Do You Want Members or Donors?

members vs donors imageOne of the questions that often comes up is whether the organization should focus on gaining members or donors? And what is the difference?

Members vs. Donors
Members are looking for a relationship with the organization. This connection can include special benefits, discounts, accessibility, and/or additional knowledge – we’ve all heard the slogan, “membership has its privileges.” Many members want to pay their dues once a year and have never considered an additional donation. Of course, your job is to change that mindset. In addition, members want their thoughts about the organization heard. “After all, I am a member” is common statement in many organizations.

Donors, on the other hand, are looking to support a goal or help a specific project or organization. They provide financial or in-kind support and receive not only a tax deduction in return but the sure knowledge that they are making a difference and changing lives. They usually believe in the organization or have a strong tie to someone involved in the organization. Since there is no term that begins or ends their involvement, they are more likely to give multiple times during a year—if asked and appropriately motivated.

Which do you want?
Even if you have obvious membership benefits, you are still better off with donors in your database. What are your organization’s member benefits? If you have to rack your brain to come up with the benefits, they are not going to be enticing enough to draw a membership of any consequence.

If you can list 5 items off the top of your head that do not specifically tax the organization in either time or money but would be valuable to potential members you can start drafting up the membership offer form.

Still, you should engage people to become life-long donors, because not all donors want to be members even when the option exists. Many people want a relationship without expectations of attendance or participation.

Conversely, you cannot assume that a member who gives a donation wishes to get bumped up to a higher membership level. Remember, the tax benefits are substantially different. Memberships only get a tax deduction on the portion of the cost above the value of their benefits.

And, members cost much more to serve. Those benefits need to be offset by the membership fees. But, there are offsetting values for the organization. Members will more likely participate and provide a greater turnout at events and manifest often a stronger sense of loyalty to the organization than a donor. In fact, many people continue to renew their memberships long after they have moved away because they still want to feel connected to the organization (these people are perfect candidates to turn into long-term donors).

So where should you focus?
Of course, there is no right answer to this question. But to determine whether you should have a membership at all, perform a cost/benefit analysis of the value of each level of membership. Remember to include all the indirect costs since those may be the determining factor for you. As always, if you need help with this analysis, email us at