Collective Mind Community Conversation

Analyzing network membership fees

by Seema Patel, Senior Advisor, Collective Mind

Collective Mind hosts regular Community Conversations with our global learning community. These sessions create space for network professionals to connect, share experiences, and cultivate solutions to common problems experienced by networks.

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In December 2021, Collective Mind hosted a Community Conversation about network membership fees. The session, hosted by Collective Mind founder, Kerstin Tebbe, combined evidence and learnings from a recent literature review conducted by Collective Mind with the experiences and insights of session participants.

Highlights from the conversation

Literature related to network membership fees may be limited, but combining existing evidence with conversations such as these reveals that recognizing and asking tough questions is integral to decision-making around implementing membership fees. A clear takeaway from the conversation was that the purpose and rationale for implementing membership fees is highly complex and not always straightforward. Aspects of membership fees, such as their ability to provide alternative funding for the network, can be fairly clear cut while other aspects, such as the impacts of fees on the network, can raise more questions and issues. Both straightforward and more complex aspects are necessary to consider when evaluating whether or not and how membership fees make sense for a network. Asking difficult questions, even without clear answers, can challenge network leaders to tackle and prioritize complex topics and raise awareness of issues that may otherwise have been ignored or deprioritized.

A clear theme that emerged from relevant literature is that membership fees can have benefits to the network. They can be a valuable tool used to increase member ownership. Members that pay can feel more invested in the network as a whole and in working to achieve its collective goals. Also, the ability to use member fees as funding for the network is particularly relevant for core functions and activities that donors will not or cannot fund. They can also be viewed as a potentially more sustainable source of funding than donors.

It is equally important to reflect analytically and critically on the potential impacts of implementing membership fees and how they may affect the network — its parts and as a whole. One set of issues is around equity and inclusion. When considering asking for fees from network members, important questions rise to the surface such as whether or not implementing membership fees could make your network more exclusive and exclusionary. We must consider whether a pay structure would affect the equity of members’ voices or members’ rights within the network or how might it shift member expectations and participatory incentives are subtopics to discuss.

Relatedly, when thinking about what members expect in return for their payment, part of the process is to consider how fees might incentivize certain behaviors or engagement, and what it means to have different fee types that are either about members receiving value, about members ability to pay, or some hybrid of the two.

Another noteworthy consideration is how membership fees might shift a network’s shared purpose. By definition, networks have a shared purpose around which members come to the network to achieve, but it’s important to reflect on whether requiring members to pay affects that mission and how it is achieved. Can all the necessary stakeholders and actors be brought together to achieve the shared purpose when membership fees are in place? Will implementing membership fees add value or detract from the network’s mission?

Accountability for the funds received from membership fees is an issue that may not be as apparent but is an important discussion to have. Network managers will have to be held to account, both financially, and to the individual paying members’ expectations. A financial management system will need to be in place to manage the receipt and utility of the funds, as well as a system or process to ensure that the use of funds is reported back to the members. Ensuring these systems might be particularly challenging for informal networks.

When deciding on a payment structure, there are a number of options available, but each should be considered within the context of the network’s overall membership model and in parallel with the other key issues raised. Payment structures options include a “freemium” option where anyone can join the network to connect for free, but with value-added elements that need to be paid for, payments in the form of a sliding or graduated scale, or different tiers of membership for different levels of fees. Other practitioners have considered the creation of a “new economy” with fees, where member contributions create a pool of funds and collective decision-making about how to use it. Such structures can incentivize deeper member engagement, but also connect back to questions around equity and inclusion. How are members that don’t have the resources to pay being accommodated? Are in-kind payments allowed? In an existing network, do fees only apply to new, incoming members or to existing members as well? How an existing network has decided or a new or transitioning network will decide to structure their membership model will have implications on membership fee decisions and vice versa. What is right for a new network thinking about starting membership fees from the outset may not be right for a seasoned network trying to implement fees years into their lifecycle. An appropriate fee structure for a tiered membership model will look very different from a fee structure for a network with a flat membership structure.

What is clear is that there is no formula or widely applicable or replicable model when considering membership fees for a network. You have to look across all aspects of the network, ask and answer difficult questions, sit with the discomfort of not having all the answers and clearly communicate that, and prioritize building trust and inclusion of members’ views into the entire process. And all aspects and questions related to membership fees must be considered within the context of the network’s overall membership model, network approach, and strategic path.

Additional resources

Miss the session? View the recording here and check out the resources from the literature review below!

Capacity Building in Network Organisations: Experiences from and practical guidelines for HIV and other networks

Work the Net — A Management Guide for Formal Networks

NET GAINS: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change

Investing Strategically in Social-Impact Networks

NGO Networks: Building Capacity in a Changing World

Coalition Membership/Dues Structure Samples

15 Elements of Successful Nonprofit Membership Programs

The Guide to Membership Fees and Dues for Nonprofit Organizations

Setting a price for your membership

How to Run a Successful Nonprofit Membership Program

Membership Programs for Nonprofits

How to Choose Your Membership Levels Properly

Choosing the Right Membership Model

Get involved

Have your own experiences with implementing membership fees? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Or email Seema at seema@collectivemindglobal.org to co-host an upcoming session with us.

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