Why Association Members Give

By: Beth Gazley

The first rule of fundraising: Know thy donors. New research from ASAE & The Center, the latest in the "Decision to" series, uncovered some surprising answers to the question, "Why do association members give?" (Titled "Why They Give" in print version.)

It won't be a surprise to association executives that member satisfaction and member giving go hand in hand. How that lesson translates into action steps for associations is the focus of ASAE & The Center's third study in the "Decision to" series, The Decision to Give.

Most professional associations have needs beyond those supported by membership dues. Many associations form foundations and related charitable organizations to support education and research efforts. Some have close affiliations with charitable causes, such as the American Society of Plastic Surgeons' Volunteers in Plastic Surgery program and its work with Operation Smile. Likewise, many cause-related organizations reach out to associations in similar industries to partner on charitable activities.

Despite these and many other examples of charitable connections to the mutual benefit world, the Decision to Give study is the first to produce research on the philanthropic dimensions of mutual-benefit giving. The study is informed by the enormous amount of research on philanthropic behavior more generally—especially on the reasons people offer for giving time and money to the causes they care about. In the United States each year, more than $250 billion is donated to charities and more than 60 million individuals volunteer their time. This study looks at how that generosity might be manifested through a donor's professional ties and interests.

Study Methodology

Giving During a RecessionGiving During a Recession

The timing of the Decision to Give study gave us an opportunity to include questions about the impact of the economic downturn on giving plans. Overall, eight percent of respondents said they would give to more organizations than last year, 11 percent would give to fewer, and 58 percent would give to the same number. The remaining 23 percent said they would not give or that it would depend on the economy.

These findings are consistent with another national survey by Cygnus Applied Research in January 2009. Cygnus found that half of Americans will give the same amount as last year and that, despite the recession, two-out-of-five respondents would give to a new cause if someone they knew asked for the gift.

An internet survey was sent during the spring of 2009 to a random sample of active members in six cosponsoring associations. (See the "Acknowledgments" box for a complete list of participating organizations.) All cosponsors were mutual-benefit (trade and professional) associations, and all had a tax-deductible vehicle for receiving member gifts. In all, 5,004 members responded, for a 12 percent response rate. The study findings have a margin of error of two percent at a 99 percent confidence level. Though some associations sampled different ratios, the data are presented here in raw form, without weighting.

The Decision to Give study used a comparative framework to understand association giving in the context of a member's other religious or community giving. The survey questionnaire asked 40 questions about membership status, member satisfaction, giving in the community and to professional associations, the likelihood of giving to an association, preferred forms of giving, and demographic characteristics. For purposes of the study, "giving" was defined as optional, voluntary financial contributions that members make above and beyond their membership dues, fees, or other obligations.

The research addressed some central questions about member generosity in professional and occupational societies, including:

  • Who currently donates charitable support to their association beyond obligatory dues?
  • Why do members give? How important is association giving to them compared to other philanthropic activity?
  • How do members prefer to give? And how do they like to be recognized?
  • What can associations do to encourage greater philanthropic giving by members?

This study was about more than improving an association's fundraising prowess. On a much more fundamental level, it addresses philanthropic activity as a member service. Members, like donors anywhere, welcome opportunities to connect their charitable priorities to their professional world. Associations can profoundly increase the value of a professional affiliation that allows members to serve not only themselves but others as well.

Demographic Indicators and Giving

The first notable finding from the Decision to Give study was the remarkable generosity of survey respondents to their communities: Eighty-six percent donated at least once to any charitable or religious cause in the past 12 months. More than half gave $1,000 or more annually, for an overall average of four percent of household income. Studies of giving frequency in the charitable sector find that about two thirds of Americans give regularly, with the majority of support going to religious causes.

Putting Decision to Give to Work

Key Finding 1:  Association members are generous donors. Eighty-six percent of respondents donated at least once to any charitable or religious cause in the past 12 months.

Key Finding 2: Lower-income members aren't necessarily uninterested in becoming donors. While those who reported giving in the past 12 months to their professional associations were more likely to come from higher income brackets, many lower-income members also supported their associations with donations.

Key Finding 3: Donors are more likely to self-pay dues. Recent association donors were nearly twice as likely to have paid their own dues (as opposed to having their dues paid by an employer). The challenge for associations will be in finding ways for engage members in philanthropic giving when those members don't pay for their own dues.

Key Finding 4: Most association members have simply never been asked to give. Four-out-of-five respondents who have never given to their association say they have never been asked. And while members who are volunteer leaders are most likely to have been asked to give, those who actually give are no more likely to volunteer than those who don't. Associations should look for potential supporters throughout member ranks and not just among the "usual suspects."

Key Finding 5: Association members have strong preferences with regard to methods of charitable solicitation. Decision to Give found that one person's solicitation preference could be another's poison. Associations should identify the solicitation patterns that seem to work for their members and be prepared to vary and track solicitation approaches according to individual member preferences.

But respondents reported making contributions to their professional associations at much lower levels. Just 14.3 percent had given to their association for something besides dues at any time in the past, and just 7.1 percent had given in the past year. Three quarters of frequent community donors had never given to their professional association. On the other hand, those who did support their communities were more likely to give to their professional associations, and they were more generous donors overall. In other words, there is no tradeoff: Members will support their communities and their professional associations if they see value in both.

A demographic profile of association donors finds they belong to more professional associations (the most frequent association donors belong to three professional organizations on average) and have been in the profession longer (half of frequent donors have been in their profession 20 years or more). Men were more likely to give to associations than women, and those with advanced degrees gave with greater frequency than those without. This kind of pattern is also consistent with national studies of giving, where older people and those with greater education levels give more frequently than other individuals.

