Strategy Is Not Enough: The Importance of Changing the Culture of Public Media

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, General Management, diversity & inclusion

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Once in a meeting with a senior manager of a station I worked at, I was discussing why I felt that the structure and culture of the organization could do a much better job of fostering respect, empowering innovation and providing psychological safety to its employees. Though new ideas were often seen as threatening and feedback was rarely well received, I was daring to speak up because I believed that these changes were imperative for creating the collaborative spirit of innovation needed to ensure the long-term survival of the station. 

Well into the conversation, the manager said, “you know, you’re in a tough spot.” Immediately, I thought of a dozen different things he might be referring to, but, not wanting to assume, I asked him to elaborate. He explained that even though I had been working there for almost three years, I still had to prove myself. 

This was an organization where people were often shamed for being “too sensitive,” and fear of perceived failure routinely drove management decisions. Perhaps he meant to be helpful by suggesting that if I only kept my head down and worked hard there for a decade the other senior managers would finally take me for my word and respect me. But I went back to my desk and cried. 

In that moment he’d confirmed one of my darker fears about our industry: Our overwhelmingly traditional, white, patriarchal culture is killing public media.

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The State of Our Institution

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, General Management, diversity & inclusion

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I dare ask, my fellow colleagues, are we not institution builders?

Do we not see ourselves as a “society” of media makers with peculiar “customs”? At the very least, don’t we “set in motion” the constructs of well-designed and articulated best practices and core values?

In doing so, we take great pride in the intentionality from which we create content, the teams that produce, and the well-manicured models employed to monetize. All of this and so much more, we exclaim, in the name of public service.

This racist-drenched and pandemic-entrenched society has come upon a “reckoning.” At once, that bend in the arc of justice is revealed to not only be stubborn towards justice but rooted in design, intentionality and maintenance, suggesting the end game - covertly and with a wink - has been achieved.

It was James Baldwin, the great American literary who confessed:

“I don’t know how most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions… You want me to make an act of faith… on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen.”

Public media is an American institution not spared of these charges. The titans of our institutions are overwhelmingly white. I’ve heard it said that we suffer a “whiteness problem” despite years of inclusion, diversity, equity and access efforts. Like Baldwin, I don’t know how we feel, I can only conclude what we feel from the state of our institutions. I say we, for like so many of my colleagues of color, it can be argued that we have co-signed this institution-building by our very presence and efforts and yet failed in molding it to at least reflect a shared space inclusive of our images and voices.

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How WBEZ Made Strategic Changes in Fundraising to Win This Year’s Benchmarks Award

Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising, Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving

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For a station to reach and sustain its full fundraising potential, it must make smart investments in talent and programming, and create strategic growth in all areas of fundraising. 

That’s what’s been underway at Chicago’s WBEZ over the past five years. And the station’s success as a result has been telling. WBEZ was given this year’s Benchmarks Award, which recognizes sustained revenue growth and overall fundraising and corporate support excellence. From FY15 to FY19, WBEZ’s total gross fundraising revenue increased 61%. Total net fundraising revenue increased 54%, showing the station’s ability to spend its fundraising dollars wisely. 

Increase Share of Listening

While overall listening to broadcast radio is down across the country, WBEZ increased its own share of listening by 13 percent over five years. This was achieved with a disciplined approach toward programming, promotion and positioning. The station revised its program mix to ensure it was more “on the news” each day, and strategically encouraged a daily listening habit on the radio and smart speakers. 

Individual giving can only be as strong as the loyalty of the audience, and the strength of fundraising starts with listening.

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Public Media: Existing Within the Shadow of White Supremacy Culture

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, marketing, leadership, diversity & inclusion

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White supremacy is all around us. If you are aware of this, congratulations, you are on the road to recovery; the first step is admitting it. If you are struggling to grapple with this concept, know that you are not alone. This statement may challenge your inner spirit, causing denial and a sense of panic followed by a twinge of anger. I know this because I have felt it. These powerful, pessimistic feelings show up in our actions, and interactions with others, when merely the ideas of racism and racial bias are hinted at. This is how white supremacy wins every time.

