
    When a membership is struggling to find traction, the natural inclination is to think that more marketing, or better marketing, is warranted. Rarely is this the answer. Close examination almost always reveals one or more misalignments in the member experience, resulting in a loss of engagement either prior to or after the decision to join.
  5. Paying more attention to lapsed members than you do to those who renew
    Renewing members are the holy grail for growing any membership program. Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter how fast you bring members in on the front, if you lose them somewhere along the way after they join. Yet, most organizations chase their lapsing members, while those who renew see only business as usual.

Five Reasons Membership Programs Fail—And What You Can Do About ItJoy Duling,, teaches membership-based organizations how to more easily launch, run, and grow. In addition to her consulting role, Joy serves as executive director for a nonprofit organization that has consistently raised more than $1.1 million annually in membership dues since its launch in 2012.

Topics: membership