Earlier this summer, we took a look at stations trying different approaches with food bank partnerships. Readers pointed out that such endeavors can be tricky, with some stations confused about the FCC regulations that govern these relationships.
“They are confused because this seems not quite consistent with what they’ve learned, which is a total prohibition on third-party fundraising,” said John Crigler, an attorney with the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer in Washington, D.C.
A public media organization raising funds for another nonprofit needs a waiver. But not if it’s partnering with another nonprofit for mutual benefit. And not if a station inspires listeners to donate by offering to make a contribution to another nonprofit.
Public media organizations entering into fundraising partnerships with other nonprofits risk steep fines if they fail to comply with FCC rules. (Noncommercial stations can’t promote for-profit entities.) Any announcements and acknowledgments raising funds for a third party can’t interrupt regular programming.
That’s unless a station seeks a waiver. The commission has granted waivers in cases of one-time disasters — “something that affects your mission as a broadcaster,” Crigler said. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, noncommercial stations could raise money for hurricane-affected stations and victims.
A station may also get a waiver if its listeners are affected by a disaster elsewhere. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, noncommercial stations in Wisconsin got a waiver to fundraise for relief efforts because they served a substantial population of Haitians, Crigler said.
But more commonly, stations team up with nonprofits in an effort to provide premiums more engaging than a mug or T-shirt. They instead aim to inspire donations by promising to make a socially conscious contribution, like to a food bank or an organization that plants trees.
“The FCC doesn’t want to get in the business of premiums,” Crigler said. “They don’t regard that as a joint fundraiser, but more the function of a premium. It’s an inducement to make a contribution to the station.”
Some previous partnerships have attracted scrutiny from the FCC. In 1993, Chicago’s WTTW aired a holiday gift-exchange program with a home-shopping format that sold merchandise from five Chicago nonprofits, including the station.
“… [W]e find that the airing of the Gift Exchange substantially altered or suspended your regular programming,” the FCC’s Media Bureau wrote. It found that the effort violated the third-party fundraising rule and admonished WTTW, but did not fine the station.
And in 1982 the FCC granted a waiver to WETA in Arlington, Va., to broadcast a three-hour fundraiser for restoring the fire damage at Wolf Trap, a local concert venue. Commissioners granted the waiver in a 3-2 vote. Those were unusual circumstances; WETA argued that it had an obvious connection with Wolf Trap because it had broadcast from the music venue, Crigler said.
“The initial concern is that, and many stations agree with this, if they can fundraise for anybody, if their ability to use the station is unrestricted, then they’re going to be overwhelmed with solicitations by every charity in their community to do a fundraiser for them,” Crigler said.
The FCC has declined waivers from stations seeking to participate in charitable giving days with other nonprofits who pool their efforts and divide the proceeds. The efforts weren’t deemed to be uniquely related to the station’s mission and instead benefited the community. The FCC wants to prevent stations from getting ripped off or exploited to raise funds for other entities, Crigler said.
But partnerships are popular for stations that can get through the legalese. In a 2010 survey completed by 876 public radio listeners, the consulting firm Public Radio Revenue found that listeners enjoy cause-related partnerships because they’re unexpected. They counted hunger, education and homelessness among their top charitable areas of interest.
In addition, stations assumed that listeners would be more interested in premiums such as planting a tree in the local community. But the report found that listeners didn’t mind if the trees weren’t local.
“That’s why it’s really important, if you can, to do some sort of survey before you put something like this in place to make sure your values as a station line up to what’s most important in a partnership to listeners,” said Mike Wallace, a consultant with Public Radio Revenue.
In 2009, KPLU in Tacoma, Wash., saw a tenfold increase in sustainer gifts during a one-day drive that matched donations with trees planted in a nearby national forest, according to the report. At that time, about 5 percent of KPLU’s pledges during drives were coming from sustainers, and sustainer programs were less common. But for listeners who signed up as sustaining members for $5, $10 or $20 a month, the station would support the planting of five, 10 or 20 trees. During that drive, the station jumped to 46 percent of pledgers from new sustainers, according to the report.
“Whatever cause partnership you put together, it doesn’t have to reflect your programming mission,” Wallace said. “It’s about serving an unmet need that is in alignment with your values, but isn’t necessarily a mirror of them.”