Can You Make Money Running a Listserv Community?

Being a good, honest, hardworking person who runs a listserv community but only has so many hours in a day, you may have thought to yourself: Can I make money running a listserv community? Well, that’s an interesting question. People do charge fees for access to their listserv. Obviously, most associations that include a listserv charge fees for all their services. But one of the people who runs just a listserv and uses our service charges about $25/year. He doesn’t make enough to live on, but he does make enough to recoup server expense and a bit of the time he spends.

So, it is possible, but how much should you charge? Can you charge a reasonable enough fee that your members won’t run away screaming? Let’s figure it out.

Figure Out Your Hypothetical Community

So let’s assume, hypothetically, that all you really want to do is pay for your server and your time. We’ll also assume that you have an already established community, use’s professional membership (for the sake of easy calculation), and that you’re not part of a professional association. We’ll be generous and say that you spend at least three hours a week maintaining the community. That is, moderating, answering questions, putting out fires, and such.

Make Sure Your Community is Onboard

Before you can make money running a listserv community, you’ll have to make sure your current members are on board. Realizing this and remembering that you already have a hypothetical 300 members (a convenient round number), you decide to poll the community to make sure you’ll even get away with setting up a membership fee. Now, this is when you should probably give your members a ballpark figure for how much they’ll have to pay, but in hypothetical land you haven’t read this handy article yet.

Instead, you outline the reasons and pluses for this change. You make it positive. You point out that you love this community and you’re excited that it’s growing, but you can’t continue to support it yourself. You also point out the tangible benefits that members get from the community. You even mention that changing over to paid model means fewer trolls and less moderating for you.

Then you set up a SurveyMonkey poll to help you plan for the future. Amazingly, all 300 members respond to the poll and the verdict is in–250300 of your members value the community enough to pay a fee.

That means you might lose 50 people in the changeover. But you decide that, just in case your group grows or you don’t lose as many people as you think, you’ll estimate from 300 members.

Calculate Your Costs

You’ll have to do a bit of math now. What? You thought you could get away without math and still make money running a listserv community somehow. Nuhuh, no way. OK, fine, this one time I’ll do the math for you.

300 x $1.87 (per member, professional membership) is $561

Now you have to estimate how much your time is worth. You decide, to start with, you just want to make minimum wage. $8.50/hr. 52 weeks in a year at 3 hours a week is a 156 hrs. That means you should make $1326/yr. Don’t quit your day job, but still, that’s a car repair, at least. Or maybe not, after taxes.

$1326 + $561 = $1887 (a great year, I’m sure)

Divide by Members

Now, divide that by a conservative estimate of members. (Let’s go with the 250 who said, yes, to the poll.) And you get …

$7.60 per member. (Rounded up.)

Wow, that’s barely more than a cup of coffee per year. You could probably charge a bit more than that without a fight. Let’s make your salary a bit more livable. Say, $15/hr. That’s the new minimum, right?

So you’d make $2,340 per year. Plus, the server. $2,901250 = $11.60/year.

That’s about two Starbucks per year or less than a dollar a month. Compare this to the average association dues, which run in about the $200 range. Compared to that, $11.60/year seems like an incredibly reasonable amount. So reasonable, in fact, that you may not lose those members at all. And the best part of all is that this will scale with your server. Adding members will mean more money which will support more space.

So the answer is, yes! You can make money running a listserv community. And, in fact, you should. (And here’s some reasons you should charge fees for your listserv.)

The Final Formula

Want to try this out on your own listserv community? Here’s a generic formula for all listservs:

Numbers of hrs per week need to maintain x $15 x 52 + per year cost of server maintenance / by estimated number of members =

Dollar per year per member fee needed.

Do you make money running a listserv community? Tell us in the comments below.