Consultants, groups aim to fill voids as PBS Development shifts focus

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“We’re all in development” was a headline in PBS’s 2001 three-year plan. But in June the network terminated four of the five remaining jobs deveoted to helping stations with local fundraising — down from around 30 PBS had employed for that purpose in 2000.

And the network is shifting the focus of its assistance. In addition to is controversial online giving campaign, the retooled PBS development will draw heavily on expertise in related departments to broaden its efforts. “We must work differently” in an era of flat membership dues and other funding constraints, said Joyce Herring, PBS’s senior v.p. of station services.

Other organizations and consultants are stepping up to offer training for station fundraisers during a difficult economic time:

  •  DEI, providing development for pubradio stations, is finalizing plans to “super serve” its dual-licensee clients with assistance for TV and radio;
  •  TRAC Media is offering a development workshop Jan. 10 and 11 before the NETA conference in Nashville;
  • Michael Soper, former head of development at PBS and WETA, resurrected his development e-newsletter to facilitate communications among pubTV development pros.

“It’ll be a complex and confusing next couple of years as PBS works to figure out its development role, to determine what stations really need, and what resources are available,” said Becky Chinn, head of membership and marketing at Oregon Public Broadcasting,

A meeting of their own

Herring wants to assure station fundraisers that PBS will continue to serve them with a strong lineup of sessions at the PBS Annual Meeting May 16–19 in Orlando, Fla.

Last May’s meeting, which combined the annual Development Conference with the PBS Showcase for the first time, “Brought together general managers, programming, communications and engineering professionals, which was a valuable experience for everyone,” Herring said in an email answering questions from Current.

She added that the May date is better than October for development staffs because it gives attendees a preview of the upcoming fall schedule to help plan fundraising.

The PBS Development Advisory Committee still favors revival of the separate Development Conference, canceled by PBS as the recession threatened to clobber attendance in 2009.

“PBS convened one of the most important conferences you can go to as development pro in our industry,” said Dean Orton, senior v.p. of development and media services at Connecticut Public Broadcasting. Orton said the event energized experienced fundraisers, explained the field to newcomers, presented top-notch speakers from inside and outside the system, and recognized achievements with coveted awards.

“Development is such a make-or-break part of the public TV equation that it warrants a yearly convening to find out what’s going on in the world outside and sharing what’s working internally,” he said.

Beyond the formal sessions, the Development Conference gave often-isolated professionals important face-time with peers and mentors. Win Lenihan, longtime development v.p. at WGBH and a respected practitioner, organized luncheons for major-giving pros around the meetings. Sometimes as many as 30 or more attended, she said.

More vacancies, more collaboration

Some station fundraisers are worried that PBS is gradually withdrawing from their field. They see evidence in the number of vacancies on the PBS Development Advisory Committee — down to six members from the usual 12 — and the dwindling PBS staff.

PBS said in May that it would hire two development staffers, and Herring told Current that filling those spots remains “an immediate priority.” But those jobs remain vacant. Meanwhile, the new collaborative development work at PBS is already going on:

  • Pledge assistance has shifted to the programming unit;
  • a September station underwriting tool kit and webinar included materials from the branding, programming and communications departments;
  • a development/branding workshop at KVIE and KQED, also in September, gathered staffers from development, communications, human resources and engineering as well as board members;
  • PBS Interactive helped create the recent PBS Kids Play fundraising tools; and
  • PBS marketers contributed to a year-end giving tool kit that stations get in November (too late to be of any use, several station fundraisers griped in an online chat).

“We will also be using Skype and webinars to include more participants at a lower cost,” Herring said.

New options

TRAC’s Development Workshop in January, the two days before the NETA confab, offers sessions on fundraising trends, mail, Web and on-air pledge. Craig Reed, director of audience analysis, said TRAC’s yearly Pledge Practicum in January will double its usual attendance of 20 to 3o.

In addition, public radio’s DEI is planning to assist pubTV stations run by dual licensees. Of approximately 80 in the system, 67 are DEI members. Serving their TV operations “is something that should have been done years ago and has nothing to do with PBS development,” said DEI President Doug Eichten.

“We’re going to be very deliberate” to cater programs specifically to their needs, Eichten said. He expects to complete a station survey by year’s end, present a plan to the DEI Board and possibly begin those services by early next year.

There’s been talk in the development community about DEI expanding its services beyond pubradio to serve pubTV. “It’s way too early to think about that, we don’t even know how we can better serve joint licensees,” Eichten said. But he doesn’t rule out the option.

The budget plummets

The development-oriented TeamSoper eBulletin is back. Recent topics include a discussion of PBS’s online giving initiative, and a suggestion to leverage stations’ buying power to lower direct mail costs. Michael Soper said he put the newsletter on hiatus in May 2009, stepping back “to be supportive of PBS taking the lead” in development conversations.

He’s a longtime player in the field. Soper worked with advisers on PBS’s original “Funding the Vision”  study in 1991, which recommended strategies for increasing all revenue lines. Creation of a sequel, Funding the Vision II, is under way, focusing on the digital arena. Soper’s Midway, Utah-based TeamSoper also consults with nonprofits including the NAACP and the World Wildlife Fund.

Soper, who was at PBS from 1978–92, still follows its development work closely. He considers the network’s efforts “dormant.”

Budget and staffing numbers bear that out. In 2000, there were 28 in the department; by 2004, 12; in June of this year, five. Development’s budget fell from $2 million in fiscal 2003, to $1.2 in FY08, $600,000 in FY09 and $300,000 in FY10.

PBS spokesperson Jan McNamara said budget and staff totals should be read in context. “The organization has realigned significantly over the last 10 years,” she said. “All organizations need to change and adapt over time. PBS hasn’t remained static over that period.”

To Soper, the problem is larger than numbers. “Today, PBS lacks the leadership, experience and expertise in its efforts to support its member stations’ fundraising” — yet PBS has the most to benefit from that work to sustain the system, Soper told Current.

Soper said he doesn’t sense a “wholesaler” mentality at PBS, “where a primary goal is the mission and financial success of its retailers: PBS member stations.”

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