Membership: Pulling in the crowds

While some charities struggle to keep their members, others are thriving. Alex Blyth offers 10 top tips to help attract new people to your cause.

Caroline Hitchen is a 32-year-old PR consultant who makes regular and significant donations to Cancer Research UK. An engaged and conscientious member of her professional community, she is the sort of person charities would hope to attract as a volunteer - someone who can give them time as well as money.

But Caroline is not an active member of any charitable organisation.

"My life is increasingly busy and, like many people, I don't want to commit to too much involvement," she says. "When situations change, people might have more time and be willing to do more. But they don't want to be pressured, and charities should respect that."

Her views are not unusual. Fifty years ago it was common for people to belong to clubs, societies and charitable organisations, but today it is the exception. Many are prepared to sign up to a monthly direct debit to support a charity, but fewer and fewer are prepared to go beyond that.

This has come as a blow to many charitable organisations that rely on the active involvement of members.

The most popular explanation given for this decline is that people now have less time. In truth, however, most people have more. According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the average working week a century ago consisted of more than 50 hours. This dipped to a low of 35 in the 1970s, although the 37.4 hours currently clocked up by the average full-time worker is about an hour and a half less than it was in 1998.

The number of women in work has grown, but so has the number of labour-saving devices to cut time spent on housework. The brutal fact is that people today are choosing not to spend their free time volunteering for charitable organisations.

According to some, this is because young people are uncaring, materialistic and have little interest in charity. But initiatives such as last year's Make Poverty History demonstrated that this is not the case. As part of that campaign, 25,000 people took part in an overnight vigil for trade justice in Westminster, a quarter of a million people marched in Edinburgh ahead of the G8 summit, more than 500,000 people contacted the Prime Minister and eight million people in the UK wore white wristbands. It looks like today's young people will mobilise around a single cause, but are less willing to stick with long-term active commitment.

But amid this general decline, some organisations are bucking the trend impressively. The RSPB and the National Trust continue to sustain enormous memberships, and the National Childbirth Trust has doubled its membership in the past five years. These achievements suggest that, if a charity goes about it in the right way, it can attract and retain active members.

Here are 10 tips that have worked for some of the biggest winners.

REMAIN RELEVANT

Despite a fall in membership since its heyday, the Women's Institute is still the largest organisation for women in the UK. To some extent, it has been lumbered with the image of middle-aged ladies gossiping over Victoria sponges - the 'jam and Jerusalem' stereotype.

But Jana Osborne, the organisation's general secretary, argues that this has always been a misconception and that the WI is as relevant now as at any time in its 91-year history.

"We have 215,000 members, so politicians sit up and take notice when we take a position on an issue," she says. "At the same time, we've provided a platform for personal growth for many women. But what a lot of people don't realise is that we campaign on issues that matter to today's women, such as excess packaging, healthy eating and fair trade."

The organisation has remained relevant to its potential supporters. As a result, it is now attracting nearly 10,000 new members a year.

OFFER SERVICES MEMBERS NEED

Janice Coxon became a member of Sale and Altrincham Mencap because it provided her with support when she was the primary carer for her son.

"It gave me help with respite care and holidays," she says. "Now it's a network in which I still play a role. I'm not really one of life's 'joiners', but I'm an active member of several charities because they have offered me help. Through this, I have made friends and become more involved."

FOLLOW UP LEADS

At its height, the Variety Club of Great Britain had about 1,000 members, all of whom provided entertainment at events designed to raise money for sick, disabled and disadvantaged children. Today only 500 of these so-called Barkers remain. In an attempt to stem this fall, the charity has begun contacting people it thinks might be interested and asking them to become a Barker, or at least a Friend of Variety.

"The declining membership isn't a problem now, but it could become one," says Helen Herbert, the charity's head of corporate fundraising. "So we've been following up warm leads - people who have come to an event or made an auction pledge."

