Many nets scoop up big member gain

Captain Ahab set out from New Bedford, Massachusetts, with just one idea: putting his harpoon in the ultimate big fish, Moby Dick. His all or nothing approach didn’t work out so well for anyone but the whale.

The Buzzards Bay Coalition got much better results by spreading nets in many different waters when they set out on their own New Bedford-based quest: to grow membership by more than 50 percent over  two years. The Coalition started the campaign in 2009 with 5,200 members. A generous donor offered them $500,000 if they could add 3,000 new members before December 31, 2010.

“He wasn’t kidding,” said Mark Rasmussen, the Coalition’s Executive Director of his anonymous donor. “He made it clear: if we missed the target, we wouldn’t get the money.” Last week, my colleague Anne Garnett and I sat down with Mark just a few blocks away from the Seaman’s Bethel and other opening scenes of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to find out how the Coalition met the challenge, won the prize and set a new direction for its future. Here are some lessons:

  • Share the drama. “It’s wonderful – and frankly a bit scary – to have a challenge like this,” said Mark in his 2009 announcement. The compelling $500,000 challenge and the possibility of failure helped excite and engage the Coalition family and the general public.
  • All hands on deck. Volunteers moved mountainst to get targeted mailings out the door, saving thousands of dollars. Board members stepped up, ransacking their Rolodexes and buying gift memberships. That commitment brought other friends and members in on the project.
  • Know what you are counting. The goal was member numbers, not member dollars. The Coalition already had clear criteria for counting individual members (family memberships count as two members) so everyone, including the challenge donor, knew the score.
  • Make it easy. Any donor of $10 or more ($30 for families) who opts to be a member is a member. That low price point made it easy to say “yes.”
  • Try everything. Mark handed us a pie chart with 12 slices breaking out where the members came from. Their traditional Bay swim and newer Bay bike ride accounted for 42 percent of the new members. The rest were spread over 11 separate member recruitment projects.
  • Recruit the friends of your friends. As noted, the Coalition got the biggest boost just by offering a member option to riders, swimmers and their sponsors. Mark has been pleasantly surprised to find event sponsors responding well to direct renewal requests this year.
  • Go grassroots. Who loves the Bay? Boaters and shellfishers for sure. Volunteers moved mountains to merge and purge records from 18 coastal communities. Personalized mailings to these two groups of public permit-holders snagged 13 percent of the total new member catch.
  • Let people help. The owner of Not Your Average Joe’s restaurant created an entire promotional effort on his own, including hats, table cards and personal appeals from servers as well as mini-matching gifts of $5, to encourage diners to add membership dues to their dinner check. That brought in an astounding 550 members in just five weeks.

The Not Your Average Joe’s campaign added to a late surge that put the campaign way over the top in the later months of 2010. The Coalition wound up adding about 3,600 new members by the deadline, blowing the doors off their goal.

Spreading efforts across a dozen different initiatives required a lot of work from staff and uncounted volunteer hours. In hindsight, we can see that the top five member acquisition strategies recruited just enough members to achieve the 3,000-member goal. But going in, no one could have told the Coalition which five would work.

Conventional direct mail would not have worked. Even if it somehow managed to mail to every one of the approximately 115,000 households in the Buzzards Bay watershed, the Coalition would have spent a fortune. And at standard response rates of well under one percent for new member acquisition by mail, they would still have fallen far short of the goal.

Mail did play a large role, but guerilla marketing tactics, such as data-mining town lists of marine permit holders and using volunteers for mailings yielded higher returns at far lower costs than conventional DM. The Coalition also needed both face-to-face transactions (events, the restaurant and the Coalition store) and online payments (particularly the swim and ride) to make the whole goal.

Putting the matching gift aside, the Coalition hasn’t made a ton of money on $10 memberships. But that was never the point. Consider the value of having 25 percent of the population of a coastal town like Marion, Mass., as members when the Coalition has business with local government.

As with any new donor campaign, the Coalition looks to the long-term value of its 3,700 new members. There’s nowhere for a $10 member to go but up. Of course, that assumes these easy-come members won’t go away just as easily. Donna Cobert, the Coalition’s Director of Membership, doesn’t think that will happen. Renewals have been strong in 2011, she says. Now she’s working on the 2011 member challenge, a member-gets-member campaign, to close in on 10,000 members by the end of 2011.

4 responses to Many nets scoop up big member gain

  1. Betsy Baker

    How cool! I love a grassroots approach to fund raising. And I totally agree – a direct mail campaign wouldn’t have had nearly the impact. Thanks for the step-by-step instructions for other nonprofits to follow.

  2. Kirsten Bullock

    Sweet! Lots of people committed and working hard towards a common goal. It’s hard to upgrade members to larger donors if you don’t have many members to start with. This is phenomenal! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jon Howard

    Thanks for your comments. The lesson for me is that there really was no feasible alternative for the Coalition to doing a lot of hard work in-house to achieve this goal.

  4. Sherry Truhlar

    Congrats to the coalition! That is a great success story and Jon thanks for sharing the model.

    I agree that there’s no substitute for hard work, but I believe having such a clear goal and timeline were also important. Too often volunteers are asked to work hard and keep working hard and the celebration never arrives. A great example of how goal-oriented projects can work.

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