Is the reliance of environmental charities on membership limiting its success?
This analysis looks at the fact that environmental charities use membership as their primary engagement tool for supporters, and argues that this is bad news for the environmental movement. It’s bad for the diversity of the environmental movement, it runs against the cultural trends of the last 50 years, and it limits the amount of money that environmental charities can raise. The impact of this collective group-think is that younger people are engaging far more with other ways of supporting climate and environmental action, while environmental charities see their governance and strategies stagnate. Strong stuff? Well here is the evidence and reasoning behind my claims.
Environmental charities and the centrality of membership – the evidence
Looking at the home page of the websites of a range of environmental charities shows just how prevalent membership is. The only two environmental organisations which I found that didn’t have a membership scheme are Greenpeace and Client Earth. Both use the terminology ‘join us’ but this is to make a regular donation or join an email list.
The following environmental organisations have membership advertised on their home page or main support page:
· National Trust
· Friends of the Earth
· All the County Wildlife Trusts (I looked at 10 and called it a day so apologies if some don’t)
· CPRE The countryside charity
· Woodland Trust
· Butterfly Conservation
· Marine Conservation Society
· British Ecological Society
· Friends of the Lake District
· Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
· English Heritage
Worse still, these organisations don’t just have membership, but it’s a pretty similar package from one charity to the next. There is individual and joint membership, there is a magazine, there is often a fixed price for joining. So the irony is that a sector dedicated to preserving biodiversity is anything but diverse in the way it encourages people to support it.
It’s hard to know how or why this homogeneity has come about, but my guess would be that organisations have just copied the membership super tanker of the environmental sector: the National Trust. The daft thing is that membership (ie a season ticket for entry) makes sense for those organisations with reserves or properties that charge entry, but for those without this, or who don’t charge for entrance, it makes no sense at all.
Is membership so central for any other charity sectors?
If all the different sectors of the charity world were fixated on membership my argument would be with all charities not just environmental ones. But I can find no other charity sectors which use membership so comprehensively and so prominently. For example, five of the largest animal charities are:
· Blue Cross
· Dogs Trust
· Donkey Sanctuary
Of these the RSPCA has a membership scheme and it is the mechanism by which many of their trustees are appointed. However, it’s not on the front page of their website and they have tens of thousands of supporters who aren’t members. PDSA has a ‘membership’ scheme, similarly with Blue Cross, but it’s for use of services rather than a way of supporting. Dogs Trust have a membership scheme, but it’s sixth on their list of ways of supporting.
In the overseas development sector some of the largest charities are:
· Save the Children
· Red Cross
· Action Aid
None of them seem to have membership as a primary supporter engagement mechanism, based on their websites.
Environmental charities stand alone in putting membership front and centre of the ways in which people engage with them. My argument is that this is bad for supporter engagement, diversity & inclusion, and governance. Just to be clear I don’t think that having membership homogeneity is specifically bad for environmental charities: it would be bad for any group of charities who had this level of dominance of a single type of engagement mechanism. The next section looks at the reasons why.
Why making membership the main supporter engagement mechanism is a strategic blind alley
My argument is not that membership is a bad thing. As part of a diverse smorgasbord of supporter engagement products it has a place. Membership also makes sense for professional bodies, co-ops, gyms, exclusive clubs, or building societies.
So why exactly is it such a bad idea for membership to be offered as the main way in which people can engage with a charity? Here are my eight reasons why.
Reason 1: Membership, and joining organisations, is in decline in wider society
People no longer become members of professional and charitable organisations compared to the way they did 25 or 50 or 75 years ago. In the 1950s there were over 4 million members of political parties, today there are around 10% of that figure. Similarly, there used to over 5 million members of a trade union, now it is substantially less than half that number. Weekly church attendance in the UK was around 2 million in the 1960s, and is now less than 1 million and continuing to decline. nfpResearch are documenting these declines in their forthcoming report on membership, so look out for that.
Robert Putnam documents this decline in the ‘joining’ society in his book Bowling Alone (2000). His argument is that people do less things together than they used to (hence the title of the book – people often bowl alone rather than in groups). Since Putnam wrote this, in many ways social media has replaced the organisations that people used to join. People feel part of wider, but more amorphous, movements on social media, or by boycotting things or taking their own personal climate action.
