Listen closely: What matters to your community — and to donors?

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“Outreach is about changing somebody else. Engagement is when you have been changed,” says Mikel Ellcessor, g.m. of WDET in Detroit. “And we have to be open to being changed as a result of these activities.”

“If you’re truly listening to the community,” he continues, “you’ll learn something you didn’t expect, and you’ll have to rethink your position or approach. We still retain the editorial decision-making and control, but we’re opening our minds to consider that there are things that matter to people that we may not know about. If we’re really listening and willing to get new information and be challenged, that’s both good reporting and true engagement.”

WDET’s approach can be good business, too. At the National Center for Media Engagement (NCME), we’ve learned through research and station experience that deeply engaged organizations tend to connect with their communities in meaningful ways. In the process, stations cultivate an engagement ethos, increase awareness about their impact and attract opportunities to sustain their work through collaboration.

Do they also attract additional investment? Ellcessor says they absolutely do. “To me, there’s no question. We’ve definitely made a connection between our public journalism and community-engagement work and revenue model.”

In fact, the Detroit station recently received a grant from the Kresge Foundation as a result of the station’s community-based journalism efforts, such as its involvement with the Public Insight Network developed by American Public Media. For WDET, engagement, journalism and development are linked, continuously informing and supporting each other. When talking to potential donors, Ellcessor adds, station people hear the same concerns that are on the minds of others in the community. To be relevant, you need to have your fingers on the pulse of the community.

Knowing the customer is a core principle of marketing, explains DEI President Doug Eichten. But in fundraising, he points out, we tend to fall into the rut of focusing first on techniques and tools, then on our message, and finally on the people we aim to reach with the message.

“That’s exactly backward,” Eichten says. “We have to start with those who might be inclined to give and understand them as people and [see them] in the context of our community. What’s important to them?”

In practice, much of the cultivation process is rooted, like an engagement ethos, in understanding people in the community, knowing their interests and aspirations, and building relationships with them. The premise of good prospecting is listening. Listening actively is essential.

“Community engagement and authentic donor relationships are built on deep, principled listening,” says Ellcessor. “When your approach embraces this truth, you arrive at the conclusion that strength in community engagement and strength in donor relations stem from a common source.”

Long known for its work on the Minnesota Channel, Twin Cities Public Television has generated investment from donors who see their gifts as an investment in the community. According to Lucy Swift, TPT’s v.p. for Minnesota partnerships, the Minnesota Channel has “attracted funding from a wide range of sources — from large regional foundations to small family foundations and individual donors.”

“We have had several foundations give us a pool of funds for partnership-based productions,” says Swift. “In some cases, we have re-granted the dollars as seed funds to nonprofits to help them raise the full amount for their initiatives such as [putting an] end to the trafficking of Native American women, cancer prevention in the African-American community, and understanding of the Somali culture. In other cases, we have brought together coalitions of nonprofits around an issue like curtailing recidivism among young people. . . . In the end, all have used the content to advance important work in the community.”

Deb Turner, executive director of the CPB-funded Leadership for Philanthropy initiative, believes engagement and fundraising processes need to be intertwined. “If we aren’t having conversations with people outside of our doors and bringing those conversations back to inform our strategic direction, then are we really fulfilling our public-service mission?” she asks.

Chicago Public Media’s President Torey Malatia agrees. “We can’t be on a mountain top,” he says. “We gotta be out on the street — part of that dialogue.” Malatia believes part of the station’s role in Chicago is to build deep relationships of value to other local institutions, demonstrating a strategic engagement in the community and helping them succeed on a continuing basis. As Doug Eichten says, that requires the station to have the right organizational culture.

“A culture of engagement and a culture of philanthropy are very much related,” says Eichten. “This is different from how we traditionally think about our jobs. We need to change how we think about our jobs, especially the job of station manager. If we’re going to be effective in engagement and in major gift work, it cannot be delegated. It must be embraced by leadership. If the leader is not out in the community — actively engaged, meeting with community leaders and folks of capacity — then change and success are not going to be possible.”

Eichten believes that passion for community makes this change possible. “Those who are successful at engaging, building effective boards, major-donor work and so on, are people who are passionate about where they live.”

KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo demonstrates that kind of passion for the San Diego area. His efforts in the community are a big reason the station’s major giving and funding for reporter beats have grown. To build relationships, Karlo often spends five nights a week attending community functions, talking with people and understanding what’s on their minds and what they’re passionate about in the community.

It turns out most donors are just as passionate about where they live, too. And for most donors of capacity, their philanthropic work is focused on benefiting the community.

