Greater Public has partnered with Veritus Group, a fundraising consultancy that specializes in major donor programs, to accelerate major-gift fundraising at four stations.
A pilot already underway at Colorado Public Radio and WHYY in Philadelphia will expand to two more yet-to-be-named stations — and potentially beyond the test group, according to Joyce MacDonald, Greater Public president.
The initiative has been in the works for about a year, as Greater Public worked to secure funding. With a $1 million investment from an unnamed New York-based family foundation, Greater Public is now able to move forward with the initiative. The funds enable participating stations to pay Greater Public their costs on a deferred basis, MacDonald said.
MacDonald recognized that public media’s major-gift fundraising was underperforming before she arrived at Greater Public in 2017. Finding a way to supercharge these major-giving programs became one of her top priorities.
“The huge potential that exists for true philanthropy to yield big results for the system is really driving me and Greater Public — and others in the system — to think about how we can achieve that potential,” MacDonald said. “How do we achieve, as institutions, what other non-profit comrades in the arts, in higher education, in medicine, have been able to achieve? There are proven methods and practices that I knew we could apply in public media for a similar result.”
She saw Veritus Group as an ideal partner. The consultancy has a strong reputation for helping nonprofits maximize their major-donor programs.
“Veritus stood out as unique in that they’re very data driven, but they’re also incredibly donor-focused in their approach.” The company has advised nonprofits as diverse as the National Wildlife Foundation and the New York City Ballet.
The pilot program starts by analyzing each participating station’s donor information, and identifying individuals with the financial ability for major giving. It then provides training that’s designed to help major-gift officers build relationships with each prospect as the cultivation process is customized for each donor. Major gift officers report to Veritus Group on their progress, and adjust their approach if needed.
To develop strong, long-term relationships with high-wealth donors, station fundraisers and executives need to understand each donor’s passions and seek fundraising opportunities that align with those interests, MacDonald said. Insights gleaned from the program will be shared with the entire public media system.
The pilot also aims to redefine major giving as public media has known it. For stations’ financial reporting to CPB, any donations over $1,000 are categorized as major gifts, MacDonald said. But that amount doesn’t qualify as major under this program.
“What we’re asserting and verifying with this pilot is that $1,000 to, say, $5,000 should really be considered mid-level giving,” MacDonald said, adding: “A major donor is somebody who is passionate enough and interested enough in what the organization is doing to want to give more, as opposed to giving at a level that offers them some kind of awesome premium, an invitation to a party, or some other sort of transactional giving.”
In recruiting pilot stations, Greater Public sought stations that “have a high motivation to have it succeed,” MacDonald said. “Across-the-board senior leadership buy-in is critical to making this program successful.”
Each participating station had previously expressed interest in additional training, consulting and guidance, which prompted MacDonald to invite them to participate in the pilot.
The decision to join the pilot was an easy one for CPR.
“It was the right time for us,” said Jim East, senior VP of CPR. “We had a new president, and we had just done some wealth screening.”
CPR identified a huge list of major-giving prospects in its database. These donors had high wealth scores and had been contributing to the station for 20 to 40 years, yet CPR had never approached them about major gifts. “We now have a system in place saying ‘This is how you qualify them, this is how you build that long-term relationship, and here’s how you put together a menu of giving opportunities,’” he said.
East is working to build a major-gift program that will support CPR’s growing newsroom.
The station’s donors have stepped up to support the growth of CPR news throughout the years, East said. “Because we’re growing, there will come a point where we’ll outgrow our facilities. If we’re going to support that, we’re going to have to have a lot more relationships with a lot more people.”
Shortly after joining the program in January, CPR hired two more major-gift fundraisers, doubling the number of officers cultivating donors. With Veritus, they honed their prospective donor list, giving each officer roughly 500 names to further whittle to more manageable lists of 150 names each.
“A full-time gift officer should have a portfolio of 150 donors,” East said. If each donor contributes $3,000 or more, the additional staffing will “pay for itself multiple times over. It’s a good investment, but it does take time to build.”
“The return on investment for a major giving officer, if they’re really allowed to focus on that work, is tremendous,” MacDonald said.
The systematic approach developed by Veritus Group is already paying off for CPR, East said. “Donors are saying things like, ‘I’m so glad you reached out. We’ve loved CPR for years and would love to get more involved..’”
MacDonald estimates that pilot stations could see a 150% increase in major donations if they adhere to the process during the two-year test period.
Major-gift revenues in public media have been growing at an annual rate of between 10% and 15%, MacDonald said, but most of those funds have been raised through capital campaigns and mid-level leadership circle giving. “What we’re projecting, on average, when we work with various public media organizations on their projections, is about a 30% year-to-year growth which compounds over a five-year period,” she said.
Veritus will continue tracking major-gift fundraising performance after the two-year pilot ends, MacDonald said.
Greater Public wants to ensure that the results of pilot stations are shared with its members and the public media system as a whole, MacDonald said. She will discuss the program’s challenges, expectations and early results at the PMDMC conference in July.
“We want to be very transparent, and our pilot stations and Veritus are all on board with that,” MacDonald said. “This is going to be a learning experience for public media, in general.”