Why start a membership scheme?

By Amanda Rigali on

Miriam BattyeIt is widely acknowledged that in the current climate one of the most crucial steps arts organisations need to take is diversifying their income streams. It’s a nice concept, but the practicalities of achieving it require company-wide knowledge and focus. The optimum state of diversified income, I believe, would be three equal thirds of income: one the public sector, the second generated income, and the third the private sector. This model allows for the greatest security if one of these sources of income is dramatically decreased. In a fluctuating economy, one can’t rely wholly on any one of these sources of income, and so spreading attention to developing all three is necessary.

After statutory funding and income generation, a significant way that many organisations choose to address their needs from the private sector is through Membership Schemes, a trend that has seen arts organisations up and down the country offering up a slice of the action for as little as £35 a year. However participants are named, taking on “Members”, “Supporters” or “Friends” requires a plethora of input of resources from an organisation, remaining responsive to the needs of those individuals who have signed up. But it’s usually worth the investment, members can be a passionate, loyal ally that can advocate for the organisation in tough times.

It struck me when I was championing a Friends scheme as a valuable addition to my organisation, that I wasn’t sure what else was on offer out there, and how other organisations had sought to cultivate such donor relationships. So I went back to the drawing board. However it’s presented, a Supporters’ scheme can be boiled down to just one pertinent thing: addressing a need.

I looked across the board at different schemes, many of which were from organisations I hadn’t been in contact with, and I wondered what in their presentation might tempt me to sign up. I was surprised at how I found the most persuasive pitches to be ones which were fairly candid about their financial needs, as opposed to ones which shied away from this kind of admission. I was less compelled to donate to an organisation which did not evidence their need in a way that was fairly direct.

Do we always want something in return when we join a membership scheme?

Do we always want something in return when we join a membership scheme?

One thing that I found particularly diverse about many schemes that I came across, is that there seemed to be requirement for an exchange of resources for money.  In every scheme to a certain extent a member is invited to exchange their donation for a list of benefits. At first, I felt this seemed a little paradoxical to the essence of what donating to an organisation is about, shouldn’t someone donate because they want to? Isn’t the idea that the organisation is spending the time and resources funded by these donations in giving out benefits counterintuitive?

I have always struggled with the idea that handing over your fee to join a members’ scheme might get you an invite to a glossy reception, particularly if that cash has gone straight to the bubbly and canapés, or even the Donor Relations Manager who put that whole event into motion. I understand that these events have their purpose, but I’d much sooner if I handed over my own money to an organisation see that it was invested more directly into the artistic output of an organisation, and get an invitation to see whatever performance, exhibition or project came out of it.

What separates a membership scheme from other kinds of donation, is that it is an opportunity for both parties to engage in an ongoing relationship with one another. To me, one thing that an organisation shouldn’t lose sight of when devising such a scheme is that the benefits should allow a supporter greater access to that organisation’s work. The work, whether it is a production, a participation programme or a work in progress exhibition, should be the focal purpose of the members’ scheme, and by supporting it, you are able to experience the organisation’s work in greater detail, depth or frequency. Those people who are receptive to these kinds of schemes, who love your organisation and want to commit to it in a valuable way most probably do so because they are passionate about the work, the people, the place, and possibly not the fact they might get 10% off at the bar.

I joined my first ever membership scheme this week, and what struck me was that the main reason I felt compelled to do so was because having appreciated the organisation for my entire life, I realised I wanted to be a part of their future. There was definitely a pride in being able to say that I was officially a supporter of the organisation, and if everyone who regularly attended and experienced art felt compelled to become a member of their favoured organisation, I think that we would be on a pathway not only to a more sustainable future in the arts sector, but a more connected one, where audiences are engaged and implicated in an organisation’s work, and an organisation is consistently responsive to the requirements of its audience.

What do you think? I’d love to know your views.

Posted by Amanda Rigali

Amanda is Director of Strategic Development at Cause4, and Head of the Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy Programme. As well as running the Programme, Amanda runs fundraising training sessions for cultural professionals across England and offers intensive strategy support to a range of charities.

One comment

  1. Such an interesting and insightful article! I’ve also found many ‘Friends’ that simply want to support a cause, and seem baffled by any questions of whether they feel a scheme is ‘value for money’. It’s interesting that the organisations most honest about their need for donations are the most compelling – it’s something about the honesty of it I think.

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