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The Complete Guide to a Successful Membership Drive (+10 Proven Ideas to Get More Members)

Author: Terry Ibele
June 20, 2018
🕑 12 min read

If you’re looking to run a membership drive and need some help, you’ve come to the right place.

I’ve rounded up 10 real-life examples of organizations (both small and large) that held very successful membership drives, gaining anywhere from 5 to 200 new members.

The best part is that they didn’t over-complicate things. The strategies these organizations chose were fairly simple to plan and execute.

To help you meet the most success for your organization, I’ve also rounded up extra advice on how to set your goal, budget, strategy, and more.

Here’s everything I cover in this guide:

And if you want to start by increasing your email signups,join our on-demand webinar with executive director and all-around nonprofit expert Sean Kosofsky to learn eight easy ways to build better email relationships.

It’s my hope that by following these steps and examples, you’ll meet great success. All the best!

The Best Way to Make a Goal

Membership Drive

There’s a common mistake I see organizations making when they set goals for their membership drives.

They set goals like, “increase memberships,” or “market our organization more.”

The problem with these types of goals is there’s no way to measure real success.

If the organization gains one new member, did the organization reach its goal? How about 100 new members?

On top of this, it’s difficult to know what sorts of activities will lead to that goal’s success.

A better way to set goals is to use the SMART framework.

SMART, according to MindTools stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time bound

According to research by Michigan State University, writing down and sharing SMART goals with your team can increase the chances of success by 33%.

Here’s why.

Say for example, you have an organization of 500 members. A SMART goal might be: Gain 50 new members over one month — that’s a 10% increase over their base membership.

This goal is SMART because it’s Specific (50 members), Measurable (50), Achievable (10% increase), Relevant (members for a membership organization), and Time Bound (one month).

A goal like this also makes tracking it easy — half way through the month, the organization should be at 25 new members. If not, new tactics can be employed. To be even more transparent about this goal, the organization can post progress on social media, in the office, and on the website. That way, everyone knows where the goal stands, and can help out if needed.

If you need help setting your own SMART goal, here are some typical goals I see:

  • 10% increase in overall membership
  • 300% increase in average memberships for one month (ex. If you typically get 10 new members a month, can you get 30?)
  • A drive to get a specific type of member (ex. Students vs Professional members)

Once you have your SMART goal created, it’s time to create a budget.

In the next section, I share a common way the top membership organizations approach budgeting.

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The One Metric that Will Set a Proper Budget

Membership Drive

There’s one metric that makes budgeting for a member drive so much easier.

That metric is your member acquisition cost.

Your member acquisition cost is how much you should be willing to pay in advertising expenses to attract and sign up one new member.

The max amount most organizations are willing to pay is typically the equivalent of one year’s worth of dues, or one-third of the total dues a member gives your organization over the lifetime of their membership.

This example shows why.

Imagine your annual due is $100, and your average member stays with your organization for 3 years.

If your marketing expenses are the equivalent of one-year’s worth of dues per member, then the next 2 years are purely profit.

Here’s how that looks in figures:

Year 1:

  • Member acquisition cost (marketing and advertising expenses to get one member): $100
  • Member dues: $100
  • Profit: $0

Year 2:

  • Member acquisition cost: $0 (they’re already a member)
  • Member dues: $100
  • Profit: $100

Year 3:

  • Member acquisition cost: $0
  • Member dues: $100
  • Profit: $100

Total Cost: $100

Total Revenue (Dues): $300

Total Profit: $200

Of course, if you spend less than 1-year’s worth of dues on marketing expenses, then you end up with a higher return on investment (ROI).

Healthy organizations typically use this model, because it allows them to grow at a steady rate by consistently allocating revenue to attract new members, while still creating programs that serve current members (and cover organizational costs).

To figure out the budget for your membership drive, simply multiple your member acquisition cost by your goal.

Take this easy example:

If your member acquisition cost is $100 and your goal is to get 10 new members, then your total budget for your membership drive is $1,000 ($100 x 10 new members).

If you end up spending more $1,000, or your $1,000 doesn’t bring in 10 new members, then you’ve gone over budget. If you’re able to spend less than $1,000 and still get 10 new members, then you’ve turned a profit (and likely could have done more to attract even more members).

This is also a great way to evaluate the effectiveness of your promotional tactics — cut out activities that cost your organization too much to attract new members, and scale activities that are inexpensive, yet effective.

How to Create a Successful Strategy

Membership Drive

The organizations who run the most successful membership drives all have one thing in common: they make the most use of their available resources.

That’s all a good strategy does.