Asking people to ‘join us as a member’ is an anachronistic way to get people to engage. It only appeals now to a small and ageing section of the population. It runs against the prevailing culture of society. The cultural decline in membership is but one reason why it is a bad idea as the dominant supporter engagement tool.
Reason 2: membership is bad for the diversity for environmental charities
Membership only appeals to certain kinds of people. It’s largely white, middle-class, middle-aged people who join charities nowadays. nfpResearch data shows a clear decline in the number of people who are joining organisations, as well as a distinct type of person who does join. By making membership so central to its offer, it’s not surprising that the traditional environmental movement isn’t very diverse in the sections of society that it appeals to.
It’s not just that membership as a word has certain connotations. Environmental charities all tend to have magazines and to bombard supporters with a mountain of paper. When I joined the Friends of the Lake District, they sent 13 different pieces of paper to welcome me. Membership as delivered by environmental charities has become deeply homogeneous, which is likely to result in the people who join environmental charities being deeply homogenous. To paraphrase the marketing guru Kotler, if the only thing a shop sells is sweets, the only people who will shop there are sweet lovers! If you want diverse supporters, you need to engage them in diverse ways.
Reason 3: People are already moving away from traditional environmental charities
It would be easy to imagine that young people aren’t interested in the environment and climate, if your metric was the number of young people who joined environmental organisations as members. In reality, a raft of alternative ways to take action have sprung up. Extinction Rebellion and the associated direct protests are the best known and most controversial, and highly popular among young people. However, taking action by changing lifestyle is also increasingly popular: eating vegetarian or vegan, flying less, using public transport, changing energy use to renewables, and ethical shopping. Lots of people, especially young people, are taking these actions. So where does membership of an environmental organisation fit into this mix? The ‘Join us’ page (https://extinctionrebellion.uk/join-us/) on the Extinction Rebellion website is a good example of a different approach: it offers 4 ways to be involved with none of them being traditional membership (though there is obviously some overlap).
Reason 4: Voting membership is a mixed blessing for governance and strategy
Some environmental organisations (though certainly not all) use their membership bases as a way of recruiting trustees. Members can stand for election, and the winners become trustees. While this is democratically excellent, it is not so good for getting a diverse and broad-based trustee board. If the membership is a homogenous group, then the candidates for elected trustees are also likely to be a homogenous group. In particular, in many organisations it is only the most dedicated, longest-standing, best-connected supporters who stand as trustees. And when they become trustees through the membership route, they are unlikely to realise the weaknesses that it has for their organisation.
The result of this is that many elected trustee boards lack diversity, are highly conservative and cautious, or have very specific strategic concerns. Overall, elected trustees can be a highly imperfect way to get a diverse, challenging and forward-thinking board. Of course, many environmental organisations don’t use their membership to recruit all, or any, of their trustees.
Reason 5: membership rigidifies supporter contributions, rather than gradually building them
A further problem with membership is that it creates a rigidified level at which people contribute to an organisation. This is typically around £40 for an individual, or £60 for a couple. This is a problem firstly because it’s harder for people to engage for more or less than the formal amount of membership. My dad once bought multiple individual memberships from the National Trust because he wanted to give them more than just a single membership fee. Conversely anybody who thought they could give £2 a month, or £25 a year, would be excluded from membership of most environmental membership charities. So membership is the opposite of inclusive, it’s exclusive. It excludes people who don’t want to join an organisation or can’t afford the prescribed membership fee.
Secondly, membership makes it harder to continuously increase the amount that a supporter gives. Without membership it’s much easier to encourage supporters to give more. The supporter who starts at £2 a month, then gives £3 a month, and then £5 a month and so on. This is much harder to do with a supporter who has been told £42.13 a year makes them an individual member. They then feel that they have done their bit. They are inoculated against further increases in support level.
Reason 6: membership can create a transactional mentality
Led by the twin colossus of environmental charities, the National Trust and RSPB, membership is a kind of deal: a season ticket for entry to heritage sites or nature reserves. People join the National Trust because being a member is much better value than paying each time. My wife recently suggested that we might not renew our National Trust membership because we have so few charging properties near us (in the Lake District). The deal of the season ticket was no longer good enough value. The challenge is that most environmental charities don’t have properties or reserves which charge an entry fee. So anybody who looks at joining many environmental charities with the National Trust as their benchmark will be disappointed.
