Membership Organization Model – Resources List

The Evolved Membership Nonprofit: A Powerful Revival of the Social Sector’s Ultimate Business Model

Membership organizations have a long tradition in the nonprofit sector because the membership model at its best embodies the power of organizing for common cause. That cause may be the common good, or promotion of self-interest, but in general it’s the democratic expression of collective commitment to something: a resource, a belief, a principle enacted. True membership organizations are marked by their integration of members into their governance systems and the financial support of the organization. They are also often distinguished by the additional resource of collective social capital, such as voluntary work and the credibility conferred by a committed membership. The resources below cover all of this and many other aspects of their business model; look to the video for information about practical concerns such as engagement and setting dues.


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ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership

This website offers a variety of resources on membership organization topics.

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Difference Between Membership and Nonmembership Nonprofits

Christine Mathias, an attorney writing for, explains how the members have control over the direction of the organization in a formal membership nonprofit:

Your nonprofit organization can have formal members or not, depending on how broadly you want to spread responsibilities and rights. In a membership nonprofit, voting members might appoint the board of directors, remove a director, change the bylaws, or dissolve the nonprofit. Certain services of the organization might be available only to the members, such as access to a retirement program or listing in a membership directory. By contrast, in a nonmembership nonprofit, the board of directors typically takes the above actions. Whether to structure your nonprofit with members will depend on many factors, such as the size of your organization, its mission, and your appetite for complexity.

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Always Be Asking: Using Organizing to Build Membership

This 2010 piece from the Grassroots Fundraising Journal by Andy Robinson and Amy O’Connor explores how the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement helped stem the environmental consequences of Big Agriculture through the use of “People Power”:

Iowa CCI members organized to counter intensive pressure from the Farm Bureau and other special interests as citizens sought to protect Iowa’s water quality. The resulting victory took their opponents by surprise—the new legislation was even stronger than the original rule that Iowa CCI had been working to pass. Without a large and active membership, it never would have happened—and without an aggressive “ask” program, the organization would never have built the membership base needed to win. 

Read the article.

What Does It Mean to Transition a Nonprofit to a Membership Model?

Writing for the Nonprofit Quarterly’s newswire, Debby Warren considers a November 2018 story from the Chattanooga Times Free Press about local education nonprofit organization UnifiEd and its efforts to “pick up more donors and reemphasize its grassroots foundation with the launch of a new membership model.”

This is essentially a shift in strategy from advocacy, which tends to be the work of professionals seeking to shift policy, to organizing, which is policy and practice change led by the people affected by the issue. It means a fuller commitment to a collective power base, and better systems of organizing and policy development in that context, and that requires culture and orientation and governance shifts that would not, perhaps be easy, but would contain the democratically based power for systems change. That is, if it is done right.

Read the article. Then read the story that inspired it.

Book Excerpts

These selections cover the big “Why?” of membership nonprofits:

Forum Conversation

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