Cultivating Community Through Membership at the Louisville Nature Center

WHEN I JOINED the Louisville Nature Center (LNC) in 2018, our community of memberships, donors, and volunteers was largely made up of senior citizens. With our centralized location, surrounded by neighborhoods with young families, I knew we had an opportunity to broaden that community.

A very informative workshop on memberships at the ANCA Summit in 2019 pushed me to ask who we wanted to be our members, and why they would want to be members. Since we can’t charge admission, we had to think creatively about what would drive someone to become a member, and how to get the members we wanted. 

LNC has had a few different membership programs over the years, always with a base price of around $30. All levels had the same benefits: discount on camps and programs ($25 off every camp for every child.) People were becoming members to get a deal — some paying even less by buying a membership through Groupon — and they were not engaged, and not staying members after their kid aged out of camp.

 

Who does a nature center want as members? People who will be engaged, people who will potentially volunteer, but most importantly, people who want to support your mission.

 

We compared membership plans at other nonprofits to consider rates and benefits. Again, since we don’t charge admission, we had to think creatively. My husband and I are members of the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, a gift we first received for our wedding. (Note: memberships make great wedding gifts!) While we love art, we really enjoy their monthly Friday after hours events, which are $15 or free for members. We probably wouldn’t go often if we had to pay, but since we’re members, we go often, keeping us engaged with the museum!

In the past two years, LNC has been offering a lot more weekend programs such as Night Hikes, Plant ID, Beginner Birding, etc., and they have been regularly selling out. We raised the price on these to $15/person, and made them free for members. By offering free admission to programs, we're encouraging a deeper connection with the nature center. We weren’t really worried that members would fill these programs and we’d “lose” money — that would be a great problem to have: super engaged members! We threw in a logo canvas tote bag to sweeten the deal, and launched our new membership program in September 2020.

 Here are our new rates:

  • Individual ($70): free admission to all public programs for one person
  • Individual PLUS ($100): free admission to all public programs for two people
  • Family ($125): free admission for 4 family members to all public programs; camp discount of $25 per child, per week, for up to 2 children or grandchildren.
  • Family PLUS ($175): free admission for 5 or more family members to all public programs. camp discount of $25 per child, per week, for 3 or more children or grandchildren.

All membership levels receive ANCA reciprocal membership benefits, a $25 discount on rentals and birthday parties, and 2 weeks' priority camp registration — an idea from the ANCA Summit that proved to be a big driver for us!

Only halfway through our fiscal year, we are at 90% of our target for income from memberships. In the two years prior, we'd not come close to our target. Our membership numbers have increased 65% over last year. We are seeing camp families become members and signing up for weekend programs. We are seeing Forest School families become members, sign up for camp, and make donations. And camps sold out in 4 weeks!

Thus far, only one person has reached out to mention the rate increase; however, she graciously offered to just donate $30 (her old membership level) each year instead of re-joining at the higher base level. My father, who works in marketing, has taught me a lot over the years, including a reminder that you assign a value to your product when you price it. Is it possible that our higher rates seem more desirable because a membership seems more valuable?

Who does a nature center want as members? People who will be engaged, people who will potentially volunteer, but most importantly, people who want to support your mission. The more members are engaged, the more likely they are to volunteer, to donate, to renew their memberships each year. Our community has clearly demonstrated how much it values these engaging connections—even in the midst of a pandemic. As a result, LNC has not only more resources to provide an enjoyable and educational natural space, but also the meaningful relationships that connect to that space.