The National Trust is awesome value (whatever my wife says) as a season ticket. But the local wildlife trust, or Butterfly Conservation, or Friends of the Lake District isn’t, because they have no entry fees. Joining them isn’t about getting a great value season ticket, but supporting an organisation whose work you want to support. But they are all called membership, they have structures which look and smell like a National Trust or RSPB membership, but they aren’t. Joining the Woodland Trust or the National Trust have two completely different motivations: the former is about supporting a cause, and the latter about getting great value. But the marketing, language, style and approach of most environmental memberships is so similar, that it makes that distinction very opaque. This leads to my next reason.
Reason 7: There are multiple schemes called membership and often confusingly different while superficially similar
There are lots of types of membership. People join a gym, they join Facebook, they join a choir, they join a charity, they join a building society, they join a professional body, they join a political party and so on.
People might describe themselves as members of any of them, but the motivation for joining and the nature of the relationship are very different in all these cases. Some involve money, some have barriers to entry, some are free, some are about season tickets for a better deal, some are about being part of a community. Yet they can all be called membership in some form.
The challenge is that the difference in motivations for joining a season-ticket based membership (driven by getting a great deal) and a cause-supporting membership (supporting a cause) is huge. This difference in motivations means the two membership products should look very different and be marketed very differently. Yet environmental charities have managed to use terminology and a marketing approach which are very similar for both. It’s as if going out for dinner and shopping at the supermarket were hard to tell apart.
Reason 8: being a member can say something about the individual.
One of the psychological challenges that the multiple types of membership poses is whether the membership in question is the season-ticket type of membership that National Trust or WWT represents, or the caused-based membership that Friends of the Earth or Woodland Trust represent.
If somebody tells you that they are a member of the National Trust you probably don’t infer that much about that, but if somebody tells you that they are a member of Friends of the Earth you probably do. Just as you might do if somebody said they were a member of the Conservative Party. I once shared a house with somebody who joined Amnesty International and when she told her friends from back home in the posher parts of Cheltenham, they looked amazed and said ‘you are funny’.
To an outsider it’s not always clear when membership is a statement about personal beliefs and values (as in a political party) or just the main practical mechanism other than the ubiquitous ‘donate now’ button, offered to support butterfly or woodland conservation. If the individual sees the former, and the organisation thinks it is offering the latter, then it’s a recipe for confusion.
So marketed wrong, what should be just a way of giving an organisation £40, suddenly becomes a committed statement of beliefs and values. And that could put some people off. Because they may not feel they are that ‘committed enough’ to cross the membership threshold, when they would have happily simply made a donation.
In conclusion, what next for environmental charities and supporter engagement?
Having set out at some length why the dominance and homogeneity of membership is a bad idea, what is the way forward? Well, the first thing to say is that diversity is always best. Diversity makes the world strong and resilient. Homogeneity does not. So how do environmentalists move forward?
1. Diversity and innovation are the precursors of change
The first route to broadening the ways of supporting environmental charities is to look at what everybody else does to secure support. Hospices love lotteries for example – would that work for environmental charities? What are charities doing in other countries? A thorough piece of work to set out the support mechanism landscape that environmental organisations could be adopting would come up with some great ways to innovate and diversify.
2. Understanding environmentalists who aren’t members
The second thing is to look at the UK public and see who is interested in environment and climate change, but hasn’t joined an environmental charity. Who is this group – demographically, attitudinally, geographically and behaviourally? How do they support organisations or causes? This is a straightforward (though not necessarily cheap) piece of market research.
3. Remember the old ways preclude the new ways
My last route to change is to remember that all the writing on innovation and change (such as Tom Peters, etc) points out that an awful lot of innovation comes from not the mainstream but the fringes. Membership is embedded in the environmental sector’s DNA. So changing it will not be easy. Don’t expect trustees who joined and were elected as members to see the flaws of membership. Don’t expect staff who have run membership schemes for years to see the weaknesses that membership brings. If an organisation wants to change, it will need to work out how to overcome the strong cultural forces that will want to maintain the status quo.
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