I laughed when I received a recent email from the Human Rights Campaign’s vice president of membership and development offering a reduced rate “membership,” “if I only came back by midnight tonight.”
She told me that according to their records my membership had lapsed and that to make it easy for everyone to participate they were making a special offer only available today. I could save $15 on my membership as a former member if I would rejoin. Then to strengthen their call for my membership they forwarded an email from HRC President Joe Solmonese “in case I missed it” in which he asks for money. It had no date on it but he wrote that “if I come back before midnight” my ‘gift’ will change the lives of loving families — and I can’t think of a better reason to ‘donate’ than that.” In that one email they called the $20 they wanted from me a gift, a donation and a membership. They also told me this was the last time they would ask.
HRC isn’t the only group that does this, but it’s a mistake. I support HRC and the work it does even if I don’t contribute today. HRC continues to be an important part of the advocacy effort for the LGBT community. But it would be a stronger organization today if they had chosen to become a real and viable membership organization years ago.
The email makes it clear the HRC dichotomy that people have talked about for more than 20 years. HRC is not now and has never been a membership organization. Some see it as a successful advocacy organization (others dispute that) but what no one can deny is that HRC is a successful fundraising machine. But asking for money on the pretext of being a membership organization is false advertising.
In a career spanning both government and the non-profit sector I have had the opportunity to work closely with, be a member of and run a number of membership organizations. Member benefits usually include defined and delineated tangibles at discounted rates, such providing useful research, continuing education opportunities, magazines and journals, online publications and information, discounts on attending meetings, travel, seminars, webinars and intangibles like advocacy work. The email I received from HRC didn’t list one such benefit. A real membership organization doesn’t consider anyone making any type of contribution a member as those kinds of “members” can’t be counted on to continue making random contributions each year. Instead they carefully count and cater to their members and keep track of them with annual dues renewals stressing the current benefits and always looking for ways to make their membership more valuable.
The most successful advocacy membership organization is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). It has grown exponentially and provides a host of benefits to members for very little money. AARP retains its members because the cost of membership is low and easily offset by the savings they receive from those benefits.
More than 20 years ago, it was suggested to the powers that be at the then-named Human Rights Campaign Fund that they look at turning themselves into a real membership organization and that they set a goal of attracting 1 million members with annual dues between $7 and $25. Benefits of membership could include a glossy magazine. Other benefits could come from vendors such as insurance companies, travel firms, airlines, clothing and food outlets that would provide meaningful discounts.
This very simple concept was based on the assumption that with low dues and valuable benefits you could — over a period of years — attract one million members. These members would come from both the LGBT community and our allies. Considering inflation, a low annual membership rate today of between $15 and $25 the organization could raise between $15 and $25 million, which would cover the basic costs of running the organization. Then additional funds could be raised from both members who had more money and others to cover the costs of additional lobbying, advocacy and anything else that the organization wanted to undertake including building a reserve fund or endowment.
In the long run this would be a way for HRC to become more relevant to many people and a way to institutionalize the organization for years to come. As we have seen from the fights that African Americans and women have waged to attain their human and civil rights, the fight goes on even after legislative success. HRC will continue to be needed to monitor progress and to educate our own community, our allies and the general population.
HRC will have to provide something for the younger generation that is tangible — not just the intangibles of advocacy — if it is to attract life-long members and supporters. There may be other ways but this is one reliable way to build HRC for the future.