Charity members: help or hindrance?


Charities’ membership models (or lack of them) may be damaging their sustainability. Alastair Keatinge explains why, and what to do about it.

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2nd September 2019 by TFN Guest 0 Comments

Does your charity have members? And do you actually know what I mean by that?

I am not challenging your intelligence or expertise by asking that second question. It is simply that ‘membership’ and ‘members’ are two of the most ambiguous words in the third-sector lexicon.

Different organisations - rightly - use the words in varying ways. That’s because the meaning of ‘member’ depends on whether you are incorporated (eg, a SCIO or company), a trade union, club or other structure. In one organisation, a ‘member’ could refer to a trustee; in another to a service user; in another to a supporter.

An existential issue

This all matters because charities’ understanding of ‘membership’, and their approach to it, could be impacting their governance, accountability, fitness for purpose or sustainability.

This can occur in different ways. One typical situation is where a charity has a legacy membership structure that is holding it back.

Such a charity may have members (for example, supporters, donors or the families of beneficiaries) who by historical accident have powers or duties such as electing trustees, changing the charity’s constitution, or passing resolutions at AGMs. This can give rise to a variety of problems such as AGMs not being quorate, or members using their rights to advance a personal agenda rather than the interests of the charity or its users.

Out-of-date membership models can also make administration more complex or expensive, or alienate supporters who are not interested in correspondence about attending AGMs or exercising their duties.

At the other end of the spectrum, some charities may benefit from a stronger membership structure. This could give greater legitimacy to trustees (because they are drawn from the membership) or improve accountability. In this scenario, having members could make the charity more focused, credible or dynamic.

Alastair Keatinge

Alastair Keatinge

In one organisation, a ‘member’ could refer to a trustee; in another to a service user; in another to a supporter

Key checks for every charity

Those examples illustrate that there is no single right or wrong answer to whether charities should have members or what membership structure they should have. However, there are questions and issues that every organisation should consider.

Firstly, it is worthwhile for every charity to map its membership model. Do you have members? What duties and rights do they have? And what benefits or problems does that bring?

Secondly, look at the legal aspects. Are you meeting your obligations under relevant charity or corporate law?

Thirdly, consider wider governance questions, such as:

  • Do you need a membership base that is broader than your trustees?
  • Is a legacy membership structure draining resources or preventing change?
  • Do current members receive clear information on their role, or could this improve?
  • Would it be helpful to follow other charities and introduce different membership tiers membership? For example, having voting members who engage with trustees and decision-making processes, and non-voting supporters / friends.

These are important and sometimes complex questions – requiring a good understanding of charity governance, and the different membership models available, as well as your own context. Given the ramifications for your efficiency, governance and reputation, they are certainly questions worth asking.

Alastair Keatinge is head of charities at Lindsays