The Need for Sustainers Is Bigger Than You Think

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NPR News stations have a fundraising opportunity they’ve never had before and might never have again: the opportunity is to turn significantly more listeners into sustaining givers. Why now? On March 11th, David Giovannoni, President of Audigraphics, Inc. and longtime public radio researcher, wrote in Current that “The events of the last 10 months have accelerated longstanding trends in listeners’ relationships with their NPR News stations. Today listeners to NPR News stations rely more on these stations than ever. The programming is more important to them than ever.” 

Audience 98 showed us that listening causes giving. But listeners give only when they become core listeners, and even then it can take up to a decade (or more) for a listener to become a giver. It’s clear that the time to translate increased loyalty into sustaining giving is now. 

Seizing upon increased loyalty to create more sustainers isn’t just something we can do, it’s something we must do. The revenue stability we can create from increasing sustainers will be a necessity as we grapple with changing listening habits and a greater-than-ever imperative to build new audiences.

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What the Hacking of Half a Billion Credit Cards Means for Public Media

sustainers, Membership, credit cards

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When the news broke today that as many as 500 million Marriott Starwood customers were victims of a data breach exposing their personal and financial information over the course of four years, we were, of course, immediately concerned about effects on our industry.

When a member hands over their personal data, the responsibility that comes with it is paramount. Failing to secure that data can cause significant material losses. What’s worse, the loss of a member’s trust may be irreparable.

If you haven’t already, verify that your systems are PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant. Non-compliance can cost you thousands upon thousands in fines and lost revenue.

The reality of our data-dependent world is that a breach in one industry will have ripple effects. Here’s what you can do to manage the consequences the Marriott breach is likely to have.

Prepare for an increase in sustainer card declines.

Half a billion credit cards. That number is staggering. Some of those cards - or many of those cards - may be in your sustainer file. Audit your recapture program and make sure you’re positioned to go after that lost revenue. Use as many channels as you can to get your sustainers back quickly. Consider using the following calendar to connect with donors to update their information:

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Find Out How Your Sustaining Membership Program Measures Up

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Two decades ago, public media launched a movement of monthly giving with the advent of sustaining membership programs. It's fair to say that fundraising in our industry has been revolutionized as a result. Most of us saw the leap in renewals that came from starting our program; a degree of stability is the new-normal, thanks to sustaining members.

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Three Secrets to WXPN's Increase in Sustainers

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Station interview with associate general manager Quyen Shanahan and director of individual gifts Carissa Cuica conducted by Melanie Coulson.

From FY12 to FY16, the Philadelphia-area triple-A station WXPN increased its number of sustaining members from 15% to 71%. Last year the station's renewal rate was the highest it's ever been: 81%, driven in large part by donor retention. The station's sustainer success was the result of a targeted campaign aimed membership growth and sustainer retention.

Problem: Flat donor numbers. 

Prior to 2011, WXPN's membership revenue had stayed constant year to year for several years. The station's member base hovered around 25,000. As new members joined, the same number would lapse. The station was working hard during each member drive to maintain the status quo.

By FY16 WXPN met an ambitious goal of 30,000 members and increased its overall membership revenue. 

Solution: Grow membership + launch a sustainers campaign designed to retain existing members.

Some of the strategy behind the station's growth in membership is outlined in a previous Edge post. Here's how the retention campaign worked:

1. The Stop-Loss Program

When Carissa Cuica entered her role as director of individual gifts, the station's practice was to send the same letter and email for months to sustainers whose cards were declined. In 2014 she implemented an aggressive 90-day recapture program focusing on urgency that was designed to keep sustainers in the system.

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Four Steps to Remedying Sustainer Credit Card Declines

sustainers, Membership, credit cards

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Credit card declines. Every membership department has a tale to tell. Invalid card information is likely the most significant challenge to managing the back-room operations of any sustaining member program.

