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3. Building Sustainable Income for Small Charities: Membership

In the ever-evolving landscape of the charity sector, financial sustainability remains a critical goal for small charities. To ensure long-term impact and stability, it's essential to consider diversifying income streams and reduce the reliance on short-term grants and contracts. In this special series for Small Charity Week, The Boiling Frog blog looks at a variety of income streams, each of which will help small charities grow crucial unrestricted funds. This third post will look at developing a strong membership programme.

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Membership as a Valuable Income Stream for Small Charities

Membership is more than just a financial mechanism; it's a super way to build a community around your cause. Done successfully, it brings together individuals who share a passion for your mission and want to see your charity succeed. Here are a few reasons why all small charities should consider developing a membership programme:

  • Steady Revenue Stream: Membership fees provide a reliable source of income that can be crucial for day-to-day operations and planning future activities.

  • Increased Engagement: Members are likely to be more engaged with your charity's work, participating in events, volunteering, and advocating for your cause.

  • Stronger Community: Building a community around your cause can lead to increased support, collaboration, and shared resources.

  • Enhanced Credibility: A robust membership base can enhance your charity’s credibility and influence, making it easier to secure additional funding and partnerships.

Case Studies of Successful Membership Programmes

1. A 'Friends of' local church charity

A 'Friends of' church charity has created a successful membership programme among its local community that is dedicated to supporting the preservation of the church. The organisation offers several membership tiers, including individual, family, and life memberships. Members receive newsletters, invitations to special events, and exclusive tours of the historic church. The membership programme has been vital in funding restoration projects and community activities, including replacement of the church bells in 2022, and annual harvest festival gatherings.

2. A Wildlife Trust local charity

Many local Wildlife Trust charities offer a membership programme that engages local communities in wildlife conservation. Members enjoy benefits like regular magazines, access to nature reserves, and participation in conservation activities. This local focus helps build a strong sense of community and direct involvement in local conservation efforts.

3. A faith-based community charity

A small faith-based community charity located in a large city uses a membership programme to bring individuals together for mutual support, and events with a focus on their faith and culture. Income from the membership programme is occasionally used to help those in particular need, perhaps a family setting up home, or an individual who has fallen on hard times. Here is an example of a charity whose mission is simply and wonderfully to serve and be led by its community, achieve self sufficiency and to operate within a framework of helping one another.

How to Develop a Successful Membership Programme

Define Your Membership Structure

Start by defining the different membership levels your charity will offer. Common types include:

  • Individual Membership: For single supporters.

  • Family Membership: A cost-effective option for families.

  • Corporate Membership: For businesses interested in supporting your cause.

  • Lifetime Membership: A higher one-time fee for long-term commitment.

Set Appropriate Membership Fees

Determine membership fees based on your charity’s needs and the value you provide to members. Consider offering different tiers to cater to varying levels of support and financial capacity. Research similar organisations to benchmark your fees, ensuring they are competitive, yet reflective of the benefits you offer.

Offer Valuable Benefits

Members should feel that their contributions are worthwhile. Benefits can include but are not limited to:

  • Regular newsletters or magazines.

  • Exclusive access to events and workshops.

  • Discounts on merchandise or services.

  • Opportunities for members-only volunteering.

  • Recognition in your annual reports or on your website.

Promote Your Membership Programme

Marketing your membership programme is crucial. There are many different channels to reach potential members:

  • Social Media: Share success stories, member benefits, and calls to action.

  • Email Campaigns: Send targeted emails to your supporter database.

  • Website: Create a dedicated membership page with clear information and an easy sign-up process.

  • Events: Promote memberships at events and provide on-the-spot sign-up opportunities.

Do's and Don'ts for Membership Programmes


  • Engage Regularly: Keep your members informed and engaged with regular updates, newsletters, and events.

  • Show Appreciation: Recognise and thank your members publicly and personally to make them feel valued.

  • Seek Feedback: Regularly ask for member feedback and act on it to improve your programme.


