PBS.org plans for online national fundraising heats up session in Austin

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In a sometimes acrimonious session at the PBS national meeting in Austin, station reps and PBS execs faced off over the controversial topic of online national fundraising on PBS.org.

The session had been intended to introduce PBS’s new development s.v.p. Brian Reddington and give an update on development work; he announced at the top of the meeting that there had been “a change in agenda to emphasize what we are doing to strengthen the stations’ economic health.”

Reddington provided a bit more information on one topic that station reps have been wondering (and talking and worrying) about, PBS’s national online fundraising project. PBS has “engaged a strategic partner,” M+R Strategic Services of Washington, D.C., which has helped develop fundraising for nonprofs including AARP, the Human Rights Campaign and Oxfam America. Many details — including the all-important formula for how PBS will share online revenues and potential member emails with the stations — are still being worked out. PBS hopes to launch the online donation campaign by this fall.

Reddington assured the audience that the effort will be coordinated with stations’ own online and donor work. “I won’t be going into your territory without your knowledge and consent,” he said. “I won’t be poaching and raiding your prospects.” Which prompted the first question: What if a station says no to PBS? Will that be an issue? “I would want to know why,” Reddington said. “I would envision getting a response that would generate some dialogue, and hopefully reach a decision that’s beneficial for both of us.” But what about overlap markets? How would revenue and email addresses from PBS.org be shared? “That would just take more coordination,” Reddington said.

COO Michael Jones stood up from the audience to reassure the crowd, as some folks shook their heads, murmured and waved their hands with more questions. Jones said he knew that the issue of PBS raising money is a touchy one. However, “we have to look at the reality of the situation. . . . We need alternate plans to bring in revenue or we’ll keep looking at tightening budgets, reducing staff and programming. I didn’t come here to be part of an organization that is cutting itself into oblivion, to preside over a dying entity. Sure [national online fundraising] is a risk. And we may step on your toes a bit — but it’s not intentional. We want to increase revenues for the entire system.” He added that PBS needs to recoup the cost of the effort, and there’s been discussion of distributing “the majority” of the money to stations, along with email addresses of potential members in their areas gathered on PBS.org.

Jones said “we are committed to doing this in a transparent way.” A station rep requested that the conversation be continued in an online venue; the PBS execs said they’d look into that suggestion.