Donation analysis project aims to fill public TV’s development void

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For the first time, public TV will have a systemwide donor database to provide analyses of best practices in individual fundraising.

In addition to the database, the Contributor Development Partnership will provide webinars, training and tools for member stations to follow the most effective solicitation techniques.

It’s a sign of hope for station fundraisers who’ve been fretting as PBS — facing an ever-tightening budget — trimmed the staff of its advice-and-training services to them from 28 to five over the past decade.

The partnership, funded by CPB and backed by the big stations of the Public Television Major Market Group, “is a very concrete effort,” says Becky Chinn, senior director for membership and marketing at Oregon Public Broadcasting. “This will get something done. There’ll be actual deliverables: data, webinars, training.”

It’s the brainchild of Jon Abbott, WGBH c.e.o. and former head of development at PBS. He said the project grew out of conversations over the past few years within the major market coalition.

“We realized that we’d possibly taken our eye off the ball” with fundraising efforts, Abbott says. “We didn’t seem to have ability to focus attention to address strategic issues as the media world is changing. We didn’t have a locus of leadership to help us address challenges or opportunities. No systemic commitment to identify best practices, or share and adopt them consistently.”

To cover the first two years’ costs, CPB is ponying up $500,000, awarded via RFP, and WGBH, partnership manager, is contributing $250,000. Ben Godley, the station’s c.o.o, is overseeing WGBH’s involvement; Michal Heiplik, former director of membership at HoustonPBS, has been hired as project director.

After the first two years of free service, stations may subscribe, Godley says. The long-term business plan has yet to be finalized, but according to the partnership’s website,, stations that sign on after July 1 will pay an annual fee of $500 to $2,000, depending on station size.

Doug Eichten, president of DEI, pubradio’s fundraising and marketing service organization, thinks it’s a great idea. Having such a systematic analysis “opens the door for collaborative fundraising, which is where I believe we have to go,” he says. “To be efficient and effective, we have to bring some of those back-room operations together.”

The project has the blessing of the station fundraisers on the PBS Development Advisory Council (DAC), but PBS’s role is not yet clear. “The Contributor Development Partnership is an innovative project that will help stations work more effectively in their individual communities,” Joyce Herring, senior v.p. of station services, told Current in a statement. And PBS “stands ready to help in any way as it develops.”

PBS management “is in close contact” with the initiative’s station advisory committee, Chinn says.

A withering arm of PBS

PBS’s development unit has been dwindling for years, as inflation and digital-media projects swell the network’s spending wish list without comparable gains in revenues from stations’ dues.

Something had to give. According to PBS documents, the network had 28 development staffers in 2000, 12 in 2004, five in June 2010, and two this year. The unit’s budget has plummeted from $2 million in fiscal year 2003 to $1.2 million in FY08, $600,000 in FY09 and $300,000 last year.

PBS’s efforts to assist station fundraisers are now spread among several departments. Its Local Station Underwriting Tool Kit and related webinar last September, for instance, included materials from the branding, programming and communications departments.

PBS’s big fundraising project for stations has been its national Online Giving Initiative, which has had its own problems. The network was simultaneously promoting those website-focused revenue efforts as it terminated four development staffers last June, leading to talk that the online project was literally replacing services that help stations.

Some station personnel said privately they were uneasy that the online project would involve PBS for the first time in stations’ major funding lifeline — viewer and member donations, even though the project planned to direct net online revenue to the stations.

Chinn chalks up that wariness to the tradition of independence among stations. Sometimes it’s difficult for PBS to take the lead, as in the online fundraising initiative, she says, because of that culture. “Most of time they’re trying to help, but sometimes they come across as telling stations what to do.” Sometimes mistrust creeps in, she adds, “and it makes it difficult to find a way forward to collaboration … without taking away the independence of local stations.”

“In fairness to PBS,” Abbott says, “unless the station community will give them the resources and work with them on a leadership agenda, it’s unfair to expect them to assume that responsibility — especially without those resources.”

The Online Giving Initiative has yet to launch, after passing its original kickoff date of Nov. 1 and its rescheduled launch date of Jan. 1. PBS reconsidered details of the plan and subsequently dropped a “dual solicitation” aspect, especially troublesome to system insiders, in which PBS would solicit the same donors as stations. In November, PBS transferred oversight of the online project from Senior Vice President of Development Brian Reddington to Jason Seiken, head of PBS’s Interactive, Product Development and Innovation unit.

The DAC, once a strong link between the stations and PBS, also has been sidelined since last summer. But Chinn, a DAC member, says she’s “hopeful for where it’s going” after a committee conference call with PBS late in January. On the line from PBS headquarters in Arlington, Va., were Herring, development consultant Kerri Hanlon and Valerie Pletcher, the director of station development services who was hired in November.

Several new DAC members — their names not yet public — were appointed. The committee will meet at PBS headquarters Feb. 22 and 23 to plot “how to move forward, and determine what role the DAC can play,” Chinn says. “We’re trying to be advocates for the stations, making sure they get what they need.” Right now, she added, stations are “feeling like they’re in no-man’s land” without their former PBS development resources.

Sharing more than data

The Contributor Development Partnership is collecting data on individual giving from the 15 initial participating stations, a group that includes New York’s WNET, Twin Cities Public Television and Chicago’s WTTW. A 12-member station advisory group, including TPT’s David Preston and MPT’s Joe Krushinsky, oversees the project.

Piled into the database will be information on any form of individual giving, from traditional pledge to online contributions, e-mail solicitations, telemarketing, even in-person station events. This is not a database to share e-mails and telephone numbers, but rather to determine the top-performing techniques in individual giving.

“The database is really just one element,” Godley says. “This is a way to organize, and evangelize for, the best practices.”

Members will receive quarterly updates in a Revenue Opportunity and Action Report (ROAR). The first beta ROAR will come out by the third quarter of 2011.

In the mission statement on its website, the partnership says it aims to “create and foster the adoption of stronger fundraising practices, add new prospects and contributors, and reduce fundraising costs while adapting to the changing fundraising landscape.”

The timeline for the work is:

  • February through June: Sign on 25 additional stations, begin webinars, finalize specs and the data uploading process, crunch initial numbers, report to stations.
  • July through December: Begin transition to paid support by subscribing stations, add 35 stations, work with station software vendors to map and upload more data, refine numbers, issue report.
  • January through April, 2010: Add 12 stations, refine numbers, issue report.

“Beyond that, we’re not sure what the business model will be,” Godley says. “It’s in WGBH’s interest to help all stations. We don’t want stations to be worried about affording this.”

Public broadcasting has been down this road to fundraising collaboration before. DEI attempted to package a different mix of fundraising functions in a multistation service called Membershop in the late 1990s. Twenty-five public radio stations were to join backroom operations for economies of scale, centralized expertise in membership fundraising, and a 100,000-address database. It won a $333,600 CPB grant in 1998. But Eichten says the project ultimately became unwieldy, and additional funding fell through.

Eichten is still trying to interest pubradio stations in a hub concept of development. He hopes DEI can bring together four or five stations to craft one outsourced service to help them all.

People are open to hearing about the idea, but they won’t take the step of actually committing to it. “Everybody sits still for the conversation” but they don’t want to give control of their own staffs. “The concept has wide support,” he added, “but getting people over the line is difficult.”

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