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How to Create a Member Referral Program that Actually Works

Author: Tatiana Morand
November 28, 2023
🕑 9 min read

“Give 25% off to a friend and get $20” 

“Tell your friends about GREATS and you both get 20%” 

“Invite your friends, get up to $50 off, give a free trip!” 

If you saw one of these email subject lines in your inbox, would it get your attention? 

They certainly piqued ours, especially since we’ve had referral membership programs on the brain. 

In fact, of all the ways you can get new members, a referral program is one of the top ways we’ve seen nonprofits grow their membership. 

And our 2020 report on membership growth only confirms what we’ve known for a while: the most effective way to get new members is by asking your current members to refer a friend. 75% of organizations we surveyed reported using this tactic and rated its effectiveness as 3.22 on a 5 point scale — the highest rating of all other tactics. 

But catchy subject lines are only a small piece of the member referral program puzzle. 

If you’ve ever asked: “How do I put together a referral program?” “What does it take to get my members to recommend and refer friends?” “Can I implement a program easily and quickly?”… you’re in the right place. 

Tools to Build Your Member Referral Program 

Before we dive into how to create a member referral program, we have some helpful resources you should check out! We have some great data from our survey of over 1,000 organizations regarding membership and revenue. We also put together a helpful member retention guide to build your retention strategy. 

Download the membership growth report now to learn: 

  • The seven membership recruitment tactics most organizations rely on 
  • What kinds of challenges organizations are facing when it comes to membership growth and how they’re overcoming them 
  • How organization type, size, age and location affects membership growth 

Download member retention 101 now to learn: 

  • How to map out your member journey 
  • Engage members at every step 
  • Make renewal process a breeze 
Click through to claim your 60-day trial of WildApricot to create effective QR codes that will speed up event check-in.

6 Steps to Create a Member Referral Program 

Now on to creating a program! Keep reading to learn what you can start doing today, plus best practices for a strong member referral program. 

1. Make it Personal

If you’re familiar with some of the foundations of marketing, you’ve heard of the idea of a “persona” or a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer based on market research and real data about your existing customers.

In fact, you may already have built member personas, even unofficial ones, if you’ve built your website with a particular viewer in mind, sent targeted emails to certain members, or chosen a social media platform because you know that your ideal members use it.

Here’s an example of a persona to give you an even better idea:

BraftonSource: Brafton

Of course, you don’t have to go this in-depth — many organizations don’t! Simply including demographic information, high-level personality traits, and motivators based on your current members is fine. 

And once you’ve done that, you can identify which of your current member personas are “ideal” based on what you’re looking for in new members.

For example, do you want them to donate? To volunteer? Do you want them to have a certain job title, or a certain income level? Do you want them highly connected to the community? What programs did you want them to take part in?

Once you have chosen your ideal persona, you can start creating some winning email, social media, and referral efforts that will reach the right people at the right time in the right ways — and since you know that the persona you’re reaching is someone who will really enjoy your programs, you don’t have to feel uncomfortable about asking your members to refer their friends.

2. Keep It Simple

One of the best ways to ask for member referrals is by keeping it simple. Your message should be clear and concise, though it can still be light-hearted and fun depending on your brand and the persona you want to attract.

You also want the process of referring a new member to be as easy as possible. While it pays to think outside of the box and come up with creative taglines and email subject lines, it’s important that any rules or requirements you have for members to participate in and benefit from referral programs are mentioned directly and up-front (e.g. a member needs to stick around for at least two months for the person to get the reward).

One way to do that is by following SORA’s lead in listing out the referral program requirements in an easy-to-read bulleted list on your website:

However, the strategy of keeping things simple doesn’t just apply to your members. You want to make referrals easy for you and your team to track, too.

One of the best ways to record which members are referring their friends is to include a field on your membership application forms. That way you can easily reward members as soon as their referral joins — and the best part is, it’s an easy item to implement today.

You’ll also want to make sure you have an easy place to record member referrals. Whether it’s a spreadsheet or a membership database, make sure you have somewhere to store this information so you can give an extra little shout-out to those members who have brought the most new friends!

3. Pick Your Battles

Remember when you needed to ask your parents for something you really wanted growing up?

Arguably, one of the best things you could do to persuade them to buy you that doll or that puppy would be to ask them when they’re in the best mood possible.

Well, the same strategy is true for asking for member referrals.

The best time to ask for a referral is right after someone gives you a good review on your member satisfaction survey or when someone gives you positive feedback on a review site, over social media, etc. Basically, any time you know they have had a good interaction with your organization and are more willing to share the love is a good time to ask for a referral.

