Small Membership Insight Survey - Highlights

Membership October 27, 2011

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

Since our goal is to help small associations and non-profits build websites, connect with supporters, grow and manage their membership, we wanted to gain more insight into their world. For our part, we wanted to know more about who manages these organizations day-to-day, volunteers or staff; what are their funding sources and much more. But our more fundamental question was: does size matter and if so, how?

In looking for information and answers, we soon realized that most of the membership benchmarking research has looked at larger, fully-staff associations. So we decided to conduct our own survey of the smaller and mostly volunteer-led organizations. In November we launched an online survey to both gain insight as well as enable the volunteers and staff of small organizations to share with their peers and have information against which they can benchmark.

While we’ve published a number of blog posts with survey highlights (see “Additional Insight” below), here are some of the highlights of our survey’s key findings.

Small Membership Insights – Survey Highlights Presentation

Here is a slide presentation that offers some of the highlights of our Small Membership Insight Survey.

Download the slides >>

Who participated in our survey?

Here is a snapshot of our 559 survey respondents (also check out our Survey Respondents Infographic)

  • 63.7% of the respondents are (unpaid) volunteers.
  • More than 40% are in leadership roles at their organization (e.g., President/Board Chair - 22.7%); Executive Director -20.4%)
  • Just over 50% of survey respondents represented associations (in the categories of business/trade as well as professional)
  • 82.2% of our survey respondents were based in the United States (82.2%), with the rest of the participants coming mainly from Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

What does a “small” membership organization look like?

The definition of “small” in terms of a membership organization can vary depending on the audience and context. So we wanted to create a portrait of a small membership organization within the parameters of our survey findings – looking at a number of data sets. So here is our overview of a typical “small membership organization” in reference to our survey respondents and the data they provided.

Based on our survey data, a typical small membership organization…

  • Has fewer than 500 members
  • Is volunteer-led
  • Is staffed by 1 full or part-time staffer
  • Has non-profit status
  • Is a stand-alone organization
  • Has a local or regional membership reach
  • Has an annual budget less than $50,000

You can also check out our Portrait of a Small Membership Organization Infographic.

Budgets and funding sources

Here’s a look at the findings that pertain to budgets, funding, and financial issues – which we grouped together to offer a snapshot of the financial status of small membership organizations.

Here are the highlights of this section:

  • Membership growth patterns: More than 75% of respondents indicated their membership levels had stayed the same or increased 10-50% in the last year
  • Budgets: As noted above, over 50% of respondents reported that their organization’s annual budget was less than $50,000.  Here are the top three categories:
    • $2,000 - $10,000 -  21.0%
    • $10,000 - $50,000 -  34.5%
    • $50,000 - $100,000 - 20.0%
  • Income sources: 63.5% of respondents reported that membership fees are a “critical source” of income, followed by events (34%), fundraising (21.8%), and sponsorship / advertising (17.5%)
  • Membership fees: 54.6% reported basic membership fees were $21.00 to $99.00

The State of Membership in Small Organizations

We know that issues around growing membership and increasing existing member engagement are understandably key for small organizations.  So we asked a number of questions in our survey to get a sense of “the current state of membership” for small organizations.

Top priorities:

When we asked respondents to identify their “top priority right now”, the following were the top three identified by participants.

  1. “increasing membership (27.7%);
  2. “increasing member engagement (22.1%)
  3. “demonstrating member value” (15%)

Membership size:

We found that 81.9% of respondents reported that their organizations had fewer than 500 members, with just over 15% having 500 to 2,000 members.

Reasons members join:

We asked the survey respondents to identify the key reasons their members join their organization. Since just over 50% of survey respondents represented associations (in the categories of business/trade as well as professional), we are not surprised that the top three reasons were:

  1. Networking (77.1%)
  2. Member education/professional development (71.3%)
  3. Learning best practices in their profession/field (43.7%)

Programs & services offered:

As noted above, the top three program and service categories mirror the “reasons for joining”:

  1. Networking events (66.8%)
  2. Member education/professional development (64.9%)
  3. Information/publications/books (44.1%)

Who manages the organization on a day-to-day basis?

