The Expensive Misconceptions Surrounding Membership Fraud for Cultural Organizations (DATA)

The Expensive Misconceptions Surrounding Membership Fraud for Cultural Organizations

Setting up ID checkpoints to spot “fake members” at your organization? Data suggest that you may be doing more harm than good.

Many cultural organizations treat “member fraud” as an urgent concern of the utmost importance. I’m talking about organizations that set up ID checkpoints at the entrance or membership deck and believe that their job is to find people getting in on their friend’s membership, and then do this. Data suggest that organizations that think this way may be doing themselves a grave disservice.

How big of a problem is membership fraud and guest pass fraud? How much is it costing organizations? We uncovered a data-informed line of reasoning that should make cultural organizations think twice before deploying the member fraud police (at least in the way that many have in the past).

 

1) Checking IDs is a top dissatisfier for members

This is a good – and obvious – place to start: What are the most dissatisfying elements of the member experience? IMPACTS surveyed premium members (defined as persons who have purchased an annual membership to a cultural organization costing $250 or more within the past 12 months) to better understand the nature and hierarchy of member “dissatisfiers.”

The data comes from the ongoing National Awareness, Attitudes & Usage Study of US Visitor-Serving Organizations, and contemplates the perceptions and behaviors of more than 98,000 visitors to 224 visitor-serving organizations of various types and sizes. For this component of the analysis, 1,096 “premium” members to these organizations responded to open-ended questions to identify the most dissatisfying aspect of their member experience. A consequent lexical analysis process organized these responses by general consideration, and these same considerations were presented to the studied members who were then asked to rank from 1-10 the considerations in terms of relative dissatisfaction (with 1 being the most dissatisfying aspect and 10 being the least dissatisfying aspect). The Mean Value is the average ranking that the member respondents assigned to each consideration.

IMPACTS- Premium member dissatisfiers

It makes sense that “proving identity” is among the most dissatisfying aspects of the member experience: “You know my name when you call me at home to ask for money. But you forget my name AND imply that I am trying to deceive you when I visit – a benefit for which I paid several times more than regular admission!” Exaggerated? Maybe (or maybe not), but let’s be honest: A premium member making this hypothetical statement would have an excellent point!

A reasonable person may consider showing a membership card and being asked to produce an ID to be excessive. And consider this: You’re openly asking for an ID in addition to the membership card because you believe that your members – the backbone of your organization – are conspiring to perpetrate a fraud against your organization. One need not be a philanthropy pro to realize that this is a pretty lousy way to treat current and potential donors. You know what they say in fundraising and membership development: “The best way to say ‘Thank you’ is to question a donor’s integrity!” Wait…people don’t say that?! Then why do so many organizations actually do it?

 

2) It is often more costly to AVOID membership fraud

“But if we stop checking IDs, won’t we suffer from member fraud and risk letting legions of non-members in for free?!” That’s a very sensible and intelligent question. Let’s look into it. The data below is from a 2014 IMPACTS membership study of 11 visitor-serving cultural organizations – seven of which have (or then had) ID check policies for members, four of which did not verify the IDs of members.

Market potential is a data-driven analysis that quantifies the number of people expected to annually visit an organization (and often at what price). Market potential analyses are the result of a modeling process, and enabled by the data typically acquired via the conduct of an awareness, attitudes, and usage study. The 2014 IMPACTS membership study further segmented the market potential by visitation type (e.g. admission paying visitors, members, etc.).

IMPACT - Membership ID validation market potential

Organizations checking IDs achieved 98.9% of their annual market potential (or 98,900 actual member visits per every 100,000 expected member visits). Organizations NOT checking IDs achieved 100.8% of their annual market potential (or, 100,800 actual member visits per every 100,000 expected member visits). Even if we attribute the entire member visit variance to member fraud (which is not a justified assumption), the maximum member fraud incident rate is 1.9% (or 1,900 fraudulent member visits per 100,000 expected member visits).