And speaking of member satisfaction surveys, they’re some of the best ways to gauge how well your organization is serving its members and constituents, and one of the best indicators that your members are happy is their willingness to refer their friends. You can simply include a question in your survey that asks your members if they would be willing to refer someone they know and ask for a name and number directly in the survey.

You can also choose your time based on seasonal initiatives. Holidays where people are feeling especially generous like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Giving Tuesday (if you’re not asking for donations) are excellent times to send emails to members asking for referrals.

4. Make It Meaningful

It’s hard not to love the classic referral rewards like cash or an Amazon or Starbucks gift certificate — and although it doesn’t hurt to offer these tried-and-true incentives, we challenge you to think about what your members would really value from you.

We’ve seen success with rewards like a free month of membership or swag items from associations — basically anything that has a direct tie to your organization. That way, when members see or use that item, they’ll think of you!

For a great example of a unique reward that matches the organization’s values, check out BAPIA.


Plus, both the member who did the referring and their referred friend qualify to receive the first aid kit, so the new member is also off to a good start.

5. Don’t Keep It a Secret

How can your members refer new friends if they don’t know you want them to?

Consider including a page on your website, write case studies of happy members who were referred on your blog, and share social posts and videos that highlight the referral program rewards.

It’s hard to promote a program that no one knows about. Emails are great, but don’t forget about some of the biggest platforms you have to tell your story, gain support, and attract referrals. You can also plan a “referral drive” where your team shares more heavily than you usually do and you give more rewards.

One more thing — make sure your internal folks know about the referral program, too. If you can create a culture where all of your board and team members are asking members to refer whenever they have positive interactions as well, you’ll be more likely to see them trickle in even without a big push.

6. Stay on Track

It may seem obvious, but you want to make sure your program is actually working. With so many things to do and data to track, it’s easy to lose track of the effectiveness of your referral program, but it’s so vital to ensure you’re attracting new members and attracting the right members for your organization’s goals (and not wasting your precious time on what’s not working!).

These are just a few of the data points you should be looking at:

  • Are you actually getting referrals? (The number one question!)
  • Which channel (social media, email, text, word-of-mouth, etc.) are your referrals coming from?
  • Do your rewards resonate with your members?
  • Are your referred members sticking around?
  • Do the members who are being referred match with the personas you originally created?

After you’ve started tracking this data successfully, you can start having some marketing fun by sending out targeted emails, A/B testing messaging and communication channels to see which ones get more interaction, and planning for events that increase referral opportunities.

Best Practices for Member Marketing 

When it comes to marketing to new members in your organization, you’ll want to keep a couple of things in mind:  

  • Who are you marketing to? 
  • What goals are you trying to reach? 
  • What incentives are you offering? 
  • Keep your mission at the front of your messaging.  

The Who 

Marketing to your existing members will look different than marketing to brand-new members. But your membership referral program will be a huge incentive when marketing to both your existing members and new members.  

When sending out recruitment messaging make your referral program the core of your messaging to current members. Consider including program details in your monthly member newsletter to remain top of mind.  

For brand new members your messaging needs to align with the persona of the potential member. If you’re looking to recruit young professionals, be prominent on social media and send out emails rather than physical mail or flyers in the wild. 

The Goal 

Always keep your membership goals in mind when planning out your marketing campaigns. If you have really ambitious goals in mind, consider implementing a competition amongst your current members. This could be anything from who brings in the most referrals to who posts the most on social media about your organization.  

Awareness about your organization is more important than you may think. The more people who know who are, the more likely you will be to gain more members. 

The Incentives 

When it comes to incentives, your membership referral program will be one of the most obvious ways to reward your members for bringing in others. Here are a couple of ideas for incentives to bring to your members: 

  • Merchandise 
  • Gift cards 
  • Discounts on membership 
  • Trips to a fun place (amusement park, museum, beach, lake etc.) 
  • Experiences (photography session, chef dinner, wine tasting etc.) 

Your Mission 

The most important thing to keep in mind when marketing membership is to keep your mission top of mind. When sending out marketing materials, whether it’s a newsletter or social media post, discuss your organization’s passion.  

Speak to the heart of what you’re trying to accomplish. Is it to raise money for a cause? To build connections? Do you improve communities through actions? 

Share your mission through testimonials or impact stories. Always share what your organization has accomplished and use that to bring in new members who share your passion. 

Start Your Referral Program! 

As you can see, there are a lot of benefits to a strong referral program. When your organization can keep your members happy with meaningful rewards, gain new members that will benefit from your cause, and you can reach, even exceed, your goals for the year, everyone wins!

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!