The #1 Membership Development Mistake—and How to Avoid it

Written by Deborah Rodney on January 30, 2018

Recently I attended a networking event for a national women’s organization. I enjoyed the people and inquired about membership. When I didn’t get a response I did something most people wouldn’t do: I called their headquarters and found myself speaking with a membership representative.

A real horror story:

The rep who took my call didn’t ask me any questions about what I was looking for. She assumed that because I initiated the call I was ready to sign up, so she immediately went into convincing mode. She began by explaining the various membership levels, dues and benefits at each level and then offered me a menu of discounts that might apply under certain conditions or by certain dates. She tried to pressure me into joining without any understanding of my interests, needs, or motivation.

This was a real membership-killing mistake, because her approach actually pushed me away and she lost me. To make matters worse, when I told her as much, she became defensive and argumentative. I had to hang up on her!

While this seems like an extreme example, it’s a true story. And I’d bet that I’m not the only person that this has happened to.

The root of the problem:

The organization apparently assumes that its value proposition is clear, and doesn’t bother to inquire what a prospective member might be looking for. They have a blind spot, because their overriding objective is to sell memberships. They don’t explain what differentiates the organization, what benefits it delivers or what would motivate someone to join because they’ve made assumptions and haven’t bothered to ask any questions!

They also haven’t considered that not everyone will be a fit. By not querying or vetting prospective members, they risk signing up someone who is only going to turn around and drop out, becoming another statistic in the membership churn. That doesn’t serve the member or the organization.


In order to attract the right members into your organization—the ones who are going to stay the course, be valuable, contributing members and attract others like themselves—you need to understand and address their needs and motivations.

Remember, all they want to know is “What’s in it for me?”

To give them a meaningful answer, you have to ask open-ended questions. Then you can frame the membership conversation to highlight those specific benefits that resonate best with them. Not every potential member is looking for the same thing.

It isn’t a sales conversation.

As someone who has spent many years in membership development, I’ve learned that prospective members don’t like to be sold. There is a critical need for membership development people to be trained in a consultative approach to positioning (not selling) the organization; if membership recruiting is being handled by volunteers, it is even more critically important to train them.

Here are a number of key questions I recommend asking as a precursor to a conversation about joining:

10 questions to ask Prospective Members that can predict the success of their membership:

  1. What other organizations have you belonged to previously?
  2. Why did you join?
  3. Why did you leave?
  4. What did you get out of it? What did you contribute?
  5. What worked and what didn’t work about the membership experience?
  6. What attracted you to our organization?
  7. What are you looking for if you join?
  8. Do you have enough time to attend meetings, events, and committees? To participate and take full advantage of our member benefits?
  9. How will you know if you are getting what you are looking for?
  10. How much time are you willing to give it before you make that determination?

The answers to these questions will give you a sense of:

  • whether the prospective member has realistic expectations and understands what it takes to be a successful member.
  • what level of commitment they are willing to make.
  • whether they will fit in with and be embraced by fellow members.

Most people appreciate being interviewed, and love talking about themselves. Asking these questions communicates the organization’s commitment to a member’s success and not just “making a sale”. You’ll also accomplish three more things:

  • Gaining their trust,
  • Beginning a relationship that will hopefully be for the long term, and
  • Demonstrating that your organization cares about its members.

If you were the person on the other end of the phone, wouldn’t you want the membership development representative to take that approach with you?