Is a Fee-For-Access Website Right for Your Nonprofit Organization?

Nonprofit organizations are always looking for legitimate avenues for increasing income, and the world wide web offers many opportunities for different income streams. Fee-for-access models can be a good option, but these programs must be well-managed, innovative, and create an environment that keeps the user coming back for more.

Fee-for-access websites are those that charge for access to some or all of the content on the site. In the early days of the internet these sites were fairly common, but the increased use of ad-based web models have cut their effectiveness significantly. Ad-based sites fill their pages with free content in the hopes that users will click through the advertisements…their entire income stream is dependent on the volume of users that do click through.

Therefore, if you are thinking about including a fee-for-access program for your organization there are a few considerations to keep in mind. First, the content you are offering must be relevant, interesting, and information that is difficult to find anywhere else on the web. Otherwise, internet surfers will just use the free sites. Some legitimate factors to justify access fees include:

  • Higher volume of service — unlimited downloads and usage time, access to archived materials, more storage space
  • Higher quality of service — full text articles, well-developed internal search, high-quality images
  • Ongoing access — after a free trial period, ongoing access for a reasonable fee

Another way to push back against these ad-based competitors is to make your site the place people want to be. Strong online communities create a compelling user experience that will keep your users coming back and willing to pay to do so. Creating a system of relationship management on your site is very effective. Allow your users to create in-depth personal profiles and add each other to their networks. Being able to access contact information or build the networks are value-added features that some users will pay for.

Your goal is to create sticky social relationships based on the users’ shared interest in your organization’s mission. Build community by encouraging chat boards and adding other interactive tools to the site. Hold live webcasts and fundraising events online. Stay on top of the latest news related to your mission and constantly update the site. Survey your loyal supporters to find out what they want from your site…then do your best to provide it.

Pricing fee-for-access programs is a careful balancing act. Do your homework on the competition online. Evaluate the content you are considering against the others, and assess your organization’s actual goals and objectives for running the online fee-for-access program. If you are simply looking for an additional revenue stream, you might be better served building a free site and selling ads. If you are trying to impart critical information to a specialized market or encourage networking among a small class of people, pure fee-for-access may be your best bet. In either case, the pricing you set must be reasonable for the benefit received and you must have a plan for keeping the site functional, up-to-date, and interesting.

Pure membership sites, where all access requires a fee, can be very difficult to market. If the user doesn’t know what they are getting, they probably won’t pay up. A better option in most cases is to offer free membership but charge for premium access and services. However, if you are targeting a small, elite population, a pure pay-for-access site can both be a positive marketing tool and limit your traffic to only those you are trying to reach.

Most nonprofits, however, benefit far more from large numbers of website traffic. After all, the more people involved, the easier it is to build an active online community. Include some high-level services with your free membership, at least for a reasonable time period (30 days is usually good) or develop other ways for potential users to preview what they get for their fee.

Fee-for-access websites can be an excellent income stream for the right organization. Discuss the opportunity with your board and key staff to evaluate whether a program of this type is viable. If so, build a website that everyone with an interest in your mission will want to be part of and focus your efforts on building an active, dedicated online community.


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