Conversations around systemic racism in our society are far from new. Mountains of data, studies, and reports offer stark evidence that, in the United States, the systems we all rely on were intentionally designed to marginalize and oppress Black and brown people. Yet little progress has been made to change them. Why? Because white supremacy has been the standard throughout. We default to beliefs, actions, and characteristics that promote and uphold whiteness. If it’s not white, it’s not right.

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Using the CARES Act to Your Best Advantage for Year-End Giving

Major Giving, calendar year-end, COVID-19

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NOTE: The Coronavirus stimulus package that was approved on 12/28/20 extends the provision allowing individuals to claim a charitable deduction of up to 100% of their AGI into 2021 instead of ending in 2020. 

As we approach the close of this unique year, one important opportunity for your station to receive more major giving support should not be neglected. A goal of the 2020 CARES Act was to spur Americans to donate to “public charities” in light of the pandemic. For those donors with greater wealth there is a particularly beneficial provision that changes the charitable deduction maximum from 60% adjusted gross income (AGI) to 100%. 

What this means is that now the donors with the potential to give very large gifts have an extra incentive to do so. This isn’t a relevant opportunity for your membership donor but using it with your major donors and prospects could help you motivate your higher capacity donors to give before year-end and strengthen your financial bottom line for 2020.

Three ways to take advantage of this change:

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How to Enable More Donor-Advised-Fund Gifts to Your Station

donor cultivation and stewardship, Major Giving

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Donor Advised Funds (DAF) have been in the news quite a bit recently. Since the pandemic began, the contributions to funds and the output of dollars from funds to organizations have both been breaking records. There is even a new movement spurred by philanthropists to encourage others to give more of their balances called “Half My DAF.”

Donor Advised Funds function a bit like a bank or brokerage account but the funds can only be used to support qualified nonprofit organizations. When a donor or family decides to create a DAF, they select a sponsorship organization (Vanguard, Schwab) and then transfer funds (cash, stock, etc.) into an account there. At this point they have made a tax-deductible donation to the sponsorship organization. Those funds no longer legally belong to the donor. They receive a tax letter from the sponsoring organization, which is why your organization does not send one if you are a recipient of a grant. 

From there the donor has access to make additional contributions to increase the size of their DAF account and to “recommend grants” to organizations they want to support. Typically within the sites of each sponsorship organization there are tools that help DAF account holders research organizations, review 990s, and discover organizations that connect with their philanthropic interests. 

Since the start of the pandemic, DAF sponsorship organizations have increased their communications to donors to encourage distribution of funds since the increased need among organizations is quite apparent. Reports show that many donors have chosen to be very generous with their recommended grants in the last five months. And, thanks to stock market growth, the balance of these funds are also growing.

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Leadership for the Now Generation

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, marketing, leadership, diversity & inclusion

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We are experiencing a reawakening in America: A global pandemic and failure of our democratic systems. Nearly a decade of watching Black Americans murdered from multiple video angles. The Karens. Mask polarization. The psyche of America is crying out: When will it end? Enough is enough.

The overwhelming feeling is that few solutions - or even substantive conversation - have come from those in power. 

It’s no different in public media.

My heart aches when I see/read/hear so many of my media colleagues and particularly those in public media, who have expressed during these past few weeks their lived experiences inside of newsrooms and organizations as being made to feel less than or even invisible.

Those words come from a tweet that I posted back in mid-July. But it’s a statement I’ve been making for the better part of the last decade. These are years when my BIPOC colleagues have been speaking up about their experiences working in public media. Applying for c-suite roles and never being interviewed, being passed over while whites with less experience and questionable pasts get promoted, discovering that white colleagues in similar roles make significantly more, and enduring retaliation for speaking up or filing complaints with leadership or HR.  

While some diversity might exist at the bottom of our organizations, as you summit the peak of leadership, it’s snow-capped white. It's the public media version of a 1960’s lunch counter. It’s modern day segregation.

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Three Ways to Stop Sabotaging Your Own Growth

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, leadership

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Professional development is something we know is important, but very few managers and leaders give it the time, resources, and prioritization that it needs. Of course, you can also choose what value to place on your own career development. If you’re looking to regain your momentum and start growing faster, here are a few traps to avoid: 

1. Stop Thinking You Don’t Have Time to Learn.

You’re busy, I get it. But why is it that some busy people can make time to grow in their jobs and others can’t? Your manager’s attitude and company culture play a role, sure, but I think an even bigger contributor is the belief that professional development is somehow an “extra” that needs to happen when your other work is done

Take this very concrete example: A public radio membership director spends two hours per week doing a complicated multi-step process to prepare data from a payments system to import it into a CRM. She knows that if she were to design a template to do this, she could probably reduce that time to 15 minutes. She also knows that if she knew how to build this template, she could build others that would save her time on other tasks. And, she could teach this skill to other people in her department so they could be more efficient. “One day, when I have time,” she says. 

