Musings: Membership, a misguided notion

Every organization has a database of contact information for its members and those who are not yet members. I am here to tell you that for most organizations it is a money pit and they really don't need membership.

Through the years, I have worked with many organizations to help them set up, reorganize, convert and, most often, clean up their lists. I love databases. I said it. Yes, I love databases. They are just so amazing. Take good database software with a little artificial intelligence and a strong reporting system thrown in and it is nothing short of miraculous.

Here's the problem, simply summarized by an old programmer's saying - garbage in, garbage out.

You have selected the database software you want to use to maintain your lists. You have the computer to run the software. Now all you need is the contact information to put into it. This is usually when someone says, "let's get an intern to do that". The resident bean counter gives the idea a big thumbs up and an intern is assigned. If I am in that meeting, this would be the point where I would be waving a big red flag.

Most organizations spend staff time and resources and consulting time in order to purchase the best software they can afford for the job. Then they will invest in costly hardware, spend good money to get the hardware set up and the software implemented. Then most businesses stop spending money. There is no documentation for the new database design, nor has there been much, if any thought to best practices and training.

Then you turn your most precious commodity, your membership list, over to an intern. An intern who usually doesn't know much about your software, your organization and the information they have been tasked with entering into the software. Now let me ask you, does this make sense?

Before entering data or downloading existing data into your new database, the next step should be a strong written policy that states who should, or should not, have access to the database to make edits and additions, as well as addressing security and privacy issues.

Generally the updating or entry of data is done by whoever happens to be available at the time. And each time someone new comes on they are trained by the current person who was kind of trained by the person before. After three or four handovers of the updating task, no one remembers the original intent of the record design nor are they clear as to specific field usage. And suddenly, the data has gotten away from the organization and the database is a mess. The state of your data degrades in direct proportion to the lack of qualified training of those who have access to edit existing data.

And now it's time to do a mailing. Membership is mailing annual renewal notices to all members and an invitation to become a member to everyone else on the list. A sizable sum is spent to design and mail the piece. Membership hires a graphic designer to design an eye-popping piece, which gets approved and the mailer goes to print, or set up as an email blast, and it is sent.

Within a few days the invitations start showing up in the return mail as "return to sender, addressee unknown". There is always a certain percentage of attrition and that's okay. But day after day they keep coming. Or if an email blast, your email box is instantly filled with returned emails. And what about the members who really would like to renew, but don't get the invitation because they moved or changed their email address. Or the member whose address was incorrectly added to the database and never gets the notice. Or the member who was added to the database five times and received five invitations - and is now questioning the security of his personal information that your organization is storing and the overall efficiency of the organization.

This is often the point where a high priced consultant comes in and performs a data clean up. And then the process starts all over again. I say, break the cycle!

Sit down with your financial person and create a spreadsheet that includes how much money you spent on the database - include staff time, software and hardware costs, consulting, setup and printing costs. This is also a good time to consider the potential cost if your network is breached, or through a disgruntled employee, your constituents personal information is made public. A sobering moment.

When you add in the amount of money received in membership renewals and check the bottom line, what do you find? Even with the money you saved not hiring a database manager, most organizations find a number that is blood red and dripping down the page. Why? As we learned from Sarbanes-Oxley, it's not just about oversight and accountability, but strong policy and process.

Hire a qualified database manager. Keep all your organization's information in one list - not one list for membership and one list for development and another list that someone got from another organization - just one list in one database.

Use your database for what it is intended. Mark the records that are members, mark the records of the people who buy the latest Hunger Games the day it goes on sale, mark the records of the people who attend a First Friday event, and so on. Your database manager will create reports to help you learn about your constituency. You may discover that most of your members like to attend First Friday, never buy Hunger Games, but love chocolate. Be sure chocolate is available on First Friday and you will have members for life.

You might actually be able to not only show a profit on membership, but see it continue to grow and have successful events, even if most of your members don't show.

You will be amazed at what you can accomplish with a good database manager.

Or, don't even bother with membership in the first place. Do something bold like offer visitors a discount on tickets if they buy online, instead of charging them a processing fee. Simple, we all like simple. Think of all the money you will save on membership overhead.

Be bold. Think outside the box.

-Nancy Massey

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