How One Station Created Its Own Sustainer Revolution in Five Steps

sustainers, Membership

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…And How Your Station Can Do the Same

In an earlier post, we pointed to our research from Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising that showed a gap between larger and smaller stations when it comes to the conversation of donors to sustainers. In fact, the percentage of sustainers varies widely even among bigger stations.

Wait. Sustainers aren’t free. So why are they so essential?

You’ve heard the sustainer drum beating for a decade now, but it’s still valuable to review: the advantage to having more sustainers is about reliability of income. To be sure, every sustainer program does bring with it some cost. But your station will be faced with a choice: direct a portion of your membership resources toward renewals or toward your sustainer program. The advantage of a sustainer program is that it offers more predictability.

And predictability has value.

Years ago, we might have increased membership by regularly converting a portion of our new listeners to donors. But our current audience is shrinking and, because new audience is hard to get, each station is increasingly reliant on its current audience for donations. So we’re faced again with a choice: aim resources at renewals or at sustainers.

We at Greater Public think those sustainers are worth it.

So how can every station, big or small, build a successful sustainers program and narrow that gap we discovered between big and small stations?

We found some answers at one station that has significantly more sustainers than any of the 97 stations that participated in our Benchmarks data.

How One Station Conquered Its Sustainer Goals

At WUNC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 79 percent of the listeners who made contributions in 2015 made them every month.

WUNC began its quest for sustainers in 2010. Within a year, 42 percent of the station’s donors were making monthly contributions.

This is how the station’s membership program transformed between 2011 and 2015:

  • Number of donors grew 20%
  • Membership/mid-level giving revenue grew by 56%
  • Number of sustainers grew from 42% to 79%
  • Average gift from sustainers grew from $94 to $133

So, how did WUNC transform its individual giving program and keep it growing at the same time, (and how can your station do the same thing?)


1. Focus

WUNC believed in sustainers and focused all of its time, effort, and resources on getting its donors to start and keep giving every month.

Yes, the transformation has affected every aspect of the station’s fundraising program and the team that runs it. But in five years WUNC’s fundraising team has grown only a little bit. The station turned a half-time position into a full-time position, which was a decision based on their already-changing need for increased donor services. In fact, the station didn’t need a bigger staff to get nearly all their donors to become sustainers; they just needed their existing staff to approach things a little differently.

2. Changing On-Air

On-air fundraisers at WUNC have a different focus. The station spends little time asking for one-time gifts, instead using almost all of its pitch time talking about, and to, sustainers. The station:

  • Asks listeners to become sustainers by giving anywhere from $5 to $100 a month.
  • Asks existing sustainers to add a little more money to their monthly gifts and/or update their credit card information if they need to.

Donors are offered thank-you gifts at various levels between $5 and $100 a month and the station invites its sustainers to take a gift offered at the level that matches their monthly support, or increase their giving if they want a gift offered at a higher level.

Before each on-air fundraiser, WUNC conducts a telemarketing campaign in which the station asks its sustainers to increase their monthly gifts and provide matching money for the drive. The station’s average upgrade is $5 a month.

3. Constant Contact

One of the keys to WUNC’s success is constant cultivation of its sustainers.

The station sends frequent emails to its sustainers offering them ticket giveaways, presale codes for early access to station events, and other offers made available only to sustainers.

This nurturing results in very little churn among WUNC’s sustainers. Those who do stop their monthly gifts receive two calls per week as part of WUNC’s effort to get them back. WUNC outsources its efforts to recapture sustainers whose credit cards have expired or been declined.

4. First-Time Caller, Forever Sustainer

Another key to WUNC’s success is getting listeners to start giving as sustainers. How a listener gives the first time is often how they make their subsequent gifts.

All fund drives operate under a sustainer “immersion” strategy. While there is mention of single gifts during drives, the giving message is largely focused on sustainers and highlights sustainer advantages, like their automatic eligibility for all station drawings.

These tactics happen to be effective at converting existing givers as well. During the last three on-air drives, for example, between 38% and 47% of the sustainers who joined had given to the station before. With so much sustainer success, the (now) small number of donors who do continue to give single gifts, particularly through the mail, are presumed to have heard the sustainer message and are likely choosing to give annually rather than monthly because that works better for them.

5. Cash Flow

One of the last hurdles many stations encounter when shifting significant focus toward the conversation of sustainers is cash flow. Converting more donors to sustainers usually causes a delay in the timing of revenue coming into the station. WUNC decided to shift to full sustainer immersion in the first fund drive of its fiscal year, in order to take advantage of the remainder of the year to receive monthly contributions.

During that drive 50% of donors were converted to sustainers, and cash flow was frequently discussed. The new focus was a unified effort that had the support of the general manager and the finance director. Since that first drive, WUNC has more donors than ever before, is raising more revenue than ever before, and has a higher retention rate than ever before, thanks to sustainers.
The long-term values of a robust and successful sustainer program have greatly benefitted the station’s overall stability. And everything the station has done to transform its membership program can be accomplished at any station of any size.

Special thanks to Anne Kendrick, assistant director of individual giving at WUNC.

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