How to Earn Member Engagement: A Guide for Associations and Nonprofits

by Larry Freed

Member and donor engagement are critical to the success of a professional association or nonprofit, yet it’s still one of the biggest challenges faced by leaders. Your biggest asset to your members is the community that only you can offer them. Here are some ways to leverage that network.

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Member Engagement Has Never Been More Important

There are more than 92,000 trade and professional associations and 1.2 million charitable groups in the United States alone.

The National Association of Agricultural Educators, the American Iris Society, and the American Saddlebred Horse Society all have more than 7,000 members. The Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers and American Coaster Enthusiasts each have 8,000 members.  The International Catholic Deaf Association, the American Foundry Society, and the American Society of Hematology can all count more than 10,000 members.

People who join your association or give to your charity automatically have something in common with all of your other members or donors. 

Your cause!

If you’re an association, a nonprofit, or any other organization that relies on memberships, you know how crucial it is that your members engage with you and with each other. There is just so much competition for your members’ time and money, you have to give them a reason to renew each year. 

They should do more than just renew, right? You want them to talk about you, get involved, donate, volunteer, attend an event, recruit another member …  whatever your version of a conversion event is. 

You have something for them that no one else in the world can offer.

Yes, you have content, professional development, certifications, information, resources, lobbying, events, and more.

What you really are is a gatekeeper to a lot of other people who care about the same things they care about. Whether you are the AARP, the Audubon Society, the American Bankers Association, or Habitat for Humanity, the people in your organization care about the same things. In fact, the smaller you are, the more likely it is that people are linked by a common bond.

So how can you ensure loyalty, retention, renewal, and deep engagement with your organization?

Engagement by the Numbers

  • For five years in a row, survey association and nonprofit executives say that improving member engagement and retention are the top association goals. (source: ASI)
  • Although 84% of association and nonprofit members report being satisfied with their membership, only 55% feel a personal connection to the association. (source: Community Brands)
  • 34% of members said they won’t renew because it’s too expensive (source: Community Brands) and 48% of individual membership organizations increased dues over the past year. (source: Membership Marketing)  It’s crucial to find unique value for these members to keep them coming back. 
  • In 2019, most associations and nonprofits reported that membership is growing, which is great news if you can keep those members engaged and renewing. (Source: MGI)
  • 26% of members say the organization doesn’t provide enough value (source: Community Brands), which means those new members won’t renew unless we find a way to show them value. 
  • When asked what they value most about a professional organization, 92% said socializing, 90% said information, 87% said networking, and 77% said mentoring and advice. You can address all these desires by connecting members to one another. (see the Abilia Member Engagement study for the full list)
member engagement by the numbers

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What is Member Engagement?

The term “member engagement” is used so often it’s almost meaningless, and many organizations struggle to define and communicate engagement across departments.

Here are some examples of how to define member engagement that may be useful. 

The American Nurses Association has a great definition of what engagement means in their organization: 

“Member engagement at ANA is the investment of time, money, attention, and participation, by both the association and its members, in order to provide meaningful, long-term, mutually beneficial experiences and relationships that advance the profession.”

Their definition has four elements: 

  • an audience that matters (stakeholders)
  • measurable interaction
  • valuable activity that advances the interests and needs of the stakeholders
  • valuable activity that advances the interests of the organization, including mission alignment

Michael J. Brennan suggests that engagement is a simple equation: 

Engagement = Relationship + Action

As Andrea Pellegrino notes,It’s all engagement… every customer service inquiry, complaint, voicemail, email, or other message. Every website visit, page click, open email, and click-through… is engagement. Every forum where the issues that concern your members and industry are discussed (even if they are not yours) is engagement.”

The National Association of Wholesale Distributors defines engagement as “the process of actively building, nurturing, and managing relationships with all segments of your audience to increase membership volume, value, and retention.”

In short, not all of your members are going to attend your events, seminars, and conferences. Not everyone will want to go get a drink after the big dinner. Not all of your members will visit your website regularly, tag you on social media, or do any of the other activities we so commonly associate with engagement. 

