Cast a Wider Net for New Nonprofit Members

Membership February 14, 2011

Lori Halley

By Lori Halley

Fishing for new members is a tricky business. It takes the right bait, offered patiently and repeatedly, to be successful in hooking new members, not to mention the challenge of landing them when you do get a bite! But the best tools and most canny tactics won’t be effective if you’re casting for new members in a fished-out pool.

For many small nonprofits – and especially community-based organizations, dealing primarily with local issues, and causes –  it does make good sense to connect first with local people: to focus your outreach efforts close to home, to get attention from the local media outlets, and to build a strong local profile  before committing resources to casting a wider net. 

Okay, I’m done with the fishing metaphor!

But the question remains: what do you do when the old membership recruitment methods aren’t bringing in the numbers your group needs to be sustainable? 

If you’ve tapped out your local networks and avenues for promotion, and “we’ve always done it this way” just isn’t working any more, here are two suggestions to try:

  • Look at your member demographics. Who’s being left out?
  • Look at your social media use. Who’s not hearing your message?

Who’s being left out?


Much Love, an animal rescue group in Los Angeles, has just wrapped a wonderful week-long campaign on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. It’s Okay to be a Cat Guy is “a week to promote the male/feline bond” and move some of the hundreds of cats in the LA shelters out to permanent homes.

...There are men in this country, in this city to be exact, that don’t march to the beat of the doggie drum. They like cats. And although it’s not the norm in society, they are proud to be known as Cat Guys.

At first thought you might think these men to be on the softer side, but truth is they are anything but. They are some of the most manliest, most rugged, most testosterone-filled individuals on the planet. This week we celebrate Cat Guys and hope to add to their ranks.

The humor is well done, and the videos are both beautifully produced and sharable. But the main lesson here for other nonprofits is not in the execution – for which, frankly, many of us don’t have the skills or resources – but in the strategy.  Recognizing the existence of a pervasive stereotype in North American society that almost certainly reduces the number of cats adopted by men – and I’m sure Much Love and LA Animal Services have the numbers on this – together with a surfeit of cats needing homes, they set out to court that “missing” demographic directly.

Who is your “typical” member?

  • Urban or rural?
  • Male or female?
  • Blue collar or white collar?
  • Retiree or busy young parent?

Yes, if your organization has a proven appeal to a certain group of people, by all means, do start there with your recruitment efforts.  But just because your existing membership fits a certain profile, that doesn’t mean you can’t reach out – equally effectively – to a whole new demographic.

Who’s not getting your message?

If your organization isn’t taking advantage of social media to reach out to prospective members, it’s time to start.  There’s simply no more effective and cost-effective way to network than through social media. Nothing beats face-to-face for relationship building, true – but you can’t build a relationship (or sign up a new member) if they don’t know your nonprofit exists! And you’d have to hand out an awful lot of flyers to get the same bang for your buck as you can get from social media.


One small nonprofit I belong to has always recruited new members in one of three ways: by referral from related government agencies; through personal introduction by existing members; and through displays at local conferences and public fundraising events. In the past few years, however, the group’s website and social media presence have also helped to bring in new members.

Here’s the thing:

Those “online acquisitions” are local people who found the organization through search engines or discovered it via their social networks on Facebook and Twitter. In fact, they might never have known the organization even existed, let alone become members if it weren’t for that online outreach, even though it’s been operating in the community for decades!

There was some fairly strong initial opposition at the board level to investing staff time in social media – perhaps you’ve had the same experience?  The thinking was that, with limited resources available, it didn’t make sense to try to market a community-based organization”to the whole world.” 

But the reality is, we can’t know who each individual is connected to online any more than we can know, within our physical communities, what new circles of opportunity might come from a new acquaintance. And one key benefit of being a networked nonprofit is the ability to reach far beyond your own immediate circle of contacts, to draw on their networks as well as your own. 

Get Networked

A good place to start, especially if you’re a community-based nonprofit, is by finding local people on Twitter and making contact with your existing members. See who they’re following and followed by, to find more people who are interested in your cause or connected to your community, and jump into the conversation. That’s one advantage of Twitter – it is perfectly acceptable (expected, even) for you to to jump into any conversation that looks interesting, to follow anyone who has something to say that you’d like to hear, and to speak to strangers.

With Facebook, by contrast, individuals will “friend” each other on the basis of some pre-existing relationship – sometimes an offline connection, sometimes as a result of getting acquainted through blogs or other social media – and it’s considered very poor netiquette to send a friend request to someone you don’t already know, no matter how much you might think you have in common. (Similarly, if your organization has set up a Facebook Page, you’ll need to rely on recommendations from your existing contacts, website visitors and blog readers to “like” the page in order for you to communicate with them in any direct way.) On the plus side, those friend-to-friend links tend to cluster in geographic areas to some extent, making Facebook extremely useful for a community-based nonprofit once you start to get that network growing. It’s a much bigger deal to “un-friend” or “un-like” on Facebook than it is to “unfollow” on Twitter, too, so there could be an argument to be made that Facebook fans show greater commitment to your group or cause, though I’ve yet to see figures to prove either way.

