DENVER — An increase in sustaining memberships has provided a welcome source of stable income for some public radio stations, but it has also prompted some to rethink their strategies for on-air fund drives.
Under a sustaining membership, a donor sets up automatic monthly contributions to a station instead of giving on an annual basis. That reduces the pressure during on-air fund drives to convince listeners to renew their memberships, and stations are responding by redoubling efforts to enlist new members during pledge campaigns. Executives from two stations described their approaches in a July 10 panel discussion here at the Public Media Development & Marketing Conference.
“Our drives are no longer a renewal machine,” said Jacquie Fuller, on-air fundraising manager for Minnesota Public Radio. The station began its sustaining-member program in 2007, and has converted 62 percent of its members to sustainers.
With that shift, the station now focuses on-air fund drives on bringing in new sustaining donors, at levels as low as $5 a month. To make the $5 sustainer memberships more appealing, MPR began offering a thank-you gift for donors at that level. Previously, it offered premiums only for sustainers who pledged of $10 a month or higher.
With the shift toward sustainers, MPR has seen a decline in on-air fundraising income — from $5 million to $1.7 million per year, Fuller said. She said she now encourages her staffers to see the purpose of fund drives as “insurance,” securing a lasting source of revenue for the future even if drive totals are lower than in the past, she said.
KBAQ/KJZZ in Phoenix began targeting its fund drives to new sustaining members about 18 months ago, said Linda Pastori, associate g.m. for development. In June the station also experimented with the $5-a-month pitch by staging a “$5 Friday,” a one-day on-air drive.
Held independently of the usual longer fund drives, the campaign exceeded the stations’goals for new members. But the focus on $5 gifts may have discouraged more generous donations, according to Scott Williams, p.d at KBAQ/KJZZ. “You get what you ask for,” he said.
The station plans to conduct three more $5 days over the coming year on differing days of the week.
When the Phoenix pubcaster surveyed its sustaining donors recently, many said they signed on for monthly gifts because they wanted to contribute to a stable, ongoing pool of funds for the stations. Some sustainers also reported that they didn’t know how to increase their monthly donations, said Paul Jacobs, v.p. and g.m. of Jacobs Media, which conducted the research. Stations should be sure to make clear to sustainers how their membership can be changed, Jacobs said.