The real-world vulnerabilities of credit cards are a reality over which stations have limited control. But the regular maintenance needed to keep most sustainer cards current is something stations can manage. Here are four easy steps you can put into place right now:

1. Review your timing and processes.

Map out all the touchpoints and methods you use in your card process in order to find inconsistencies in your program and fix them.

Don’t wait for expiration.

The best time to begin your effort is before a card-decline even happen. Start reaching out to donors early in the month that their card expires (any sooner and they likely won’t have a replacement card yet). Don’t be afraid to reach out via email, mail, and phone in order to get their new information.

Upon expiration, act quickly.

Once a card does decline, jump in right away to recapture the new card information. Here’s a strategy to use:

  • Day 1: Email and phone call
  • Day 3: Repeat
  • Week 1: Email reminder
  • Week 2: Email reminder + direct mail reminder
  • Week 3: Email reminder
  • Month 1: Direct mail reminder
  • Month 2: Direct mail reminder
  • Month 3: Inactivate donor. Mark them as “lapsed sustaining” to try to reactivate via a lapsed campaign later.

Dive into your phone calls with these great sample scripts from Omaha Public Radio’s Molly Nicklin. And our direct mail sample letters will help you get started or refresh your recapture series.

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How One Station Created Its Own Sustainer Revolution in Five Steps

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…And How Your Station Can Do the Same

Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising show us there's 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?

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The Imbalanced State of Public Radio's Sustainers Programs

sustainers, Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising, Membership, pledge drive, small stations

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Co-authored by Craig Oliver

This is the first in a series of three articles in which we will share and provide analysis of critical findings from Greater Public’s 2015 Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising, the annual survey that quantifies stations’ fundraising performance and revenue potential relative to listening. The 2015 survey included 97 stations that represent 49% of all public radio listening.

Sustainers, or monthly givers, are the biggest game-changer in public radio membership fundraising this century. But after investing a decade of research, toolkits, packed conference sessions, and consultants-turned-sustainer-evangelists, our industry has discovered a picture of imbalance among public radio’s sustainer programs.

All but four of the 97 stations in the 2015 Greater Public Benchmarks for Public Radio Fundraising report that they have a sustainer program. While virtually everyone is in the game, some are faring far better than others.

Of the 93 benchmarks stations with sustainer programs, only 12 have converted at least half of their annual givers to monthly contributors and only 29 stations have converted more than 40 percent of their givers to sustainers.


But, this relatively small penetration doesn’t tell the whole story.

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Three Key Ways Impact-Centered Cultivation Makes a Difference

sustainers, Membership, marketing, philanthropy

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When it comes to revenue and donor retention, good fundraising practices are paramount to success. Yet for the most part, outside of recent sustainer success, public media’s record of retaining donors year after year, and transitioning more people to philanthropic levels of giving has often been mediocre at best.

In order to retain more donors, it’s vital to make the most of opportunities as they present themselves to signal impact and value to donors. This means finding ways to talk about what the station brings to the community that goes beyond the simple act of listening to programs on the radio. It’s about helping listeners and donors build a deeper sense of meaning and understanding of the importance of your mission.

Here are three key ways that demonstrating the impact of your programming makes a difference in donor cultivation:

1. It shows their donation makes a difference.

It keeps your new and long-time members connected to the “why” of their support, serving as a regular reminder that their listening and support has true purpose and importance – that it matters – and their continued participation makes it all possible.

2. It paves the way toward major giving.

It sets your potential major donors up for a more fruitful conversation at a more advanced starting place, a position likely to result in greater levels of giving.

3. It draws in younger (more impact-sensitive) donors.

It strengthens connections with younger donors, a generation that we will count on to fund the work of public media in the decades to come. This is a generation that – at least to date – has shown that impact is a key driver of their charitable giving choices.

Even though budgets are tight, a creative approach coupled with a little time invested can ensure that some important impact ideas reach your donors on a regular basis.

Here are two excellent recent examples of stations using existing tools and resources for an additional purpose of signaling impact.

