I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the 2015 Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference. The session “Who Should You Love Most? Your Donors, Your Members or Your Subscribers” drew a great crowd – all ready to learn how to leverage their donor, member and/or subscriber base to raise the most revenue.


Now this is a topic that is dear to me – because as membership director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I think about it every day! Even though my focus is primarily on building and stewarding our member base, members and subscribers and donors are not mutually exclusive! These three groups are inextricably linked, and by recognizing both the shared and distinct motivations and characteristics of these groups, the Lab has been able to more than double the revenue from our contributor base over the past four years.


I wanted to delve a little deeper into one topic that was discussed in the presentation, that I believe contributed significantly to the Lab’s success: letting supporters – whether donors, members, subscribers or otherwise – self-select their level of engagement with your organization.



This move toward self-selection actually occurred organically – not deliberately – as the Lab developed new programs and expanded our outreach. In fact, taking a closer look at the Lab’s definitions of donors, members and subscribers while working on the Bridge Conference presentation was when I first recognized the significance of this change. Over the past few years, we have been gradually adding more options for our constituents to engage with us – in both a monetary and programmatic sense. And I believe giving our constituents more choice has helped increase the size and value of our donor, member and subscriber base.


It’s important to remember that everyone is motivated to give and engage for different reasons. In the past, the Lab focused primarily on promoting our standard membership program, which was a subscription to our magazine, to raise funds. But the Lab offers much more than a magazine, so to tap into the rest of our supporter base we diversified our membership and fundraising options, giving supporters the flexibility to choose how they engage with us in a way that resonates with their unique interests.


“A la Carte” Fundraising, Membership and Participation

Offering “a la carte” options is something any nonprofit can achieve by setting up an infrastructure that allows supporters to give to specific causes, projects, programs, etc., and tweak membership and donation programs to fit their needs.


The Lab, for instance, offers a wide variety of resources and programs for anyone interested in birds outside of our magazine – the All About Birds website, our popular Bird Cams, and even a new Bird ID app, to name a few. We’ve also expanded our programs and resources to cater towards all levels of bird enthusiasts. Everyone from hardcore birders to backyard bird watchers will find something for them. 


Thanks to this breadth of programs and resources, we have a base of wonderful supporters who engage with our organization, but don’t necessarily want to be magazine-subscribing members. So we’ve set up methods that allow them to pick and choose how they contribute.


Some examples include:

  • Donating to the “All About Birds” website, for users of our comprehensive Bird Guide and other online resources
  • On-page giving options for our ever-popular “Bird Cams”
  • Subscribing to our monthly giving program
  • Donating time and research to our FeederWatch and eBird programs
  • Tiered membership programs with different benefits
  • Options for paper magazine opt-outs


And of course, supporters of our mission and organization can always give anytime during the year, or in response to our campaign appeals (Global Big Day, capital campaigns, year-end, etc).


Be Everyone-Centric!

You hear about being donor-centric, but I would argue you should be everyone-centric. You should let your supporters self-define who they are in relation to your organization – whether that’s a donor, a member, a subscriber, something else entirely, or a mix of many different constituent types. Don’t force your supporters into restrictive categories that might turn them away from your cause!


In the end, putting the power of choice in the hands of your constituents makes them feel more connected to your organization. They can donate to causes they truly believe in or take advantage of benefits that are relevant to their lifestyle, creating a sense of solidarity and a unique personal relationship with your organization.

 Lynn Swain

About the author: Lynn Swain, Membership Director, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Lynn Swain joined the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as the Membership Director in 2011. Previously, she served as the Membership Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the Registrar at the Winterthur Museum.