  • Overpromise Benefits: Ensure that you can deliver all the benefits you offer to avoid disappointment.

  • Ignore Members: Neglecting your members can lead to disengagement and high dropout rates.

  • Make Joining Difficult: Simplify the sign-up process to encourage more people to join.

Nurturing Memberships for Long-Term Success

Maintaining a successful membership programme requires ongoing effort and strategic nurturing. Here are some tips to ensure your members stay engaged and committed:

  • Personalisation: Tailor your communication and engagement strategies to different member segments. Use personalised emails and messages to make each member feel special and appreciated.

  • Regular Updates: Keep members informed about your charity's progress, upcoming events, and any changes in your programmes. Transparency builds trust and reinforces their decision to support you.

  • Membership Renewal Strategies: Make the renewal process easy and automatic if possible. Send reminders well in advance and offer incentives for early renewals or multi-year memberships.

  • Continuous Improvement: Seek feedback from your members regularly and use it to improve your membership programme. Showing that you value their input can strengthen their loyalty.

Charging for Membership: Finding the Right Balance

Setting the right price for membership is crucial. Use the following strategies to help you find the right balance:

  • Understand Your Costs: Calculate the costs associated with providing member benefits and running the membership programme. Ensure your fees cover these costs while leaving room for a surplus to support your charity’s work.

  • Benchmarking: Look at similar organisations and their membership fees. This can provide a useful reference point, ensuring your fees are competitive and fair.

  • Offer Payment Options: Provide flexible payment options, such as monthly, quarterly, or annual payments. This can make it easier for members to join and stay engaged.

  • Value Proposition: Ensure that the benefits you offer justify the membership fee. Members should feel they are receiving good value for their contribution.

  • Sliding Scale or Pay-What-You-Can: Consider offering a sliding scale or pay-what-you-can option to make membership accessible to a broader audience. This can help include supporters who might not be able to afford the standard fee.

Does a Membership Approach Suit All Charities?

So, before you rush headlong into setting up a membership scheme for your charity, take a breath. A membership approach to fundraising can be highly beneficial, but it may not be suitable for every charity.

Membership programmes work best for charities that have a clear, engaging mission and the ability to offer tangible benefits to their members. Causes that naturally create a strong sense of community, such as environmental groups, animal welfare organisations, and cultural or heritage societies, often find membership schemes particularly effective. These charities can easily offer exclusive content, events, and opportunities for active participation, which are key drivers of membership engagement.

On the other hand, charities focused on emergency relief or those with missions that are more abstract or less conducive to regular engagement might find it challenging to sustain a membership base. In such examples, other fundraising strategies, such as donor campaigns and grants, may be more effective.

It's essential for each small charity to evaluate your unique strengths and audience to determine if a membership approach aligns with your overall strategy and capabilities.


Developing a strong membership programme can significantly enhance the sustainability of small charities. By providing a steady revenue stream, fostering a sense of community, and engaging supporters in meaningful ways, your charity can build a loyal base of members who are committed to your cause. In the next blog of this series, we will explore another diverse income streams that can help small charities thrive in an ever-changing environment.

Stay tuned for more insights and practical advice on building a sustainable future for your charity.


Head and shoulders shot of the blog writer. Female with shoulder-length brown hair, distinctive glasses, and a broad smile looking at the camera.

Hello! I'm Jenny Hopkins, a charity consultant, creator of The Boiling Frog and 'Tools for Charities'. After an early career in publishing, I moved to the charity sector as CEO of a regional frontline charity. Over a period of ten years, I was able to transform it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. I stepped back a few years ago to undertake a part-time PhD research study on - yes, you guessed it! - charities, alongside my work mentoring leaders of small charities. My ‘Tools for Charities’ is a unique resource aimed at saving you time and stress associated with some of the regular and not-so-regular tasks associated with charity leadership and governance.

I use The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge my own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. I am a director of Penleaf, a B-Corp accredited business consultancy. I also volunteer as a trustee of two local charities.


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