The bottom line is that you will never not be busy. The only way to “make time” to learn and grow is to stop thinking of it as something you do separately from your day-to-day work.

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Are You Mis-Applying Membership Tactics to Your Major Giving Program?

donor cultivation and stewardship, Major Giving, Gift Clubs

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In public media individual giving, membership is king. It’s where we’ve had the most success. In fact, we’re kind of famous among nonprofits for how good we are at getting large numbers of donors to give small amounts. And that is something to be proud of.

If you work in public media major giving, you also know that our successes in membership can sometimes affect how we think about other areas of giving. 

Perhaps you’ve experienced one or more of the following:

  • Donors move into a major giving portfolio based only on a gift level instead of on a qualifying process.
  • There is a significant percentage of donors in your portfolio whom you don’t know well at all.
  • You don’t have a plan for each donor in your portfolio.
  • Your organization does not have projects defined that can be matched to donor interests.

Nearly all public media organizations are fluent in membership. But when public media fundraisers take the tactics that made membership wildly successful and mis-apply them to major giving, it results in low major giving revenue and frustrated major giving officers.

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Navigating Power and Privilege in Public Media

Membership, Corporate Support, Major Giving, General Management, marketing, diversity & inclusion

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The city where I grew up – San Antonio, Texas – was majority Latinx, but by no means unsegregated. The East Side was predominantly poor and Black, and much of the South and West Sides were poor and Brown. If you were an upwardly-mobile POC, you moved to the city’s whiter, more affluent northern suburbs. That’s where my assimilated, single mom – originally from the West Side – raised me, with help from her Mexican immigrant parents and, eventually, my SoCal Chicano stepdad. 

As a white-presenting mestiza (raised in white suburbs, no less) I am, in the words of Leslie Arreoloa-Hillenbrand, “both colonized and colonizer.” To be white-presenting is to live a duality: to both benefit directly from racism and be privy to the psychic pain it inflicts. It’s an eternally uneasy place to live.

When I was 31, I moved to Minnesota, and it was nothing short of culture shock. Exposed to people and cultures with which I’d had no prior experience – Somali, Hmong, Ecuadorian, Ojibway, Dakota – Minneapolis made me realize how diverse San Antonio actually wasn’t. New to me was the experience of feeling my whiteness so blaringly. 

Shortly after arriving, I landed my first job in public media as an administrative assistant at Minnesota Public Radio. At the time, I was one of very few ethnic minorities or people of color at MPR. There were a few – I bonded early with another Tejano colleague, a fellow Black assistant who eventually rose in MPR’s ranks, and a rotating-door of Latinx journalism fellows – but there weren’t many. At one point in my ten-year tenure, despite Minnesota being home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., the only Somali in the building was on the janitorial staff. New to me was the experience of feeling like the only minority for miles.

Minneapolis was also the first time I’d witnessed acute segregation. Months in, I learned that the city’s predominantly Black North Side was a kind of island, when three consecutive taxis refused to drive us to a friend’s house there. I knew San Antonio’s East Side suffered grave inequities, but I’d never heard it spoken of as if it were some dangerous other country. 

To be clear, racism and the inequities it creates are global; Minneapolis is not unique. But, for me, my ten years spent in the Twin Cities was eye-opening and oftentimes uncomfortable, even with the protections my whiteness afforded me. There were things I loved about the place, too, which made leaving – when I took a job in Texas – feel like the end of a failed marriage. On my last ride to the airport, I watched the buildings of downtown Minneapolis shrink in the car’s rear window and thought: Welp, we tried.

Last month, I sat in the safety of my Austin living room, phone in hand, watching video footage of a gas station burning two short blocks from my last apartment in Minneapolis. I felt a lot of things – sadness, anger, worry – but surprise wasn’t one of them.

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