When it came to community giving in general, association members who actively practiced a religion gave more frequently than those who did not. This pattern is found in other national and international giving studies. But the same pattern was not found in the Decision to Give study's findings related to association giving: Members who practiced a religion gave to their associations at the same rate as those who did not.

When donors were compared according to income levels, the most-frequent donors to any cause had higher annual incomes. Donors to associations were similar, but the pattern was weaker. While those who reported giving in the past 12 months to their professional associations were more likely to come from higher-income brackets, many lower-income members also supported their associations.

In all, 45 percent of frequent association donors earned $150,000 or more annually, compared to 29 percent in the sample overall. At the next income level, 42 percent of those earning $50,000 to $150,000 gave to their associations, compared to 56 percent in the sample. Surprisingly, 12 percent of those earning less than $50,000 per year gave in the past year to their associations, compared to 15 percent in the sample. The results suggest we shouldn't assume donors at lower income levels lack the means or interest to support association activities.

Connecting Dues and Gifts

How do members view the connection between a dues payment and any optional giving to a foundation, research fund, or other charitable program? Overall, survey respondents were divided equally between those who paid for their own professional dues and those for whom employers paid the dues. But recent association donors were nearly twice as likely to have paid their own dues.

The results suggest that the connection between dues payment and giving is more mechanical than financial: Members are most likely to make additional donations when they pay their dues. These members who give seem unlikely to view the transaction as a tradeoff between dues payment and giving. The challenge for associations will be in finding ways for engage members in philanthropic giving when those members don't pay for their own dues.

Waiting to Be Asked—The Right Way

86 percent of survey respondents donated at least once to any charitable or religious cause in the past 12 months.

Fundraising experts observe that most donors won't give on their own but must be approached for support, preferably in person. Donors must also be made aware of needs and the benefits of their participation must be outlined before they will enlist.

With that in mind, possibly the most important takeaway from Decision to Give is that most association members have never been asked to give. Four out of five of those respondents who have never given to their association say they have never been asked. Among frequent community donors, three out of five have never been asked to give to their association.

Yet many of these nondonors are  satisfied members. Two of five respondents would recommend that someone else join the association but have not personally given to their association.

Another group of satisfied members is found among association volunteers. Most studies find a strong connection between giving and volunteering. Volunteers are more likely to give, and vice versa, with very little tradeoff between gifts of time and money. In Decision to Volunteer, we found that volunteers are much more likely to rank high on member satisfaction.

However, the Decision to Give study identified an important twist in this presumed relationship between giving and volunteering. While members who hold leadership positions (such as board or committee service) are most likely to have been asked to give, those who actually give are no more likely to volunteer than those who don't. This finding means that association executives should look for potential supporters throughout the member ranks and not just among the "usual suspects."

The survey included a number of questions about how association members prefer to be solicited. Respondents were almost equally divided between those who currently donate through the internet (43 percent) and those who would never use the internet (38 percent). This figure changes according to a respondent's age, with younger members the most likely to consider internet giving. The most preferred solicitation methods were being asked by someone known to the member, special events, and learning of needs through association listservers, media, and other means.

The study also found, however, that one person's preference could be another's poison. While at least half of respondents had neutral or favorable attitudes toward these solicitation methods, as many respondents said they didn't like these approaches as those who preferred them. The lesson here is that association executives should use sophisticated, targeted solicitation methods: They should identify the solicitation patterns that seem to work for their members, should not carry over fundraising practices from one organization to another without proper testing, and should be prepared to vary solicitation approaches according to individual member preferences.

Among association donors, the association causes they were most likely to support addressed social problems, helped others, addressed a cause that was important to them, increased knowledge in their field, and helped the more fortunate give back. Less important to these donors were giving to build a professional reputation, as an expectation of a leadership position, to support religious beliefs, to honor someone, or to change public policy.

Strengthening Your Giving Strategy


ASAE & The Center thanks the following cosponsoring organizations for their participation in the Decision to Give study:

American Academy of Neurology and American Academy of Neurology Foundation

American College of Healthcare Executives

American Society of Civil Engineers Foundation

American Society of Association Executives

APICS The Association for Operations Management


We found several important lessons for association executives in this study. First, though most members seem to have weak links to an association's charitable activities, many are likely candidates for a stronger connection. Among association members we found many individuals who support community causes, volunteer for their professions, and have charitable interests that connect to their professional world. And, crucially, many of these nondonors are already satisfied members. These qualities warrant stronger association efforts to engage them in cause-related activities.

One way to accomplish this is through an activity known as "relationship marketing." Though it's a familiar term in the commercial marketing field, relationship marketing can also be applied to fundraising strategies because it describes the same process of developing long-term supportive relationships with members (customers) rather than expending all resources on acquiring new ones. Donors, like customers, also value effective communication, expect reciprocal benefits from their support, and need to trust the institution that receives their support.

Association members, like all donors, will support the institutions that help them connect causes they care about to their professional world. And, just as it is with dues, a new gift costs more to raise than a renewed gift. Association executives who help their members realize their most important philanthropic interests—to give back to their profession, support those with greater needs and fewer advantages, and build knowledge—also succeed at member retention.

Beth Gazley, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. She is the coauthor of The Decision to Give, forthcoming in February from ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. Email: [email protected]

Beth Gazley

Beth Gazley teaches nonprofit management at Indiana University-Bloomington and has been a long-time research collaborator with the ASAE Foundation and consultant on nonprofit management and governance.