To start, simply follow Erica Olsen’s advice (author of Strategic Planning Kit for Dummies) and make a list of all your currently available resources and how you can use them to your advantage.

If you’re having trouble creating a list, here are three places to look:

  • What people can help you out? Your board, members, volunteers, donors, business partners, supporters, industry contacts, etc.
  • What locations do you have available at your disposal? Local library, schools, conference center, your office, a park, community center, local restaurants/bars, etc.
  • What creative skills do your board and volunteers possess? Photoshop, video editing, graphic design, painting, event planning, speaking, cooking, singing, other special talents, etc.

Once you’ve got an inventory of all available resources, it’s time to figure out the best way to use them to grow members.

Some organizations think they have to get super creative here, but not necessarily.

For instance, I’ve heard stories of telephone campaigns that were super effective — and all that takes is a couple hours from a few motivated volunteers.

When thinking of ideas, it’s also helpful to look through your organization’s history to see what’s worked before. Try reaching out to similar organizations or chapters in different cities to see what’s worked well for them too.

If nothing in your list of resources is popping out to you, here’s a list of successful membership strategies I’ve seen work well in gaining a lot of new members:

10 Proven Ideas for a Successful Membership Drive

Membership Drive

1) Free Luncheon

The Nacogdoches County Chamber held a “Taste the Chamber” free luncheon for members. All members had to do to attend was bring a non-member friend. The chamber also encouraged members to attend by giving them $100 if their friend ended up becoming a member too.

Besides providing a delicious lunch, the chamber gave a 30 minute presentation at the end, which talked about the benefits of joining the organization.

At the end of the luncheon, 50 new members signed up. On top of this, the additional membership dues of $12,000 more than covered the cost to provide lunch and give away the $100 incentives.

2) Charity Fun Run/Cycling Event

Kelly (name changed for privacy), the Executive Director at a small cycling club held a charity cycling event in her city. During the registration process, new participants had the option of paying an additional $15 to become a member of the organization (a 50% discount from the club’s regular membership fee). She even beefed up the registration forms with an overview of the club and testimonials from a few current members.

By the time the event was over, not only did the club raise over $50,000 for a local charity, but Kelly welcomed 37 new members into the club.

If you’re not a cycling club, but want to run a similar event, it turns out that Fun Runs are the most popular way small nonprofits maximize funds, increase member participation, and minimize coordination costs.

3) Phone/Email Campaign

The Association of Talent Development: Greater Philadelphia simply made a goal to reach out to all the prospective members in their contact database. They simply made a list of all the prospects and contacted them one by one over the phone.

By the end of the year, they gained over 100 new members through this initiative.

4) Networking Event

Networking events are an excellent way to attract new members.

In fact, according to the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, networking with others is the number one reason why people join membership organizations.

For example, the Association of Talent Development: Wisconsin mailed out a networking event invite along with a free drink ticket and appetizers to 70 non-chapter members in their community.

Twenty-five people ended up attending, and five became members that evening.

5) Annual Conference in a New Location

Every year the Collegiate Information and Visitor Services Association chooses a new city to host its annual conference. This allows them to advertise the event to different communities. During the event, they promote the benefits of joining the organization. This strategy helps them grow nearly 200 members a year.

6) Business Spotlight

If you’re a Chamber of Commerce, or local business association, why not try hosting a Business Spotlight. This is the strategy of Catherine Wygant Fossett of the Institute for Family-Owned Business. She organizes an after-hours event at a local business, where members can receive a behind-the-scenes tour and get to know local business owners better — it’s always a big draw in bringing current and potential members out.

7) Invite a Popular Speaker

Many associations I’ve talked to bring in new speakers on a monthly basis to keep attracting new audiences.

In fact, this is the single strategy of TED — the nonprofit that spreads ideas through powerful talks of 18 minutes or less. Over the last 30 years, they’ve brought in nearly 100,000 speakers to speak on everything from beatboxing to self confidence. This has been so effective that on their YouTube channel alone they’ve already garnered over two billion views.

If you’re thinking of bringing in a speaker at your organization, but don’t know where to start, we put together a simple guide that can help you out.

8) Digital Ads

According to the Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report, 56% of associations found that ads on social networking sites (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) were the most effective digital marketing tool to bring in new members. If you’d like some help on creating Facebook ads for your nonprofit, we’ve put together a simple guide to get you started.

9) Incentivize Members to Evangelize

Similar to the Free Luncheon The Nacogdoches Chamber of Commerce puts on (in point one), the Collegiate Information & Visitor Services Association (CIVSA) creates some friendly competition between current members as a way to attract new members.

