Making Membership Matter

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Making Membership Matter

By: grabitsdm | July 29, 2009
A few weeks ago Local History Services at the Minnesota Historical Society worked with an organization that faced a serious challenge in its membership. The problem was that members felt disconnected from the organization and could no longer see what the benefits of membership were. I took some time to ponder why it is that people choose membership.

Bryan Eisenberg posted on this subject as it relates to the for-profit sector in 2001. Essentially he said to effectively market a business, one must identify brand uniqueness, identify what your prospects want most, identify what your competition will have the most difficulty copying, and what message will resonate with your prospects.

That seems like sound advice, but needs to be adapted for nonprofit historical organizations. Stephen Weil in his book "Making Museums Matter" (Smithsonian, 2002) has several important encouragements. So, using Weil to modify Eisenberg, let me suggest the following considerations to address prior to launching a membership campaign for local history museums:

  1. What is unique about the history you preserve and make accessible?

  2. Which of these factors are "most" important to potential members?

  3. Which of these factors are impossible to recreate anywhere else?

  4. How might you best communicate that you are "for" the people who made the history you preserve, and not just "about" the history you preserve?


Several recent articles have suggested the answer to Number 2 is that people most want to be able to "do history," whatever that is. This is why Local History News changed the Local History Events title to "Do History Here." But is the ability to do history what your public wants?

Number 4 reminds me of a statement Treebeard makes in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." When asked whose side he is on, Treebeard responds that he is on no one's side because "no one is on my side." Historians have often remarked that history takes no sides, but who is speaking up for people with no more voice than what is preserved in records and objects?

Number 3 drills further into the answers you might provide for Number 1, and each will vary by organization.

How might you make membership matter more to more people?