Person walking on beech with seagulls

"I think I'm making myself just a teeny-weeny bit immortal, just by giving this gift" says a beach-walking donor identified as Carol Harnish, scientist, in a PBS spot prepared to help stations seek wills and bequests.

Major-gift fundraising gets major attention

As many pubcasters wrap up spring pledge drives, collapsing on that great big metaphorical collective couch moaning, "There must be an easier way to make a living," others have found success asking individuals for four-figure sums without sending coffee mugs in return.

Major giving and planned giving — two fundraising strategies essential to universities, hospitals and cultural institutions — are still largely ignored in the public broadcasting world, development specialists say. And as the Dow Jones Average flirts with 10,000 and the public is feeling flush (and as public TV execs try to figure out how to pay staggering digital conversion bills), there's no better time to start than right now.

"Our ability to reach people over the air has been our greatest advantage and our greatest curse," said Jim Lewis, formerly of Oregon Public Broadcasting and now with Lewis-Kennedy Associates, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits raise individual gifts, in explaining why public radio and television have been slow to the table.

Gearing up for a major gifts effort also involves a change in mindset for executives who might still be relying on the "poor us" approach. "Brinkmanship and crisis pledge drives do a lot of damage to the credibility of major and mid-level donor programs," said Robert Stein, director of the Development Exchange Inc.'s Center of Major Giving. "We're asking people to give at a higher level and view it as an investment in the future, but it's difficult to do that when we're haranguing listeners with our imminent demise."

What constitutes a major gift varies from station to station — indeed, the lack of a standardized definition is one of the problems the system needs to correct, says Stein — but most public broadcasting development specialists consider it to be a donation of $1,000 and up. For some stations, however, it can be as little as $250. Planned giving includes bequests, gifts of stock, real estate donations, and charitable gift annuities.

To get the ball rolling, both the radio and television sides are introducing new initiatives:

  • PBS is launching a Major Gifts Academy, the first of which will be held June 4-5 in San Francisco, in conjunction with the PBS annual meeting. The two-day workshop will feature intensive, interactive training, said Laurel Alexander, PBS director of major and planned gifts. PBS plans to offer two academies a year, which are in addition to its yearly development conference. "The first [academy] is being positioned next to the annual meeting to signal to general managers the importance of major gifts and the bottom-line results that investment in such a program can give," said Alexander.
  • DEI just last week assumed management of NPR's Planned Giving Partnership, a program NPR began with a CPB Future Fund grant in 1996. NPR worked with more than 100 radio stations, providing tools and training to launch a first-time planned giving program. It also launched the first pooled-income fund for member stations.

    DEI plans to create what Stein calls a "just-add-water" assisted implementation program. He wants to develop (contingent on CPB funding) a turnkey bequests software package that will help stations launch their own bequests societies. Stein hopes it will be ready by fall. Later this spring he expects to launch a bimonthly online discussion forum, using the PRADO/DEI listserv, on major and planned giving. DEI will also help market the pooled income fund, which NPR will continue to maintain.

  • In April, public radio's Station Resource Group begins the second phase of its Major Gifts Initiative. Five radio stations — WNYC in New York, KWMU in St. Louis, WAMU in Washington, D.C., WGUC in Cincinnati, and KXPR in Sacramento — will spend 15 months revving up major gifts programs, said SRG's Susan Harmon. To participate, each has had to pony up $12,000 (CPB is giving each station $23,000 toward the $35,000 cost).

    Eleven stations participated in Phase I, which doesn't wrap up until June, so final results aren't in yet. However, the Major Gifts Initiative builds on an SRG pilot project called the Leaders Partnership, in which five stations increased gifts of $1,000 or more by 62 percent in 1997. In dollar terms that translates to an increase of more than $370,000 in major contributions.

Why isn't everyone doing it?

Figures for how much public television and public radio raise through major giving and planned giving — as well as how many have formal giving programs in place — are hard to come by, which Stein said is in itself indicative of how much work public broadcasting still has to do.

Alexander said public television stations altogether generally raise $50 million-$60 million a year in major and planned gifts. Her office recently surveyed stations on whether they have major gift clubs, but the results haven't been tallied yet. According to a 1996-97 survey, about 75 of those responding did.

On the radio side, data from the Target Analysis Group for FY 1998, representing 70 stations, found that 4,711 individuals made gifts of $1,000 or more, totaling $8.8 million. That's only 0.4 percent of donors, but represents 8.9 percent of revenue, said Lewis, whose firm analyzes the Target data. Fourteen stations receive 10 percent or more of their revenue from $1,000-plus gifts, he said.

However, in an environment where many nonprofits earn as much as 90 percent of their revenue from major gifts, that's a drop in the bucket.

If the money is out there for the grabbing, the question that begs to be asked is, why isn't every public radio and television station actively seeking major gifts?

Part of the hesitance lies in public broadcasting's populist, grassroots heritage. Or as Gay Redick, manager of major donor programs at KUED in Salt Lake City, puts it: "The good news is we have trained thousands of people to send us $30 and $40. The bad news is we've trained them to send only $30 and $40."

Some might fear that going after larger contributions is somehow pandering to the rich. "I know that may be the perception, but in fact many of these [gifts] are coming from working professionals — doctors, lawyers, the retired teacher who has paid up her life insurance policy," said Alexander. "It's really not just people of wealth but ... the discretionary income of working Americans."

Added Lewis: "Your best prospects for major gifts are already giving to you and know what you stand for. ... However, it remains the duty of station management to resist unwarranted pressure from funding sources, no matter the source."

Resistance from within

Rob Gordon, chairman of the NPR station advisory committee on planned giving and also g.m. of Nashville Public Radio, said, "We polled many development directors who said their biggest problems were the staff — not just the g.m., but also the program directors — who just don't understand what these gifts are about."

Start talking about bequests, and people pale at the thought of discussing death on the air or in program guides, he said. "What they don't understand are these are the most satisfying gifts [to receive] because they come from the hearts of people who are already deeply satisfied with what you've given them."

PBS introduced a planned-giving turnkey package in 1996 to help TV stations broach the delicate subject with viewers, said Alexander. More than 100 stations use the kit, which contains ad spots, newsletters and training videos, she said.

Lewis suggested another weakness: "The central problem public broadcasting has is that it doesn't know the people who contribute. We know them in the aggregate — we know their name, address, even what hour they gave, so we know what program they listen to — but we don't know them personally."

Therein lies a key tenet of wooing those big-bucks gifts. Ask for $40 and send folks a mug, and that's a transaction. But bigger donations are built on one-to-one relationships. These connections take months and years to cultivate — trolling Rolodexes to find potential candidates, writing personal letters, schmoozing over lunch. For planned giving, it takes years, perhaps decades, to obtain results. Relatively speaking, it's much easier for time-crunched, bottom-line obsessed managers to throw a pledge drive — they're predictable and the results are immediate.

"We ask stations to invest in their major giving program for a year without expecting to get anything in return. Usually they will raise some money that first year, but it's a good mindset not to expect immediate results," said Pat Rudebusch, formerly head of PBS' major giving program and now associated with DEI. She and Stein conduct major giving seminars for stations.

Once you get major givers on board, you've got them. They have an 85 to 90 percent retention rate, she said.

There is also the perception that major giving programs are big station territory — that a smaller stations just doesn't have sufficient wealth in its audience base.

Greg Petrowich, g.m. of tiny KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo., begs to differ. He attended one of the DEI seminars last year.

"I thought we were behind the game and that all these stations were doing this, but we found all these stations starting out for the first time," he said. His station got 17 $1,000-plus pledges the first year it instituted a major gift club, a result Stein called phenomenal.

"We were kind of floored about getting that amount of people without a lot of cajoling," said Petrowich. The 17 who signed on were mostly university professors, dentists, accountants, judges and other professionals. "This is $18,000 in new money ... and it didn't take that much effort. All we did was just ask."

Copyright 2012 American University