Members are the backbone of all mission-based organizations (nonprofits), without members the good work of advancing social and environmental change would stop. As a marketer for your organization, how should you treat members? -Like gold! But this leads to a question since my organization’s members are golden, how should I think about marketing to them? You need to think of them as more than just members for they are also your customers and clients.

Why? The word ‘member’ is correct, but it implies one of two membership extremes: at one end is overuse (just another membership), at the other end is exclusivity (like an elite snobby club). Membership has lost its meaning in today’s world; memberships are a commodity. If you have ever signed up for anything where you have given your email address, then you are a member of that website. Let’s face it; all of us have scores of memberships from online accounts, store cards, gas cards, music accounts, and more. And some of us are still waiting for their membership cards from that elite snobby club down the road, which was obviously lost in the mail. 🙂

As a successful grassroots marketer who is a champion for your part of the world (watershed, green school club, nature-inspired event etc.) you must discover how to help those, who support your organization, to succeed in what they want to do. To do this, you need to borrow a page from the corporate world; think of your supports as customers and clients.

I have always heard nonprofits refer to their supporters as members, never with business terms as a customer or client. When I asked them why this was so, here were some of the responses:

“People who join have been called members since I can remember.”

“We are not a business, we should not think that way.”

“A member wants to be part of something, a customer is someone who buys a product like a pair of pants, and a client is what expensive lawyers have.”

“Customers consume, members leave footprints.”

These are interesting and revealing statements. True, mission-based organizations are different than for-profit businesses, but a fair argument can be made that many mission-based groups are stuck with outdated definitions and as a result are getting beaten up by very large businesses and well-financed interest groups that know when to adapt their definitions.

Here is a quick look at the words: member, customer, and client.

MEMBER: Derived from the Latin membrum, meaning limb. A member is an individual belonging to a group or part of a complex structure.

CUSTOMER: Derived from the Latin word custodia, meaning to guard or keep. Today, a customer is one that buys goods or services. In a sense, customers are the economic custodians of your organization.

CLIENT: Derived from the Latin word cliens, meaning one who leans on another for protection. Today a client is a person who engages the professional advice or services of another. It suggests a relationship based on the service provided rather than a physical product.

So, who are people who make up the backbone of your organization? Do they join your organization just to be part of a group? Do they join because they want to contribute financially thus being a financial custodian and enabling your hard work? Do they see you as a leader in your field (protecting the natural world, or your corner of it) and they want to engage your professional skills to help protect it?

A member can be all of these things. Within your organization, they can still be called members, but think of them within your marketing practices as something more, as customers and clients.

 Online Meriam-Webster and Etymology Dictionaries.