Why members are critical to your re-opening strategy

As arts and cultural organisations plan to open their doors with easing restrictions, it’s critical to put members and subscribers first. This is why.

Members and subscribers are critical to any arts organisation – at any time of the year – but more so now than ever before as our sector considers its reopening strategy.

Why? Members, volunteers and subscribers are your champions. They are the people who believe you matter; who believe you make a difference.

They are also your supporters who sign up, pay, attend your programs and, most importantly, share what you do in their conversations and on their own social channels. It’s a cheer squad you can’t overlook in your plan to reopen.


Adam Lindsay, Executive Director Sydney Living Museums (SLM) and the State Archives and Records (SARA) told ArtsHub: ‘Members and volunteers have always enhanced our operations. They are our biggest supporters and they will continue to play a critical role in helping us deliver amazing content and experiences.’

The support community at SLM includes 3,323 members, 35,136 subscribers and 449 volunteers (at the time of closure in April 2020), with an additional 57 volunteers at SARA. That is a large captive audience that can be leveraged.

While similar, theatre companies have a different relationship with their supporters than museums, and are more reliant on a subscription base, who are equally loyal and motivated.

We spoke with Melbourne Theatre Company, who said: ‘MTC subscribers are an incredible community of people, many of whom have been subscribing for decades. Their support is extremely important to us, not just financially, but equally through their loyalty to the experience of live storytelling.’

MTC had 20,315 subscribers in 2019. If all were to buy a ticket, that would be represent a great re-entry point to our new post-COVID world.


Value in that collective support network is a complex equation. Indeed, it is this very notion of “value” that has plagued conversations around support during this pandemic, and where it best lies and where it’s been overlooked: from government to families at home seeking entertainment; artists and creatives fuelling our wellbeing, and recognising the value in the networks of members and subscribers who are keeping the morale alive for many arts organisations.

And, if you are still unsure of the value of engaging friends and subscribers in your reopen strategy, then take a look at the results of SLM most recent survey (2020) of their Year-round Program volunteers:

  • ‘How likely are you to recommend SLM as a great place to volunteer?’ 94% say likely or very likely.
  • ‘How likely are you to continue volunteering for SLM for the foreseeable future?’ 91% say likely or very likely.
  • ‘My role is relevant to SLM and enables SLM to achieve its goals’ 94% agree or strongly agree.

Given that the wallets of most organisations are looking a whole lot leaner than they were pre-COVID – and frankly we could be facing a recession with a scanty trickle from government – who will be your support base moving forward, is a key question.

Many organisations will turn to their patrons and boards. But organisations need to remember that the ground roots support network is equally as vital to sustaining operations, financially, also.

Lindsay said that in the financial year of 2018–2019, Sydney Living Museums volunteers contributed 10,447 hours and NSW State Archives volunteers contributed 5,000 hours. Adding, ‘We can’t put a value on the work done by the NSW State Archives volunteers, who have been a large part of making 650,000 new collection items discoverable online in this financial year.’

That is a massive – committed – base to work with, hand-in-hand, in shaping the messages around reopening. These are your foot soldiers.

Read: Why art museums will open before performing arts venues

‘Joining an organisation by way of membership is the best thing that people in the US believe they can do to support an organisation’s mission – even more than making a donation!’ says US research Colleen Dilenschneider. She is Chief Market Engagement Officer for IMPACTS, a global leader in predictive market intelligence in the culture and non-profit sector.

Dilenschneider writes: ‘Why all the fuss about members? Because not only are they our advocates, but they contribute critical monetary support as well,’ and help lower the expense-to-revenue ratio – a key factor as organisations return to a leaner environment.

Over a ten-year duration, IMPACTS examined 18 cultural organisations that have paid admission as well as a membership fee. (None of these entities had free admission or a free membership program.) ‘We found that a member of an exhibit-based institution has a 4.5x greater monetary value to the cultural organisation than a visitor,’ reports Dilenschneider.

Art Galleries are in a good position to reopen with social distancing. Sally Gabori exhibition, Queensland Art Gallery. Image ArtsHub.


After being closed for weeks – months – many arts organisations could be in ‘survival mode’, working lean and trying to regain lost revenue.

Arts organisations need to think creatively on how to make visitors feel safe enough to visit, but also being able to encourage others to visit is going to be the trapeze net.Read: Conquering fear in your reopening strategy

A good place to start is by thanking your members and subscribers for sticking with you during these difficult times, and perhaps rewarding them first. This could be via exclusive early phase entries, or special hours for members. This could be especially attractive to elderly members, volunteers and subscribers who still hold fear for risk through contact from the general public.

Lindsay was confident that some of the organisation’s elderly volunteers and members would have no reservations in returning to their good work.

‘We have had a constant stream of calls from members and volunteers at SLM & SARA keen to reengage as per usual. Many have voiced that they are missing their connection with us and they appreciate the regular contact and hearing about our activities during this period,’ he said.

MTC added: ‘While each individual will have their own level of trepidation, we will be adhering to the most current advice of health officials to ensure our audiences’ return to the theatre is both safe and comfortable.’

It is part of a broader strategy SLM has been easing towards. ‘Nurturing our relationship with members and acknowledging their value has been a priority for Sydney Living Museums through these extraordinary times. We have done this by introducing exclusive member online content, such as a special preview and welcome from our first resident artist at The Mint, – florist, artist and philosopher, Dr Lisa Cooper. We have also created a new online Members’ Area offering a changing selection of highlights from our collection and past exhibitions, plus fascinating stories and hands-on activities.’

Lindsay said that the organisation – like many others across the sector – put all memberships into a ‘hiatus’, to acknowledge that members have not been able to take full advantage of their membership at this time, and to think of value as a two-way street.


Sometime it is easy to become complacent towards members and subscribers because we know they will come or they will sign up – ‘they always do’. They need to be reminded of their important value, and now is the best time to be strengthening those existing relationships.

Research shows that becoming a member is the top way that people believe they can support an organisation’s mission – even more than donating.  ‘Members and subscribers rate the educational experience higher than regular visitors. They also report better admission value, better perceptions of crowd control, and better parking experiences,’ Dilenschneider found.

Use that data and pivot it toward your reopening strategy. As the saying goes, when you are most in need, you turn to your friends.

Lindsay added: ‘They are our strongest advocates and it’s not just the support for the administrative aspects of both organisations, our community of volunteers, members and subscribers offer their knowledge, wisdom, point-of-view and expertise adding a very human level to our work.’

Dilenschneider adds the final warning. ‘The top reason (by far) why guests do not renew their memberships and subscriptions is that they intend to do it when they next visit.’

How will the pandemic negatively impacted renewal intent-related numbers?

‘This data matters right now because it illustrates that there is potential to capture lapsed members and subscribers as well, and they may share similar affinities to current members if they can be encouraged to reengage soon after reopening,’ said Dilenschneider.

So the reason to think of your members first is doubly important.

This week is National Volunteers Week in Australia  (18-24 May).

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina