Fundraising groups focused on public TV shows expand to bring stations under tent

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Four specialized charities cultivating big donations to benefit some of PBS’s most popular programs are gaining traction in the crowded and competitive world of public TV fundraising.

Where major-gift fundraising had long been the almost exclusive province of local stations — joined in the last decade by system-wide efforts from the PBS Foundation — the four groups are navigating new territory, soliciting donors to support a specific producer or television program.

Burns appeared with Roosevelt descendants Joanne and Laura Roosevelt and Liz Kelly at a San Francisco preview of The Rooosevelts. The KQED event was held in conjunction with the Better Angels Society, which raises funds to support Burns's films. (Photo: KQED)

Burns appeared with Roosevelt relatives Joanne and Laura Roosevelt and Liz Kelly at a San Francisco preview of The Roosevelts. The KQED event was held in conjunction with the Better Angels Society, which raises funds to support Burns’s films. (Photo: Better Angels Society)

Together, the specialty funds, acting independently and sometimes in cooperation with local stations, have raised more than $33 million from more than 230 donors, mostly over the last few years. Now the funds — all but one less than five years old — appear to be poised for more growth.

Among some recent developments:

  • The Better Angels Society, a nonprofit that supports projects by the filmmaker Ken Burns, is expected to launch a $115 million capital campaign early next year.
  • The Frontline Journalism Fund, which raises money for the investigative news series produced at Boston’s WGBH, received a $1.5 million gift this summer from the donor who provided $3.5 million to establish an endowment for  the series.
  • Friends of the NewsHour, a fundraising group for PBS’s flagship news program, plans to step up its schedule of donor events and work more closely with fundraisers at WETA in Washington, D.C., the station that took ownership of the production company behind the PBS NewsHour. Its leadership intends to reach out to more stations as it cultivates donors.
  • The Masterpiece Trust, a fund for the iconic PBS drama series, is preparing to announce a six-figure gift that it will share with a Texas PBS station. With the donation, the pubcaster will become the 14th local station to successfully cultivate a gift in collaboration with the Trust.

Already, more than $10 million has been pledged to the Masterpiece Trust since its founding in 2011. Like the other specialty funds, it was started mainly as a hedge against the vagaries of corporate support in public broadcasting. ExxonMobil had quit as sole underwriter of Masterpiece. General Motors had withdrawn as a major sponsor of Burns’s films. Officials at producing stations and supporters of Burns’s work said their funds were created to diversify revenue streams supporting public TV’s signature series. And all saw the potential of reaching out directly to their loyal fans.

Better Angels plans to set aside some of its capital campaign money for an endowment; otherwise, all four funds spend what they bring in on production. Donations to Better Angels go directly into the budget of the film donors specify they want to support. At Masterpiece, money from the Trust is mostly helping to pay for acquisition of new programming, including the co-production of Indian Summers, a drama series scheduled to debut on Masterpiece next year.

Breaching the ‘Berlin Wall’

But even as the groups broaden their fundraising and attract more attention, questions persist over how much they can continue to grow and what place such funds can secure and hold in the complex landscape of public television fundraising. Observers wonder whether they will become sustainable over the long term as viewers’ tastes change, or whether enough local stations have the desire or resources to cooperate with program-targeted fundraising, primarily by identifying potential contributors from their own donor rolls.

It remains to be seen, too, whether the groups can maintain support for their model, one that breaks down an already dizzying array of pubcasters’ fundraising initiatives into even more potentially competing pieces. Some pubTV executives expressed concern that new copycat organizations might enter the arena, adding to the complexity.

“Proliferation is dangerous if you have a lot of these things out there and no discipline about how you share,” said Doug Price, c.e.o. of Denver-based Rocky Mountain PBS. “If everything has a ‘Friends of this’ and ‘Friends of that,’ you would get to a point of overload, you confuse your donors. And — worse — maybe everyone doesn’t have a clear set of rules.”

But so far, Price and other experts say, the funds don’t appear to be stepping on any toes. Officials at each of the groups say they are meticulous about communicating with and working with local stations, encouraging donors to continue or increase their local support at the same time they contribute to the funds.

The Masterpiece Trust goes a step further, promising that gifts will be split 50-50 with local stations; or, if the donor comes directly to the Trust, at least 25 percent is shared. Of the $10 million the Trust has raised so far, nearly $4 million has been distributed to local stations.

A chunk of that money has gone to KPBS in San Diego, where Darlene Shiley, a generous supporter of the station, has become the Trust’s top donor. Shiley had been giving KPBS about $100,000 annually for a number of years before 2011, when her donation was upped to $250,000, representing half of a $500,000 gift she made to the Trust in its first year. She made subsequent major gifts to both organizations and then, earlier this year, pledged an additional $3 million for them to split.

Tom Karlo, general manager of KPBS, said the gifts the station has received from Shiley and other major donors to PBS programs have allowed it to expand its arts and culture newsbeat from one full-time reporter to two and ramp up its non-PBS acquisitions budget, purchasing rights to series such as Doc Martin.