Facebook Pages just got a major makeover that should be quite helpful for nonprofits – particularly in the ability to create some much-needed separation in identity between your personal account and your role as Page admin – so if you haven’t yet added Facebook to your online membership attraction plan, this might be a good time to do so. 

Lori (“Engaging Apricot”) has written recently about how to add Facebook plugins to your website at WildApricot, and reprised some of our other Facebook resources to help you out. As well, you might want to jump on CharityHowTo’s free webinar with John Haydon: 10 Steps To Getting More Out Of Facebook For Your Nonprofit, on March 14, 2011, and check out John’s “Facebook Newbie” section at for tips and video tutorials.

There are, of course, other social networks out there – but you can’t be everywhere. Start with Twitter and Facebook, the two biggies.  And yes, ideally, set up accounts on both: there tends to be a different crowd in each place.

Do the Time Warp

One big challenge for nonprofit staff in social media is that you can’t be online all the time, networking ‘round the clock. Yet, the people you most want to connect with are often online when you’re not. Sometimes it’s a time zone issue; sometimes it’s a matter of schedule; but either way, the result is the same – your updates get lost in the ever-flowing news stream.

Automation to the rescue!

Social media gurus will point out here that, ideally, you should be talking with other people in social media, not broadcasting to them. True, to some extent. But sharing relevant links and information is a valid part of your online conversation, as the voice of a nonprofit organization, and there’s no pressing need for that to happen in real time, every single time you post an update.

By strategically timing your social media messages to go out at intervals through the day, you can often reach prospective members with whom you’d not otherwise cross paths – or with other people who can share your message with friends who could be prospective members.

Scheduling Your Facebook Updates

Facebook doesn’t make it easy to time-shift your posts and updates, but by using  any one of a number of third-party services (like or Twitter clients (think HootSuite, CoTweet, and the like), you can keep a fairly steady stream of new content flowing to your Facebook Page simply by sending your Twitter updates to your Facebook Page. Alternatively, try LaterBro to schedule both Twitter and Facebook status updates. It’ll even let you set up recurring Facebook updates, which could be handy for reminding your friends and fans of a pressing deadline (event registration? petition to be signed?) without getting lost in the busy Facebook news stream.

Want to grab a photo or video clip with your phone and post it on Facebook? One of the most efficient methods is to send it to Facebook by email. LetterMeLater is one web-based service that lets you write those update emails in advance, even including photos and videos if you like, and set the time for when you’d like that email to go out.

These are just a couple of the options out there, of course. If you have your own favorite tricks or tools for posting Facebook updates when you’re not online, please drop a comment and share!

Scheduling Your  Twitter Updates

Automatic tweets are nothing new: SocialOOmph lets you schedule updates in advance, you can set up Twitterfeed to automatically update Twitter whenever you publish a new blog post, and a number of Twitter clients such as HootSuite and Cotweet will do the same.

Again, if you’ve got a great way to spread your nonprofit’s Twitter presence across time zones without staying at work all night, leave a comment to let us know!

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.


  • David Tran:

    Hi Rebecca,

    Thanks for the great writeup! Hope you had a great weekend. We are definitely working hard on the scheduling feature as well as Facebook integration and will roll out some improvements soon. Hope you have enjoyed playing around with Crowdbooster so far!



    Co-Founder, Crowdbooster

  • Pamela Grow:

    Terrific post!

    I like to use my organization's already loyal donors/members to recruit.  One tried and true, although admittedly old fashioned way, is by compiling short information kits and sending between five or 10 packets along with a letter thanking the donor for their loyalty and asking the donor to pass the enclosed along to like-minded friends and family (this technique actually resulted in a few major gifts in one organization I worked with).

    You can also enlist your donors/members' help online, by encouraging them to forward your enews, to tweet and to post on your FB page.

  • Lori Halley

    Lori Halley:

    David, I'll be interested to keep an eye on what you're doing with Crowdbooster as it develops. Glad you took the time to stop by!

    Pamela, great tip about the friend-to-friend offline sharing of information packets: thanks! There's a fine line to be walked there - so many donors and members are waste-conscious these days - but I'll bet a smart membership recruiter could make that a strength: perhaps come up with a *small* packet, maybe even something as small as a bookmark or fridge magnet? - that could be both fun to share and effective in educating about the nonprofit. I'll have to think about this - I know an org that operates mostly offline and could really benefit from this kind of "real world social networking"!


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