What you need to know

This chapter covers the major areas you should think about before beginning to work with CiviMember. 

Spend some time evaluating your organisation's membership structure. List the membership types your organisation offers and work out how they can be modelled in CiviCRM.  

In CiviMember, each membership is effectively treated as a membership of an organisation. In most cases, this is membership of your organisation; however it is important to understand this before you begin working with CiviMember.

Below, you'll find an outline of the relevant concepts, followed by a list of questions that will help you begin to translate your membership model into CiviMember. A note at the end of the chapter indicates other CiviCRM components you'll need to set up for CiviMember to work. 

Key Concepts

Using CiviMember you will be working with these terms and concepts so it is important to understand how these concepts translate into your organisation's terminology and culture.

Members, Contacts and relationships

Members are simply contacts in your database with a particular membership. The contact may be an individual, organisation or some other contact sub-type, but it is always a contact: there is no separate member entity.

If you need to cancel or delete a membership, the contact will remain on the system with all other parts of their record intact. Note that you would delete a membership if you entered it error, for example if you made Jo Smith a member instead of Joe Smith. But if Jo Smith was a member and called after 6 months wanting to end her membership, you would cancel that membership. In this case, the record of the membership would reamin with the start and end date. When the record is deleted then it is completely removed.

Relationships are ways to create connections between contacts in your database. Before creating memberships, consider whether relationships might be more appropriate for your requirements. Have a look at relationships in the Contacts chapter of the Basic Set-up section to learn more about creating relationships between contacts.

Membership Types

CiviMember allows you to create various types of membership; some could be free, others paid. Different types can have different renewal rules, periods and benefits. Take some time to assess your organisation's existing memberships and needs, as it's easy to over-engineer your membership structure and create more types than you actually need.

As mentioned above, CiviMember treats each membership as membership of an organisation. 

If you are using CiviCRM to manage memberships of several organisations or regional branches, you can set up each branch as an organisation and create the membership types for each of those branches/organisations.

Your contacts can inherit membership based on relationships to other contacts in the way that staff of the membership organisations of ARPTA inherit their employers membership. 

Periods and renewals

Membership periods can be fixed or rolling. In other words, membership can always start at the same date, such as January 1, or an individual can start an annual membership that runs for exactly one calendar year. In the case of fixed dates, you can set a rollover date so that sign-ups after this date cover the following calendar year as well. 

The renewal process is as important as the initial sign-up. Allow time to configure and test renewal reminder templates, especially if you have complex membership structures and want to customise messages based on member types or other factors.  

Membership Status Rules

The default set of status options provided by CiviMember is: 

  • Pending: someone who has requested membership but has not paid, or is awaiting approval.
  • New: payment has arrived, or membership has been approved.
  • Current: new members move to this status after a certain period of time.
  • Grace: when the end of the membership period is reached, someone who has not renewed membership enters this status for a period of time.
  • Expired: when the grace period expires, the member moves to this status and no longer receives  membership discounts or mailings.
  • Deceased: this status keeps a deceased contact's record in the system but removes the contact from all further communications.

You can easily add to or amend these options, and you can allow any of these to count as a live membership. Some organisations like to give a 30 day grace period following membership expiry so that they can chase the member to renew, and will allow the membership to stay live during this period. Alternatively, a new membership might need approval and may not gain the member benefits until this has been given. New is really just a label for convenient separation of new memberships and renewals. 

Membership payments

Memberships in CiviCRM can be free or paid, and there can be different membership fees for each individual membership type.

CiviCRM handles paid memberships by linking membership records to contribution records. A membership record documents a contact's relationship with the organisation, while the corresponding financial transaction indicates the monetary value associated with that membership.

Membership + Contribution 

CiviCRM respects this distinction by storing the membership record under the membership tab, storing the financial record under the Contributions tab, and then creating a link between the two records.

Price sets 

If your memberships types have a complex price structure, you might want to consider making use of price sets.

Price sets allow you to set fee structures which include compulsory and optional elements and the ability to make some fees available only for some date ranges. You can also add negative amounts or discounts. Thus it is possible to have a different price for early bird payments or payments in different months. 


There is an important distinction between adding a new membership and renewing a membership. If someone is coming to the end of their membership life-cycle and wants to continue being a member, in most cases they should use CiviMember's renew workflow rather than creating a new membership. Membership up-sell allows contacts to change membership type as part of the renewal process.

In the renewal process, the membership record end date is extended to reflect a new membership period. For example, if your organisation's membership is handled on an annual basis from January through December, an existing end date of December 31, 2010 would be extended to December 31, 2011. CiviCRM calculates the end date extension based on the configuration for the specific membership type being renewed. Note that a members' join date (or Member Since date) is not modified when a membership is renewed, so you always know when the contact first became a member.

If applicable for the membership type, a contribution (financial) is recorded as part of the renewal process. This will create a contribution record and attach it to the membership record. Each new contribution is added to the membership record. 

If your payment processor supports it, CiviMember can automatically processes renewal payments. Members will pre-authorise their credit card, the payment will be taken automatically, and they will receive appropriate thank-you and receipts from CiviCRM. 

Over time, and after a few renewals, the membership record will be a single membership record whose end date is extended, with multiple related financial transactions representing each renewal purchase.

Key questions

Once you have understood the concepts outlined above, and before you begin to work with CiviMember, answer the following questions:

  • What are your membership periods?
  • Are your membership terms are rolling or fixed-date? 
  • Is membership is based on an individual, a relationship to an organisation or being part of a houselhold? For instance, a social service agency may sign up an entire family as a member, while a policy-making organisation may sign up other organisations as members.
  • If memberships are organisational, do staff of those organisations inherit the membership?
  • Do you want to provide a special members area of your website, or offer them discounts or extra online content as a result of their membership?  If so, you should explore CMS integration modules such as Drupal's CiviMember roles integration module. 
  • Do you want to expose self-service membership sign-up and renewal through your website?
  • If your membership(s) are not free, what payment methods will you accept?

Also ask why your membership structure is the way it is. Perhaps the workflow was set up based on a previous technological or organisational limitation that doesn't apply now that you are using CiviCRM.

If you are having trouble modeling your membership structure in CiviCRM, ask in the forums about the problems you are having. There may be other ways to model your data, or simple changes you can make to CiviCRM's behavior to better fit your needs. 

Other Considerations

If you will be charging for memberships, you need to review the CiviContribute chapter and in particular the section on payment processors.

Members area on your website  

CiviMember can be used in conjunction with your CMS to create a members only section of your website.  Both Drupal and Joomla have integration modules that can be used to do this.  A typical workflow would be that a contact creates and account on your site and becomes a member of your organisation using a CiviMember membership sign up page.  They then get access to extra content on your site.  This extra content could be from your CMS or it could come from your CRM, for example a detailed members directory, or a list of private events that are only available to members.