For many museums, zoos, aquariums and other destination venues, the distinction between a “member” and a “donor” is fairly clear. Members join for the benefits and are motivated by the value of what they get for their support:  free admission, access to parking, guest admission, etc. Donors are more philanthropically inclined and give because they support your organization’s mission. Though the lines often blur—in fact, organizations that strive to convert members into donors may blur them intentionally—the simplest distinction is that members feel good about what they get from an organization, while donors feel good about what they give to it and its constituents.

For nonprofits without a venue, such as conservation and advocacy organizations, the difference between a “donor” and a “member” might be little murkier. The concept of “membership” is powerful because it helps create a sense of belonging to an engaged community that supports a specific mission. And, though many of these types of organizations do offer benefits (e.g., membership cards, newsletters, tote bags, etc.), the value proposition is not as compelling. We can assume that most of these members give because they want to “belong” and be a part of the work that is done to fulfill a mission they care about.

Calling these types of supporters “members” is not a problem; nurturing that sense of “belonging” is important for these organizations. But there is a danger of getting trapped by trying to create a traditional membership structure—with different levels, price points and expanding benefits similar to that of destination facilities—which is difficult to build and sustain for nonprofits that don’t have a lot of tangible and valuable benefits to offer. Misaligning your messaging with what motivates your supporters will miss the mark and ultimately leave prospects behind.

Whether you call your supporters “members” or “donors” is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It’s important to know as much as you can about what impels your supporters to give. Conduct surveys, test your messaging and take a deep dive into your data to analyze and assess trends that highlight what inspires your members and donors. These efforts will certainly save you precious time and money in the long run.