However, you can still provide meaningful, long-term, mutually beneficial experiences and relationships that advance the profession or cause. The best way to achieve these goals is by connecting members to one another. 

gvitas for associations

Why Does Member Engagement Matter?

Member engagement has a number of crucial benefits: 

  • Retention rates
  • Member loyalty
  • Renewals
  • Active participation
  • Additional revenue streams and member lifetime value
  • Donations
  • Event attendance
  • Word-of-mouth referrals
  • Leverage to push through a legislative or advocacy agenda

Engagement can make or break your organization. 

Traditional Engagement Tactics

There are literally hundreds of ideas for member engagement. Access has a blog post with a list of 40! Here are just a few of the most common and most successful tactics. 

In-Person Events and Conferences

It’s great for members to see you and each other in person. It enhances the sense of community and gives you the chance to communicate your agenda and understand theirs. 

Facebook Groups or Other Social Media Groups

Social media can be a good way for an association or nonprofit community to engage, but there are considerable drawbacks. Social media groups tend to be noisy and filled with chatter about unrelated topics. 

Arguments, criticisms, and negativity abound because these platforms aren’t backed by social science principles that encourage and support kindness, high-quality relationships, gratitude, trust, and vulnerability. As a result, your social media groups are likely dominated by a few super users, while others hang back or don’t participate. 

General-Purpose Online Communities

While online communities can be a great way for members or donors to engage, they haven’t quite lived up to their promise. Hosted online communities tend to be either too noisy and busy to be meaningful, or so quiet that users aren’t engaged. Online community software was designed for simple communication, not to elicit positive emotions like gratitude, appreciation, connection, and vulnerability, there can often be arguments, negativity, and divisiveness, if people use them at all. 

Slack Channels

You may already be connecting your members, donors, or stakeholders using a Slack channel. Slack can be great for small groups, but tends to get noisy and overwhelming for larger, more widely-distributed groups. Slack just wasn’t designed to elicit positive emotions like gratitude, appreciation, connection, and vulnerability. Givitas was, making people more likely to use and enjoy it.

Broadcast Communication

Emails, social media, newsletters, publications, texts, and even traditional snail mail… there are a lot of ways for you to communicate with members, and communication is incredibly important. However, these forms of communication tend to me more akin to a broadcast than an exchange.

It’s critical that you keep your members apprised of what’s going on, but you also need channels where they can give you feedback and network with each other. 

All of these methods can play an important role in boosting employee engagement, but they are tactical. What leaders need is a blueprint for creating a culture of trust and reciprocity that will support all of these individual methods and make them more successful. 

How to EARN Member Engagement

Member engagement is critical to organizational success, and traditional methods of improving it have their place in the landscape. 

However, associations and nonprofits can offer so much to members by giving them access to the collective experience, knowledge, and intelligence of the unique network that only you can provide. 

It’s not enough to give them an online community or a Facebook group, though those can be important. It’s crucial to give them a place to ask for and offer help to one another on subjects and topics they know better than anyone else. 

It’s one thing to build employee engagement through programs and benefits. It’s another thing to earn it. Building and sustaining a collaborative, helping culture among members will demonstrate your value, making members more likely to renew and engage in other ways.

Givitas is software that connects people with a common interest or affinity to collaborate, engage, and exchange help and advice. 

Givitas connects your members to each other and makes it incredibly easy for them to ask for and help each other, making them more loyal to you, more likely to donate, more likely to renew, more engaged, etc.  It also gives you the ability to understand important issues to your membership, based on what kinds of things people are asking about. 

Givitas has huge benefits for your members as well. Members get their questions answered and their problems solved. They get access to an expert brain trust in an area that interests them. They are given the opportunity to help others, make new connections, and feel more fulfilled. 

Unlike other general-purpose tools used to connect people (Facebook groups, Slack channels, LinkedIn, online communities), Givitas is engaging without being overwhelming, and inspires gratitude, connection, relationships, and the vulnerability of asking for help rather than status updates, complaints, and other content that makes a real connection harder. 

Online communities are general-purpose platforms meant for broad and superficial communication. Givitas does not necessarily need to replace them, but can instead be an important complement designed specifically to encourage and facilitate asking for and giving help.  

