Saying ‘thank you’ isn’t just polite — it could raise millions more

Print More

How much are simple thank-you calls to donors worth to public television stations nationwide over the course of a year? Potentially, about $4.6 million.

That’s one of the bright possibilities emerging from the Contributor Development Partnership, an ambitious effort to identify and disseminate the most effective local fundraising practices.

The service, funded by CPB and WGBH (Current, Feb. 7), has been busy all year crunching detailed financial data from 76 participating stations. It will publish its initial findings for stations in its first ROAR — that is, Revenue Opportunity and Action Report —within the next few months. The reports will show the revenue potential for each station, normalizing data where possible to calculate for differences among markets.

“What we are lacking as a system is a methodical approach to fundraising,” said Michal Heiplik, CDP director. The project is aiming to provide that, while carefully preserving each station’s relationship with local donors.

“This is as station-centric an effort as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “This is not blurring the lines between national and local. This is preserving local ties with better execution.”

At a time when so many stations are struggling financially, “sharing best practices and bringing those to scale seem to be some of the smartest things we can do,” said Jack Galmiche, president of Nine Network of Public Media (KETC) in St. Louis, one of 12 stations on the CDP advisory committee.

The idea is to discover the most effective fundraising practices — for instance, checking the donor-retention consequences of making thank-you calls to donors. That particular line of research grew out of a yearlong study at HoustonPBS in 2009. Fundraisers wanted more pledge donors to renew their memberships; national figures showed that four out of five did not.

HoustonPBS volunteers and staffers made the calls to new pledge donors in the evening, thanking them without asking for anything else. They divided the donors for a test, calling some of them three months after they pledged and called others six months afterwards. Then they compared the numbers of donors who renewed with donors who weren’t thanked by phone.

The results were startling. Retention of donors increased 33 percent among those who received three-month calls and 56 percent among those who got six-month calls. The retained donors also went on to contribute at least an additional $15.

Some 300,000 people pledge gifts and become members in a year, “so moving the needle on their retention presents a significant opportunity for individual stations and for the system,” Heiplik said. “If the data analysis confirms our assumptions, this represents a more-than–$4 million opportunity.”

Heiplik said the CDP is now verifying those results by executing 10,000 thank-you calls on behalf of four test stations (Twin Cities Public Television in Minnesota, Oregon Public Broadcasting, San Diego’s KPBS and Chicago’s WTTW). “So far, the data indicates that there is likely to be a significant gain in terms of member- and revenue-retention for participating stations,” he said.

OPB has made the thank-you calls for about five years now but has never examined its effects. Becky Chinn, OPB’s senior director for membership and marketing, said “Thank a Member Day” usually takes place immediately following pledge, while phones are still in the studio. Staffers and volunteers dial members from a database of 2,000.

“In our gut, we knew it was a good thing,” she said. “Donors feel more connected. But there wasn’t a concerted effort to truly analyze what was happening.” OPB also has one of the highest retention rates in the country, she said.

The CDP will follow the same path for other projects: Analyze stations’ data by 19 metrics to identify the most successful fundraising practices, verify that success with larger-scale research, report back on how a station might duplicate the results or use a third-party vendor to do so. Practices involving corporate matching gifts and sustaining memberships are targets of future CDP research, and more will follow.

Heiplik stressed that a station’s donor data given to the partnership won’t be released to others: “Data is a station’s biggest asset, not its building or its transmitter, but its donor data.”

ROARs will show stations where they rank compared with national averages and benchmarks. The reports will calculate the opportunities, showing a station what it has to gain if it increases performance to average or best, and estimating how much that work might cost.

While the 76 participating stations represent a cross-section, they skew toward larger markets. That’s probably because those in larger markets make up most of the advisory board, and the CDP is also supported by public TV’s Major Market Group.

Heiplik has also invited small stations to join the partnership. “I do believe they have the most to benefit,” he said. “But I also realized they’re so strapped for resources right now it’s tough to even be able to read an email from me or listen to a presentation.”

The original CPD grants — $500,000 from CPB and $250,000 from WGBH — cover the first two years. Once that money is exhausted, around mid-2013, stations will begin paying a size-based fee to participate. That should sustain the reporting aspect of the project, Heiplik said, and continue to generate ROARs.


Eric Nuzum looks at Optimal Effective Scheduling, a tool for planning broadcasts and the promos required to get them heard, 2004.

Craig Oliver and Jay Clayton point to the kinds of funding that stations can nurture in their own communities, 2009.

Contributor Development Partnership formed, 2011.

WBUR finds return-on-investment evidence for retailers that underwrite public radio, August 2011.


Contributor Development Partnership, based at Boston’s WGBH and supported by CPB and public TV’s Major Market Group, with answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

CPB long ago started a group, now called DEI, to help public radio catch up with public TV in fundraising.

Comments, questions, tips? [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *