January 25, 2012 | by Peter Rosenstein
HRC is not a membership organization

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.

6 Comments
  • “HRC will have to provide something for the younger generation that is tangible — not just the intangibles of advocacy”

    You mean the water bottles the offer aren’t good enough for you?

    For shame!

  • I’ve been in and run non-profits as long as you. The fact is that what you say about “membership” was true perhaps 15 years ago but those somewhat artificial lines have since blurred. HRC obviously runs part of its acquisition program to lapsed donors and requests a membership renewal. Many charities do this: it pragmatic, not a statement of failed policies or indeed a statement of organizational identity at all. Some donors like to perceive themselves as members of a non-profit. They will respond.

  • They want y/our money so they can continue to do nothing with it. They have no shame with their game.

  • I’m afraid HRC and NGLTF both have forgotten their “roots” in the aspirations of ordinary Americans to be treated with the same dignity, respect, rights and freedoms as all other Americans. Not everyone who is gay–or lesbian, bi, trans, or any other subdivision of personal identity–wants to be married. It’s right and good that those who wish to marry have the legal right to do so. But to privilege “marriage equality” as the presumed “rallying cry” for all LGBT people is preposterous.

    What we don’t hear about is the resounding lack of focus by HRC and NGLTF on the ongoing HIV epidemic that continues to overwhelmingly affect gay/bi men of all races in this country. Their spokespeople told me in interviews they rely on HIV-focused organizations to take the lead. Well, those organizations turned their backs on gay/bi men in the 80s as soon as they realized “women and kids” are easier sells to funders and politicians than homosexuals.

    Looking at the organizations’ priorities, you wouldn’t know that tens of thousands of gay/bi American men still struggle to access the care and treatment they need to stay alive. You wouldn’t know that, despite the much higher risk for HIV in our community, gay/bi men have been getting short shrift where it comes to taxpayer funding for effective HIV prevention programs.

    Why don’t you read about HRC and NGLTF’s work on gay/bi men’s HIV prevention and treatment needs? Because unfortunately many of those living with or at heightened risk for HIV tend to be men of color and with lower incomes–hardly the demographic profile of those who contribute from their disposable income to these organizations.

    • Mr Andriote, what you seem to lack in maturity you certainly make up for in self-righteousness and a sanctimonious and selfish drive for attention. Poor you. It is hard to imagine that Peter meant for his opinion piece to serve as a springboard for those ready to pile on HRC, and by extension, NGLTF. Yet, you seem to suggest that our great institutions, no matter their failings, should reduce their multiple foci to the single one about which you care most. Each attempts to address inequality in a wide variety of ways, so that they may heighten the awareness of the multitudes. No organization with a single focus can expect to do the same. HRCF, under the leadership of Vic Basile, was a membership organization, and attempted to attract the attention of, seek the support of, and provide sanctuary to many who had yet to find a voice. I remember those days fondly. Likewise, NGLTF, under the leadership of Torie Osborne and her predecessors, recruited many with a slightly more belligerent facade. To suggest that either or both should return to the days when AIDS and people living with it was of a singular grand effort is both short-sighted and archaic. Marriage equality is not, contrary to your assertion, not the single “rallying cry” of either group. It is simply one component of their work that appeals to many. That you are not among the many may suggest that you have come late to the party.

      Your two days’ old tweet offering to the highest bidder coverage of #AIDS2012 clarifies your intent and expectations far more than your unflattering complaint against our flagship organizations. You stick with that self-serving objective, and let the adults in the room continue to address the growing number of additional, important interests and concerns shared by our compatriots whose energy and optimism, not anger, continue to drive us forward in our common quest for our numerous shared goals.

  • big words……i love big words. when you write with ”big words”, people pay attention and assume you’re intelligent (there’s a big word!). sometimes, after i read something, i have to go back and read it again and replace the big words with words i understand. from the article, when i replaced some of the big words i got that the author thinks the HRC doesnot represent a ”members” organization very well. from the comment left by mr. m., the HRC doesnot represent minority men in a sufficient manner. and the last article got on mr. m. for whining like a kid about not being paid attention to.

    i have a big word for us all. i invented it when i read up on HRC. NEO-COHESIVENESS. i hope it catches on. sounds like all three of the opinions (there’s another big word that everyone has) i’ve read so far need some of it.

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