Givitas is also faster and easier for people to use, requiring only 5 minutes a week to keep up to date with the community, making it more likely that people will participate and engage. 

Givitas is designed to make it safe and easy to ask for help. 

There are real reasons that make it hard to ask for help. While some barriers are psychological (worrying about how we’ll be perceived), sometimes it can be as simple—and as profound—as not knowing what to ask for or how to ask.

Wayne Baker, author of the book All You Have to Do is Ask,  says “a reticence to ask for help is one of the most self-limiting, self-constraining, even self-destructive decisions we can make.”

Givitas makes it easy to ask for help and reduces the stigma attached to doing so. Givitas gives your members a network of people willing and able to help right at their fingertips, who can be tapped anytime. 

Your members will get advice, help, expertise, introductions, resources, ideas, and more from a curated community of people who will have the answers.

Make it easy to be a giver. 

Most people in a healthy environment want to be givers, they want to help their co-workers with advice, an introduction, or a missing piece of knowledge. However, they are busy doing their own day jobs. 

Adam Grant, author of the bestseller Give and Take and a co-founder of our company, advocates for setting up a block of time to do what he calls “five-minute favors.” His research shows that not only are we helping others with these favors, we see a measurable impact on our happiness levels and work satisfaction. His findings also show that bundling these acts together creates an even bigger impact on our sense of well-being than spreading them out. 

Givitas empowers workers to help by sharing their expertise or connecting them to multiple people who know the best answers, in less than five minutes per day, making it easy to help others and enjoy all the benefits that accrue from doing so. 

“It may be better to give than to receive, but it’s best to give and receive.  Giving and receiving turn the wheel of reciprocity.”  Dr. Wayne Baker

Givitas saves time. 

Most users spend 5-10 minutes a week, which makes people more likely to use it and stay engaged. Smart notifications make it easy to stay on top of requests and offers of help. 

Givitas gives everyone equal access to the collective intelligence, experience, and wisdom of the network

It doesn’t matter who you know or don’t know. It doesn’t matter whether you are an introvert or an extrovert. It doesn’t matter if you are a member of a minority group that may not traditionally have been a member of the “in-crowd.” Givitas gives everyone equal access.

Givitas offers a searchable organizational memory. 

Search back through frequently asked questions with the best answers, as well as extensive filtering and notification capabilities. These features are all designed to make Givitas easy and fun to use–you can search by date, topic, even by which requests haven’t gotten any offers yet, and more.

Understand members and build advocacy.

Get deep insight into who is and isn’t engaged, influencers, and where the energy points are in your network, allowing you to identify potential donors, speakers, and other advocates.

Support stronger, high-quality social connections and strong networks.

People are highly motivated by positive interactions, which boosts engagement and loyalty to your organization. 

Moreover, managers should focus on helping teams build what University of Michigan Professor Jane Dutton calls “high-quality connection,” or those marked by feelings of “vitality and aliveness,” a “heightened sense of positive regard,” and a feeling of mutuality, the idea that both people are engaged and actively participating.  

Annual events and meetups can begin to improve your members connections, but a humanistic technology platform, like Givitas, facilitates new and developing connections with people with whom you may not typically interact. Your members may or may not want expanded social lives; they do want more people in their network, especially related to topics they’ve chose to join an organization for. 

Attract new members.

One of your biggest values is offering members and donors access to a unique brain trust they can’t get unless they join your organization. 


The trends of the last 20 years of member engagement should not be abandoned. Events, communications strategies, and online communities are all important.

However, connecting members for the sole purpose of exchanging help can be a powerful part of your engagement strategy. The result will be demonstrable ROI for your organization in the form of loyalty, retention, and enthusiasm.

To learn more about how Givitas can help you build member engagement and excitement for your cause, schedule a demo today.

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Larry Freed Givitas CEO

About the Author

As founding President and CEO of Give and Take, Inc., Larry Freed works with co-founders Wayne Baker, Cheryl Baker, and Adam Grant to provide solutions that increase efficiency while building better workplaces. He is the author of the bestselling Innovating Analytics and Managing Forward. 

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