Here’s what they do:

Any current member that a non-member to their annual conference and gets them to join is entered into a gift basket draw. CIVSA also arms their members with social media share packages before the conference to help them spread the word and create a consistent message.

10) Give Away a Free Resource

Dr. Samuel Dyer of the Medical Science Liaison Society offered a free salary survey (something really valuable in his industry) on his website in exchange for someone’s email address. This tactic gained him over 1,500 new subscribers. He then began marketing the benefits of joining his organization to these new subscribers and many became paying members. In the same way, consider offering a free, valuable resource in exchange for an email address. Then, begin marketing your membership and events to these subscribers. Just be sure to comply with email regulations when collecting emails (like GDPR).

Once you’ve got your membership drive idea, you’ll still need to create an easy way for new members to sign up for your organization and pay. In the next section, I’ll explain the best way to register new members.

Read More: 101 Ways To Get New Members For Your Organization

Free Member Application Forms

Why Paper Membership Forms Are Bad for New Members (And What to Do Instead)

Membership Drive

Do you have paper membership forms? Do you ask new members to pay for their dues by check?

Take a moment to imagine the experience that creates for new members.

They just decided to join your organization, so you hand them your new member form. To fill it out, they’ve got to sit down and find a hard surface (I’ve seen people fill out forms on the backs of others before). When they’re done, they have to find you again and hand you back the form.

Now they’ve got to pay their dues. To do that, they have to go home and find their checking book. Then they’ve got to mail the check back to you, or remember to bring it to the next meeting.

None of this creates a great experience for a new member. In fact, it’s an outdated process that creates a lot of work, and sometimes a poor impression of the organization, especially if someone feels nagged about forgetting their check.

On top of this, what happens when a new member wants to join, but isn’t physically there? What if they’ve found you on social media at home, or a current member convinces them to join over coffee?

That’s why creating a quick and simple process to register and pay for membership all at once, wherever potential members are is important — you won’t miss out on any potential members, or dues.

The best way to do this is to offer online registration with payments.

In fact, organizations who switch to an online process typically see an immediate boost in registrations and payments.

For example, when Gary Rubens from the Ski Club of Washington DC began accepting online payments, within one month of promoting his club’s upcoming winter trip, all spots were filled and the club’s cash flow increased by $18,000, allowing Gary to cover all his deposits — something that had never happened at his club before.

In the next section I’m going to go over one of the best options for membership organizations to create a simplified online registration and payment process.

The Easiest Way to Set up New Member Registration

Membership Drive

There’s software specifically made for membership organizations that makes the registration and payment process easy.

That software is called Membership Management Software (it can also let you to set up recurring dues too).

The most popular Membership Management Software option (for eight years and running) is WildApricot. We’re used by over 20,000 organizations across the world — everything from clubs, nonprofits, professional associations, and more.

That’s because we make it super easy to set up and process online registration, payments, and recurring dues for any type of membership organization. You can start a free, 60-day trial of WildApricot here.


WildApricot can also eliminate and automate many other functions of your organization. That’s because we’re an all-in-one platform that allows you to:

  • Create an Online Presence: Use our drag-and-drop website builder to create any page for your organization: About Us, Join, Events, Donation Page, Blog, Resources, Info, etc.
  • Register Members and Event Attendees: Simple online registration with instant online payments.
  • Create a Calendar of Events: Allow visitors to view and register for all your upcoming events.
  • Show Pictures from Your Events: Add an easy slideshow gadget to any page.
  • Keep All Your Contacts in a Robust Database: WildApricot updates your online database as soon as your members update their profiles or register for events. All your contacts are stored in the cloud, so any admin can access them from anywhere (we also have a free membership app for your phone).
  • Add a Donation Page: Increase online donations and generate easy financial reports.
  • Communicate With Your Members: Use our simple email platform to send professionally-designed emails and newsletters to your contacts.
  • Simple Online Store: Sell training resources, materials, books, and more directly from your website.
  • Automate Dues, Payments, Reminders, and Invoices: Set up automated messages and WildApricot will coordinate everything else.
  • Custom Branding: Customize your website however you like. Add your own logo, info, images videos, and other resources to your website.

If you’d like to see if WildApricot is right for you, start your free, 60-day trial of WildApricot now. In just an afternoon, you can have a new website, complete with instant online registration for membership and events.

Membership Drive Free Trial

Membership Drive Free Trial“WildApricot makes it easy for members and guests to register and pay for our events online. In the first year after we switched, WildApricot helped us grow 30%.”

-Shirley Cowdrey, President, Midland & District Business Women’s Association

All the best with your membership drive!

Additional Resources

Membership Drive

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!