What You Need to Learn From Your Own Fundraising History

Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising, Membership, COVID-19

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In our recent examination of data from 47 stations that participated in our Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising surveys every year between 2008 and 2013, the first few years of the last recession, we saw that stations’ membership revenue grew by 32% during that time. 

That number – 32% – is encouraging, but it’s also limiting. It tells us what happened to our group of 47 stations as a whole, but a closer look at their individual fundraising histories tells us a different story or, in fact, several different stories. 

Only seven of these stations grew at an overall rate within five percentage points above or below the average for the group. In other words, the average doesn’t tell us enough about what actually happened at most of the stations in our sample. 

One station’s membership and mid-level giving revenue grew 109% while another station’s revenue decreased by 37%. These are the outliers in the group, but they have company. Eight of the stations saw a decline in their membership and mid-level revenue while seven stations experienced increases of at least 54%.

There are two important takeaways here:

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How KPCC’s Mission Statement Project Could Help On-Air Drives in a Moment of Change

Membership, pledge drive, marketing

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Every public media station is changing how they approach on-air fundraising in this moment. The drive structure, duration, and tone that worked so well a few months ago are being reassessed. What remains constant is the message of public media’s critical service, whose value is perhaps more important than ever. 

A recent project in the newsroom at KPCC in Southern California captured that value in a way that could serve other stations, particularly during this time of change for on-air drives. 

In 2019, KPCC newsroom leadership asked all reporters and producers to write mission statements for their work.

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How to Use Your Airwaves to Support Other Nonprofits Legally and Responsibly

Membership, FCC, pledge drive, COVID-19

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt lives and the economy, many stations are extending their service to the community through collaborative fundraising for relief efforts. This might include supporting a food bank or local disaster relief. These efforts promote the wellbeing of the community and allow donors to make a deeper impact with their financial contributions by supporting two nonprofit organizations at one time. Take care, though, because there are FCC regulations that govern public media third-party fundraising. Here’s what you should keep in mind.

If you’re planning on holding an on-air drive in support of another nonprofit, you will need to request a waiver from the FCC. Typically stations work with their attorney specializing in FCC law to submit the official request in writing or by email. 

You don't need a waiver, though, if you are a non-commercial station not receiving CPB funds, and you are not an affiliate of NPR. There are still limitations, mainly that third party nonprofit fundraising appeals that interrupt regular programming can only comprise up to 1% of your total airtime in a year (about 88 hours).

Whether or not you need a waiver, the rules require on-air disclosures at the beginning and end of any fundraising appeal in which the station tells its audience that the money is going to a third-party nonprofit organization, not to the station. For longer programs, the same announcement must also be made be made at least once during each hour of the program.

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Station Results From the May 5 #GivingTuesdayNow Event

Membership, pledge drive, #GivingTuesday, COVID-19

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Facing a disrupted spring fundraising season, many public media stations around the country participated in the May 5 special international campaign organized by GivingTuesday in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: #GivingTuesdayNow. In a survey of Greater Public member stations, we found that 86% of them participated in the event. Most of the 14% who did not participate didn’t believe the day fit their strategy.

The setting for the day was anything but promising: stations were shifting or cancelling on-air drives, personnel were scattered by work-from-home rules, and audience members were reeling from a relentless daily flow of news about the devastating health and economic consequences of a pandemic. But the special campaign was driven by three elements: 

  1. A near-universal sense of shared purpose
  2. A deep gratitude for the work of community groups including public media
  3. A desire to take some sort of action in response to the helplessness felt by so many stuck at home

The number of stations reporting strong results on May 5 far exceeded the number of those that did not, and a scan of some examples paints a picture of how to succeed in fundraising in the middle of the biggest disruption the nation has faced since the last world war.

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What’s Past Is Prologue: What We Can (and Can’t) Learn From the Last Recession

Membership, Corporate Support, budgeting, Major Giving, General Management, COVID-19

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We are all looking at our budgets. How will 2020 end? And what assumptions should we make for revenue in 2021? To borrow a quote from screenwriter Willian Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.”

We are far from the end of the story about how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect our lives, our communities, our economy, or our public media organizations. As we all prepare our worst-case, bad-case, and less-bad-case scenarios, I can’t help but look back at how public media weathered the Great Recession of 2008.

I have no doubt that all of you have done due diligence on how your individual organizations performed from 2008-2010+ for clues on how to imagine things unfolding. For a system-wide perspective, Greater Public analyzed relevant station data from our Benchmarks reports from the recession years, and we’ve gathered insights from several other data-minded colleagues at national organizations.

