Customer service Engagement Marketing

Customer Service for Nonprofits: Can You Hear Me Now?

To membership-based nonprofits, listen up: the concept of the customer experience also applies to you!


Here’s the situation: about a year ago I joined an organization that serves leaders in the nonprofit field with offerings that include information & idea-exchange, e-newsletter, discounted publications, annual conference, etc. But I decided not to renew my membership since I hadn’t gotten much out of it. It was only when working on my budget for memberships that I even realized they never sent me a renewal notice.) I also realized I never received the quarterly journal promised in their new member material, and they were unresponsive when I e-mailed them with a question about one of their events.


Welcome Back!?

So I was surprised when I got a letter telling me my membership was extended for one year. I e-mailed them asking why — given my service to the nonprofit field as a professional advisor/facilitator as well as a volunteer leader, I was just a bit curious. Was it a matter of member service recovery? Or did the organization have such a great year they decided to “share the wealth” with their members?

Guess what? No response (surprise, surprise). So I sent a letter with a copy of my earlier e-mail to the organization’s Board Chair, a well-known & highly respected leader. This time I got a response (while it wasn’t directly from the Chair, at least I got through to someone). I received a phone call and letter from the staff apologizing for the situation (which was acceptable) and offering an explanation based on insufficient staffing, mis-communication with the members, etc. (which I found lame).

There’s no excuse for this treatment of members, especially given the prestigious founders & supporters of this particular organization. (Sorry, I know the power that dissatisfied customers have in spreading negative word-of-mouth and the more current “word-of-mouse,” but I’m reluctant to divulge the name of this group).

Acquisition Without Retention = Leaky Bucket

Membership-based organizations, no matter how well-intentioned their missions, won’t survive without members. They have to pay attention to the “customer” experience, and I’m not talking about anything complicated here — just the basics of being responsive to members, answering their concerns in a timely manner, communicating effectively to manage member expectations, and delivering what was promised. 

When it comes to member/customer satisfaction, this is Customer Service 101. My friend Mike McDermott and his colleague, Arlene Farber Sirkin, wrote a great book on this entitled “Keeping Members”, published by the ASAE (American Society of Association Executives (Foundation).

What’s surprising and disappointing is that there are member-based organizations out there who still don’t get it. Trust me, they won’t get my membership either.

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