Want to be Friends? As well as a virtuous glow, the societies that support art and heritage projects offer a range of benefits for your annual fee
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Charity may make you feel good, but mutuality feels better. It's a concept well understood by the charitable societies, often known as "Friends of...", which support many of the major museums, art galleries and heritage-related projects all over the country.

Becoming a Friend or member of one of the smaller organisations can imply something as simple as restoring a cemetery or making a donation, but as the larger societies become more soph-isticated, so do the benefits they offer.


We decided to compare the benefits to members of some of the best known organisations. We found significant differences in incentives to join, which may help prospective members make up their minds. In addition to the factual information given here, opinions were solicited from current Friends, which space doesn't allow us to quote in full. Points were awarded not only for the monetary value of discounts, free admission and publications, but also for the number and quality of social or educational events organised.


Annual membership pounds 26

Despite some controversy in recent years about the covert ambition of the National Trust to preserve Britain's heritage in aspic, like some giant theme park for visitors, the great majority of the public and, naturally, its 2.3 million members, regard the work of this registered charity as crucial to the country they know and love. On the one hand, it's not exactly an exclusive club, and its sedate interests - history, horticulture and hearty walks - appeal mostly to middle-aged, middle-class people.

On the other hand, its attractions are truly national, with 550 miles of coastline, half a million acres of countryside from the mountains of Snowdonia to a stretch of Hadrian's Wall, and some 300 historic properties held "for ever, for everybody". Since admittance to Trust-owned countryside is generally free to all comers, benefits of membership revolve around the entry to the stately homes - as featured in admirable detail in the annual handbook (free to members) - plus receipt of the popular Week of Christmas Walks. Cookery demonstrations in old kitchens, traditional apple-tree wassailing, "putting houses to bed", children's workshops and ghost tours, concerts and lectures are some of the activities held up and down the land. Best use of membership is made by joining one of their local associations as well, which gives better information on events in your area.


Annual membership pounds 31

Having shed its early, battered-hat- and-woodbines image to become a sort of homespun stress therapy for yuppies, gardening is now Britain's most popular hobby. Of course, not every geranium fancier wants to join the (200,000 strong) ranks of the RHS, but those who do, cite early entry and discounted admission to the prestige flower shows such as Chelsea, Hampton Court, Malvern and Harrogate as major incentives. The county shows often combine rural crafts, identification clinics for apples or fungi, and displays of rural crafts alongside the horticulture. There are eighteen other annual shows. Admission to these is free to members, as it is to the Society's 19 gardens, ranging from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale to the steeply wooded ravine garden at Trebah in Devon. Some also allow free entry to an adult guest. The privilege of "free exclusive advice" on gardening problems is not exactly a 24-hour hotline to Alan Titchmarsh; it describes the advisory desks at RHS shows. On the other hand, the availability of free seeds from over 800 species of plants at Wisley is recognised as a piece of heart-warming generosity by anyone who has ever bought seeds commercially. The RHS's glossy journal, The Garden, is issued free to members monthly and is both serious and accessible. All in all, in what proved to be a very tough contest, the RHS was our favourite overall choice as a Friends society.


Annual membership pounds 30

Possibly the most serious-minded of the art-gallery support societies, Friends of the Tate can display the independent tate: the art magazine on their coffee tables four times a year, and enjoy unlimited free entry with a guest to exhibitions at the Tate's galleries in London, Liverpool and St Ives. There is a hierarchy: larger annual donations mean you can become a "fellow" or even "patron" and sit on committees where acquisitions are discussed. There are over 9,000 Friends and only 346 patrons; the latter get invited to more annual dinners and other exclusive events. To acquire the level of knowledge which such participation no doubt demands, regular Friends are offered discounts in the shop and are invited to "Late at the Tate" evenings on the first Thursday of each month, when conducted tours are the order of the day. At least Friends are invited to a champagne bash and Christmas dinner for a mere pounds 37.50, including all wine, in the Tate's very stylish restaurant.


Annual membership pounds 30

The Friends of the V&A have only experienced free entry to the museum in South Kensington as a privilege for a few weeks, since admission charges became compulsory for members of the general public - perhaps they are a relatively small group (9,000 Friends) for this reason. They can also get in free to Apsley House (the Wellington Museum) and the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, but these are not commonly acknowledged as repeat-visit attractions. There is no magazine as such, but a programme of Friends' events, which major on guided tours with coffee and biscuits. One of the most appealing aspects of being a Friend used to be the late viewings on Wednesday evenings until 8.30pm, when the V&A's only shop and inexpensive restaurant (discounts: 10 per cent and 20 per cent respectively) are open, musicians play in the foyer, lectures on artistic subjects are given and visiting the galleries seems more fun - but the Late View programme is now open to the public as well, albeit at a cost of pounds 2 each visit. The main perceived benefit of becoming a Friend, therefore, remains free entrance to its temporary exhibitions. There is also a little discovered, but nicely decorated Friends' Room with wrought-iron chairs (no slouching, please), bearing the legend "Friends of the V&A", in which to peruse all the glossy monthlies - Tatler, Country Living, Harpers & Queen - bought in fresh each month, and to drink copious amounts of filter coffee and hippy teas (50p per cup on the honours system).


Annual membership pounds 25

The Natural History Museum only launched its bid for members in 1995 (they now stand at 4,235), so it's perhaps not surprising that the package offered is still evolving. The private Members' Room is entered by use of swipe cards decorated with a frog - better than the enquiring looks of the ladies-who-lunch manning most art galleries' reception desks - but its attractions are more low key. Tea and coffee are free and instant; a glass cabinet holds crystals, stuffed birds and fish and there are lots of well climbed-over sofas, but the video was out of order on my visit and magazines such as Wildlife and New Scientist were not the most recent. But if natural historians and their ilk are not the smartest people, they are very child-friendly. The 16-page, quarterly Membership magazine is highly educational and interesting for all ages, and many of the members' events are suitable for families, including the annual party. In addition to unlimited free entry to the Museum in London and the Zoological Museum in Tring, 10 per cent discount in the museum shops and outings to places like the Chelsea Physic Garden, members are invited on behind-the-scenes tours of areas like the Parasitic Worm Department - grisly, but fascinating.


Annual membership pounds 40

Sometimes jokingly referred to as the cheapest private club in the West End, the Royal Academy benefits greatly from the attraction of its Friends' Room, a light, elegant salon complete with black leather sofas, a grand piano and changing exhibitions of modern art on the walls. The view of the courtyard is especially gratifying on days when queues to popular exhibitions stretch back into Piccadilly. Despite a plateau in recruitment referred to by the Friends of the RA as the "post-Monet pause", their numbers now stand at 72,000, perhaps because the Academy has always been an independent institution and therefore worked harder for longer to keep on an even commercial keel. More style-conscious than any other artistically inclined support society, Friends of the RA tend to dress up for private views, making them seem more festive; the one for the Summer Exhibition is a crowded, unmissable champagne bash. They are also eager participants in events such as group outings to private art collections, play readings and guided tours of architectural interest. Though not cheap (average cost pounds 10), many events offer entry to places not otherwise open to the public and are described in the colourful quarterly RA Magazine.


National Trust, 0181 315 1111; RHS (our winner), 0171 821 3000; Tate, 0171 887 8752; V&A, 0171 589 4040; Natural History Museum, 0171 938 9536; Royal Academy, 0171 494 5664/8.