Public Radio Individual Giving Tells an Optimistic Story

Based on data from a consistent group of 47 public radio stations that participated in Benchmarks from 2008-2011:

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How Public Media Stations Can Participate in the May 5 #GivingTuesdayNow Event

Membership, #GivingTuesday, online giving, COVID-19

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GivingTuesday, the organization behind the annual #GivingTuesday event that follows Thanksgiving and Black Friday, recently announced plans to generate support for #GivingTuesdayNow, a “day of global action for giving and unity in response to COVID-19.” The event will happen on May 5, 2020. 

Representatives from GivingTuesday recently came together with more than 200 public media fundraising professionals to consider the unique ways in which our industry could engage audiences during #GivingTuesdayNow.

Here are examples of what some stations are planning during the May 5 event:

  1. Some stations will run giving campaigns that fall on or include May 5. On that day they’ll emphasize service-oriented match incentives, such as the donation of a meal to a local food bank for every contribution made.

  2. One news station will conduct their own short fundraising campaign to support news coverage from Sunday, May 3, World Press Freedom Day, through May 5. Their call to give will emphasize #GivingTuesdayNow’s call to take action. They will also urge audiences to share content from stations and NPR on this day.
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WBUR’s One-Day $1 Million Drive During COVID-19

Membership, pledge drive, COVID-19

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On April 1, 2020, WBUR reduced its planned eight-day spring on-air drive into a single day and succeeded in meeting its $1 million goal.

The station has some experience running short on-air campaigns, but implemented several key components to make this unusual feat a success.

1. Lead-Up to the Campaign

WBUR’s traditional spring drive was slated to begin on March 30. As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the Boston area, it became clear to WBUR’s Director of Membership and Campaign Strategy, Mike Steffon, and his team that the drive as originally planned would sound inappropriate and curtail the station’s ability to bring its audience essential news coverage. They made the decision to reduce the drive to a single day on-air: April 7.

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Staying Donor-Centered in a Time of Upheaval

Membership, direct mail, email, COVID

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In the last few weeks, each of us has made a complete pivot in all aspects of our lives. In our work, that dramatic shift has upended the even the most detailed annual donor plans, requiring that everyone (including us at Greater Public!) rethink and rewrite scripts, letters, and acknowledgement copy. 

What we must not forget is to keep donors front and center in all these adjustments. It can be easy to drift inward and focus on what we need. But when we focus on donors, the framework is always “what you make possible.”

In workshops, I often tell attendees to take off their development hats, and put on their donor hats. Then I ask the following questions: Who are the donors? What do they care about? Why do they use (listen/read/view) this particular station? I invite you to recreate this exercise with your team, adding “In the face of this pandemic…..”

There are three main principles to remember in order to keep copy donor-centered:

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Embrace Sustainers During the COVID-19 Crisis

Membership, COVID-19

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Sustainers are the engine of membership, and now is the time to demonstrate for your sustainers what it really means that you consider them “partners in membership.” During this time of crisis, it’s essential that you bring your sustainers in close so they know how essential they are to all you’re doing to help your community in this moment.


Transparency is at the core of public media values because it builds trust. Carry that value into everything you do during a crisis, especially with sustainers. Consider treating sustainers almost like board members. Reach out regularly to let them know what’s happening at the station. Direct specific asks toward them. Highlight special upcoming programs they’ll want to tune in for from home. Share insights about recent stories, including photos and first-hand accounts from reporters and hosts about what it’s like to operate virtually right now. 

Most importantly, let them know that their support is what makes everything you’re doing right now possible.

Review all existing communication pieces, including acknowledgement letters, declined-card letters, etc. to make sure your tone is appropriate for this moment of crisis. 

Make sure you have a staffing plan for your member services phone and email channels. Don’t let queries pile up if staff aren’t in the building to respond as they usually do.

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The COVID-19 Crisis Is a Time to Pull Major Donors Close

Membership, Major Giving, COVID-19

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I know you keep hearing you should connect to donors now, but during the COVID-19 crisis, public media is needed more now than ever. We are seeing public media audience skyrocket during this crisis. Why? Because people want trusted advice and information.

If there was ever a time for you to personally connect with your major donors, this is it. While some nonprofit leaders have said we should leave donors alone because they are too affected by this crisis, I can tell you first-hand this is not what fundraisers around the country are experiencing. 

What we are hearing from fundraisers is that major donors are grateful that nonprofits are reaching out to them to see how they are doing. Donors are responding to fundraisers via phone, email, text, and video conferencing in numbers never seen before. Why? Because they are now home and have time to actually connect. And, guess what: Donors are giving! Some donors are giving larger gifts, and others are giving more gifts because they want to make a difference. 

As a public media fundraiser, you have a unique opportunity to communicate to donors about what your particular station is doing in this crisis. Part of your station’s mission is about bringing your community together. Now, more than ever, your donors want to know you are putting their gifts to work. 

Here are some suggestions for you to start conversations with them during this crisis.

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