November 09, 2012

Ask an Expert: Turning a Nonprofit's Members Into Generous Donors

A fundraiser who wishes to remain anonymous wrote to ask for advice about how to raise money for her cultural institution, which is supported by the city.

She writes:

Our aquarium is a public-private partnership, and our arrangement with the city stipulates that membership, sales from the stores, and admission are all city revenue. Donations are raised by the foundation arm.

How can a public-private partnership with a solid membership base raise donations through its foundation?

Members are primarily joining for the cost savings (versus multiple ticket purchases), and/or they believe their membership is a gift. It is not.

Fundraising, besides capital campaigns, has remained steady--but stagnant--for years. We are moving forward on a first-ever appeal to current members, donors, and a large pool of prospects via direct mail. We know the majority may end up joining as members but would love to bridge that gap between the silos of membership and donations. Ideas?

We asked Kent Dove, formerly a top development officer at Indiana University, to answer her question.

His advice:

Based on my experience working with a museum that had a similar partnership with government, my first suggestion is to identify the distinct role of the foundation versus the public-membership part of the organization. The two sides of your institution should complement each other—rather than compete for members and donors.

The key to making this work is for the chief executive of the aquarium (hopefully with backing from the boards of both the aquarium and its foundation) to insist on this type of fundraising cooperation. The chief executive must say very clearly that the aquarium and its foundation are a team. If this does not happen, you will probably not get the fundraising cooperation that you need to fully succeed.

Another key thing you need is a solid education program to let members know that getting a membership is not the same thing as making a donation to the aquarium. You can make this clear on your Web site, in your literature, and at every opportunity you have to be in front of supporters. Tell people that now that they are members, they have an opportunity to also become a valued donor to your organization, and tell them the great things they can help you achieve.

About the roles of the two sides of your organization: The foundation should spend more of its time focused on special and capital needs, while the membership program functions like an annual fund that generates operating support. This requires cooperation so that members can be moved toward  becoming major donors if they are so inclined. The foundation could, for example, sponsor special events to help identify major-gift prospects among existing and potential members. But remember: When you are doing member drives and selling trinkets in the shop, you are not paying attention to major gifts.

Let's say that your aquarium wants to bring in a blue dolphin or add some aquatic gardens. This is the type of project that the foundation can use to pursue major gifts or planned gifts, which should also be under the foundation's purview.

The foundation should use the same database as the aquarium for members and donors. That is much cheaper than having two databases, which can lead to confusion. You could have the unfortunate situation of a dues-paying member who also makes a large gift and is thanked by the aquarium's membership staff but wonders why he is not also thanked for his bigger gift.

Above all, you do not want the aquarium and foundation staff fighting to protect their supporters from being approached by the other organization. They should cooperate. To encourage that, some charities in your situation give fundraisers from both the foundation and the parent organization credit for donors that migrate from membership to major-gift status. That helps ensure that fundraisers work together to promote the greater good of the institution through philanthropy.

Do you have something to add to Mr. Dove's advice? Use the comment link below to add your ideas. And if you need advice about other fundraising problems, send an e-mail to