BE FLEXIBLE

In the past 30 years, the number of Girl Guides has fallen from 800,000 to 500,000. But this is not because of a lack of interest - there is now a waiting list of 50,000 girls wanting to become Guides. The problem is the shortage of volunteers to lead the groups, which the charity is trying to combat with a more flexible approach.

"Many women work these days, so we need to fit in with their busy schedules," says Denise King, chief executive of Girlguiding UK. "We're becoming much more flexible about the commitment that Brown Owls need to make. They can now run sessions on Saturday mornings, rather than just on weekday evenings."

GET PROFESSIONAL

In the past 10 years, National Trust membership has grown from 2.3 million to 3.4 million. This has not only boosted revenue, but also helped fulfil objectives such as making the nation's gardens and houses accessible to ordinary people, protecting buildings the Government cannot afford to sustain and championing the use of local food.

The trust puts this spectacular growth down to professional sales and marketing techniques. "The first thing we did was hire professional sales staff to recruit new members at our properties," says Berry D'Arcy, the charity's head of membership. "Previously, this had been done by volunteers who lacked the proper sales skills.

"We also do a lot of direct marketing, in which we use an extremely compelling offer. And we're seeing many more people join online - we expect this area to grow in the next few years."

MAKE IT EASY

Membership of the Townswomen's Guilds, a campaigning and educational charity, has fallen from 75,000 at the turn of the century to about 40,000 now. Pamela Pollock, the organisation's national chairman, attributes this to the fact that many of the charity's members are over 60, so are either passing away or less likely to be able to attend weekly meetings.

The charity has chosen to work with these changing demographics and to make it as easy as possible to become and remain a member. "Even though they can't make it to the weekly meetings, either because of age or work, many people still want to support and remain in touch with us," says Pollock.

"So we're introducing an associate level of membership. For £11 a year, people will receive the newsletter and invitations to our conferences. We hope to engage many more people in this way."

GIVE A SENSE OF BELONGING

Many people like to feel as though they belong to something bigger than themselves, an experience charities are well placed to offer. "Most people want to feel part of something," says Vicky Everitt, a member of the National Childbirth Trust. "Now I'm the chair of our local branch, I certainly don't feel like I'm 'just a mum'. I joined because of the support of other new parents at local level and the knowledge that, at national level, there was someone out there fighting for you to get the best information, care and professional support."

Belinda Phipps, chief executive of the trust, adds: "The main way in which we get members is by asking people who have benefited from our services to join - people enjoy giving back to the charity.

"We've reached a total of 70,000 members with this approach, but we're sure we can do better. Every year, 300,000 people use our services, but only 20,000 join. We plan to look into this, and see what we can do to increase that number."

PROVIDE STRUCTURE AND PROGRESSION

Another important way of engaging members in an organisation is to provide them with a sense of achievement and progression. Anne Peat is a member of Manchester Orators, a branch of Toastmasters International, a charitable organisation that helps people to improve their public speaking skills.

"The initial attraction was a friendly invitation from an existing member," she says. "Since then, my interest has been sustained by the organised structure, the continued friendliness of the people and the way I can progress through the ranks to reach higher levels of recognised achievement."

BE OPEN ABOUT WHAT YOU DO

The Freemasons has lost about 8 per cent of its members every year for the past 20 years. There are a number of reasons for this, but when the organisation began to address the issue in the early 1990s, it identified its culture of secrecy as a major problem. It has since aimed to be more open.

"Our meetings are now reported in local papers," says John Hamill, communications director at the United Grand Lodge of England. "We hold public processions and have opened up our halls as community resources."

As a result of this and other changes, the United Grand Lodge of England has slowed the fall in its membership to 1 per cent a year - and, in some areas, it is now growing again.

UNDERSTAND CONSUMERS

Claire Jackson, a planner at communications agency Craik Jones, says: "You need to understand both your members and the broader public, who might become your members. Many organisations say they do this, but very few actually do - you need to take the time to get under the skin of those people.

"You also need to understand who might engage with your organisation, so you can make it relevant to them. You need to find out from each existing member the levels on which they want to engage, and then use this to communicate with them more effectively and so get the best out of them."

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