Sustainers: more efficiency and stability, shorter pledge drives

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Forty percent of MPR member revenue comes from renewal-free sustainers. As sustainer support rises, pledge drive days fall away. (Chart: MPR.)Forty percent of MPR member revenue comes from renewal-free sustainers. As sustainer support rises, pledge drive days fall away. (Chart: MPR.)

After a decade, sustaining members have given four times as much, net

Everywhere you look these days, there’s a different message on the state of the economy: the Dow is up, the Dow is down, hiring is up, the recovery is jobless. If anything is certain, it’s that the outlook remains very uncertain.

It’s a genuine blessing, therefore, that sustaining members can put a little more certainty into your station’s life.

Since Minnesota Public Radio began its sustaining member program in 2007, it has revolutionized the way we generate financial support from our audiences.

Sustaining members take a step beyond those who commit to a year of monthly gifts on their credit card or through their bank. They make an open-ended commitment, typically $5 to $10 a month, that continues until they choose to stop. As a result, they donate more consistently and without the expense and lapses of givers who commit for a single year.

Over 10 years, a cohort of sustainers will make a net contribution four times the size of ordinary monthly givers who require annual renewal.

As a result, more of our members remain as contributors from year to year, regardless of the changing winds of the economy. They provide MPR with a steady revenue stream in a very challenging economic climate.

When the economy slumped in 2008, we had begun our second year of intensive focus on the program, with 15,000 sustainers contributing about $2.8 million annually. By mid-2009, while many Americans were losing jobs, money and their homes, the ranks of MPR sustainers grew to 26,000, providing $4.5 million for MPR’s programming. More members were providing more financial support than ever in MPR’s history of more than four decades.

Today, 37,000 sustainers contribute $6.2 million annually — just over 40 percent of our total member revenue. We expect to close this fiscal year with overall revenue up 11 percent from last year — and 8,000 more sustainers than a year ago.

Launching a sustaining member program

Here is an outline for starting — or jump-starting — a sustaining member program:

  • Enroll your managers and colleagues as advocates.
  • Define your sustaining member program.
  • Line up your back-office operations to handle new processes.
  • Determine how well your database will handle sustainers.
  • Create comprehensive communication plans or “touch maps” for acquiring sustaining members and interacting with them over time.
  • Plan an integrated marketing strategy for sustainers.
  • Get a fix on where you’ll find sustainers among your current members.

If you’re attending this year’s Public Media Development and Marketing Conference (PMDMC), July 8-10 in Ft. Worth, please stop by the American Public Media booth. We’ll have more information about our sustaining member program to share. If you aren’t at the conference, contact your APM station representative for this information.

Enroll your managers and colleagues as advocates

A successful sustaining member program requires the support of your station colleagues. It’s important to involve key players in all departments — finance, technology, content, marketing and human resources, as well as senior management. Having them on board will help the station adjust to changes such as the length of on-air drives (potentially shorter!) and the timing of cash flow (it will be spread out over 12 months).

To win and keep the long-term support of donors, it’s important for station personnel to commit to a long-term sustainers program.

They are likely to be persuaded when they see how the math works:

  • If 500 givers become sustainers this year at $14 a month — the average monthly gift of an MPR sustaining member — 315 will remain as sustainers 10 years from now, compared to 56 nonsustaining monthly givers (who give an average of about $10 a month).
  • The sustainers will continue as givers year-to-year at the rate of 95 percent instead of 85 percent or even less at many stations.
  • At MPR, because they don’t have as many lapses, their average giving in a year is $167 instead of $124.
  • Their gross total giving in 10 years comes to $607,109 instead of $160,604.
  • Fundraising costs per person average about the same for sustainers and non-sustainers. (Total costs for the cohort will be higher, but that’s because more givers remain!)
  • Even though total fundraising costs are higher, the net total giving from that original sustaining group of 500 comes to $652,244, compared to $151,012.

[Here are tables showing the revenue and cost figures for sustainers and non-sustainers across a decade.]

Define your sustaining member program

There are many flavors of sustaining member programs. You can shape yours by answering some initial questions:

  • What kind of transaction will sustainers use? Credit cards, debit cards, or electronic funds transfer? (EFT is an electronic transfer of money from the sustainer’s bank account to your organization’s account.)
  • What giving frequency will you offer? Monthly, quarterly or annually?
  • What minimum amount will you accept monthly? $1, $5 or $10?
  • What special benefits will you offer only to  sustainers as a thank-you or incentive?

Line up back-office operations

MPR quickly learned that it’s easier to sign up donors to become sustainers than to manage these transactions in our back office. Our development services team invests about 40 person-hours a week to manage MPR’s 37,000 sustainers.