And, common sense suggests that attributing the entire variance to member fraud is, at best, a dubious practice. Why? Because at least two other, important factors may play important roles in explaining the delta: 1) It is extremely possible (if not likely) that some ID-checking organizations lose member visitation precisely because they check IDs and, as the data indicate, are dissatisfying their members. It is not hard to imagine a member being annoyed, offended, or inconvenienced by the ID check (or having a friend to whom they lent the membership card being turned away), and then not returning with the expected frequency to the organization. 2) Correspondingly, organizations that don’t check IDs may better satisfy their members with the relative ease of the entry process when compared to the ID police experience at other organizations. It is unlikely that the entire observed market potential variance has to do with member fraud when we know that checking IDs is such a strong dissatisfier, but let’s assume that the member fraud incident rate is 1.9% to be super safe. This begs the question:

Is a member fraud rate of 1.9% worth irritating your most closely held constituencies?

To find out how much money this amounts to for your organization, all that you need to do is plug in some numbers. As an (easy math) example, let’s assume that an organization receives 100,000 annual member visits and that the admission revenue per capita is $20. This would mean that member “fraud” poses a $38,000 annual risk to the organization (100,000 annual member visits x $20 admission per capita x 1.9% member fraud incident rate = $38,000 annual member fraud expectation).

(For easy math purposes, I chose a relatively large-sized organization for this hypothetical example. Extant data suggests that a visitor-serving cultural organization in the US with 100,000 member visits likely has a total annual attendance in the 400-500,000 range. The annual operating budget of this hypothetical organization is likely in the tens of millions of dollars – which may change the way you perceive that $38,000 if your organization is much smaller.)

Based on your own unique member fraud expectation, ask yourself: Is it worth this much money to risk alienating high-level donors and members? Or, here’s a better question: If you could invest that same amount to eliminate a major dissatisfier for members and donors, would you? The answer is probably a resounding “yes.”

 Also, when organizations use the word “fraud” they are making the assumption that everyone who is sneaking in using someone else’s ID would have otherwise opted to visit and pay full admission. These are flawed assumptions.  Sure – perhaps some of these “gate crashers” would have otherwise visited…but surely not all of them would choose to do so.  Some may argue that what we internally call “fraud” is, in fact, a bit like a trial program based on the most valuable kind of word of mouth – the recommendation of someone who is already an important constituent (i.e. the member who shared their ID with the “fraudulent” user).

Even if we assume that every single fraudulent visitor would have absolutely visited anyway and paid full price (which are both silly and dangerous assumptions…but let’s roll with them), checking IDs is still a bad financial practice. Organizations should consider the ill will that ID checks engender with their members (and what this means come renewal time), the onsite spending of “fraudulent” visitors at the gift shop and café, and the future value of these same visitors as potential endorsers! It may be reasonably safe to say that someone turned away at the door by the ID police may not offer a ringing endorsement for your organization. On the other hand, a person who visits at the express recommendation of a member who has shared one of their member benefits with this person may well thereafter visit on their own accord…and maybe even buy their own membership!

 

3) Guest pass fraud has been pre-paid and may be beneficial

But what about guest pass fraud? Many organizations report observing guest passes being offered for sale on Craigslist or offered as a perk for Airbnb rentals. Just how big of a problem is this?

The analysis below contemplates five nonprofit visitor-serving organizations in the US that offer transferable guest cards, tickets, or passes (i.e. the member need not be present for the guest pass to be redeemed) as a benefit of select membership categories. The purpose of the study was to assess if fraud was a major issue with this membership benefit. Here are some of the findings uncovered by IMPACTS:

  • People purchasing membership that included guest passes as a benefit spent on average $48 more than they would have for a similar membership category that did not include guest passes. The average premium paid by members of the five contemplated organizations to receive the guest pass benefit was $48.17.

 

  • Roughly four out of ten members who paid a premium to receive the guest cards didn’t redeem the benefit. 61.35% of eligible members who received the guest benefit actually redeemed the benefit.

