About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

A few weeks ago Local History Services at the Minnesota Historical Society worked with an organization that faced a serious challenge in its membership. The problem was that members felt disconnected from the organization and could no longer see what the benefits of membership were. I took some time to ponder why it is that people choose membership.

Bryan Eisenberg posted on this subject as it relates to the for-profit sector in 2001. Essentially he said to effectively market a business, one must identify brand uniqueness, identify what your prospects want most, identify what your competition will have the most difficulty copying, and what message will resonate with your prospects.

That seems like sound advice, but needs to be adapted for nonprofit historical organizations. Stephen Weil in his book “Making Museums Matter” (Smithsonian, 2002) has several important encouragements. So, using Weil to modify Eisenberg, let me suggest the following considerations to address prior to launching a membership campaign for local history museums:

  1. What is unique about the history you preserve and make accessible?
  2. Which of these factors are “most” important to potential members?
  3. Which of these factors are impossible to recreate anywhere else?
  4. How might you best communicate that you are “for” the people who made the history you preserve, and not just “about” the history you preserve?

Several recent articles have suggested the answer to Number 2 is that people most want to be able to “do history,” whatever that is. This is why Local History News changed the Local History Events title to “Do History Here.” But is the ability to do history what your public wants?

Number 4 reminds me of a statement Treebeard makes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” When asked whose side he is on, Treebeard responds that he is on no one’s side because “no one is on my side.” Historians have often remarked that history takes no sides, but who is speaking up for people with no more voice than what is preserved in records and objects?

Number 3 drills further into the answers you might provide for Number 1, and each will vary by organization.

How might you make membership matter more to more people?

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2 Responses to Making Membership Matter

  1. Wendy Biorn says:

    Disconnection is indeed a problem for members and consequently memberships. Years ago becoming a member of an organization with the sole purpose of showing support for the organization was enough. Now people want to want more. Developing excitement for a project can build a quick increase in membership but this type of membership is very hard to sustain.

    To sustain a membership base we need to look at how demographics have changed within the target market and adjust to their needs. It is rare in my experience that the generations under 45 will purchase a membership just to show support. We all know the bonus reasons for a membership such as discounts to the gift shop.

    To sustain or grow a membership base it is essential that people feel they are part of an ongoing community. Staying in contact through e-mail, face book, twitter and a number of other instant messaging devices is becoming even more important. Snail mail is just to slow for the technical new generations.

    One thing all people have in common however is that everyone wants to feel included and welcome.


  2. tamara edevold says:

    I am extremely proud of the membership numbers we have. As anyone who has ever talked to me knows, 20 years ago when I was hired the society had 18 active members. The last time I checked we had over 870. Our highest number was just over 900, during a two-year “town centennial” cycle.
    I can tell you why we have such a high number in one word: NEWSLETTER. Our members receive a 16-page tabloid sized newsletter every two months. It is probably the most important thing I do in my job. It’s where we tell the stories and share the pictures of our county. Of course at least a third of the paper is museum and membership news- reporting who has renewed, (do not forget a name!) who sent in a donation and what we are up to at the museum, but the rest of the paper is reserved for history.
    It’s a bit expensive (although only 10 percent of our total budget) but worth every penny. If your mission says to “disseminate the history of our county” then what better way to meet your mission goal then a newsletter? I am certain we have members who have never been to our museum but I frequently get notes telling me they love the job we are doing.
    If you think you don’t have time to do a newsletter, I would encourage you to rethink. In our case, the newsletter keeps our members informed, entertained, and engaged which leads to positive community and (thank goodness) financial support.


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