KPBS works closely and comfortably with the specialty funds to solicit and steward donors, Karlo said. For example, when WGBH, home of Masterpiece’s producers, and the Trust invited Shiley to the Primetime Emmy ceremony to celebrate Downton Abbey’s numerous nominations, a KPBS fundraiser was invited, too.

“We’ve always had a little bit of a Berlin Wall between local stations and PBS and NPR on local-national fundraising,” Karlo said. “But that’s old-school thinking. Times are changing. People have the capacity to give more than they might give to stations like ours, and now we have seen how the collaboration works. We are at the table together with donors.”

Mike Rancilio, general manager of NewsHour Productions, the WETA subsidiary that oversees production of the newscast and the activities of the Friends organization there, said he is careful about getting local stations involved from the start of donor cultivation activities.

“This is the kind of situation that lifts all boats,” said Kathy Connolly, senior director of major gifts and planned giving at WETA, who collaborated with the Friends in planning a recent reception hosted by a fan of the NewsHour.

The station and the fundraising group operate separately, but the event created an opportunity for the station’s major donors to spend an evening with NewsHour co-anchor Judy Woodruff, she said. The host of the reception and other guests weren’t already supporters of WETA, so she was able to talk with them about their local station.

“We’re marketing WETA and public broadcasting at the same time,” Connolly says. “I’m looking at my donors, and if they are passionate about something, I need to craft something that fits our needs and that calls to them.” Funds like Friends of the NewsHour, she said, “give us more tools and allow us to provide choice to our donors.”

Time-intensive fundraising

Not every local station, though, has the capacity or the interest to work with the funds.

Lisa Shumate, general manager at Houston Public Media, called the process “super time-intensive.” Shumate’s station jointly solicited one of the station’s donors with the Masterpiece Trust to make a shared gift earlier this year. Many smaller stations might not have the time or resources to manage such an arrangement, she said.

Even with the best intentions, Robert Altman, c.e.o. of WMHT in Troy, N.Y., said his stretched fundraising staff couldn’t pull off planning this fall for a special event they had wanted to host with the Friends of the NewsHour, entertaining local donors with talent from the news show. Now, he said, they are aiming for the spring.

“Finding time to embrace these great opportunities is difficult,” Altman said, “but it looks very worthwhile.”

At Oregon Public Broadcasting, CEO Steve Bass said that he’s not so sure. It’s not time and resources he is worried about, he said, but priorities: He would rather focus major-giving efforts on the state pubcasting network and the needs of the communities it serves, rather than importing a national initiative.

If a donor is interested in supporting journalism, for example, instead of introducing that donor to outside fundraising groups, such as those linked to the NewsHour or Frontline, he said he would first talk about OPB’s newsroom, coverage of the arts and other local efforts that need suppor

“If I had a donor that wanted to give $50,000 to a national fund, and we got half of that, I’d say, ‘Gee that’s nice, but that’s not moving us in a critical strategic direction; that’s not dealing with the void in local news in this country,’” Bass said. Instead of focusing just on shared fundraising, the national funds might consider also working on shared capacity building, he said.

Price at Rocky Mountain PBS agreed that the national groups have a responsibility beyond fundraising to make sure that the entire system benefits from their efforts. His biggest concern, particularly in a changing world of digital technologies, is about broadcast and distribution rights.

“As long as the projects and producers raising money retain the rights for local stations, that’s OK,” Price said. “If the rights are controlled by someone else, not PBS, I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m sharing my donors, but what’s my benefit?’”

That could be an issue down the road, especially for producers like Ken Burns, who could embark on independent projects; for now, Price and other station leaders are satisfied that the specialty fundraising groups are committed to the PBS system.

A donor to Price’s station is, in fact, in talks with the Better Angels Society about a substantial gift. The Society does not have a set station-sharing policy, but it encourages donors to continue giving locally at least at their typical level.

“Rocky Mountain PBS couldn’t have a better friend in Ken Burns,” Price said. “He’s very generous with his time when he’s here doing fundraising for us, and it makes sense to have something like the Better Angels doing fundraising for him.”

Like the other funds, Better Angels is focused on soliciting big gifts — 40 of its 100 plus donors have contributed at least $100,000. But unlike its counterparts, it has introduced online fundraising, where visitors to its website can donate any amount. Only a few dozen have done so, most during the days following the broadcast premiere of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Credit rolls of the documentary series featured a spot acknowledging support from the fundraising group.

Such experimentation with fundraising techniques makes sense, and the field should expect more of it, said Winifred Lenihan, v.p. for development at WGBH, which runs the Masterpiece Trust. The Trust is sticking to its major-gifts strategy, she said, but there’s still a lot to learn, such as about how to better identify and steward donors in concert with local stations.

“It’s an incredibly disruptive time in the industry,” she said, noting changes in programming, distribution and technology. “We know it’s time to try new things in fundraising, too,” and the specialty funds, she said, are a way to “test the waters, do the work, change course if we must, while finding the best opportunities for everyone.”