Charity membership schemes: are we still bowling alone?

We're launching new large-scale research into membership for charities. This blog explores factors affecting sign ups to various charity membership schemes.
Anna Wates

As we prepare to launch large-scale research into membership for charities, this blog looks at membership trends across different sectors, and asks whether our collective desire to ‘be part of something’ really is on the way out.

At the turn of the century, Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone foretold of a troubling societal unravelling, a disintegration of the social fabric of American life. Putnam argued that over the preceding decades, Americans had become increasingly disconnected from one another and the structures of community which held them together, such as the PTA, church, and political parties. To illustrate his point, he used the metaphor of ‘bowling alone’: where once people had bowled in leagues, usually after work or at the weekends, participation in this time-honoured ritual of American camaraderie had dropped markedly. So too had membership records for almost every kind of adult organisation across the country. Putnam viewed this lack of civic involvement as a crisis, wreaking havoc with our physical and civic health.

Elements of Putnam’s book now feel dated, with some of the rituals of community belonging he identifies feeling a little old-fashioned (not accounting for more recent trends in new technology and the power of social media). Nonetheless, the health of civic and social institutions, as well as the degree to which we feel connected to each other, is very much an issue still unresolved in both the US and the UK contexts.

But is our collective desire to ‘be part of something’ really on the decline to the extent that Putnam, and others, have prophesied?

One might view the UK’s decision to relinquish its membership of the European Union as evidence of an ultimate kind of ‘anti-memberism’. Or the fact that both union and political party membership as well as churchgoing (religious participation) have seen a downward trend over a long-term period.

We’ve been tracking paid membership levels for various organisations for almost a decade and through this we have admittedly seen an overall decline. Membership levels for a hobby or special interest groups, professional associations and sports clubs have dropped from an average of 27% in September 2008 to 13% in October 2016. Charity membership levels displayed a similar pattern until last October, when the figure actually rose to 21% from an ultimate low of 16% in April 2015[1].   

The generation game seems to be a factor, with those aged over 64 being more likely than average to pay for charity memberships. But this appears to have more to do with spending power than anything else; likelihood of paying membership decreases along income lines. Men are also more likely to be paying memberships of any kind than women.

Evidence from the commercial sector suggests there is still an appetite for membership clubs and loyalty schemes, especially when these take on less traditional forms. Increasingly, brands are using data to reward loyalty through predictive analytics which improve the customer experience. Supermarkets are a prime example of this, rewarding consumers for ‘good behaviour’ through discounts (think Nectar and Clubcard).

Charities can’t exactly offer a discount on ‘your next Direct Debit’, so how can they compete? Certainly our research shows that among younger audiences (16-44 year olds) member benefits such as free entry to sites are strong motivating factors when considering joining a charity. By contrast, older groups are more likely to be motivated by the fact they are supporting a worthwhile cause. Tailoring is key; making sure your membership package reflects the interests of your audience.

To delve deeper into the question of how charities can deliver a compelling membership offer and what that looks like in today’s society, we’ve decided to launch a sector-wide research project to explore membership in the third sector. Our aim will be to understand how different organisations use membership to engage supporters, what works and what doesn’t, and how charities have seen membership change over the last few years, in popularity and role.

There’s no doubt membership is still of huge value to the third sector. Despite claims that people have stopped engaging, consumer behaviour suggests that membership represents huge potential for building brand affinity. The question is, how to make sure charity membership keeps up with the times.   

Want to take part? Got a question? Email to find out more information or leave a comment in the comments section located beneath the social sharing buttons.

You can also download our charity membership research proposal for more information. Please use the purple download form located beneath the social sharing buttons.

[1] Charity Awareness Monitor, Oct 16, nfpSynergy



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nfpSynergy Membership Research Proposal

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