OPB's Story

In the midst of the occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, OPB utilized its weekly e-newsletter to go beyond a “tune-in-for-developments-here” message. President and CEO Steve Bass crafted a timely and significant leading letter that:

  • Shares behind-the-scenes information about the coverage
  • Tells readers why it’s important
  • Gives donors props for making it possible
  • Touts how OPB’s work is central to national reporting efforts, an idea that builds pride amongst supporters.
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How to Adjust Your On-Air Goal as Sustainers Multiply

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If you're like many fundraisers we hear from, your excitement over your growing sustainer program is tempered by your disappointment over the performance of your recent drives. What’s going on?Is it realistic to think your drives should perform the way they used to?

You’re not alone in feeling disoriented.Most sustainers start out as givers during pledge drives.Once they become sustainers, most stop giving during drives.So in many - but not all - cases, an increase in the number of sustainers at your station will decrease the number of people who will give to your on-air fundraiser.

The key is to keep your expectations realistic.

You’ll need to change how you determine both the number of members you seek and the total revenue they provide.

Here's how to set realistic drive goals in six steps.We're focusing on on-air drives here, of course, but you can also use this checklist for direct mail and other campaigns.

Step 1. Write down the amount of money you raised during last year’s on-air fundraiser.

  • Use the actual amount contributed rather than your goal, unless they happen to be the same number.
  • Exclude major gifts of $1,000 or more.
  • Write down the number of donors who contributed. Exclude the outliers, including all donors who entered contests without making a contribution, and the donors who gave $1,000 or more.
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Get Them and Keep Them: The TWO Pillars of Successful Membership

sustainers, Membership, pledge drive, direct mail

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There are nearly as many approaches to the details of an effective membership program as there are public media stations. But one thing stations with top-performing programs have in common is that they apply the full array of identified best practices when it comes to membership strategy and technique.

Many stations approach each technique in membership fundraising as if it were performing in isolation from the other techniques: How did our on-air drive perform? What was the response rate on that lapsed letter? What’s the growth rate on our sustainer program? But the long-term health of any one technique is intricately intertwined with the fundraising ecosystem as a whole.

From a long-term growth perspective, for stations where on-air fundraising is still the largest slice of the revenue pie, there is a point where the number of people willing to join as sustainers will begin to plateau. Growth will slow and increases in member numbers will begin to flatten again. We’re already seeing some of these effects as a number of stations with high percentages of sustainers on the file are having a difficult time reaching on-air revenue goals that were previously achievable.

Additionally, as we have all learned, sustainer programs are not foolproof. This revenue can be vulnerable to credit card breaches, requiring stations with large sustainer programs to develop deeper plans and to allocate staff and budgets towards managing sustainer churn, acquiring new payment information and attempting to move these donors over to electronic funds transfer, once again proving that no fundraising program is either free or a silver bullet.

While stations can (and should) intently focus on bringing as many donors onto the file over the air, particularly as sustainers, when it comes to new single-gift members joining the station, a central challenge to achieving healthy growth is the fact that typically only 30% or fewer of a station’s new on-air-acquired single-pay members will return for a second year of membership, and for many of them it will take either an expensive telemarketing phone call or another on-air premium to entice them back, leading to a cycle of member churn and high-cost fundraising.

This fact, of course, is why successful sustainer programs are so valuable to a healthy membership file today. These programs have given the system a way to make on-air fundraising a more viable activity from a net and long-term revenue standpoint.

But maximum program growth will still only occur when both pillars of “retention-positive” membership programs are fully functioning – sustained giving and acquisition mail. Indeed, the strongest and most efficient membership fundraising programs in public media today – defined as those with the largest member ranks – are diverse programs that maximize every technique available.

In fact, as we compare the basic retention curves of monthly giving; direct mail and email; and single-pay donors to on-air drives, it is clear that the retention path of direct mail and email acquired donors is a positive path. Indeed, at a number of stations, after 5+ years have passed, a higher percentage of mail-acquired donors remains on the file compared to sustainers acquired in the same year.

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