Here’s a checklist of the tasks that get a back office ready:

  • List all of the information you’ll need to set up a sustainers program and the payment processing for it.
  • Map the answers. Nail down these details and you’ll be able to provide better customer service.
  • Have a communications plan for handling the routine hassle of expired credit and debit card numbers as well as unexpected interruptions caused by banks.
  • Consider the differences in processing costs between EFT and debit/credit cards. While EFT charges lower fees and has a higher retention rate, getting it started requires more staff effort. (To arrange EFT, you typically need the donor to approve it electronically or to sign a document and provide a cancelled check.)

Determine how well your database can handle sustainers

At MPR, we use Access International’s Enterprise. You should spend time researching what software works best for your organization.

We are collecting information about other software packages and will release our findings if the survey is fruitful.

Create ‘touch maps’ to help you manage communication

When donors have signed up for the indefinite future, it can be tempting to slack off on communicating with them. However, dropping out of touch would be a mistake. Chances are, these members are among your most loyal listeners, and they expect communication from you — at least thanking them and letting them know what you’re doing with their money.

We create customer-service “touch maps” that show how and when we will communicate with sustainers — for acquisition, retention, upgrading and lapsing. For instance, in December we use mail and telemarketing to ask sustainers to upgrade their level of giving. With carefully planning, you can see where there’s too much or too little communication.






Member but not a Sustainer

Option on all response forms

Sustainer Campaigns, Member Drives (3x annually)

Sustainer Campaigns (3 x annually), all renewal emails

Include option in contribution form, web tiles during sustainer campaigns

Make conversion calls 2-3 times annually

Develop and use a touch map to guide your communication with members. This one above is for converting nonsustaining members to sustainers.

You can reinforce your relationship with sustainers through a variety of communications that come naturally: a thank-you package after their first or additional gifts; member discount cards branded for sustainers; e-newsletters and program guides designed specifically for sustainers; regular on-air thank-you messages; annual tax substantiation letters; and quarterly reports on “how we’re spending your money.”

It’s also important to test and test again your plan to upgrade sustainers. Carefully monitor responses — including cancellations. Your sustainers will tell you when you’ve communicated with them too much.

Plan an integrated marketing strategy for sustainers

Promoting your sustaining member program is arguably the most important piece of your plan. There are many things to consider including:

  • What will you call your program? Monthly Sustainers, High Fidelity, monthly giving?
  • What compelling messages will attract new sustainers?
  • Segment your current members, and start by asking those who’ve been giving monthly for at least 6 months.
  • Commit to messaging through every medium —
    mail, e-mail, web, on-air and phone.

Drive days gone for good

For MPR, one of the most successful offers has connected gains in sustaining members with shortened on-air member drives. We call it our Sustainer 2000 program. For every 2,000 new sustainers signed, we cut one drive day.

We consistently tell our audiences about this through intense on-air and online messaging, telemarketing, print and in the mail. Given that 70 percent of givers during the on-air drives are renewing members, we can persuade more to become renewal-free and reduce our reliance on the drives.

Though we’ve been doing this for about three years, more sustainers than ever before are signing up before and during on-air drives.

This is a different offer from the familiar pitch, asking donors to donate now and “buy back” pledge days, shortening the drive.

It has had the effect of cutting annual drive days to 21 from 28, but these are not days that members have to “buy back” year after year. In our Sustainer 2000 campaigns, once we cut a day from an on-air drive, it remains cut. We can do that because once those sustainers begin giving, to a great extent they remain sustainers.

Get a fix on where you’ll find sustainers among your members

One of the best ways to build your sustaining member program is to focus within the pool of current members. Segment them and then appeal to them with messages that resonate with them. Analyze your members’ numbers of gifts (look for two or three), years and frequency of giving, how they gave (online), what they listen to, whether they request premiums, and other factors.

If you have the ability to do more screening, find out your donor’s age, median income, education level and gender. Use this information as you mine your member file for sustainers.

At MPR, we’ve found that the most Sustainers come from these groups:

  • 27 percent have been members 1-5 years,
  • 50 percent are monthly givers,
  • 50 percent give $5-$10 monthly, and
  • 65 percent have taken a premium.

If you create and execute a plan, you, too, can drastically increase revenue from your members. And they will be happy you did. Remember, your members are more invested in your station than anyone. Being a sustainer makes it easy for them to make the most of this investment.

Valerie Arganbright is senior director, membership, for Minnesota Public Radio and Classical South Florida. During 30 years in radio, Valerie has worked in station management, operations, on-air hosting and (mostly) in raising money. She can be reached at 651-290-1357 or [email protected].


Fundraising expenses growing twice as fast as revenue in public TV, 2002.


Minnesota Public Radio lists benefits to sustaining members. It’s convenient, powerful, enduring. And it’s easy.

On WGBH Radio’s site, sustainer is the first membership option offered:“Choose from one of the following options:
Become a Sustainer.
Make a one-time gift.

How to build and promote a monthly online donor program, Association of Fundraising Professionals, 2009.

Touch-mapping can be key to iimproving your behavior toward your customers, Customer Think, 2006.


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