In Vermont, for example, Vermont Public Television received major donations in recognition of its yearlong project about the state’s mental-health issues, according to John King, president of the network. These efforts in the mental-health area also won service awards from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Association of Public Television Stations and the Vermont Association of Broadcasters.

VPT’s success has to do with listening to the community. “Best not to start out focused on our own need or vision,” Eichten suggests. “That’s not a relationship. That’s a sales call. We want to get to know people, and it takes time and commitment to do that.”

If public media’s goal — its mission — is to play a role in making communities better place to live, then we have to think in terms of the positive role we’re going to play in the community.
“We have to give up something, and part of what we may have to give up is our one-way communication,” Eichten continues. “Not ‘We’ll do this to or for you’ but ‘with you.’”

In short, we have to demonstrate not only that we listen but also that we’re good partners and collaborators serving the community in ways that merit investment.

No station claims to have figured out exactly how deeper engagement helps make a station economically sustainable, but that would make sense. Many stations are finding that focusing on critical community needs can help bring additional partners, including funders, to address these issues.

In Pittsburgh, for example, WYEP brings together Big Brothers and Big Sisters and local afterschool programs to help local teens find their radio voice; in Denver, KUVO plays a connector role in advancing business-district revitalization efforts; and in the San Antonio area, Texas Public Radio’s decade-long Focus on the Environment initiative is supported by government agencies and nonprofits. Numerous other public stations are launching ambitious efforts to help their communities respond to the dropout crisis through the CPB-funded American Graduate initiative.

In doing all of this work, there’s an opportunity to provide valuable service and bring additional resources to the table.

A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop — the store in a shopping mall where you can put together and accessorize a customized teddy bear. “In retail,” Clark said, “people worry about transactions, when they really ought to worry about interactions. I wanted to create interactions with guests that turned into transactions.”

Maxine Clark is selling a lot of teddy bears because she knows that meaningful interactions and relationships have value. Cultivating relationships that help us serve our communities better — finding ways to make our communities better places to live and work — fulfills our public-service mission and makes good business sense. Engagement, in effect, pays dividends.

According to Deb Turner, it’s all about focusing outward and defining what the community needs, not just what your own organization or certain people think. She goes on to point out that “both engagement strategies and the major-giving process force people [to explore outside the station], and ultimately the strategic direction of the organization should be rooted in those conversations. If done well, that in turn generates the financial support that it takes to sustain the organization.”

As some of the most-trusted local institutions, public media have a tremendous opportunity to earn the trust and participation of the next generation of givers. But that won’t necessarily happen if we treat fundraising as a separate foray into the outside world. In addition to our traditional public service, we’ll need to cultivate trusted relationships with millennials by serving as honest brokers of public dialogue. And we’ll need to be open to change.

Organizations that turn outward and become more intentional about changing their roles and their effects can have greater impact and increase their relevance and significance in communities, asserts Rich Harwood, founder and president of the Harwood Institute, an ongoing partner of NCME. Doing so, Harwood argues, requires that we shift our thinking and our focus from the station and its needs to the community’s.

As the saying goes, people give not because you have needs but because you meet needs. By changing our culture, our mindset and our habits, we can better position our stations for effective engagement that meets community needs.

And that better positions us for growing our future and sustaining our public-service mission.


Part 1 — New mindset requires new habits: listen, earn trust, partner-up

Part 3 Out the station’s door: Where you find ideas rooted in your community


Over the years, CPB has invested in critical resources that help public media engage communities, raise awareness about our impact and sustain our work by attracting partners and investors.

For engagement

At, NCME offers comprehensive resources for engaging your community to productively address public concerns, cultivating the mindset for engagement, creating and supporting an engagement strategy.

For awareness

Visit for tools for communicating public media’s relevance and value through the voices of supporters. Included are samples of powerful testimonials from other stations and templates for creating your own.

Visit to see local stories that demonstrate public media’s deep local engagement, its impact nationwide, and opportunities for partnership and investment by other community groups. Add your station’s story to the maps.

For sustainability

Go to to connect your station (TV or radio) with funding opportunities. Search online data on foundations and federal grant opportunities. Attend monthly webinars and conference calls on funding opportunities. Request custom prospect research on potential funders in your region.

Visit to sharpen your skills and understanding of donor cultivation, and learn how to launch or expand a major-giving program.

Charles Meyer is executive director of the National Center for Media Engagement funded by CPB and affiliated with the University of Wisconsin –Extension. You can learn more about how to engage your community at

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