One of the key questions we had was: who is managing these small organizations, volunteers or staff? It was interesting to see that over 50% of respondents reported that their organization was solely volunteer-led.  Here are the findings:

  • Volunteer only 53.4%
  • Staff only 23.3%
  • Combination of volunteer & staff 23.3%

Of the survey participants who completed this question, more than half reported having only one part time staff (30%), full time staff or contractor (23.4%). Here is an overview of some of the key findings:

  • 30% had 1 part-time staff
  • 23.4% had 1 full-time staff
  • 11% had 2 part-time staff
  • 11% had 3-5 part-time staff

Who manages what?

We wanted to dig a little deeper and see who is managing what functions at these small membership organizations, so we asked who was responsible for the following:



Staff or Contractor




Membership management



Volunteer management



External communications









Newsletter / journal / magazine



Fundraising / Sponsorship




How are small membership organizations communicating?

We looked at how small organizations were communicating with their existing members in general as well as at renewal time.  We also asked about communications channels specifically for member recruitment. Here’s an overview of what we found:

  • Communicating with existing members: Email certainly isn’t dead – it’s the key channel (97.3%) for connecting or engaging with existing members, followed by websites (63.2%), and newsletters/magazines (58.7%).
  • Renewal efforts: email is also #1 (85.4%) and websites are #2 (70%), but direct mail (38.3%) is also in the mix as well as phone calls (29.2%).
  • Recruitment channels: websites were key for close to 92%; but word-of-mouth continues to be a powerful force for 89.4%; email rounded out the top three marketing channels, with 65% of respondents noting that this is a key channel for recruitment.
  • Social media use: It appears that small membership organizations are using social media networks for recruitment (as well as member communications at 54.5%) – with just over 50% of respondents including Facebook in their recruitment toolbox, along with Twitter (25%) and LinkedIn (19.2%).

Does size matter?


The answer to this question is – that depends. Here is a look at how size impacts the organization (as outlined in our Does Size Matter blog post):

In terms of meeting their mission?

We asked respondents:  Do you feel your organization is effectively fulfilling its mission at its current size? More than 50 percent indicated they were “doing okay at their current size, but growth would help.” But almost a third of respondents (27.8%) told us they were not able to meet their mission at their current size.

How does it impact their budget?

We found that 90% of respondents’ organizations offer individual memberships. And 63.5% of respondents reported that membership fees are a “critical source” of income, followed by events (34%); fundraising (21.8%); and sponsorship / advertising (17.5%). But the good news is that more than 75% of participants reported membership levels had stayed the same or increased 10-50% in the last year. 

Is there a relationship between age and size?

We wondered if size was merely a factor of the age of the organization. In other words are they a “small” organization simply because they are just starting out? But the survey findings indicate that over 50% of the respondents’ organizations had been established for more than 20 years – so they are not necessarily just getting started.

Is the staffing model a direct result of size?

We were curious to see if the size of the organization (# members) was the key factor leading to the organization being led by volunteers. In other words, are there just more staff as the membership size increases? When we looked at the data for the number of members in relation to the number of part- or full-time staff, we could not find any direct correlation. In fact we identified one anomaly in that there were a few organizations that had very small member numbers, yet had many full-time staff.

Want additional insight on small membership organizations?

These are just a few highlights of the insight we’re uncovering about small membership organizations through our survey. We feel there remains a wealth of insight that we can garner from the survey data, and we’ll be exploring topics arising from the survey in future blog posts on the WildApricot Blog and in articles in our Membership Knowledge Hub 

You can check out previous blog posts that offer additional highlights:

If you want to receive the full survey report with all of the detailed survey findings, you can register to download the report (PDF) here:

Small Membership Insight Survey Report registration.

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!

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