 

  • People visiting using guest passes were worth 48.77% more to the organization then they would have been if they had bought a ticket. Explanation: Members who redeemed the guest pass benefit (i.e. shared passes for their guests to use), accounted for an average of 2.32 guest visits to the organization. In other words, of the 61.35% of eligible members who redeemed the benefit, the average usage rate per member was 2.32x. That means that overall, for every membership that included a guest pass as a benefit, actual usage of the guest pass accounted for 1.42 guest visits (61.35% redemption rate x 2.32 usage rate = 1.42 guest visits per eligible membership). At a price premium of $48.17, this equates to equivalent revenues of $33.92 per guest visit ($48.17 price premium / 1.42 guest visits per eligible membership = $33.92 per guest visit). The average per capita admission revenue for the five contemplated organizations was $22.80 – meaning that guest visitors were worth 48.77% more to the organization then they would have been if they had bought a ticket!

 

That said, guest pass visitors are likely worth even more than that. This math artificially demeans the value of guest pass programs as it includes the same, flawed assumptions that seem to plague many member fraud-related concerns: 1) The assumption that every person visiting the organization via the guest pass program would have otherwise visited the organization; and 2) The assumption that every person visiting the organization via the guest pass program would have not only visited but additionally done so on a paid basis. There are two critical factors to consider in assessing the value of a guest pass benefit for memberships:

  1. The people who choose to pay a premium to receive a guest pass benefit are likely among an organization’s best endorsers – they want to share the experience with other people and are willing to pay for it!
  1. If the guest pass program does nothing more than engender trial among new visitors, then this, alone, may be a benefit to the organization – organizations usually invest to engender trial. In the example of guest passes, a member is paying the organization to promote trial (and, these “trialers” likely contribute revenues to the organizations in terms of food and beverage sales, retail sales, parking (if you own that structure), and even potential additional admissions sold to accompanying visitors.)

Do guest cards contribute to fraud? It depends what you mean by “fraud.” Yes, there are likely folks visiting the organization that you didn’t intend to have a guest pass – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, when you think about it from a trial perspective (i.e. reaching new audiences), it may be a good thing.

 

I was recently visiting a large museum in Chicago with my colleagues. The woman in front of us at the entrance had several children with her and, before entering the organization, the ticket-taker asked to see her identification. We overheard the woman explain that she was the nanny and that she was given the membership card to take the children and their cousin to the museum. The ticket-taker turned the nanny and three children away with a look of pride and accomplishment on her face as she explained condescendingly that only the membership holder could visit the organization with the children. The nanny looked extremely embarrassed. Is this what we consider a “win” in the visitor-serving industry?

“That’s extreme,” you may be thinking. Perhaps. But, remember: The person whom you’re turning away is the member’s mother, father, neighbor, nanny, grandparent, sister, brother, coworker, etc. (Believe it or not, folks trying to “sneak in” aren’t likely to be culturally erudite pickpockets and wallet thieves. Seriously. Is that who we think that they are?!) When you annoy members (or embarrass their friends), you’re probably more likely to lose them altogether than upgrade them to a membership that allows for more member entrances or guest passes. In a way, members (and especially premium members) have paid for the right to “defraud” us.

If you’re wondering what your “ID police” should do now, here is an idea: Train them to interact with visitors – which data suggest is the single most reliable way to increase satisfaction.

The member fraud crisis? It’s kind of a (mild) thing – but we’re hurting ourselves both in terms of our mission and financial future thinking it’s a bigger issue than it actually is. The sooner that we stop choosing to dissatisfy our members, the sooner that we can improve our member and donor relations to gain the critical support that we need to both fund our financial futures and execute our missions.

 

Like this post? Don’t forget to check out my Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution 1 Comment

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

One Response to The Expensive Misconceptions Surrounding Membership Fraud for Cultural Organizations (DATA)

  1. Nicole Baltazar

    Excellent exploration of the costs vs. benefits of cracking down on visitor fraud. Visitors’ negative reactions to “ID police” also underscore something we often find in our research on membership: the benefits of membership go beyond the transactional (“if I go at least X times, my membership saves me money”) and are about more than just gaining special privileges (skip the line, attend a free event). When done right, membership involves feeling a deeper relationship with an organization–the “ID police,” and the distrust and lack of intimacy their presence implies, seems to really shake the foundation of this relationship.

     

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