In this time of great change, many new movements are springing up.

There are a lot of leaders out there right now, who inspire me and many others. They have great ideas, powerful missions, important messages to share. Right now, the spotlight is on change, and things are happening organically. Initiatives launched today can attract thousands by tomorrow.

Organizers and change agents are spread thin and working tirelessly to make our world a better place. Their energy, vision and activism is an engine for good.

And I’m grateful to them.

I want to do what I can to ensure that we are able to build on the momentum. On thing I can do to help is to support activists as they tap into the power of membership . There are proven frameworks that work to build ongoing trusted relationships and engagement in a consistent way over time.

Right now we are having a moment where engagement is spiking. The challenge is how to onboard these supporters for the long term. For movements to thrive, supporters need to stay engaged. Funding supplies need to be consistent and predictable for planning. And communications lines need to stay open between organizers and supporters as well as among supporters themselves.

Here are some tips for the organizers.

  1. Be clear about your forever promise and your vision. Why are people following you right now, and what is it that these followers hope and expect you to do on an ongoing basis, to justify their engagement? This is like a “mission” but it’s specifically focused on what you are going to do for your supporters. For example, a mission might be “to drive change in XYZ” but a forever promise might be “as long as you support me, through actions and investment, I will continue to look for the most effective ways for you to be part of driving change in XYZ.” You also want to get clear on your vision–what does your organization look like when it’s fully operational and all the key parts are running? Before you go back to take your next steps, you want to make sure that you know where you’re heading. This lesson is not meant to contradict an ethos that people in the social change world are “in business to put themselves out of business” i.e. by ending racism, poverty, etc. your organization can dissolve. For instance, Freedom to Marry was the campaign that won LGBT marriage; it was founded by Evan Wolfson as a 501 c3 and has since been disbanded because they won. But, on the other hand, there are many membership organizations that won’t go out of business (World Wildlife Federation, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers) because those causes won’t end. So take the idea of “forever” with a grain of salt–I use it as a shorthand to help organizations think about the ongoing, steady-state relationship they want to develop with members.
  2. Know who your best members are. People have all kinds of agendas, goals and needs. The more clear about who your membership is right for, the more likely you will be to engage and retain the people you attract. It can be tempting to say “we’re for all people” but the way you might optimize communication, activities and requests could be very different depending on your ideal members. Larger organizations have the luxury of layering in features over time to serve many different segments, but, especially if you’re just getting started, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin. For membership-oriented nonprofit organizations, you might want to initially attract potential chapter leaders, and organizers. These highly engaged members are most often victims, survivors or people with lived experience of the problem. You might be seeking people with those experiences as well as special talent to lead, organizers, speak publicly and motivate others. Your definition of a best members is unique to your organization and may change and expand over time. But when you start, it’s helpful to be focused.
  3. Determine your most critical short term goals. These are the ones that will give you the grounding you need to keep moving forward. It might be about getting as many supporters signed up as possible, to demonstrate that you represent critical mass. Or it might be about raising funds so you can keep the lights on. Or maybe you want to prove that you can drive change, whether or not you have many members–you’re developing evidence of your efficacy. And at each step, make sure you know what you are trying to prove before you move to the next step. For example, if your initial goal is to influence a political decision, don’t be hard on yourself if your membership numbers are small–you weren’t focused there. Keep going back and forth between your big vision and the right next steps.
  4. Onboard for long-term engagement. This one is particularly important right now when activism is on everyone’s mind. It’s not enough to get one-time donations, or to get thousands of people to sign a petition or show up at a rally. You want to figure out how to convert these one-time activists into members. When they initially join, make it easy for them to do what they came to do (listen, march, read, donate etc.) but after that, you want to optimize the experience so that they can begin establishing the habits that will help them achieve long-term results. We’ve all joined a nonprofit and received a canvas tote and brochure, but what change activists want is a way to engage and stay involved that fit their schedule and lifestyle, for instance Moms Demand Action organized stroller jams for gun control. They literally jammed into legislative halls to demand their elected reps met and heard them. They protested by boycotting Walmart (which sold assault weapons). You need to organize meaningful actions for members to do so that they feel a sense of momentum and quick wins.
  5. Be willing to continually evolve your approach to stay powerful and relevant. No one approach is going to work forever, so it’s important to continue experimenting with your approach, how you engage and support the efforts and goals of your organization’s members.

Many change agents worry that investing too much in building an infrastructure for membership will result in making their organizations tame or bureaucratic. And there is always a risk that organizations spend too much time on “how” they deliver rather than staying focused on the why. But designing and building a formal way of engaging your supporters for the long-haul can give you greater freedom and leverage to to forge ahead toward achieving your goals.

If I can be helpful to any social entrepreneurs as they build out their membership model, please let me know.