Balancing Member Motives

Two museum membership model changes illustrate the delicate balance of appealing to members motivated by "what's in it for me" and "what's in it for us."

In recent weeks The Los Angeles Times has brought us two interesting and divergent takes on nonprofit museum membership models:

Dallas Museum of Art drops admission fee.” Beginning in late January, the DMA will eliminate admission fees and, as Times art critic Christopher Knight writes, “do what other museums offering free admission have done: Expand the philanthropic pool. DMA members will be called partners, and the entire local community will become a prospective association of micro-philanthropists.”

Outcry as Los Angeles County Museum of Art raises patron fees.” Meanwhile, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced that yearly dues for its art councils will increase from $400 to $1,000 (plus a $250 membership fee), and the role of the councils will shift toward fundraising and away from acquisitions and special access to private events. (Note also: LACMA also charges admission fees, or visitors can pay a yearly membership fee for unlimited admission.)

The tricky part of mixing “what’s in it for me” and “what’s in it for us” is knowing which members hold which motives.

(h/t to my colleague Greg Melia for passing these links along)

Before we go any further, it’s prudent to acknowledge that museums are not the same as associations, nor vice versa. But the underlying dynamics of membership are relatable, so I’ll press on.

As different as these two dues changes look—admission going way down in the former, dues going way up in the latter—both of them are a shift in the same direction: away from “what’s in it for me” to “what’s in it for us.”

The change at DMA is straightforward, while LACMA’s is more complicated. From the way LACMA director Michael Govan describes the councils to the Times, it sounds akin to a major governance overhaul at an association: “As a nonprofit organization, he said, ‘we need our fundraising to be run in a more consistent manner through the development office.’ He explained that it was not ‘best practices for a large museum these days’ to allow different groups outside their reporting structure to raise and allocate funds.” He also spoke of the benefits those supporters had been receiving: “To have an affinity group that has direct access to curators and artists, even at the new number, you could call it a bargain,” he said.

Perhaps Govan can be applauded at least for his will to rip off the Band-Aid, though the change has, not surprisingly, drawn a lot of ire from the affected art council members. (Apparently LACMA missed the advice to raise dues incrementally every year rather than waiting decades to make a huge change.)

Associations have long debated whether “what’s in it for me” or “what’s in it for us” is the best way to attract and keep members. (See here and here.) But I’m a believer in using both. Associations generally don’t have the option of relying in full on philanthropic support—they simply don’t have the same “public good” to appeal to that museums and charities do—but they can seek a mix of “what’s in it for me” and “what’s in it for us” support. The tricky part is striking the right balance and knowing which members hold which motives.

LACMA’s predicament shows what can happen if an organization’s needs and the supporters’ motivations are misaligned. After the smoke clears, it may be better off for making clear what type of support it needs, and from whom. It also offers a lesson for DMA as it embarks on it own new model.

To appeal to both types of motivations, some associations establish subsidiary 501(c)(3) foundations. Others build tiered member structures in which the top levels are essentially for large donors. How is your association trying to appeal to both members seeking individual benefits and those who want to support the industry as a whole?


Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!